The Russian overseas is a rare breed of footballer, the type of creature who only appears in public after an impressive showing at international exhibitions. There are one or two who sneak out of the motherland under the radar, but for the most part these are much-celebrated deals, a sign of Russia’s increased reputation on the global stage, and a prelude to the inevitable rise of both the domestic game and international side.
Of course, the fanfare behind such transfers is bound to raise expectations, almost to the point of guaranteed failure. The expensive Russian import becomes simply incapable of clearing the bar set for him by his adoring native public, his adopted countrymen are first taken in by the initial hype and then disappointed by the seemingly normal performances which follow, and his manager and even team-mates are left bemoaning his inclusion in the first eleven.
Of course, this is not in itself limited to Russians. There have been countless exports over the years, from a vast array of countries, who have arrived as the next big thing only to leave two years later as the club’s forgotten man, their nation’s international hopes in tatters after a season of average performances and a new bright young spark ready to take their place.
Where Russia differs is the loyalty which its fans have for its exports. Just recently Andrei Arshavin, the man whose incredible popularity in his homeland inspired the title of this very blog, was crowned Russian Sportsman of the Year for 2011. This for a calendar year in which, short of a great finish against Barcelona, he contributed just three league goals and spent the majority of the season on the substitutes’ bench. As his career at Arsenal has progressed, he has found himself limited to reluctant cameo appearances, slipping behind unproven teenagers in the pecking order and being booed by his own fans when brought on at the death. However, the Russians continue to love him – newspapers often report on Arsenal in Arshavin-based terms, and their national team’s captain is the country’s media darling.
In contrast to the vitriol often churned out by the English press, such loyalty is a refreshing surprise. However, some would say unfounded – the third best sportsman in Russia for 2011 was boxer Nikolai Valuev, who retired from competition after defeat to David Haye back in 2009. Nevertheless, despite their tendency to live on past glories and historical brilliance, recent developments in the Anglo-Russian transfer market may well test the tolerance of even the most ardent football fan, torn between his love for his team, his admiration of his countrymen and his hatred of their rivals.
The most serene of the three deals involving Russians was almost certainly the arrival of Pavel Pogrebnyak to Fulham. Once a youngster at Spartak Moscow, Pogrebnyak made his name in the unlikely Siberian surroundings of Tom Tomsk, a club seemingly doomed to financial failure at any given moment. His one season on loan turned him into a cult hero, before Zenit swooped and then sold him on to Stuttgart in 2009 after an impressive spell. With plenty of time since his departure from the country and only short spells to his name, Pogrebnyak’s name is less likely to be despised than revered – his iconic status in Tomsk no doubt contributed to the professional contracts given to his two younger brothers, even in times of crisis.
Still, the warning signs should have been seen in the summer, when ex-CSKA favourite Yuri Zhirkov allegedly snubbed the advances of both his former club and Spartak to join the Anzhi revolution in Makhachkala. He was lambasted in the national press for following the money, and was roundly booed by his own fans when the national team squared off against Serbia in a friendly. There is apparently a limit to what the Russian football fan will accept.
It is therefore a little surprising that the two Russians leaving the English game for their domestic league are joining what, on the face of it, are the wrong teams. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, a rare extravagant purchase by David Moyes for Everton in 2009, was something of a hero for Lokomotiv Moscow and yet has joined city rivals Spartak, whilst former Spartak star Roman Pavlyuchenko has gone the other way after falling victim to Harry Redknapp’s striker-swapping fetish at Tottenham.
Greater anger appears to be aimed at Bilyaletdinov than at Pavlyuchenko – perhaps because he came through the Lokomotiv youth ranks and won a league title in his first season, perhaps because the Spartak fans do not consider Lokomotiv as big a rival as CSKA – but there is certainly evidence that Russians are no longer prepared to accept their heroes toying with their emotions and betraying them for financial gain.
What is certain is that the possible options for Arshavin are decreasing by the day. As his Arsenal career appears to be stuttering to an undignified end, the Russian sides ready to take him back are also falling by the wayside – as a St Petersburg native and Zenit legend he would surely not consider the approach of the major Moscow sides, leaving Zenit and Anzhi as the only two clubs able to meet his demands and ambitions. All this leaves a difficult choice for Russia’s golden boy – take Anzhi’s money and suffer the same fate as Zhirkov? Or return triumphantly to Zenit, risking the legacy built in his prime? Just how much longer can the decision be delayed?