Comeback King – The fall and rise of Russia head coach Valeri Karpin

I was transfixed by his blond mop when he shook his head. It reminded me of my son’s big curly head and I allowed myself to drift away from the miniature office block on the bank of the Moscow river. I disliked having to come to the place mainly because it was a pain to reach by foot. In winter it was particularly difficult as walking down from the Barrikadnaya metro station meant opening my backside up to one possible icy slip per trip.

Luckily I lessened the odds by going to the Spartak Moscow office two mornings a week. I’d begun working on a project with them in October, by November, I was ready to quit. I sat across from Valeri Karpin explaining why I was handing over my tasks to someone else. Fast forward nine years and he’s the Russian National Men’s’ team coach.

Shafted at Spartak

It was through Valeri that I once more ended up working on a project with Spartak Moscow. The club were moving towards their then under construction stadium and desperate to right decades of mis-administration and a complete absence of commercial nous. He’d been a let down as manager of the side and was bumped upstairs to the post of General Director. He had, has, a good business brain and gave very straightforward tasks to those he managed.

Yet each Monday morning it was a nightmare to have to go to the office, so I didn’t. I went on Tuesdays. On Monday he’d spend an hour railing over how poor Unai Emery was as a coach and that he would never have chosen him, even though he was party to the appointment. More than once he stated that he would do better with the assembled squad.

On Friday 23rd of November he told a media officer to prepare a statement of Emery’s removal as coach before turning to the accountant and telling her to organise a pay off. It had already been cleared with club owner Leonid Fedun.

Unai Emery had been treated very badly up until this point by the club and was a dead man walking for a couple of weeks. Spartak Moscow fans masquerading as journalists were slaughtering him in the media and fed constant stories from within the club. When they lost that Sunday, he was humiliated by the club officials and sacked. A document was already faxed to the Russian Football Union announcing that Karpin would be taking over as “interim” coach.

I was in work that Monday morning, the 26th of November. I told Valeri to get someone else in, not to take over the head coach job. I knew, and told this to other colleagues, that he would end up being fired from Spartak by the man he thought he could trust as a placeholder, Roman Ashabadze. And I was proved 100% right. The translator turned official had wormed his way up in Russian football and gleefully got hold of the General Director role as soon as Karpin had to stick or twist. By that time I was well away from a club that was eating itself.

He was booted out as coach in March 2014 and blocked from returning to any type of Director role at the club. His “protege” made sure that he was completely removed and that his own position was unassailable, until he was of no further use to Fedun and co. There is a bonus in being stupid, that you don’t understand your limitations and Ashabadze proved this true. In time honoured Russian fashion he has managed to fail upwards, bringing down other clubs like Fakel Voronezh and now his media buddies are tipping him to move back to Moscow and Lokomotiv. But his friend, the man he shafted so nakedly, bounced back in spectacular fashion.

Russia’s Alan Partridge

Valeri Karpin was an impressive footballer, good businessman and Estonian in his wits. He wasn’t out of football for long when he took over at crisis club RCD Mallorca in August 2014, lasting a few months with a club that only two seasons later were in the 3rd tier of Spanish football.

A few months later he was managing another second tier side, this time Torpedo Armavir in Russia. The club were effectively a farm team for the collapsing Kuban Krasnodar and there seemed little reason for Karpin to be there except to get work. From going to White Hart Lane in December 2008 and leading his team to a battling 2-2 draw against Luka Modric’s Spurs, to seeing his side fall 1-0 to Luch-Energiya Vladivostok says a lot about the distance he travelled in six years. His career as a coach looked dead and buried.

Armavir were relegated and a get out clause in his contract meant he was a free man once again. Luckily the appallingly poor Match TV channel, the state-owned sports Television monopoly, were there to give him more talking head gigs and he was then appointed “editor in chief” of football in February 2017. It was to run through the FIFA World Cup the following year, however he despaired of the dross employed there and privately spoke about the need to tear up the football coverage and commentators in order to make it a “proper channel”. He was gone by July.

He bounced back in football with FC Rostov, the team who almost did a Leicester but were caught under the wheels of Zenit’s juggernaut. Rostov were and still are a proper crisis club. When he took over the players were already months without salary and he set about remedying this. With only two wins in 14 matches from the middle of August to the December Winter break, they were a relegation bound mess.

In April 2018 he came to town to try slow Lokomotiv’s charge to the title. I got a few words with him after the match, which they lost 1-0 and dropped into the relegation zone. He simply said – “We now need beat the teams below us and build for next season.” They did, winning three and losing one of their last 5 games.

The next season he led the team to a Cup semi-final (losing to eventual winners Loko) and 9th in the league. The side played attritional football, eventually ending up with a +2 goal difference thanks to a high work ethic. As in the previous season they began well, up in the European places, until wages went unpaid and motivation dropped. But they were becoming better, taking the scalps of Spartak and Zenit in the Spring season.

He bounced back higher in 2019-20 until COVID-19 struck. Wages were on time until the Winter break and Rostov were in 3rd place. They’d beaten Spartak, CSKA and Lokomotiv away and Dynamo at home. They were playing a freer, more interesting type of football. One Karpin himself would have enjoyed. After Winter they beat CSKA, lost to Spartak and then football stopped. Many in Rostov wished the break lasted longer. In June, their first game back, they fielded a teenage side due to a Covid outbreak. They lost 10-1 to Sochi. They won just once more, with four draws and two losses, finishing in a Europa League spot. Karpin had bounced back and was ready for his next move.

Last call for Karpin

I’ve been told how it happens. You’re single, ready to mingle and you spend all night trying to make the acquaintance of someone. You’re a fair few beers in, starting on shorts and the barman says – “Last Orders”. There they are, sitting at the bar, equally as lost and desperate as you. You make eye contact, they nod, smile, raise their glass.

Next thing is you’re in a taxi racing through the city streets and trying to remember what their name is. Emerging from the alcohol haze a few hours later you look at the pillow next to yours, seeing a blond mop and again try to recall their name. Valeri, wasn’t it?

That appears to have been the case when Alexander Dyukov, President of the Russian FA, decided on hiring Valeri Karpin for the top job in the Russian game. Nobody else wanted the poison chalice when Stanislav Cherchesov was deemed surplus to requirements. Foreign coaches of any worth said no; Local coaches with ambition, said no. So the FC Rostov boss was allowed to stay with his club and take care of Russia’s final seven qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

He is once again in the same position he had at Spartak, sitting on 2 stools. He knows what to do but will be focus long eonugh to do it. When we met at teh Russian FA Presidential Election in 2012 he had grand plans for Spartak. He was responsible for getting me into them. But this time around? Come New Year’s Eve he will either be looking to focus on a World Cup build up, or be without a job. I have an awful feeling, it’ll be the latter.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian-based sports journalist, commentator, radio host & consultant. Worked with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports 3.0, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and FIFA World Cup commentator.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *