Not for the first time, the number of foreign players able to be fielded by Russian Premier League clubs is changing.
In recent memory, the upper limit on foreign players – known throughout Russian sports as ‘legionnaires’ – on the field at any one time was capped at six, forcing any manager to keep five home-grown players on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes. In recent seasons, in what was seen by many as a concession to the bigger clubs, this was switched to seven, reducing the need for Russian talent to just four. Combined with the ability to fill the bench with effectively the entire squad – as opposed to the five or seven player maximum favoured throughout much of the footballing world – most teams had few problems fulfilling their domestic requirements.
Nevertheless, there were immediately rumblings that this was an incomplete solution, and work began on an alternative. The most recent suggestion, one which the Russian Football Union agreed to, was the ’10+15′ rule, allowing clubs to field as many legionnaires as they choose, as long as they have no more than 10 overseas stars registered in their squad of 25 for league play.
On the one hand, the shift in policy would open the Russian league up to squads more commonly seen in England or Italy – clubs regularly seen with no more than a token domestic player or two, while flooding the field with overseas talent. In theory, this improves the quality of the football on display, leads to increased crowds due to the more exciting spectacle, and stops talented players sitting on the bench just because of his nationality. There is also a sense at which Russian players themselves would have to improve – with 7+4, domestic players know that they have a reasonable chance of being selected due to their passport, commanding automatic selection and inflated wages as a result. While by no means undeserving of their positions, current policy is part of the reason that players such as Alan Dzagoev, Alexander Kokorin and Yuri Zhirkov have remained or returned to Russia.
However, 10+15’s ability to open up starting XIs with no more than a single Russian talisman would undoubtedly restrict the playing time on offer to players aiming to break through into the likes of Zenit, Spartak and CSKA, in addition to the clubs further down the ladder who are more dependent on homegrown players. Zenit, the Moscow club,s and to a lesser extent sides such as Rubin and Kuban, could feasibly choose to field a side containing 10 legionnaires, leaving just one domestic player on the pitch. Whether managers would elect to do so – particularly in CSKA’s case, where the defence is unmistakably Russian – is another matter, but the squad-building options is presents are much broader to the top clubs.
Whatever the pros and cons, it was approved by those in the corridors of power and accordingly signed off. The plan was to introduce 10+15 at the beginning of next season, the latest in a series of haphazard measures to improve the quality of the national team before Russia hosts the World Cup in 2018. With infrastructural concerns, a lack of movement on many of the stadia and the weakness of the rouble seeing budgets spiral out of control, the RFU is determined to at least put up a good showing on the field as host nation.
But in the latest episode, sports minister Vitali Mutko has revealed that the changes will not be implemented as first planned, with changes instead to be revealed at some point during February when a bill is passed through the State Duma covering the position of foreigners in all Russian sports. The new bill would overrule any RFU decision, and comes after Igor Ananskikh, the head of the government’s Committee for Physical Culture and Sport, criticised 10+15 as being detrimental to Russian football as a whole, instead working for select clubs – a criticism shared by many fans of teams looking in on the title challengers.
Details on the new conditions are yet to be revealed, although the proposed legislation is expected to contain strict criteria regarding the age, training and length of stay in Russia, according to official state news agency TASS. In the same release, football was criticised by Mutko for making long-term decisions hastily and ‘without consultation,’ suggesting something somewhat removed from the RFU’s proposals could be forced upon them by the Duma.
Such a sudden change of policy has served only to anger some of the clubs Ananskikh is referring to as gleaning extra benefits from the changes, who argue they have already begun preparing for life under 10+15, and will have insufficient time to make the appropriate transfers – the Russian winter window runs throughout February – to rebalance their squads without knowing the exact details. A counter-argument would follow that clubs still have the summer to make the necessary changes, but it is easy to sympathise with the clubs who believed they were getting one step ahead of the new rules.
With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules also guaranteed to have some effect on the clubs at the top of the Russian game – Zenit were penalised in the most recent round of sanctions, while Rostov and Krasnodar have also been investigated – due to the weakness of the rouble, it is unclear what the ideal regulation is for the good of both the elite teams in Europe and those scrapping for survival. It is not known whether changes would also affect the second tier – currently three foreigners are permitted – and whether age limits will be featured, which could mean clubs are forced to dispose of established stars or young prospects. Furthermore, clubs in the hunt for promotion from the second tier will be uncertain of where to place their recruiting priorities for the coming season until much later in the campaign – although they should still have time to change their plans.
Whatever the outcome, and however convoluted the process, the trouble caused by the Russian authorities’ inability to stick with a policy is indicative of a lack of direction in the Russian game. As financial woes blight teams even in the top flight, the gap widens between the haves and have-nots, and even the elite clubs struggle to match Europe’s finest despite inflated budgets, it is clear that the issue of how to move the game forward – from the top clubs through to grassroots – is something which continues to elude everyone in the country from legislators to players. Already it is too late for anything new to have a real impact in time for 2018, but beyond the all-important World Cup, nobody truly knows what sort of position the Russian game will be in into the future.