Image from Epsilon

Big Ideas, Harsh Realities

Image from Epsilon
Dinamo’s Alexander Kokorin has been strongly linked to Zenit, one of Russia’s richest and most expectant teams.

To those with a vague knowledge of the footballing, asking them to pinpoint the names of some of the world’s richest clubs produces a list almost immediately. Manchester City, Real Madrid, Chelsea all roll off the tongue, with those more up to date perhaps dropping in the likes of PSG, a recent recent addition to the oil club. However, after a few seconds’ pause there is usually the awkward pause before an utterance something along the lines of ‘there’s that Russian club as well, Anzhi something-or-other…’

Anzhi Makhachkala are indeed one of the world’s richest clubs, and with the high-profile acquisitions of Guus Hiddink, Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o over the last couple of years, they have paved the way for wealthy Russian sides making their mark on the wider footballing world. The use of the plural is something which has perhaps been contentious in the past, but there is now very little doubt that there are a number of Russian clubs who, given their levels of backing, can realistically count themselves among the wealthiest teams on the planet.

Anzhi may be the current big name, but with Suleyman Kerimov’s backing they are by no means the only side with resources to be envied. Evgeny Giner has pumped his sizable riches into CSKA Moscow over the past decade, whilst city rivals Spartak have found ample support in the coffers of main sponsor LUKoil. Lokomotiv and Dinamo complete the quartet of riches in the capital, albeit slightly less spectacularly, whilst in St Petersburg, champions Zenit can theoretically boast the backing of the entire Russian nation – Gazprom, the club’s owners and soon builders of their new stadium, is majority-controlled by the Russian government. While Rubin Kazan’s budgets have been cut lately, recent transfer dealings would suggest that they are since being healthily propped up by the local government in their native Tatarstan.

On paper, this makes for a highly competitive league, and the recent extended season in 2011-12 proved to be exactly that. Whilst Zenit eventually took the title at a canter, one of the main reasons for their ability to do so was the tightly-bunched nature of their main rivals, every side in the ‘championship group’ able to take points from one another at will. This season, the same is true – CSKA, Anzhi and Zenit are split by just five points at the top, whilst the next seven positions are covered by a mere five points. With more than half the league realistically capable of aiming for the five European positions, it could easily be argued that the Russian league has not been this strong since its inception in 1992.

However, whilst increased competition, greater financial clout and a higher global profile has transformed the league into a poor relative of its Soviet predecessor into one of Europe’s emerging powers, this has not translated directly into a more stable, appealing competition for players and managers in which to ply their trade. On the last day of the traditional European transfer window – Russia’s equivalent runs for another month – Congolese behemoth Christopher Samba swapped title-chasing Anzhi for relegation-battling QPR, allegedly taking a substantial pay cut in the process. While cynics will rightfully laugh at the notion of someone taking a pay cut to Samba’s rumoured £100,000 a week, this is cause for concern that a player who claimed it had been his destiny to play in Dagestan would be so quick to abandon potential Champions League football simply to get out of the system.

There is no evidence to suggest that Samba was hounded out, but it would appear that the money washing around the top half of the Russian table is not sticking as some may hope. With increased resources come increased demands, and a recent record of managers in the top clubs who have been punished for their apparent failures does not make for pleasant reading for a prospective top flight manager in Russia. Since 2009, both Zico and Juande Ramos were dismissed by CSKA in under a year before Giner and his men settled on current boss Leonid Slutsky, whilst Spartak’s managerial issues have been well documented, Valeri Karpin’s clockwork return to the hotseat bordering on laughable. Zenit and Rubin may have kept faith with Spalletti and Berdyev, but they are the exceptions which prove the rule – Krasnozhan (three times), Emery, Silkin, Semin, Couceiro and Bozovic just a handful of names to have been dismissed from leading clubs in the last couple of years.

What Russian clubs and fans do not seem to have grasped is that it is not just a single team which has benefited from the influx of capital into the nation’s sport. The league is now a position where a number of clubs can realistically compete to attract some of the biggest names in the game – Hulk, Axel Witsel, Samuel Eto’o, Guus Hiddink and Yann M’Vila – and indeed expect to do so, yet do not expect to be challenged by their own domestic rivals. Spartak and Dinamo in particular seem unable to move on from their mental position as perennial champions, something the former achieved in the 1990s and the latter have never managed for a sustained period.

The result of such turbulence in dugouts across Russia is that those same top names are less likely to be tempted by Russia thanks to the chaos regularly engulfing the big sides. If being in the top three midway through the season is not good enough for half the league, it stands to reason that a number of clubs will be forced to undergo major rebuilding every six months. Whilst this is obvious exaggeration for effect, in the worlds of Spartak, Dinamo and Lokomotiv fans, it is not too far from reality.

Is there a solution to the problem? At the moment, the cliched cries of ‘sack the board’ would almost certainly deal with impatient directors, but would also rob the clubs of their wealthy benefactors and remove any chance of future success. After all, in a chaotic environment a side does not have to be run perfectly to succeed. Simply lowering expectations would almost definitely slow down the league’s progression, so the only logical conclusion is to plough ahead with this current phase and wait for the storm to pass. Unlike other leagues where funding is heavily dependent on success, Russia’s unique combination of pitiful traditional incomes and super-rich backers means that, for the time being at least, there is little option but to sit back and watch the fireworks. Whether this proves to be a help or a hindrance, only time will tell.

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