When the final whistle blew in Curitiba, the dream was over. Russia were never going to win the World Cup, but 2014 was an important step in the development of a team which would at least be expected to put up a good showing in front of their home fans. Drawn in one of the perceived weaker groups of the tournament, managed by the highest-paid boss at the tournament, and with expectations high after a strong if not testing qualifying campaign, Russia needed to perform.
Instead, just two weeks after playing their first match, Fabio Capello’s side find themselves bound for Moscow and a summer in front of the television, watching as countries of lesser footballing stature – Costa Rica and Algeria in particular – compete for places in the quarter finals and beyond.
In England, failure of this nature is accompanied by a ‘root-and-branch’ inquiry into everything from the presence of players’ wives to the conditions at the team hotel, however in Russia this is simply not the case. While a poll on the popular Sport-Express website recorded some 70% of voters wanted to see the Italian gone, this has not translated into widespread calls for resignation in the press or from official figures – indeed, having failed the make any World Cup since 2002, when again Russian dropped out at the group stage, Capello’s reign has thus far been seen as progress.
It is a case that, having watched Russia play, is difficult to argue. They, along with the overwhelming majority of the footballing world, wildly underestimated the capabilities of an Algerian side which has made history in progressing to the knockout stages. However, against a poor South Korean team and a much-lauded Belgium side which failed to ever hit top gear in the group games, for Russia to emerge with just two points has to go down as a failure.
Capello’s apologists will look at the three group games and claim bad luck – Igor Akinfeev, so often the hero for club and country, spilled a routine save into his own net against Korea, Belgium snatched a late winner in a game the Russians arguably had the edge in, and a laser pen combined with another Akinfeev error led to the decisive Algeria goal in the 1-1 draw. A couple of different outcomes in key moments, and Russia could hypothetically have taken another three or more points.
To use luck as the sole reason for elimination, however, is to ignore the obvious failings of the Russian side. Beyond that, there are underlying problems within the Russian game, its organisation and priorities, but the primary reasons for the national team’s disappointing 2014 World Cup can be summed up in a number of ways.
The first can be attributed to the manager, the all-conquering Capello, who has won almost everything there is worth winning in the game, and who can command an largely inflated salary for his undoubted talents. Capello has been the star of the Russian camp, has managed to ban social media, made some dubious selection choices, and was overly conservative in his tactical choices to the extent that, with 30 minutes left to find a goal that would keep Russia in the tournament, his side created not one major goalscoring opportunity.
All too often, even on the attack, Russia left too many men behind the play. Dmitri Kombarov at left full-back was often Russia’s most dangerous option, but on the right Alexei Kozlov looked out of his depth, the midfield pairing of Denis Glushakov and Victor Faizulin lacked any penetration, and Capello’s reluctance to deploy Alan Dzagoev robbed his side of a man able to slice through defences with a single ball. When balls were delivered into the box, they were long and overhit, poorly placed, or aimed at someone other than Alexander Kerzhakov, the all-time record scorer Capello seemed so reluctant to trust. Build-up play was slow, tedious, without pace or penetration, and players of apparently inferior quality were able to get behind the ball and comfortably defend against Russia’s predictable attacks.
The second key failing can also be attributed to Capello – the choice of line-up. After a 1-1 draw against Korea which left the group balanced, the Italian went into the clash with Belgium by leaving Kerzhakov, Dzagoev, Denisov and Eshchenko, preferring the untried, unproven and ultimately underwhelming Maxim Kanunnikov up front, a stodgy central two of Glushakov and Faizulin, and the inferior Kozlov at left back. Chasing the crucial goal against Algeria, Capello took off Oleg Shatov before allowing Dzagoev his chance, and with time ticking away, removed Kerzhakov from the game. With limited options available to him, all too often Capello chose the wrong one.
Those limitations, however, cannot be blamed on the management. While there were some questionable selection decisions made in the 23-man squad – Andrei Semenov ahead of Alexander Anyukov, and the exclusion of leading Russian domestic scorer Artem Dzyuba to name but two – the hard facts are that, for a country with a population in excess of 150 million, Russia’s talent pool is limited and dwindling.
A primary reason for this is a direct result of the Russian Football Union’s short-sighted policies on the game’s governance. As proven by their flirtation with a Russo-Ukrainian superleague, the corridors of power are interested only in the elite sides – limited effectively to Zenit and the Moscow clubs – giving them a disproportionate say in the running of the game and encouraging their whims. On an almost monthly basis one or more lower league clubs are forced out of the game – sides as storied as Alania Vladikavkaz and Rotor Volgograd – due to the financial burdens of travel, wages, no investment and a pitiful attempt at a TV deal, the the result being that, short of a miraculous cup run, there is no exposure, no audience, and no importance placed on the value of the league pyramid.
Beyond that, grassroots football is all but dead, floundering as state funds instead flow into the white elephants-to-be being constructed in time for 2018. Unless a youngster is fortunate to find his way into a Moscow academy, the Chertanovo football school, or the emerging programme at Krasnodar, there is little hope of them ending up at a league side, or an even smaller chance of them moving on to the Premier League. Coaching standards continue to be based on outdated Soviet-era ideas of single-pace running, endurance and strength rather than technical skill, with the result being that anyone with a modicum of flair or creativity is shunned as overly-flamboyant or simply untrustworthy – hence Fabio Capello’s distrust of Dzagoev.
Accordingly, there is no place in the Russian game at the moment for the individual seeking to develop his talents overseas. Andrei Arshavin was this generation’s final flourish, a stunning opening salvo for Arsenal followed by what was perceived as a lack of effort, scapegoating and sulking, before returning to the comforting arms of Zenit and his homeland. Pavel Pogrebnyak, who bedded in reasonably well at Stuttgart, can claim to be the exception to the rule, but a look at the likes of Roman Pavlyuchenko,Yuri Zhirkov, Dmitri Sychev and Alexander Kerzhakov proves the point that today’s Russians simply do not go abroad for long. At the first sign of difficulty, they cry out for the Spartaks, Zenits and Lokomotivs of the world and come home. Salaries are more than comfortable due to the foreigner limit – ask Dzagoev or Akinfeev why they have stayed with CSKA – and they can once again become big fish in a relatively small pond.
Yet despite this, the Russian Football Union points to progress. It points to qualification as an achievement – ignoring the achievement that Northern Ireland and Israel posed the biggest threats behind a weak Portugal – to the successful 2018 bid, to the huge salary that makes Capello the best-paid international manager in the world game. It can point to growing influence on the world stage – highlighted by the encroaching hegemony enjoyed by Gazprom over the Champions League – to increased budgets, to the top teams making progress in European competitions. In the face of dwindling attendances, annual bankruptcies and failing national team performance, the men in charge refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong.
If the story so far paints a rather bleak picture, there is no apology. While the Russian league remains among the most interesting in the world, the facts that contribute to that are often based off the field – on the social dynamics, shadowy politics, dark finances and deep histories. However, while the clouds may seem to be bedding in for a lengthy storm, there are occasional rays of sunlight which break through, a flash of hope for the future of the Russian game.
For the national team, there are the players who the side needs to be built around. The likes of Dzagoev, Shatov, and Kokorin if he can realise his potential, are young, gifted and hungry. Add in the emerging talents of Pavel Mamaev, Denis Cheryshev at Real Madrid, and the team which won the under-17 European Championships, there is at least the spine of a side for the next few years. Spartak Moscow are famed for their production line, but so often fail to bring them through to the first team. With a new manager, a new philosophy could see that come to fruition, while in Krasnodar and Makhachkala, more and more children are being taken into centres of excellence.
There is also more money to be spent. It may take time long beyond 2018 for the cash to filter down from the giants of the domestic game, but if the government’s budget for the game is maintained after FIFA’s showpiece event, there has to be a chance of that money eventually working its way into the areas of the game most in need – at the junior level, in coaching, and in the provinces. No amount of unused stadia can win tournaments, but youngsters developed in the right way by knowledgeable coaches, given first team football from an early age, can certainly help.
The country’s playing style must also evolve, and this too requires coaching techniques and methodology more in line with the modern game. The last of the Soviet-style managers are still lurking, both in the Premier League and lower down the leagues, but the emergence of the likes of Dmitri Alenichev – drawing many plaudits after guiding Arsenal Tula to the top flight – and Leonid Kuchuk, the Belarusian at Lokomotiv, as well as a creeping acceptance of foreign coaches into the game, will surely speed up the process. While full assimilation will be slow – one of the more progressive Russian managers, Leonid Slutsky, has decried Raymond Verheijen’s fitness techniques as fraudulent – it is gathering pace. Similarly, this can only be quickened by the willingness of Russian players to sample different, quicker, more technically and physically demanding styles of play in Europe. The aforementioned Cheryshev is currently leading the way, while little-known goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk is currently on the books at Braga in Portugal. Should more young players head to the West, the national team can only benefit from their insights.
Finally, there needs to be change at the top. In its presence state, lost between the Ministry of Sport and the interests of the top clubs, the Russian Football Union is not really fit for purpose. Replace the men at the top with football men, people who understand the necessary reforms, yet who also carry the clout needed to push through the changes.
While it may pain Russia to admit their mistake, the first move must be to remove Capello. They have four years before they host a World Cup in which to not only put in place the necessary infrastructure off the field, but also to lay out a playing philosophy and style which can match the best in world. It would be futile to look to mimic a Spain, Holland or Germany, but to create a distinctly Russian take on a game which is unafraid to attack in numbers and pass the ball quickly. Personally speaking, it would be a shame were it not a native manager who led Russia into a home World Cup, and the candidates are difficult to come by. Slutksy may not be the quickest to embrace new methods, but his CV is clearly the most outstanding at the moment. Alenichev is young, inexperienced but progressive, while Stanislav Cherchesov and his contemporaries remain too tainted by Soviet methods.
One candidate who may not spring to mind immediately is Igor Kolyvanov. A former Dinamo Moscow striker who left Russia in the 90s to ply his trade in Italy, his coaching career has seen him work with the national youth team from under-15s through to under-21s, before taking unfancied and unspectacular Ufa from the wilderness of Bashkortostan to the Premier League, a 5-1 win in the first leg of the play-offs against Tom a vindication of a style which recognises the value of attacking. Kolyvanov may not be the obvious candidate, but given his previous work within the national set-up and track record, albeit brief, at club level, Russia could do a lot worse.
Whatever the decision, and even if Capello clings onto his multi-million pound salary for another four years, Russia has a lot of work to do. At the moment, they run the risk of being embarrassed at their own World Cup, and while that may be the catalyst for the necessary changes, the nation’s population would be far more grateful if humiliation were somehow avoided.