When the English transfer window closed on the last day of August, the feeling within the footballing community was one of anti-climax and disappointment rather than shock and hysteria. Andy Carroll’s loan move to West Ham and Clint Dempsey’s move to Spurs left most neutrals with reason to chuckle at Liverpool’s expense, whilst the biggest fee came from a move out of the country, Luka Modric moving to Real Madrid after protracted negotiations. On the continent, PSG continued to show off their riches, but their business was sealed long before the deadline, resulting in a quiet end to the window.
Three days later however, the football world exploded with news of a stunning development from Russia. Just in time for both players to be registered for their Champions League campaign – a group which sees them pitted against AC Milan, Anderlecht and Malaga – champions Zenit announced the double capture of Brazilian and Belgian internationals Hulk and Axel Witsel for a combined fee estimated to be around €100m from Porto and Benfica respectively, smashing the Russian transfer record twice in the space of minutes and sparking knee-jerk reactions which ranged from making Zenit front-runners for the European title to dismissing the new arrivals and vile mercenaries.
The impact and significance of the transfers cannot be underestimated – Witsel only arrived at Benfica a year ago from Standard Liege for €9m, representing a €31m profit for the Portuguese side within 12 months. Meanwhile, Hulk’s transfer makes him one of the ten most expensive footballers of all time, with only three clubs having ever paid more for an individual player – Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid. On a domestic level, the two transfers mean that the four most expensive transfers in Russian history can all be attributed to Gazprom-backed Zenit. The fifth is that of Samuel Eto’o to Anzhi, which gives an indication of how willing the champions are to part with their cash.
It would be foolish, therefore, to ignore the financial benefits available to the two players on moving to St Petersburg. Hulk’s rumoured contract is not far removed from the annual budget available to a midtable First Division club, and Witsel’s own deal will only be slightly less lucrative. In monetary terms, most players will earn significant upgrades, not least due to the Portuguese financial crisis which has made it increasingly difficult for the likes of Porto and Benfica to keep hold of their top players for any length of time.
However, to dismiss the moves are motivated solely by money would be to ignore crucial aspects of the Russian league which may not be immediately apparent. The main accusation of mercenarism is based on a belief that the Russian Premier League is far inferior to its Portuguese equivalent, a playground for oil barons and energy magnates to show off their expensively-assembled toys. Although the point is exaggerated, it is easy to see where this impression has originated with the likes of Anzhi, CSKA and Krasnodar, but the perception is deeply flawed.
The first point to consider is, paradoxically, the financial positions of the two countries. As stated, Portugal is one of the countries to have suffered worst of all from the Eurozone crisis, resulting a severe cuts across society, and making it impossible for football clubs to offer wages and contracts on par with their competitors. Combined with the fact that Portugal’s top table has historically been limited to three seats – Porto, Benfica and Sporting, with Braga recently attempting to crash the party – clubs are regularly forced to sell players on just to survive.
In contrast, the Russian economy is in a strong position thanks to high energy prices, and whilst the nation’s rich and poor are arguably more divided than in most European countries, there is little sense of crisis. In footballing terms, this means that Russian clubs can afford to offer impressive terms, and to hold on to their players in the face of interest from abroad. At the moment, Russia does not have a reputation as a deep pool of talent, helping teams keep their stars for the long term.
Secondly, the respective strength of the two leagues can be compared. As previously mentioned, the Portuguese league’s co-efficient and European prestige depends entirely on the progress of the three or four teams at the top of the table. Sporting are currently in either a slump or a transitional phase, depending on your optimism levels, and the final stages of the Europa League seems the level for Braga. Porto and Benfica are regular participants in the knockout stages of the Champions League, with the quarter finals an ambitious target.
Comparably, Russia appears weaker – two UEFA Cup wins in recent memory do little to disguise the fact that no Russian side has ever made it past the first knockout round in the Champions League. However, the number of teams in the league participating in European competition is larger – in addition to Zenit, CSKA, Spartak and Rubin have all made recent Champions League appearances, whilst Lokomotiv, Dinamo and now Anzhi have put in good Europa League showings. Last season, when Benfica knocked Zenit out of Europe, they did so by a single goal, far from a huge gulf in quality between the two countries’ last representatives – Zenit having qualified from a group and knocking Porto out in the process.
Most importantly however, is the situation as a whole – European performance and wage packets are, after all, only relevant in context. The context in Portugal is currently crisis – a small number of big teams having their stars poached on an annual basis, with no threats to their domination due to financial crisis. In Russia however, the story is one which promises some form of progress. The arrival of the World Cup in 2018 has brought with it a new wave of investment in the game, and although much of this will undoubtedly be wasted in bureaucracy and white elephants, basic infrastructural improvements have the potential to be finally delivered, especially with the election of former Dinamo player Nikolai Tolstykh to the presidency of the Russian Football Union.
Whilst this should result in fewer teams disappearing and a more competitive league, at the top of the game this has seen an increase in high profile transfers. Zenit and Anzhi aside, CSKA broke their transfer record this year with the capture of Mario Fernandes from Gremio, whilst the arrivals of Salomon Rondon, Vedran Corluka and Romulo to Rubin, Lokomotiv and Spartak respectively have all been recognised as a growing ambition in the Russian game.
Of course, how far Hulk and Witsel were able to sit done and consider all the ins and outs of a deal which was reached at some speed is questionable, and it would be entirely understandable have placed financial considerations above others – they are, after all, only human. However, for the sceptics out there, Zenit’s record-breaking deals should be considered as part of Russian football’s ongoing project for growth and success, not simply a shot in the arm to start it.