Russian football’s soul doesn’t need to be in a dark place 

OVER the past couple of weeks, Russia’s Spartak Moscow were ushered out of the UEFA Champions League and Sochi and Rubin Kazan eliminated from the UEFA Conference League. While Spartak are able to seek refuge in the Europa League, the others go back to their domestic football programme to consider what might have been. Meanwhile, 2021 champions Zenit are still in the Champions League and Moscow’s Lokomotiv will compete in the Europe alongside Spartak.

For a country that is the world’s largest, with 145 million people, Russia’s football seems pretty dismal. True, Zenit are Champions League regulars, but they do have the mighty Gazprom behind them. Of the current Premier League constitution, 10 clubs have some form of state-ownership and six are privately-owned (CSKA, Spartak, Rubin, Sochi, Dynamo and Krasnodar). Some clubs are still burdened by the Soviet legacy of local government control, which brings with it financial and bureaucratic hurdles. It is such a varied mix that nobody ever talks about even playing fields in Russia, it is the survival of the fittest and at the moment, Russian football doesn’t look healthy. 

There is, of course, a cloud hanging over Russian sport in the form of a ban that will prevent the nation from playing in the 2022 World Cup under their own name. If they do manage to qualify, and it is by no means a certainty, then they will have to play under a neutral flag, whatever that means. Russia are currently 41st in the FIFA rankings. In July, they appointed Valery Karpin as their coach in a bid to secure a place in Qatar in some shape or form. If he fails, he may not be in the job for long.

Russian clubs, in terms of financial strength, should be in better shape. In 2019-20, the combined income of Russia’s clubs totalled € 877 million, which was more than Turkey, Netherlands and Portugal, the other leading leagues outside the big five. It should also be noted Russia’s economy is the fifth largest in Europe.

Like many leagues, the gambling industry has shown a liking for Russian football and around half the clubs in the Russian Premier League have some connection with betting companies. Others are sponsored by the oil or gas sector or financial services, such as Dynamo Moscow (VTB Bank).

The new president of the Russian Football Union, Aleksandr Dyukov, has a nine-year plan to energise Russian football. He talks of better club participation in Europe and improved rankings for the national team. But the problems surrounding Russia are manifold, not least the very restrictive foreign player limits, which might have had honourable intentions but merely make Russian teams uncompetitive. Dyukov is not an advocate of the limit, which currently allows clubs to have eight foreigners in their squad. 

Removing the limit will bring Russia more in line with the rest of Europe, but clubs also need to benefit from overseas investment and move away from state ownership. Furthermore, they need to monetise their academies to produce a conveyor belt of talent that can be developed at home for their own teams – thus avoiding expensive transfer fees – or sold in the market. Many clubs across Europe, notably in Portugal and the Netherlands, have become very adept at player trading – Russia is in the same bracket as these countries and could become a major nursery for training and nurturing young talent. At present there are fewer than a dozen Russian players in the top five European leagues, while most of their exports go to Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan. In total, there are under 200 Russians playing abroad, lower than countries like Ukraine and Croatia.

There is an argument that the globalisation of football has created so many imbalances, but it is either a case of join the party or be left out in the cold. At present, Russia is trailing behind, but it has the raw materials to become a force in football, as the old Soviet Union was when it was at its peak. But it will surely need nine years to get it right, for huge units take their time to turn. With its vast population, enthusiasm for football and strong heritage, Russian football should be in a far better place. Will anyone be patient enough for the long haul?


Club of the Month: CSKA Moscow

CSKA’s Vitinho enjoys his goal against Benfica. Photo: PA

AMID growing political tension between the west and Russia, CSKA Moscow will travel to London to face Arsenal in the last eight of the UEFA Europa League. (April 5). It’s not quite a cold war climate, but the tie does act as a prelude to the forthcoming World Cup, with Russian and English fans coming up against each other as the politicians continue to posture and threaten each other.

CSKA Moscow are no strangers to politics, though, for they were the Soviet Army’s club in the days when Britain viewed anything coming out from behind the Iron Curtain with great suspicion. Football can certainly help diffuse tension, but the continued talk about boycotting World Cup 2018 also demonstrates the game can also be used as a political tool.

There’s still an air of mystery about the relative strength of Russian clubs, who are generally well-backed and able to pay their players well. Europe still awaits a genuine and sustained threat from a Russian club and Arsenal are marginal favourites to beat CSKA in the quarter-final over two legs.

CSKA have already met English opposition this season in the form of Manchester United in the group stage of the Champions League. United won 4-1 in Moscow and 2-1 at Old Trafford. CSKA reached the group stage after winning through the third qualifying round and play-off round, beating AEK Athens and Young Boys. In the group, their home form was not good, losing to Basel and Manchester United but they did beat Benfica. They finished third and gained entry to the last 32 of the Europa League where they accounted for Red Star Belgrade and Lyon on the way to the quarter-final.

Domestically, CSKA are trailing Moscow rivals Lokomotiv and Spartak and they’re eight points off top spot. They’re being chased by Krasnodar and Zenit St. Petersburg, but at the moment, they’re in the Champions League qualifying stage spot. They’ve lost five of their 22 Russian Premier League, three at their VEB stadium. They were recently beaten 3-0 at Spartak Moscow.

Home form seems to have been a little patchy this season. Crowds at the VEB average around 14,000 making the club the fifth best supported in Russia, but their attendances are way behind Zenit (44,000) and Spartak (29,000). When CSKA met Lyon in the last 16, the attendance was just under 14,000 but the visit of Arsenal to the VEB will surely attract closer to the 30,000 capacity. The stadium, named after the Russian bank, Vnesheconombank (formerly the Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs, USSR), saw its record attendance when Manchester United visited in September 2017.

CSKA, as mentioned, was previously the army club, but after the fall of the USSR, the club – which like its rivals was virtually bankrupt –  went into private ownership. Although the Ministry of Defence has a 25% stake, the club is 49% owned by British Bluecastle Enterprises and Russia’s AVO-Kapital (controlled by Bluecastle). The ultimate beneficiary of Bluecastle is Vadim Giner, the son of Yevgeny Giner, who is also the head of the Russian Football Union’s financial committee.  According to media reports, Giner senior is a friend of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. There were reports in 2017 that Abramovich’s son, Arkady, wanted to buy a stake in CSKA.

CSKA did come under the Abramovich influence in the early 21st century. His company, Sibneft, was the lead sponsor of the club between 2004 and 2006. Abramovich sold his stake in the oil company to the Kremlin in 2005 for £ 7bn-plus. It is now part of the mighty Gazprom empire and CSKA’s principal sponsor is Russian power company Rosseti. They also list among their partners Russian Helicopters.

1001 Floodlit Dreams entry…

CSKA (CDKA) Moscow 1946-48

Vladimir Nikanorov, Yuri Nyrkov, Boris Kuznetsov, Anatoliy Bashashkin, Aleksandr Petrov, Sergei Solovyov, Grigory Fedotov, Konstantin Lyaskovskiy, Valentin Nikolayev, Vladmiri Dyomin, Aleksei Grinin, Alexandr Fyodrodov, Yevgeniy Babich, Pyotr Scherbatenko, Vsevolod Bobrov.

Achievement: Soviet title winner 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951
Russian Cup Winners: 1945, 1948, 1951

Coach: Boris Arkadyev

Key men:  Vladimir Nikanorov, consistent keeper and ice hockey player; Vsevolod Bobrov, versatile sportsman, prolific in front of goal; Sergei Solovyov, free-scoring forward; Vladimir Dyomin, team captain and striker, signed from Spartak Moscow.

Perception: Fast-moving, attacking team, the Soviet army team.

CSKA are not the force they were a few years ago due to financial issues that have affected much of Russian football. Its clubs rely on state backing and wealthy benefactors to an alarming degree – UEFA noted in 2017 that Russian clubs derive just 4% of their income from ticket sales and 5% from TV rights, the lowest among Europe’s top leagues. Moreover, CSKA were ranked the seventh most indebted club in Europe with debts of €240m. Little wonder that transfer budgets have been reduced in recent years.

CSKA don’t have the backing that Zenit and Spartak have, but in the period 2010 to 2016, the club’s rivalry dominated the Russian Premier League. CSKA, who had won the title three times between 2003 and 2006, won three further championships in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Zenit, who had won just one title before the arrival of big money, were champions in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2015. In 2016-17, these fierce rivals were usurped by Spartak Moscow, who won the Premier with points to spare.

In between all this, CSKA and Zenit won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively. At the time, it was widely believed that Russian clubs were about to become a force, but it didn’t really materialise. Russian football has certainly declined, with the national team very anaemic and young players lacking the international experience they need to improve as they are reluctant to leave a league that has paid well – perhaps too well. Attendances have shown little in the way of growth in recent years and the average gate in the Premier is 12,000 which considering the size of the country (population 145 million) seems quite small.

One man who left Russia was Leonid Slutsky, the coach that led CSKA to three titles. He arrived in England, relatively unknown to many football fans, and picked up a job at Hull City. Slutsky’s style was often Mourinho-lite, but in Russia, it was very effective. However, his time in England didn’t last long and he’s now in the Netherlands.

CSKA’s current coach is Viktor Goncharenko who succeeded Slutsky in 2016, the son of a Belarusian engineer who died after the Chernobyl disaster. Goncharenko is considered to be one of the brightest managerial talents in Russian football. Although only 40, he has a decade of coaching under his belt, notably at BATE Borisov, where he won five Belarusian Premier titles.

CSKA’s line-up 2017-18



  Pontus Wernbloom Vasili


Konstantin Kuchayez


  Vitinho   Ahmed

Goncharenko has a refreshing approach to some extent. When his team wins, the praise is directed to the players, but when they lose he is totally accountable. His style is not spectacular and is built on a strong defence and hard work. The current CSKA team often adopts a 3-5-2 formation with veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev at the back. Akinfeev is the captain and has won over 100 caps for Russia. The team also includes the even more experienced Berezutski twins, Vasili and Aleksei (35 years old) and the imposing Swede Pontus Wernbloom. One of the players that the nation will be looking to in the summer is Alan Dzagoev, an impressive but injury-prone midfielder. The promising Aleksandr Golovin, a creative midfielder, was one of Russia’s few successes in the Confederations Cup last year.

CSKA’s Russian Premier League results 2017-18

2 Lokomotiv Moscow L1-3 1 Anzhi Makhachkala W3-1
3 SKA-Khabarovsk W2-0 5 Tosno W2-1
4 Rubin Kazan L1-2 7 Ural Yekaterinburg D0-0
6 Spartak Moscow W2-1 9 Amkar Perm W1-0
8 Akhmat Grozny L0-1 11 Dynamo Moscow D0-0
10 Rostov W2-0 13 Krasnodar W1-0
12 Ufa D0-0 15 Arsenal Tula L0-1
14 Zenit St.Petersburg D0-0 16 Lokomotiv Moscow D2-2
19 Tosno W6-0 17 SKA-Khabarovsk W4-2
21 Ural Yekaterinburg W1-0 18 Rubin Kazan W1-0
20 Spartak Moscow L0-3
22 Akhmat Grozny W3-0

Up front, the Brazilian Vitinho is CSKA’s leading scorer this season. The 24 year-old joined the club from CSKA in 2013 but rarely got a look-in when Slutsky was coach. Goncharenko has given him the chance to shine and this season has netted eight league goals in 22 games. CSKA can also call on Ahmed Musa, the Nigerian striker on loan from Leicester City.

Right now, CSKA are trying to ensure they maintain their place in the Champions League placings. They’re chasing Lokomotiv and Spartak but there’s still eight games to go. CSKA have to face Krasnodar at home and Zenit away, but they’ve already met Spartak and Lokomotiv twice. They may have too much ground to make up, but the Europa League is still up for grabs – the game at Arsenal will determine if  the Koni, “the horses” can end the season with silverware. It’s a tough field, though.