Russia’s international friendly against Lithuania on March 26th 2016 was, for the most part, a thoroughly unremarkable occasion. National team manager Leonid Slutsky handed debuts to a number of players in contention for his Euro 2016 squad as they ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against inferior opposition, with goals from Fedor Smolov, Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Glushakov more than enough to see off the Baltic visitors to Moscow.
And yet, for the Russian national team itself, the date of this unspectacular friendly encounter will go down in the history books. Even with a game against Euro 2016 hosts France to follow just days later, the significance of one particular moment, as the two teams entered the field of play for the second half, may be one that is far greater than was initially noticed. Replacing newly-signed Krasnodar goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk at the break for the hosts, the second goalkeeper of the night to make his debut for Leonid Slutsky’s side, was Lokomotiv Moscow shot-stopper Guilherme Marinato – more commonly known simply as Guilherme.
The 30-year-old goalkeeper had very little to do in the second 45 minutes, seeing a couple of Lithuanian shots wide and doing the bare minimum expected of a goalkeeper against lower-level opponents. He made no flying saves, no dramatic intervention to spur his team on to victory, no last-minute penalty area invasion for a last-minute equaliser. Instead, his time on the field was thoroughly ordinary. His very presence on it, however, broke something of a taboo for the Russian team.
While other nations have embraced it – from the high-profile cases such as Diego Costa swapping Brazil for Spain, Eduardo da Silva leading the line for Croatia, the controversy each time a Northern Irishman spurns his homeland to represent the Republic, or the much-maligned occasions a team such as Qatar takes to field with a handful of South Americans in their line-up – Russia had, until the arrival of Guilherme between the posts, never fielded a player whose original passport is of a country outside the former Soviet Union.
Part of the reason for this, it has to be said, is the relative difficulty involved in becoming a naturalised Russian. In order to gain citizenship, a person must reside in the country and be able to speak the language sufficiently well – although exceptions are made – and what’s more, depending on the country of origin they may be forced to give up their birth passport. There are a limited number of foreign footballers who have stayed for half a decade or more in Russia, and so the opportunities for naturalisation have been limited – even more so if those who have already represented their country of birth are ruled out.
However, the foreigner or ‘legionnaire’ as he is known in Russian sports, has always been viewed with an element of suspicion. Whenever the national team fails, the finger is inevitably pointed either at the excess of legionnaires or the lack of them – hence the long-running debate about how many foreign players a Premier League club should be able to sign. Anyone who has followed the English game will be familiar with the debate – too many overseas stars reduce opportunities for homegrown talent, yet a quota inflates fees, wages and encourages mediocrity. As in England, so too in Russia.
Now, however, Guilherme has broken the taboo, and the Loko goalkeeper is a worthy man for the task, if not a strange one. Having arrived in Moscow back in 2007, he has now played almost 200 games for the Railwayman and, for the majority of his spell in the capital, cemented his place as first-choice goalkeeper and one of the finest in the league. However, he is also 30 years old, and therefore older than both Igor Akinfeev (29) and Yuri Lodygin (25), as well as the man he replace,d 25-year-old Kritsyuk. He may have earned his first international cap by virtue of his longevity and consistency, but he is an unlikely candidate for the job long-term given the competition.
Perhaps what is more intriguing than the international future of the man snapped up from Atletico Paranaense as a 21-year-old is the identity of those who may follow in his footsteps. What will also add an element of interest to proceedings is the advantage to clubs of having their players represent the national team – in doing so, a ‘legionnaire’ becomes a homegrown players, thereby freeing up the chance to bring in another man from overseas. Of course, a player can claim nationality without representing Russia, but they are far more likely to do so with the promise of international football.
The two primary candidates are easy enough to spot. Very publically, sports minister Vitaly Mutko has spoken of ongoing conversations with two very different players – Schalke midfielder Roman Neustadter and CSKA Moscow’ Brazilian full-back Mario Fernandes. Neustadter, who has represented Germany in friendly matches, is an interesting case – born in Ukraine to a Kazakh international father and with fluent Russian – but he falls firmly into the ‘born in the USSR’ category, and so would not be a huge deviation from the norm.
Fernandes, on the other hand, is a sure sign of Leonid Slutsky’s influence on the national side. The man who signed Fernandes from Gremio in 2012, and who assented to his call-up for Brazil to play against Argentina in the undoubtedly competitive, yet not strictly ‘competitive’ Superclasico, is well aware of his subsequent lack of international action and his desire to feature. Settled in the Russian capital, with the language barrier evidently no longer a problem, and with citizenship available in 2017, Fernandes is already in talks with the Russian government over a passport. It would not be a surprise to see him fast-tracked into the squad.
Behind Fernandes are no fewer than three other Brazilians who, having spent a significant amount of time in the country already, perhaps have an eye on starring at the 2018 World Cup in their adopted home. At the front of the queue, something possibly evidenced by his winter transfer from Terek to Zenit, is midfielder Mauricio, who first arrived in Chechnya in 2010. An unusual squad signing if counted against the legionnaires quota, Mauricio would provide capable back-up at little cost if counted as Russian, and at 26 stands a reasonable chance of breaking into the national side if his development continues.
The remaining two men could both theoretically take citizenship tomorrow if the national side saw fit, although their chances of regular international football are perhaps smaller than those of Fernandes and Mauricio. Ari, Krasnodar’s number nine who has spent the last six years of his career at his current club and Spartak Moscow, is married to a Russian woman and has previously stated his willingness to appear for the Russian national team, but at 30 years of age and with the likes of Aleksandr Kokorin, Artem Dzyuba and Fedor Smolov vying for opportunities, he may find chances harder to come by.
The same is likely to be true of his club team-mate Joaozinho, whose flair and creativity could well be useful in a Russian team occasionally void of ideas in attack. At 27 he has time on his side, and has regularly been one of Krasnodar’s most consistent performers over the years. His challenge, before thinking too seriously about a call-up from Leonid Slutsky, is to re-establish himself in the Krasnodar side after missing half of last year with a leg fracture. Only then is international football a serious possibility.
If all the options stated were taken, Russian could line up with Guilherme in goal and Fernandes at right-back, Neustadter and Mauricio in central midfielder, Joaozinho on the left wing and Ari spearheading the attack. It is unlikely all six would take the field at one time, but it is easy to see why the naysayers fear. In reality, only Fernandes and possibly Neustadter would represent a significant upgrade in their position, yet the temptation to naturalise and freeze out Russian talent is obvious.
However, the very fact that Russia is now willing to consider and proceed with naturalised players is both a sign of the times and a sign that young Russian talent of international quality is rare indeed. With the World Cup in 2018 fast approaching, there is an obvious need to assemble a squad capable of competing on the global stage. The latest initiative, ironically, would see a more competitive Russia – only with fewer Russians competing.