My son likes to think that he’s blessed. He gets to celebrate Christmas Irish style, then New Year Russian style. And a week later he has Russian Christmas and another week on and it’s Russian New Year (old school).
So I’m taking this chance to start my New Year Resolution list over, I still have time. The elephant in the room is not doping or the World Cup, nor Vitaly Mutko’s Facebook status change from “In a Relationship” to “It’s Complicated”. The elephant is white and shiny new but soon to turn grey, decrepit and fall into disrepair. Before Russia line up against Saudi Arabia in six months,the World Cup legacy really needs to be addressed.
So before the old Russian New year chimes in, I’ve written a list of New Year’s resolutions I’ll bring up next time I’m in the ‘House of Football’ in Taganka.
Resolution number one
Since returning to Moscow on January 3rd Mariah Carey has wanted me for Christmas about 50,000 times. Vitali Mutko just wanted to save face by fighting his Olympic ban. His six month sabbatical from the Russian Football Union (RFU) was conveniently timed to come before he was removed from the FIFA World Cup Local Organizing Committee (LOC).
Again this is handy to ensure that there will be a chance of less Russia-related negativity in foreign media.
So Mutko leaving temporarily from the main stage doesn’t mean he isn’t in the wings directing, he is. However, that’s not the problem.
The problem is the appalling PR, which leads me to my first New Year’s resolution – Get quality local media specialists into the RFU.
Get capable people throughout Russian sports media (regular media is already doomed) who can speak decent English, have good connections with foreign media and will actually understand what is being written and spoken about Russian football (even in Russian).
I don’t mean installing loudmouthed attention seekers who will run from responsibility when given the chance to make good on their insane warblings. Actual, well-trained professionals who are managed correctly and supported from above and below.
There are such people currently working in Russian sports, some even writing/commenting on Russian football, but they are the outsiders. The ones without a voice as they lose out to incompetent insiders or loudmouth attention seekers.
Shout loudly and foreign media latch onto you, especially if you talk negatively about the country more than 50% of the time.
Pretend to have solutions, or steal them from other sources, and you’ll get noticed, but such twits never help drive positive change. Incompetent insiders got to where they are through whatever means at their disposal (personal relationships with bosses or celebs, connected relatives, bribery, etc) and they have zero loyalty. Sideline them.
Quickly gather in a corps of quality, qualified Duracell bunnies who will write, speak and present in a way that will win hearts and minds.
Get ahead of stories and be intelligent, this requires management and there are massively talented individuals (even within the RFU) so get New Year’s Resolution #1 done and Vitaly can fight his good fight and there will be no need to overspend on overpriced and ineffective foreign media consultants or crap local ones.
Resolution number two
As the stories mounted towards the year’s end, foreign media were desperate for stories to scare fans from visiting the World Cup.
The most disgusting of which came in mid-December and was run across British media without any connection to truth or fact. Even the headlines were fallacious.
Apparently, the fan ban laws, introduced by Vladimir Putin in April last year, were a shambles and Russian idiots would be free to inflict ‘extreme violence’ on visitors, i.e. boozed up English fans. It originated from The Sun.
It was a made up tale (as described here), but why blame click baiters who promote fear and hate to sell adverts and stay relevant. The blame lies solely with Russian football and news media.
Russian football has a raft of unsold good news stories which the clumsy and undereducated news media here ignore. Not just the domestic news organisations, but the growing behemoth that is RT.
Within their ranks, they have some fine and finely tuned, sports minds, yet desperately avoid doing something that will tell the true sporting story of Russia. Instead, it’s left to foreign media outlets to be guided to it by those involved.
Instead of building up a powerful good news block of material for Russian football, the Russian news media avoid the legwork and hassle.
They react to foreign media attacks with the same tired old rhetoric rather than – “Look at what FIFA World Cup funds are doing to help the lives of…..”. Some within the industry blame producers and editors who passionately hate sports, especially football.
Others blame the lack of decision-makers, and there are a few who simply state that there are very few quality Producers or Editors in the news media who actually spot stories.
It could be a mix of all three, but there is a definite deficit of good news sports stories – in English or German, or even Russian.
So New Year Resolution number Two, the RFU needs to get hold of Russian news media (who like them are owned by the Russian Government) and say “Look at all these good news stories, let’s cover them”.
At worst they’ll need to do it themselves or contract it to local freelancers. Therein lies a small problem, the RFU are financially bucked. Money might not be a problem if they really set their minds to it.
Mini packages to be farmed out to RT, Sputnik, NTV and so on, even to content-hungry foreign media, would go a long way to making the next six months easier as well as creating a positive example for Russian football. And giving a chance to energetic local filmmakers and journalists.
Resolution number three
I had a list of ten, but for handiness sake, I boiled it down to three. The first two were media-related, as I work part of my time in the media so I can comment without being too far off the mark. The older I’ve got, the more restricted I’ve become in what I comment on in public.
At home or with friends I’ll join in discussions on everything from marriage equality to the continued Middle East meltdown. It may have been the folly of youth, to think I had to comment or needed to be heard, or simply thinking I’d something to say, but age has given me pause for thought.
As in, I keep my mouth shut until I know enough about something to offer coherent opinion and a possible solution. All the while being ready to listen and take on board another’s better solution.
But there are times when, damn me, I am stubborn and need to stick to my guns. And on this last one, having discussed it with football insiders here – with club officials, with RFU folk, with journos and bloggers, fans and footballers, even some coaches and coaching staff – I still go full on with proposal from April 2017, that the Russian leagues, including Premier, need to be reduced to ten teams and realigned.
I’ve been to dozens of professional matches in Russia this season, from Premier to Division 2. I’ve worked behind the scenes in nine clubs, again from Premier down. I saw chaos in one that involved a person breakdown in a flood of tears trying to recover payment from a company who’d used the stadium for a series of corporate matches.
His fear was that he’d be fired for failing to collect the $17,000 owed on a contract.
In another, a top club official was on the street with a loudhailer trying to entice casual fans through the gates. And in a Premier club, I sat with a vice0president who explained to me why his club was not making payroll.
He opened the accounts and in their previous game (an 8,000+ affair) they took in less than $8000. The reason stunned me and I promised to wait until the season’s end to write the tale.
Russia has neither the talent pool nor the domestic financial support to make the current structure work. There is no cash coming into the game from sales of locals abroad (or foreigners abroad).
There is precious little coming from media rights or through the gates. Strip away government and companies funded by government (federal, regional and local) and the trickle becomes a drop. Professional sports cannot survive on a drop.
The solution? A maximum of fifty professional clubs and all below this, amateur. Allow Russian football to grow organically and you’ll see general movement and improvement in the game.
We know many of those controlling the league structures right now have interests in player agency. This is not going to suit them and their friends in the media will be told to go on the attack. However, better to have 50 clubs paying players and build the game.
White elephants in the room
This relates to the white elephants of stadia in Volgograd, Saransk, Rostov, Sochi, Kaliningrad and possibly Ekaterinburg. Places that will struggle once the carnival ends.
Saransk can become a solid team who pop up, under my proposed structure, from second to the first tier and go on the occasional wander into Europe.
Sochi can even have a team that will attract 5-6,000 fans. Fans are there, they just need a reason to come. Kaliningrad can be competitive and get some top flight football on the go. Ekaterinburg could actually get into Europe every third year.
The money would follow interest into Russian football and in five years the top flight would go to twelve teams, in ten years 16 sides could have enough cash to compete. Until then, realism needs to rule.
While local football disappeared I had KHL hockey to cover. But soon I’ll consider throwing my list onto the tables of a few movers and shakers. My personal New Year Resolution list might well be my ticket home.