In the modern game, more than ever before, foreign footballers crossing national boundaries are under increasing pressure to justify their expensive moves. Not to the owners or the managers – their role remains the same as before – to the fans and experts left behind, who are keen to know exactly what it is that has persuaded their hero to leave what has undoubtedly been referred to as a perfect, ideal or boyhood club at some point in the not so distant past. The English press is notoriously bad for this, but in Russia the same accusations are levelled at players – take the vitriol hurled at Yuri Zhirkov when he signed for Anzhi as a more extreme example.
The accusation is a simple one, and one which rings out across the footballing world with the same sense of disapproval. Why would a footballer leave one club for another, provided he is being played regularly by his team? Regardless of who the accuser supports, the ‘mercenary’ label is one which disgusts the fan and upsets the player in almost equal measure, although in the latter case that can be offset by the thousands of extra pounds lining his bank account. No man wants to be seen to sell himself to the highest bidder, and so another, more acceptable reason must be conjured up.
In the increasingly international game, this is harder than ever – previously, players would simply cite an allegiance to a particular club, often a highly successful one or a side based near their birthplace, to pacify the accusing hordes. Now, this is obviously a lie. Referring back to the Russian game, there is nobody who will believe a Swede, for example, to be a lifelong fan of CSKA Moscow, or even to have admired their playing style from afar. It does not take a cynic to see through the argument.
Pontus Wernbloom, conveniently a Swede recently signed for CSKA, faced the same accusations as many of his colleagues and fellow professionals when arriving in the Russian capital. Why give up a promising career at AZ in Holland, in a similar standard of league, for fiercer competition in Moscow? In such instances, cliches such as ‘furthering a career’ and ‘testing themselves against the best’ are likely to be tossed into the mix.
Wernbloom used these wisely, and also included a golden nugget to win the support of the CSKA faithful from the off. Asked the obvious question about money, the Swede denied any mercenary tendencies, instead declaring that CSKA’s rich history and legacy of success had drawn him to the bright lights of Europe’s biggest city.
Whilst this would normally be sufficient, and indeed won him the hearts of plenty who follow Leonid Slutsky’s side, it also placed him on something of a tightrope. Immediately his knowledge of his new club came under scrutiny from those on the outside, and again his view of the Russian gain began to take shape. CSKA’s rich and glorious history amounts to a handful of Soviet titles won immediately after the Second World War – in a time when political affiliation was as important as the playing squad, it was little surprise to see the army team achieve success in the wake of military victory – and the Russian success of the mid-2000s.
This success in particular was delivered almost entirely due to the large investment made by owner Evgeni Giner, the man still at the helm today. There are few accusations which Giner has not faced since assumed control of CSKA, from match-fixing to ‘stimulation’ – offering to pay the opponents of rival clubs if they win – but whilst no evidence has yet stuck to their wealthy owner, there can be little doubt of the fact that it was his money which brought the club back into the small elite of the Russian game.
Ahead of this weekend’s big game in the Russian Premier League then, there was a certain irony in the way Wernbloom was quick to criticise opponents Anzhi for their big budgets and high spending levels. First praising the competition created by Suleyman Kerimov’s investment, he swiftly turned to lament the effect their spending would have on the league as a whole. As a caveat, he went on to claim that money alone would not determine the destination of the title.
Although true, there is a a certain falsehood in the final point – Zenit are certainly the best funded team in the long term with Gazprom behind them, and when Rubin won the title in 2007 and 2008, they were boosted dramatically by the Tatar government. Before then it was Giner and CSKA who paid their way to glory, with Spartak’s Champions League money a key part of their 1990s domination.
Now it could be Anzhi’s time, and with Kerimov slowly learning that the football men in charge – manager Guus Hiddink predominant amongst them – are better informed than he in terms of player purchases and training techniques, they are beginning to emerge as a force in the Russian game. Whilst CSKA have lost two of their opening three games, including a 3-1 home embarrassment against Zenit, Anzhi are yet to lose a match and sit behind the 100% records of Spartak and Zenit ready to capitalise on any errors.
Given that the eternally-booked Wernbloom has hardly been a shining light for CSKA so far, he would perhaps be well advised to do his talking on the field at Arena Khimki. Not only is his point one which has been made more than enough times before, it is also somewhat hollow coming from the Swede, whose motivating factors in moving to Moscow almost certainly included a large chunk of Giner’s history-changing cash. Money will always motivate people, be they footballers or photocopiers – whilst Anzhi may be able to use that fact to their advantage more than others, CSKA are no saints either.