If ever there was a sign that money talks in Russian football, events of the last week have provided it. A meeting of club chairmen and Russian Football Union officials took place in midweek to discuss changes to the rules of the upcoming Premier League, and the outcome shows a worrying shift in power away from the many and into the hands of the wealthy few.
It must first be stated that of the 26 voters to take part in the decision-making process, only seven opposed to motion to relax the limit on the number of foreign players on the field at any given time. Leading the opposition movement was Leonid Fedun, head of Spartak Moscow and a man determined to use his side’s history of producing promising young talent to full advantage – it was a golden generation of Spartak youth that made up the majority of Oleg Romantsev’s legendary team of the 90s. Dinamo’s representative is also rumoured to have opposed the motion, and is to be commended for sticking to his club’s philosophy of blooding youngsters alongside their imports.
Yet the other 19 voters all fell in favour of the rule change, which now gives managers to right to field seven non-Russians at any given time, rather than the previous six. Whilst such a small change may seem unimportant in the immediate future, the background to the decision could signal a change in attitude from one of self-preservation to one of winning at all costs – including the survival of other clubs and the future of the national team.
It speaks volumes that those leading the ‘for’ lobby were those representing the three richest clubs in Russia – Alexei Miller and Zenit, CSKA chairman Evgeni Giner, and Anzhi’s wealthy backer Suleyman Kerimov. Whilst a number of other clubs and organisations voted with them, these three symbolise the power of money in the modern game, and the willingness of the bigger clubs to disregard the welfare of other, small sides in their bid for success. At the moment, both Zenit and CSKA possess a good number of Russian players capable of competing at the top level – both sides made it to the Champions League knockout phase, and a combination of the two clubs effectively made up the national team at Euro 2012. However, age is a concern – the Berezutsky twins and Sergei Ignashevich are only getting older and slower, whilst Zenit will not be able to rely on Zyryanov, Anyukov, Kerzhakov and Semak for much longer. Whilst btoh sides can claim one or two bright sparks among their younger players – Pavel Mamaev and Georgi Schennikov at CSKA, Maxim Kannunikov at Zenit – neither Luciano Spalletti nor Leonid Slutsky can possibly hope to fill those gaps with their own academy graduates.
Of course, both sides possess the funds necessary to simply purchase the best of the Russian talent on offer at other clubs, but the selling clubs are all too aware of this. Prices are pushed higher as a result – see Alexander Bukharov’s €11m move from Rubin to Zenit – and the recipient of the fee is able to strengthen their own team in an attempt to compensate for their loss. However, with one more space now available for foreign-born talent, it makes it even easier for the big teams to maintain a conveyor belt of international stars, selling established names on to bigger European clubs and replacing them cheaply from abroad. None of this money filters down through the league, and although the small teams keep their own stars, they often lack the funds and ambition to hold them down in the long-term and suffer as a result. For an emerging club such an Anzhi, who have almost unlimited funds but little in the way of an established, productive youth development program, the ability to field another foreigner could make the difference between pushing for Europe and challenging for the title.
As well as pointing to short-sightedness from the other clubs backing the motion, who will now be forced to compete with the bigger names for foreign talent only to inevitably lose it further down the line, there have also been concerned raised by those in charge of the national team and its future. After all, with the incentive to develop homegrown talent disappearing – the rule forcing a Russian youth player to be named in the matchday squad was ditched midway through last season – there are many who worry that Russian football could be about to enter a bleak period in which few genuine international quality players are able to make the step up. There are already signs of this in the extreme continuity favoured in outgoing manager Dick Advocaat’s squads, but when the current crop of players draw the curtain on their international careers, their replacements are far from obvious. Academies such as the Abramovich-backed Togliatti school may be notable success stories, but Russia’s footballing infrastructure pales in comparison to other European nations, and there is a real danger that the country could be left behind if measures are not put in place to prevent it.
With this rule change there comes a sense of turkeys voting for Christmas – a more competitive elite in the Champions League, but at the cost of a talent drain from sides lower down the pecking order, fewer chances of progress for young players, and a national team struggling to find a future. The knock-on effects outside of the Premier League remain to be seen, but for now the amendment screams of short-term success being prioritised at the expense of years to come. Spartak and Dinamo may be holding fast to their principles, but even they are only able to do so because they have the money necessary to invest in their youth. For the rest of the clubs outside the elite, the situation they are presented with offers little consolation, and only adds to growing uncertainty in the Russian game.