Haves, have nots and haven’t a clues – Russian football on the brink

by Alan Moore

When the dust settled after the Russian FA Presidential election three things were crystal clear: a0 there was a general desire to level the playing field, b) build grass roots/youth football and c) ensure financial fair play for all, not just the oligarch or government backed clubs.  Ultimately the aim was to build for a good shot at 2018 and beyond.  While most Premier club headmen sulked from the election aftermath, the more enlightened ones (including Spartak’s Karpin) looked on it as an opportunity to bring sanity to Russian football.

Of course there’s always one eejit who has to go on a solo run to ruin the buzz of fraternity and progress – Zenit stunned the world by splashing out $84million on buying two players (agent fees and wages not included) and failed in attempts to get Nani from Manchester United, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo for $50million, Joao Moutinho (undisclosed), Igor Akinfeev ($10million) and Andrei Arshavin ($5million).  And these are the ones that were publicly acknowledged, other ‘net rumours are not worth the keyboards they’re typed on.  In any case, that a club could go all out in order to have a side capable of advancing to the knock out stages of the Champions League is a warning both at home and abroad.  And a marker laid down to the new RFS President, Nikolai Tolstykh.

Zenit are the main ‘haves’ in Russian football (with a wage and expense budget of $280million).  In the Soviet Union they were rescued from oblivion purely by being from the city where it all kicked off, the Lenin-led revolution that is.  One Soviet league and one Soviet cup were poor returns for the “Capital of the North”.  If it were a similar situation in Cork there would be uproar in the Rebel capital.  It wasn’t until the St. Petes boys consolidated power in the Kremlin, and had Gazprom buy the club in 2005, that Zenit had any sort of success worth mentioning.  From being supported by a solid company who made photo lens and fibre optic cables (Zenit), it now had 10% of Russian GDP and a company worth over $100billion to pick up the tab, and they haven’t looked back since.  A new stadium (with another on the way), three Premier League titles, a Russian Cup, 2 Russian Super Cups, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup is a fair return on the estimated $200million player and staff investment to that point.  When Sasha Dyukov told me a couple of weeks back that they wanted to become Russian giants and THE Russian team in Europe, I believed him.  He holds the controls at Gazprom-Neft and his friends in the Kremlin are not going to lose power anytime soon, so the accumulated wealth of what lies beneath Russian soil is theirs to play with.  They sit on the cusp of the top-30 clubs in Europe but their shocking capitulation against crisis club Malaga in Spain this past week could well point to a tougher journey to a place at the top table.  Their loss at home to Terek (the club of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov) has them fourth in the table, three points off top spot, though with a less challenging match in Samara this weekend, they should get back on track.

Before departing the topic of Zenit, there is a  belief that the grooming of Spalletti to take over from Capello after the next World Cup could be no more, as the pre-ordained succession of RFS Presidents (from Mutko to Fursenko) and central control over Russian football has now been altered for the foreseeable future.  Club officials have grown tired of internal battles between the Italian, his compatriots and the dubious Dietmar Beiersdorfer.  Not to mention the dissent between the relics of previous Dutch regime live on with salaries still being paid to certain people who were let go up to two years ago.  The youth section is where Zenit have tried to make a difference and two fine young midfielders have been burning a path in the reserve league.  Lithuanian Verbickas and local boy Yevseyev are now on the fringes of the first team, though it is widely held that both will go out on loan to Russian clubs in the Spring.  With the Dutch and Czechs are still running the underage section there is a little hope that the big money spent on finished products might be replaced with local talent over the course of the next decade.  This could be the only way to save the club as the dependance on GAZPROM is so great that if the company were to suffer another drop in value (it’s now trading at a third of its level from 2008) then practical cuts will need to be taken.  The vanity project of the GAZPROM Tower in St. Petersburg could be a gravestone to the maladministration of an energy giant.

Meanwhile poor Mordovia Saransk just got tonked 6-1 by FC Krasnodar, not surprising given the rising financial crisis surrounding the club from the home of race walking.  While Saransk is keen to promote itself as a Russian Sports Capital, the football club are finding life in the Premier League very tough.  Of the four clubs from the powerful Volga region, only Rubin make the top half of the table (in eighth) while FK Volga Nizhny Novgorod and Mordovia lie 14th and 15th respectively.  A certain amount of joy is being taken in FK Volga’s misfortune, given their behaviour in the off-season regarding the former FK Nizhny Novgorod, though Mordovia are pitied as much as they are liked and respected for their practicality and efforts in building from the grassroots.  In the Division below Shinnik Yaroslavl survived to start the year though will face a problem over the winter after Regional Governor, Yastrebov, told the club they need to tighten their belts following pay-offs to agents.  Tom Tomsk (relegated last year from the top flight) face a player’s strike ahead of their Russian Cup match with CSKA Moscow this coming week.  This despite promises made by the local government to fund the club sufficiently to the end of the season.  It’s a shame as the club from the University dominated city are currently top of the FNL (1st Division) and with a good fanbase could become a lower mid-table giantkiller in the Premier, if the egos that be realised the limit of the club.  2 other FNL clubs will hold crisis talks with stakeholders this week as the Russian economy tightens in anticipation of a fresh crisis in 6-15months time.  The FNL Have nots are finding that life in the “Graveyard” is not worth the debts they ran up to get there.  The football agents and other sharks have seized upon misplaced expectations and delusions of grandeur to leave some very, very unhealthy clubs floundering as the pack ice of the Russian winter looms.

 

Have nots are the vast majority of clubs in Russian football.  The aspirations of the more ambitious amongst this group too often ends in financial ruin when the local sponsor realises that agents fees alone wipe out income from TV, prizemoney, gate and merchandising combined (as Tom shamefully announced last Summer).  At the recent Presidential election for the Russian FA (RFS) the elected leader Tolstykh stated that one of his first duties was to lobby FIFA for a change in rules regarding payments to agents and on amounts they could charge footballers.  He gave specific case examples in a recent meet and greet, confirming that he would tackle this issue so as to prevent further cases of clubs being pushed to the brink by overspending.  His sentiments were not overly well received by some, especially player agents who run or coach clubs and the youth coaches who prostitute players to them.  The Have nots receive nothing as their youth section/schools sell off youngsters for a pittance before these players reach 16 in a replication of the schoolboy-LOI situation in Ireland.  This February we found a clear and damning example of this.  It turned the Have nots into the Haven’t a clues.

A prominent Irish coach came to look over some youngsters coming through the ranks and to deliver some training/development advice to coaches and administrators.  During this time he looked through the club structure and found that the professional team and it’s reserves were not receiving anywhere near the best players possible.  The youth section of the club consists of a number of “schools” spread around the city (which is split by a major river).  While each school is nominally under control of the professional club, they operate as personal fiefdoms against the one club ethos.  A talented youngster from a “school” is sold to a bigger club (last example being the sale of a 15 year old to Rubin Kazan) as the school wants to grab money rather than lose him to the Senior teams.  when the youth section/schools genuinely believe that they are “losing” players to the senior section of their own club, you know something is amiss.  All the same, the desire to create a homogeneous club is there, the financial and political muscle are available, though a silent quid pro quot operates to avoid deeper fractures within the sporting family.  Far better to turn a blind eye and allow schools profit in the short term than by erupting a civil war in a club that is still finding it’s way in the World.  If Irish readers find direct parallels between this and schoolboy-LOI football in Ireland, they are not far from the mark.  As part of our consulting brief, as a company we suggested centralised contracts from the youngest age group and a clear delineation of fund dispersal should the player be sold on, or for bonuses paid to the school for player development (for example).  The heads of the club readily agreed, the schools basically agreed, everyone agreed.  And nothing was done.

The ‘haven’t a clues’ are not limited to lower down the food chain.  With their first team bottom of the Premier under another new coach, ex-Romania, Steaua and Chelsea star Dan Petrescu, Dinamo Moscow decreed they were upping the battle to beat Spartak as a World Cup 2018 host by unveiling their $1.5billion Manica designed stadium.  While it looks like VTB will be left holding the bill for this, the wisdom of trying to overbuild at a time of deepening financial gloom asks the question of whether there is room for sanity amongst the ego-driven vanity projects.  Petrescu is better known in Russia as “Mulder” (just Yahoo up images of him and David Duchovny for the reason) and he might need some X-Files tactics to keep his team in the top division should those running Dinamo continue with their zany ways.  Instead of competing on the field, Spartak and Dinamo are in a race to finish building their stadium first.

The race to host matches in 2018 is leading to something that few other countries would allow.  From the initial 16 host cities Podolsk (whose club had to drop out of the 1st Division in 2009 due to financial difficulties) were told by the Moscow Oblast (Region) that they would not finance their madness.  It was a shock they were there in the first place and the common consensus was that they were a makeweight to begin with.  The race, yes, race, between Spartak and Dinamo to have their stadium built first is down to the RFS having told both clubs that the winner would host matches.  This was under the previous non-governance of Fursenko.  Thankfully business and common sense are back in play.  In his election build up Tolstykh said this race was nothing short of madness and pointed to the disastrous “Arms Race”, though who is the USA and USSR remains to be seen.  FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and Sports Minister Vitali Mutko will announce the final host cities this coming Saturday (29/09), at 9.20pm local time on live TV.  Frantic pleadings will continue until Wednesday, though the magnanimity of Spartak’s Karpin after the election will hold his club in good stead.

However while one of the Moscow clubs will lose out, two regional cities will no longer host matches.  While the old final figure of 14 in 13 cities was somewhat reasonable, the revised figure of 12 stadia in 11 cities is far more sensible, even if the distribution of locations still raises questions.  In the final figure Moscow will have two (including the revamped Luzhniki) and one stadium each in St. Petersburg (the to be built 70,000 seater GAZPROM Arena), Kaliningrad (tbb), Yaroslavl (upgraded, again), Kazan (tbb), Nizhny Novgorod (tbb), Samara (tbb), Volgograd (upgraded), Krasnodar (tbb), Sochi (tbb), Rostov (tbb), Yekaterinaburg (upgraded) and Saransk (tbb).  It is expected that one of Nizhny Novgorod and Saransk will lose out (probably Saransk), while one of the southern cities – Volgograd, Krasnodar, Sochi and Rostov will go (most likely the 2014 Winter Olympic venue Sochi).  The symbolism of Germany playing in Volgograd would be quite interesting and Krasnodar has the political and financial clout, and two Premier teams, to copperfasten their case.

The ‘haven’t a clues’ have been lobbying hard and trying to put their clubs as high as possible in advance of the decision.  Rostov invested heavily in players (including paying over the odds to bring in England’s David Bentley), both Krasnodar clubs made a pact to make sure their city is chosen as a venue but seem to politically be lacking in influence.  The increased investment in players over the Summer has caused some commentators to question the wisdom of allowing unchecked wages and transfer fees to shatter the fragile football economy here.  It’s not just down to the right to host a match or two in the World Cup though, it is a deeper cultural characteristic that is a constant bugbear.

Russia is a country driven by following the current fashion.  This herd mentality is gold in all senses for retailers in all sectors.  One clever multi-millionaire dairy executive’s decision to let on that his 15 year old daughter was an amazing designer almost came a cropper when the first clothes were shown off at a cheap and cheerful catwalk in a Moscow supermarket.  Fearful of losing his own shirt, Sergei Plastinin was told of what would make it work in Russia.   A few months later when tills weren’t exactly ringing, he flew in the odious Paris Hilton (at the cost of more than $1.5million) to hang some threads on her bones and visit his daughter’s ailing central Moscow store.  Suddenly the “best friend” line was spun and the horrific looking clothes (which have flopped in the USA and Europe) took off, with 120 shops operating across Russia and Asia.  While she studies in Texas now, the herd of young teen girls continue buying off the peg.  Football is the same.  For a while it was Brazilian tactics, Dutch coaches, German Technical Directors or African footballers.  Few clubs have stepped out of line and once they leave the comfort of the 2nd Division, pressure comes on to be like the big boys.  While Russian female tennis players fight over unskilled and hopeless handsome coaches to “look good” in the VIP area, Russian football clubs fight over vanity projects and are picked off by snake oil salesmen from home and abroad.  It doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

What the elite do, the serfs do also.  When Zenit, Spartak and the very few other Haves in Russian football go all out to buy success, the Have nots will ape this and if a local government can be convinced, mayhem ensues.  The Haven’t a clues lose out to the Haves and sharks by changing their plans on annual or bi-annual basis.  With the talent available to them Dinamo Moscow should not be propping up the table with a mere three points from 24.  They have the fanbase and finance to be a ‘have’, though six head coaches since 2010 doesn’t promote confidence.  A club born from the old KGB and taken over by owners of questionable ethics and behaviour, could be getting a belt of karma.  Meanwhile down in the Caucasus Ramzan Kadyrov is rebuilding his club after trying to make it fashionable and through clever youth and transfer policies beginning to create a new force.  Down the road in Krasnodar Sergei Galitsky is doing his best with FC Krasnodar and has intelligently moved his club up the divisions and into a position to challenge for a European spot.  His neighbours in Dagestan (Anzhi) are set on buying success the old fashioned way and difficult as it may be to commit to memory, of the top flight Russian clubs, perhaps it’s Terek who might well be followed as a role model.  They seem to be the only Haves who Have a bit of a clue.

Update: 23/09/12 – Terek lost 3-0 at home to Lokomotiv in a match they could have won, that deserved to be 6-6.  While in Samara, Zenit could only manage a 2-2 draw with Kryliya Sovetov with their Russian captain Igor Denisov, dropped.  A dressing room bust/punch up saw the main man left out and a host of his team mates after the match also apparently dropped to the D/Reserve team. Internal disharmony over training and tactics has n=been heightened by disparity in wages.  Denisov via Twitter demanded an immediate wage increase to match Hulk.  Spalletti looks the likeliest loser!

 

Update: 28/09/2012 – In a manic week of football, Zenit struggled to beat Baltika Kaliningrad 2-1 in the Russian exclave in the Russian Cup and face strugglers Mordovia Saransk in the last-16.  Once back home Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller landed to splash the cash and lay down the law, at the same time as rumours (more hopeful than real) linked Igor Denisov with a move to England, thought today  he;s expected to be in the squad for the Lokomotiv match.  At the same time the “Zenit-84″ fund for players of the title winning side of 1984 took a swipe at the current Board for removing free match tickets and support for former players.  The blame, by former star striker Alexander Kanischev, has been placed on the shoulders of  Dyukov.  Meanwhile in Moscow, rumours swirl over the World Cup cities, Vedomosti newspaper reported that Yaroslavl and Krasnodar may be removed from the equation.  Saransk had previously been reported (with Yaroslavl) as missing out, though new “inside sources” talk of removing one of the more sensible locations in Krasnodar, as Sochi is a graveyard for football.  As with everything else in Russia (or other closely monitored countries) rumours too often take the place of truths and there could yet be another twist in the tale!

Update:  30/09/2012 – To general shock Sochi was named as one of the venues for World Cup 2018 at a Gala extravaganza last night.  While the shock was only beginning to wear off, Saransk was announced as a venue and most watchers were pleasantly surprised, feeling that the place deserves it for building it’s club from the base up.  The final list of venues are:  Kaliningrad, Sochi, Saransk, Ekaterinaburg, St. Petersburg, Rostov-na-Don, Volgograd, Samara, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Saransk and Moscow.  Yaroslavl missed out, which was not a surprise to most watching or in attendance.  However the one absentee was – Krasnodar.  A city steeped in sports, with 2 Premier teams, a region where business is flourishing and financial muscle is there to make any promise happen, was ignored as Sochi and Volgograd (and Rostov) needed to be put in.  While FIFA had initially claimed to behind the decisions, it fast became clear that Russian politics were to the fore.  That the World Cup was all about leaving a legacy, building for football’s future in Russia etc was shown to be less than truthful, now it could leave the Premier League without a club as the owner and financier of the FC Krasnodar project (and owner of the biggest supermarket chain in the world – 5,500 outlets and counting) reacted badly.  Having put his own money, energy and business practice into the club, he joined a majority of Russian football followers in disbelief.  Building a club correctly, from grassroots up and with sensible business plans, Galitsky has shown a new way for Russian football in a region where sport is intensely followed.  For all the good work done by him and city rivals Kuban, Krasnodar still misses out.  From a financial, social and footballing point of view, leaving out Krasnodar doesn’t add up.  Then again, combine FIFA with Russia and it’s worse than the English FA and Premier League!

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