Russia, as a rule, does not export its footballers overseas. In recent years there have been one or two headline-grabbing exceptions – Andrei Arshavin at Arsenal, Yuri Zhirkov’s big-money move to Chelsea – but on the whole they are either unnoticed by clubs from bigger European nations, something which seems unlikely in today’s age of comprehensive scouting coverage, or are deemed not good enough.
If the latter is true, it does not correlate with results. While outside the elite bracket of clubs which so often make up the latter stages of the Champions League, Russia has a number of domestic sides which regularly feature beyond the group stage. Both Zenit and CSKA Moscow have won the UEFA Cup in the past, CSKA held Real Madrid to a draw before being beaten in the second leg of last year’s knockout rounds, and in the Europa League there were successes for Zenit and Rubin over Liverpool and Atletico, while Anzhi too impressed in their campaign.
Unlike the dominant force in neighbouring Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk, many of the players featuring in these runs are homegrown. CSKA’s defence features most of the Russian national backline, while Zenit’s old spine of Zyryanov, Denisov and Shirokov also teamed up in international games before the former’s age ruled him out and Denisov fled to Anzhi. Both Spartak and Dinamo pride themselves on a strong Russian core, and are able to compete in Europe when given the opportunity.
If the players are good enough, where are they coming from? Russian football followers may point to Spartak’s prolific academy, but while their facilities are famous for producing high quality youngsters, more often than not they are not given first team opportunities and leave for minutes elsewhere. Zenit too have adopted a more aggressive transfer policy despite the relative success of the Smena academy, while similar setups in the south of the country at Krasnodar and Anzhi are only just starting to bear fruit.
One conveyor belt of talent is the Konoplyov Academy in Togliatti, the proving ground for playmaking star Alan Dzagoev amongst others. However, one location which is rarely mentioned, and which could well hold the key to the future of the nation’s sport, is the Chertanovo Football School based in the south of Moscow.
Founded in the mid-70s when Soviet sport was being pushed to the hilt as a secondary battle in the Cold War, the school suffered after the Communist collapse despite producing the likes of former Dinamo forward Igor Kolyvanov, now managing second tier FC Ufa, and Spartak and Benfica stalwart Vasili Kulkov. In recent years however, the the arrival of Nikolai Larin as director, the Chertanovo operation has developed rapidly.
Comprising of a boarding school, football academy, 12 boys’ teams starting at six years old and eight girls’ sides starting at 10, Chertanovo has taken a holistic approach to the sport, including secondary education alongside modern coaching methods in an attempt to provide the best for its players. Open to trial for players from across Russia, all coaching staff at the base are fully UEFA qualified and familiar with the latest coaching practices, sports science, nutrition and psychology.
So well do the club believe they treat their players, that coaches have been known to become unhappy when professional sides take them on, bemoaning outdated coaching methods and a lack of the personal tailored approach given to them at the school. Plans are in place for the school to launch its own club into the Russian Second Division – similar to Akademia Togliatti – to allow its players the chance to gain competitive experience without compromising in other areas.
The approach is beginning to pay dividends. A number of Chertanovo’s youngsters are being snapped up by the big Moscow sides, with others opting to start their professional careers lower down the leagues in search of instant game time. Across the age groups, Chertanovo competes with the elite Moscow outfits, regularly coming out on top and giving the products of Spartak, Dinamo, CSKA and Lokomotiv a run for their money.
If evidence was needed that Chertanovo is a worthwhile endeavour, you need look no further than the recent u17 European Championships in Slovakia. Despite winning just one of their five matches in regulation time – both knockout ties being settled on penalties – Russia emerged as champions, beating Sweden 10-9 in a mammoth semi-final shootout before overcoming Italy 5-4 from the spot in the final. The Russian squad consisted of two players from Zenit, three each from CSKA and Spartak, four from Lokomotiv – and now fewer than six from Chertanovo, three of whom started the final.
There have, of course, been plenty of players who have excelled at youth level only to fade away, fall in with the wrong crowd, or simply lose interest in the game – fans of the English game will think of plenty of examples at a moment’s notice. However, for Russia to claim an age group title, in a year which also saw the u21 side reach their European championships – albeit in a not all successful manner – is something which grants the Russian football fan a little more optimism than is usually afforded to those who cannot see the replacements for the likes of Sergei Ignashevich, Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
For Chertanovo however, the challenge is simply to keep up the good work. Anzhi’s sudden switch to a youth-driven philosophy could well see them join the ranks of the Zenits and the Spartaks of this world in terms of academy excellence, while Krasnodar are continuing to invest heavily in their younger players. With new approaches being developed on a regular basis, whether in training technique, improving fitness or standard of education, the Moscow school cannot afford to rest on its laurels if it is to pursue its three-pronged goals of developing players for the professional and international game, competing with a new team in the regional leagues, and remaining competitive at age group levels across the Moscow region.
Russian coaches have often been criticised for their unwillingness to drop antiquated Soviet training methods – Chertanovo must keep educating coaches as well as players. With the media playing an increasingly large role in all sports, particularly football, players must be taught how to adapt to live in front of a lens. They are already given advice on dealing with agents and finances, and youngsters’ motives for playing must also be taken into consideration. At the moment, the school is one of the best in Russia for delivering a complete package when a player graduates or is signed by another side. If Russia is to benefit and challenge for honours in the future, they would do well to look at its example.