For much of the 1990s, there was only one side that mattered in Russia, Oleg Romantsev’s all-conquering Spartak side. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former trade union team took home nine out of ten league championships, interrupted only by Valeri Gazzaev’s Alania miracle in 1995. With three Russian Cups and deep runs into European competition, including a UEFA Cup campaign ended only by Inter Milan in the 1998 semi-finals, for much of the decade the rest of the league merely competed for second place.
However, in the new millenium Romantsev’s power became his downfall. Combining managerial duties with the club presidency, the man who embodied Spartak saw the walls crumble around him, bust-ups with several key players leaving his squad weakened and in danger of being overtaken. In 2002, a poor season saw Spartak end the year in third place, some 11 points behind city rivals CSKA and Lokomotiv, the latter beating the former in a playoff to decide the title. Spartak have not won the league since.
Whilst Romantsev has been heavily criticised for his personal role in his side’s downfall, that is not to say that the blame can be attributed entirely to him. This is certainly a great deal of truth behind the accusations that his refusal to change his management style to accomodate Spartak’s expensive foreign imports caused discontent in the dressing room, and that investment in the Russian game has made it a great deal more difficult for Spartak to compete with the likes of Zenit, CSKA and more recently Anzhi on a financial footing. Nevertheless, Romantsev is not solely to blame.
There is great evidence to suggest that much of Spartak’s recent plight can be attributed to the production line simply grinding to a halt. Under Romantsev, the conveyor belt of talent emerging from the Spartak youth system seemed never-ending – midfield playmaker Yegor Titov spent 13 years at the club after coming through the ranks, Russia’s all-time top scorer Vladimir Beschastnykh had made just one professional appearance before being spotted by Spartak’s scouts, the legendary Andrei Tikhonov less than a full season at Titan Reutov before being added to the ranks as a youngster, and current head of youth development Sergei Rodinov racked up almost 300 league appearances with his first professional side.
There is much to be said for a lack of foresight in Spartak’s youth program, however, the chances of a similar group of talented youngsters coming through together is unlikely. Current club captain Sergei Parshivlyuk and striker Artem Dzubya are exceptions rather than the rule, whilst other youngsters such as Alexander Zotov, Anton Khodryev and Alexander Kozlov are forced to wait in the wings, doubts over their potential limiting their first team appearances. Georgian playmaker Jano Ananidze is perhaps their brightest hope, but after a youth career which included the all-powerful Dinamo sides of Tbilisi and Kyiv, his progression is more down to Spartak’s scouts than their training programs.
Instead, Spartak’s side is now littered with foreign imports, who undoubtedly possess the skills to succeed but lack the connection to the club of their Russian team-mates, often seeing the RPL as a shop window in preparation for a big move to Europe. Brazilian and Nigerian strikers Welliton and Emmanual Emenike lead the line, Irishman Aidan McGeady supplies crosses from the wings and Dutch midfielder Demy de Zeeuw controls the game from the centre of the park. The Russian component of the team is no longer the club’s focus, and this is seen by many as a cause of Spartak’s recent failings.
On the contrary, Moscow rivals CSKA seem to have taken over the mantle of youth development in Russia. Captained by homegrown star goakeeper Igor Akinfeev, with a defence marshalled by young fullback Georgi Schennikov and attacking play dictated by great young hope Alan Dzagoev, CSKA may also rely on foreign imports such as Vagner Love and Seydou Doumbia, but their Russian core is stronger than their rivals – the Berezutskiy twins in defence signed as teenagers, as did recent Russian international Pavel Mamaev. The club have also made good use of the fledgling academy system in Russia, acquiring a number of players, including Dzagoev, from the Abramovich-backed Konoplyov Academy in Togliatti. Whilst these players may not be making a first team impact just yet, loan spells to First Division clubs are preferred to reserve team stagnation, with a handful of the finest prospects rewarded with cup games and even less important European matches.
Of course, CSKA’s squad remains a multi-national blend of talent, the infusion of foreign players into the league providing an excitement and varying skill sets which have undoubtedly improved the competition. However, in terms of retaining the connection between club and fans, of supplying the national team with the next generation of talent and in keeping themselves at the top of the Russian game, it is no coincidence that CSKA have finished below Spartak just twice since 2002. The spotting, production and development of young talent is by no means the be-all and end-all of Russian football, but in a time when the likes of Zenit and Anzhi are able to outmuscle their competitors financially, a steady stream of talented youngsters could well be crucial in the bid to keep pace at the top of the league. It remains to be seen whether Spartak or CSKA’s focus will be justified in the years to come.