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?


The Final: I’ll do my crying in the rain

A SHAMBOLIC presentation it may have been, but not even Moscow rain could dampen the feeling that the 2018 World Cup was a resounding success. It’s too early to assess the competition in terms of “best ever” claims, but after a series of very mediocre events and finals that failed to please – it is  a struggle to name a decent final after 1986 – the finale was as refreshing as the evening rain in the Lukhniki.

France were the best team in the finals although they didn’t always show it. They got better as the competition progressed. Croatia were a “team for a tournament” and worked their way through to the final and put on an impressive display against France. Luck didn’t go with them but they did have the player of the series in Luka Modric. This was richly deserved. Not since Uruguay reached the final in 1950 has a country with such small numbers played at that stage.

The two finalists really epitomised the state of the modern game: of the starting 11s, seven play in La Liga, six in Serie A, five in the Premier, only two in Ligue 1, one in the Bundesliga and one in Turkey. Not a single player currently appears in Croatia’s domestic league. Interesting that the two of the nations with the most home-domiciled players were Russia and England.

World Cups demand star men to emerge and Kylian Mbappe answered that call. At 19, he’s made an impact on the very highest podium, deserving of plaudits and comparisons with past heroes. The media talked of Paul Pogba “coming of age” in this World Cup, but let’s remember he’s 25 years old. He’s in his peak years, he should have received the key to the door of greatness by now. By contrast, Mbappe has already opened the door and he’s 19.

France’s opening goal, from a debatable free-kick, came against the run of play, but it didn’t take long for the excellent Ivan Perisic to level, switching the ball from right to left foot before striking low and clean. For a moment, there were signs that Croatia might pull off a shock win, but a very questionable penalty, via an extended VAR examination, allowed Antoine Griezmann the chance to make it 2-1. He did and Croatia went in at half-time enjoying a 66-34 possession advantage but chasing the game once more.

Croatia started well in the second period and Perisic was denied by a spectacular save from Hugo Lloris. But two goals in a six minute spell, the first from Pogba, the second from Mbappe, gave France an emphatic lead. Surely, Croatia could not come back from that, but there was still plenty of time to make the favourites feel uncomfortable. Lloris slipped-up when he attempted to play the ball round the menacing Mario Mandzukic, who accepted the gift with glee by finding the net with an instinctive touch.

France appeared nervous, but it was too much to expect Croatia to mount a late challenge. To France, the trophy, to Croatia, the neutrals’ vote of gratitude. Zagreb should be beaming with pride, Paris undoubtedly drowning in Champagne.

Six goals in a final, the best since 1966, and a stimulating game that banished memories of sterile encounters in 2014, 2010 and 2006. For once, the World Cup let us with happy memories, of exciting matches, talking points around VAR (which will surely be refined to improve the game and its flow) and a very good champion team that can, arguably, get better with time. How FIFA needed that worthwhile World Cup in 2018.

But why so many free-kicks and set-piece goals? It could be that international football has become so system-driven that goals from open play are harder to carve out than ever before. Free-kicks and corners represent clear-cut chances and teams work long and hard at perfecting them. We may be at the start of a new trend, not necessarily a good or satisfying one as supporters will demand something better than waiting for a set-piece for a goalscoring opportunity. There will be other, perhaps more scientific reasons to explain this development.

The circus moves on to Qatar 2022 where there’s one certainty – nobody will receive the cup in pouring rain.

Photo: PA