The end of Russia’s latest migration west

by Domm Norris

BulykinExporting footballers is an extremely delicate issue for nations who have a limited history in the trade. For some, it is believed that the mass migration of footballers to Europe’s major footballing nations is a symbol of weakness – something that will be detrimental to the stature of the game within their own nation.

The present state of the South American game – which has been struck heavily by the uncompromising power of Europe – remains a justification for such thinking. For others, however, the lack of player movement to foreign pastures comes from the depths of history. The isolationist stance of Russian football, for example, stems from the game’s history within the Soviet Union – and how the political and social policies have entrenched themselves inside the sport.

Over the past several years Russia has witnessed a small percentage of players attempting to break down the obstacles that have for too long prevented the nation’s top talent from reaching the pinnacle of the game. High profile talents such as Andrey Arshavin, Aleksandr Kershakov and Pavel Pogrebnyak have all recently attempted to forge a career away from their homeland with varying degrees of success.

During the 1990′s Russian football saw a stream of players leave their homeland to try their hand at the game abroad. It would be wrong to say that each and every player made a significant contribution to their respective clubs but the ratio of success to failure was far less heavily weighted towards the latter. The likes of Aleksandr Mostovoi, Valery Karpin and Dmitri Alenichev all managed to prosper in foreign climes and promoted the Russian game to a far more significant audience. The movement abroad can be said to have played a significant role in the improved technicality of Russian players during the 1990′s – with Mostovoi in particular proving to be one of Europe’s most exciting playmakers. However the successes of the previously mentioned players has not been widely replicated towards the latter half of the last decade and this has proven to have had a knock on effect for others hoping to make a move abroad.

Aleksandr Kerzhakov is a prime example of an outstanding talent who failed to show himself in the best possible light during his short stint with Sevilla. Despite the initial signs looking promising with Juande Ramos providing Kerzhakov with ample opportunities to prove his worth to a team that went on to win the UEFA Cup. However upon Ramos’ departure as coach the Russian struggled to work his way into the mind of Manuel Jimenez who promptly allowed Kerzhakov to return to Russia with Dinamo Moscow. Kerzhakov’s problems ultimately stemmed from his lack of willingness to preserve in negative situations and as such he struggled to express his obvious goalscoring potential.

Kerzhakov’s plight, like that of countless other Russian players, are made more problematic by the issues of integrating into an entirely alien culture – both in a social and sporting sense. The vast distance between Russia and the western hub of European football means that huge cultural differences exist in a manner that many struggle to comprehend. The language barrier continues to be a huge stumbling block for those who have made moves to the likes of England and Spain as the lack of Germanic roots within the Russian tongue makes learning the language particularly troublesome. The barrier that exists without being able to understand the written or spoken word in your adopted nation has hugely dramatic consequences on how one manages to adapt to new surroundings.

However the social and political implications that have existed since the Soviet Union can also be blamed for Russian players struggling to impact upon football abroad. The Soviet Union could be described as being both an interventionist and isolationist – despite the obvious conflicts that come from placing the two phrases together. The USSR was particularly wary of the so called capitalist west and as such steered clear of conversing with such nations until their own security came under threat. At the same time the Soviet Union sought to spread their own ideals and political beliefs across the world in a manner that proved somewhat similar to the USA’s western expansion. The perception of ‘us against them’ that was instilled into the mindset of the Soviet public during military conflicts and more importantly the Cold War ultimately created a sense of tension between Russians and western Europe. It could be argued that such a mentality still exists today and has managed to seep through into the nation’s football.

The exploits of Russia during Euro 2008 may well have earned the likes of Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko and Zhirkov major moves to England but none of these talented individuals look set to remain abroad for much longer. The summer months could well see the representation of Russian football across Europe dwindle even further as failed moves look to be reversed. The one shining light remains Dmitri Bulykin – who had a fantastic season with Dutch surprise package ADO Den Haag – a player who remains very much on the periphery of the national team.

Should the prodigal sons return to their homeland then it would surely be seen as both a positive and negative situation. On the one hand being able to witness the quality of Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko yet again on Russian soil would vastly improve the overall standard of the football on show. However on the other it would also serve to be an expression of the lack of faith that western European clubs will show towards Russian talent in the future. The unruly, unpredictable manner of recent Russian transfers abroad may have left some clubs too heavily burned to risk such a move again. However for Russian football to continue to progress players need to find success not just at home but also on foreign football pitches.

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