There are plenty of sporting stories which will echo the ‘never go back’ principle. For English football fans, Kenny Dalglish is perhaps the most recent example, returning to a Liverpool side with which he won the league only to manage them to overspending and a league position well outside the Champions League positions that the club’s fans have come to expect. Whether due to unfortunate timing or illogical tactics, to claim his reign as a success would be difficult.
In the past few years, however, there has been a trend of bigger clubs turning to old heroes in a bid to see an injection of energy, desire and determination into a squad of players. Thierry Henry was mooted for not just a second but third return to Arsenal, whilst Manchester United saw Paul Scholes come back from retirement in their unsuccessful attempt to beat their cross-town rivals to the title. In Russia, the same principle has applied, although more through a combination of speculation and lazy journalism than anything. Whilst Andrei Arshavin did make a temporary return to Zenit, Anatoly Tymoschuk has yet to return to the champions from Bayern, in much the same way that Milos Krasic has yet to come back to CSKA Moscow.
However, it would seem that the pace is being picked up by some sides. On the managerial front, the continuation of the Gazzaev dynasty at Alania has seen Valeri once again head up the side he clinched the 1995 title with. Oleg Romantsev has revealed that he hopes for a return to the touchline, leaving nostalgic Spartak fans undecided as to whether or not to recruit their legendary boss at the expense of another club hero in Valeri Karpin. Even in Nalchik, mired in midtable down in the First Division, there have been rumblings of hiring the now unemployed Yuri Krasnozhan for a second spell. Back on the field, Georgy Gabulov has just completed a move from Anzhi to Alania just a year after leaving the captaincy of his boyhood club behind.
Whilst Gabulov’s move may make for pleasant reading in the North Caucasus, the younger brother’s return has been utterly eclipsed by the news that the biggest return so far has been completed. Less than a single year after leaving CSKA Moscow after no fewer than eight seasons at the club, Vagner Love was confirmed to have agreed a three and a half year deal with Leonid Slutsky’s side, a remarkable development in the story of a player who so often suffered from homesickness during his first Russian adventure.
That itself was one of the mains reasons that Love cited for his desire to leave Moscow, the Brazilian tiring of Russian life and seeking a move home to his native shores. Twice during his first CSKA career the club was forced to loan their star striker back to sides in his homeland – Palmeiras and Flamengo – and it was with the latter club that he signed a four year contract after a fee of around £7m was agreed between the two clubs. Nevertheless, despite playing 36 league games for Flamengo, a change of presidency meant in change in favour for the famously blue-haired forward, and his new team decided against paying the installments necessary to keep Love at the club. After a few days of rumour that he could be on his way to rejoin former boss Gazzaev at Alania, he was eventually unveiled as a CSKA player for the second time.
If the fuss made in the Russian media did not give the game away, it is worth noting that Vagner Love’s role in the last decade of the nation’s football is not to be understated. After arriving in Moscow in 2004 and staying beyond the first year in which he was widely expected to leave, his trademark hair and impressive performances turned him into one of the league’s major foreign stars. Leading the CSKA line to two league titles and five national cups, not to mention netting the winning goal in the the club’s historic UEFA Cup win over Sporting Lisbon in 2005. With the relatively low amount of 158 league games with CSKA to his name, the dreadlocked Brazilian sits in fifth place in the club’s all-time goalscoring charts, with ample time to work his way towards the immediate post-war heroes of the Red Army above him.
On paper, the signing looks like the perfect move from the current Premier League leaders – the fans will immediately take to their old hero, there will be little to no settling in period, and his presence will take the pressure off Seydou Doumbia in a strikeforce bolstered by the permanently injured Tomas Necid and inconsistent Ahmed Musa. With the club at the top of the league, his signing should bolster the ranks and give the entire club a boost.
Conversely, things may not be quite so simple. For much of Vagner Love’s first spell at CSKA, his club were expected to be fighting for the title – not just by the fans, but by observers of all descriptions who rightly ranked the team backed by Evgeni Giner as the country’s best. Today however, the top of the Russian game is more diverse – as well as Zenit and their admittedly inconsistent rivals Spartak, the emergence of Anzhi and a stronger midtable including the ever-unpredictable likes of Dinamo and Lokomotiv as well as a stronger Caucasian contingent – meaning that trophy hauls such as CSKA’s in the mid-2000s are unlikely for the current squad.
The other risk that CSKA must take into account is the fact that Love returns as a star in his own right, and potentially one who may demand to be bigger than club. Never one to hold back his sometimes forthright and controversial views, there is the chance that the returning hero could picture himself as the knight in shining armour that a club leading the league two thirds of the way into a season doesn’t really need.
The general consensus seems to suggest that by effectively acquiring Love on a free transfer – Flamengo simply ceasing to make payments they had been making to CSKA for his previous move – the table-toppers have made a shrewd move indeed. If he can perform up to anything like his former standards in Russia, and after such a short spell away there is no reason to think otherwise, Love’s return could be the signing of the season. Still, there is a slight chance that things could go wrong – and in Russia, often that is all it takes.