The winter seemed to last forever in Russia this year. Even as late as a week ago we had heavy snow in Moscow, the last scream of the frosty banshee who’d claimed 3 clubs after the November break in play. Former top flight USSR side, and cup finalists, SKA Rostov-na-Don voluntarily pulled out of the Second Division (third tier).
With debts in excess of half a million dollars, mostly owed to players and staff, the Army club had struggled all season and as early as September there was a rumour that they were gone. Magnit Zheleznogorsk in the Kursk region (playing in the Third Division) pulled out when the owner realised he didn’t have the funds to complete the season, despite the side sitting fifth in the league. However these were regular clubs without development plans in place, without large funding and typical of Russian clubs in that they struggled from year to year.
It is cruel to say that nobody will miss these sides, apart from fans and gamblers, though out on the Volga a serious loss occurred that is symptomatic of not only Russia, but football in general. Some articles back I mentioned the project that was the Konopylov Academy. Founded by a multi-millionaire who died before his educated and considered vision produced its first real talent, the Togliatti-based operation was a breath of fresh air in a country where players stumble into top level professional football by accident rather than design. Backboned by Dutch coaches the academy was very simple. It would scout and invite young talents (local and national) to train at their base and school with the promise of world class coaching, development and opportunities for advancement. Founded in 1991 they enjoyed three years in the late-90’s in the First Division (second tier) and while dropping back from the promotion hunt this season, they were still performing well in Division 2 Ural-Volga.
Having produced Premier level players like Igor Gorbatenko (Spartak Moscow), Dmitri Ryzhov (ex-CSKA and now promoted back to the top flight with Ural Ekaterinaburg) and Anton Vlasov (also ex-CSKA), the Academy is best known Internationally for being the birthplace of Alan Dzagoev’s career, probably one of the most complete Russian players in decades. Players were schooled in football and life, given language lessons and shown what and how to eat. From the youngest age groups players would develop through the ranks until they were ready to play for the first team or reserves, who played in Divisions Two and Three respectively. Rather than being thrown to the wolves, players had a chance to play the same style and tactics the whole way from age 8 to 18 and beyond. It was far ahead of its time and came to a crashing end this year.
Roman Abramovich’s National Football Academy had footed the bill since the death of Konopylov and he used the footballing products for his other club, CSKA Moscow, as a part return on his investment. Having originally played their Senior sides out of Dimitrovgrad (in Ulyanovsk Oblast/Region), for the last five years the club played in Togliatti as FC Akademia. Gradual progression saw the first team match the best regional powerhouses had to offer, yet a failure to re-invest profits in the playing staff was always going to block a return to the second tier. It was on this point that Abramovich pulled his funding and once the local government reneged on their promise to pick up the slack, the club had no option but to pull out and the future of the academy itself is very much in doubt.
As I’d previously elaborated on, player development in Russia is, at very best, hit and miss. In Togliatti there was a blueprint of how it could be done, yet flaws within their system were also apparent. Recent graduates were not of sufficient quality to warrant notice, while the unwillingness to have a headline first team showed how short-sighted the administrators were. While the hope is that the Academy will survive this crisis and find its feet once more, there is no reason why other clubs couldn’t do the same, with far less wastage of resources and investment. While the big boys build World class facilities to keep up with Barcelona and Manchester United, the failure rate of young players coming through remains higher than any other country in Europe.
That no Russian Academy ranked in the top-30 on the recent list of academy graduates playing at the top level is a damning indictment of the almost non-existent player development structure in Russian football. While the Russian FA speaks loudly about building the sport and being at the business end of 2018’s World Cup, their actions are more muted.