During the current winter transfer window, one of the less heralded moves to be completed by a Russian footballer saw Alexander Prudnikov, soon to turn 26, leave Dinamo Moscow after just half a season, heading for pastures new with fellow Premier League side Amkar Perm. Thanks to a number of loan spells and an inability to cement himself as first choice striker at any of the clubs on his CV, Prudnikov can count Amkar as his 10th professional club.
Despite a match-winning debut for Spartak back in 2007, when he netted the winner in a top flight clash with Luch-Energia Vladivostok, Purdnikov went on to make just over 30 league appearances for the capital club, before being farmed out on unsuccessful spells with Terek, Sparta Prague, Tom and Anzhi and ultimately released. Two appearances for Kuban, three for Alania and then a regular spot on Rubin’s bench followed before Dinamo picked him up in the summer, but just a handful of appearances have once more led to the exit. In 101 appearances for his nine previous clubs, Prudnikov – who was once praised publicly by Frank Arnesen – then Chelsea’s sporting director – has just 10 goals to his name.
Yet despite his poor record in club football, his record on the international stage is exemplary. while never making an appearance for the senior national side, his resumé shows one goal in three appearances for Russia’s ‘B’ side, six in 16 for the under-21s, and a prolific seven in 10 at under-17 level. Indeed, such was his prowess as a younger man that he netted two of the crucial goals as Russia landed the 2006 U17 European Championship – the lone goal in the semi-final against Germany and the opener in a 2-2 final draw with the Czech Republic, before converting a penalty in the decisive shoot-out. At just 17 years old, Prudnikov had the world at his feet, yet at 25 Amkar present themselves as one final chance to establish himself as a Premier League player before being cast into the depths of Russia’s footballing pyramid.
Perhaps surprisingly, he would not be the first of that generation to disappear by the wayside. A look at the 18-man squad taken to the tournament in Luxembourg yields no household names even within Russia, with manager Igor Kolyvanov – now in charge of Premier League battlers Ufa – going on to the most promising career. Prudnikov aside, only three others – Torpedo midfielder Semyon Fomin, Kuban backup goalkeeper Evgeni Pomazan and Ural midfielder Alexander Sapeta – are currently plying their trade at the highest domestic level, and none have reached the senior national side. The ‘golden generation’ tag seems to have been some way wide of the mark.
Of course, a failure to identify and develop every young player is not something which Russia alone falls foul of, but considering some of the names to have emerged from the same 2006 tournament – Toni Kroos, Ron-Robert Zieler, Sven and Lars Bender and Marko Marin for the third-place Germans, Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel for Belgium, Ignacio Camacho, Bojan Krkic and Cesar Azpilicueta for the Spanish, Stevan Jovetic for the then-nation of Serbia and Montenegro, and even Miralem Pjanic starring for his once-adopted nation of Luxembourg – it seems unusual that not a single player from the Russian squad has been able to sustain a career in the Premier League.
For some, such as Zenit youth product Jan Bobrovsky, bad luck has played its part. His career had taken him to Lithuania and top flight club Zalgiris, before a cruciate ligament injury effectively ended his career during a trial elsewhere, at at the end of the 2012 season he retired from the game. Roman Savenkov, who was reserve goalkeeper behind Pomazan in 2006, graduated from the Konoplyov Academy in Togliatti, then played out three years for the associated Dimitrovgrad side before being let go. No club took a chance on the young shot-stopper, and he has not professionally since.
For the overwhelming majority, however, their abilities have simply been found lacking. Vadim Gagloev, captain of the victorious 2006 squad and a graduate of CSKA’s youth programme, has had one of the better careers of those in the squad, but a journeyman’s path from Moscow to Alania Vladikavkaz, Tyumen, FC Nizhny Novgorod and Mordovia, via two brief spells at Amkar, has seen him wind up at Yenisei Krasnoyarsk in the First Division. Since his professional debut in September 2006, he too has made just 100 league appearances for his various clubs.
The player with the most appearances to his name since the U17 tournament is defender Artem Samsonov, who has chalked up around 170 league games for clubs as prestigious as Dinamo Bryansk, Dinamo Barnaul and Khimik Dzerzhinsk after leaving Torpedo Moscow’s academy. His current employers are the Kazakh club Irtysh Pavlodar, and a return to the top of the Russian game seems unlikely. Other players to have reached a century of league games also ply their trades in the lower reaches of the football pyramid, including Evgeni Korotaev (Dnepr Smolensk), Igor Gorbatenko (Krylya Sovetov), Dmitri Ryzhov (Yenisei Krasnoyarsk) and Denis Shcherbak (Volga Ulyanovsk).
Yet even they have succeeded when compared to some of their team-mates from the class of ’06. Sergei Morozov and Alexander Marenich, defender and winger respectively, have both found their way to third tier Avangard Kursk with 80 and 44 league appearances to their name in almost a decade, while Lokomotiv’s representative in the 2006 squad, holding midfielder Roman Armirkhanov, is at his seventh club – little-known Yakutia Yakutsk – with just 45 games under his belt. Young CSKA midfielder Amir Kashiev counts Oktan Perm as club number hoping to build on his 42 league games, while Pavel Mochalin, despite having been picked up by top Latvian side Ventspils, had played fewer than 40 games before joining SKA-Energia Khabarovsk.
The fact that only Alexander Prudnikov still has a chance at making it in the Premier League despite his youthful prowess should perhaps serve as a warning sign to young players that success at an early age does not necessarily translate, in the manner of the aforementioned Toni Kroos, into a glittering career for both club and country. For every Kroos, Azpilicueta and Pjanic, there are several Mochalins, Kashievs and Savenkovs left with tales of past glories and laments of what might have been.
But the failures of the 2006 generation should also serve as a warning to the clubs developing those players that their talent should not be wasted. In 2006, the players came almost exclusively from the high-profile Moscow clubs and the Togliatti/Dimitrovgrad academy. Seven years later, Russia lifted the U17 title again, being crowned young kings of Europe once more. Again, the bulk of the squad can be found in the youth ranks of the big Moscow sides, with the remainder being brought through by the impressive academy at Chertanovo and one or two from Zenit. Again, it took a penalty shoot-out in the final – this time after a goalless draw with Italy – to claim the trophy. The parallels are clear, and in Dmitri Khomukha – a former CSKA hero from Turkmenistan – they have a promising young coach in the same vein as Kolyvanov.
And so, after Russia were drawn with Belarus, Montenegro and Cyprus in the first round of qualifying for the 2016 edition of the tournament, and with eyes on the country’s younger players to break through in time for the World Cup in 2018 and beyond, it is time for the likes of Anton Mitryushkin – the Spartak goalkeeper named player of the tournament for his penalty-saving heroics – ethnic Azeri midfielder Ramil Sheydaev and CSKA forward Alexander Makarov to prove that they can be more than a Prudnikov or a Gorbatenko, but to turn themselves into households names across Russia.
Some of the squad are further along the path than others – Mitryushkin and Sheydaev, along with Spartak’s Alexander Zuev and Zenit’s Alexei Gasilin and Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov, have already made their first-team bows for their club, with Sheydaev in particular singled out as one for the future by his manager. Others remain at Chertanovo, having signed professional terms with the Second Division club now attached to the successful academy. Others still, such as striker Maxim Mayrovich and full-back Denis Yakuba, were part of a deal which saw several of the Chertanovo stars move to Kuban shortly after the tournament. They, along with top-flight reserve players such as Dmitri Baranov (Lokomotiv), Alexander Makarov (CSKA) and Danila Buranov (Spartak) are having to remain content with reserve football for now, but are waiting for their chance to shine.
Whether the talent of the ‘golden generation of 2006′ has been wasted, or was simply never there to start with is another debate, but in retrospect it would perhaps be foolish to expect several members of the 2013 squad to take a starring role for their country in the years to come. That said, with clubs seemingly investing more heavily in youth, foreign player limits constantly making headlines, and the prestige of a home World Cup to come, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see, at the age of 21 or 22, one or two of the latest batch of bright young things to work their way into the reckoning for Russia’ squad in 2018. What we can hope to see, however, is at least a couple of the 2013 stars managing to better the continued mediocrity of the likes of Prudnikov. If Russia hopes to make any progress internationally, that much is necessary.