Many years ago I read an interesting piece by a feminist journalist in the Arab News newspaper. It was May 2002 with war raging in Afghanistan and calls growing for more blood to be shed in Iraq, she wrote an op-ed piece for a US publication which was syndicated in Saudi Arabia.
While the newspaper (at that time) could not be seen as a liberal voice, it often had interesting articles which often shed light on our seemingly insane world. The article was a tilt of the hat to Condoleezza Rice and her place in the war on terror.
The journalist drew a line between Condoleezza, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, and how gender was not a precursor to goodness, or badness. That a woman could be as corrupt, ruthless, heartless, deadly and dangerous as any man.
When Olga Smorodskaya arrived into Lokomotiv Moscow in 2010 there was a general groan from anyone with a grasp of either or both of the Russian banking scene or Russian football. While the placement of this 50-something to the head of a nationally supported club was being portrayed as a win for gender equality, the actual debate on her past and subsequent activities have been stifled.
Many of us who knew of her reputation figured it would be more of the same as she’d done in banks, but with a more profitable and less regulated industry. Five years on and the lack of examination of events in the club and amount of media spin spirals ever downwards.
Mimicking human emotion she told of shedding tears at the forced sale of Dame N’Doye to Hull City and this was repeated as gospel. She is, after all, a woman, so she can show emotion and it must be true. Then when the Artem Dzuba dance really kicked off she made a little leak to a reporter to say Lokomotiv were chasing him and close to a deal, which was rubbished as the player was only ever going join Zenit.
It was a clever strategy to keep things moving while her son-in-law and “agent”, Kirill Kotov tracked down a replacement striker. Kirill was a decent midfielder without much real ability and at just 32 heads up the club’s erratic scouting and hiring in the coveted role of “Sports Director”. Coveted because such positions, in the right hands, mean that every agent of the day will want to make sure you look at his player and any wealth manager looking to “optimise” will have you on speed dial.
Of course he has been greatly enriched in his position, which any good Russian mother-in-law would demand and be proud of.
And this weekend the latest addition to the Loko family is one of the “top 10 strikers in Europe”. As soon as I heard this I was excited. Since working on a project with the club I’d always kept a soft spot for them and from my first apartment in Moscow I could see the stadium from my kitchen window.
Washing the dishes, I’d look down towards the place where I’d head twice a week for meetings and believe that life was good. That was in 2008, when the club at least had some transparency. So I wondered, who was this super striker joining the Railwaymen?
Had the club swooped for Daniel Sturridge? Andy Carroll? Balotelli? Or maybe Diego Costa? Karim Benzema perhaps? I excitedly read the news report and looked at the face of the striker who was going to kick-start Loko’s season. He didn’t look familiar, the name neither. I couldn’t place it. Petar Skuletic, from Serbia.
I saw his current stats, good record with Partizan Belgrade but before that not much to speak about. I fired a mail to a Serbian coach I knew from Malta. Petar has yet to be capped for the senior national team, he said, he’s okay but scoring 14 league goals is nothing major as the league is weak.
And, he added, Partizan are making sure their opponents are looked after as more than half the players in the league are months behind in salary.
But surely Olga would not be telling us a story? Well, a holding company linked with her daughter appear to have facilitated the transactions, which is handy. The same one Kirill has used for a half-dozen other player moves.
Still, with one of the top ten strikers in Europe in the team, maybe to partner the most expensive Russian player ever sold to a foreign club, ex-Spurs hero* (*according to Olga in 2012 when he returned to the capital) Roman Pavlyuchenko, we can hope. It remains to be seen how he will get on with the weight of expectant Loko fans and such a major tag hanging from his neck. It could be money well wasted.
In an earlier article for BPF, I mentioned the arrival of my former colleague Slaven Bilic and a conversation I’d had with him before he accepted the position. He was unsure of whether or not he would have the backing of the club and I put him in touch with Yuri Semin. Semin had stories to tell and while I knew that at least 80% were close to the mark, Slaven didn’t quite take it on board.
The Croatian had met with Olga, who promised him great things, big budget, choice of players, a chance to focus on building a team and five years to build from the ground up. I told him that if he lasted a season, he’d be doing well. He signed anyway and right away it all went a bit pear-shaped when he decided to use his own agent to source and sign players.
Having had to justify his choice of tactics already to certain people on the Board of Directors, he then had to turn over all player choice to, yes, Clan Olga. Slaven complained that he was not only prevented from getting his targets (and I know a decent wedge), but also the expertise he needed in the coaching and training staff.
Apparently nutrition, recovery and modern medicine didn’t go down well in certain quarters. Once Slaven delievered an ultimatum over the teams he was allowed to choose, the tactics he was allowed to employ and the fine points in his contract regarding staff and player recruitment, he was immediately blackened in the media and shunted out the door.
Slaven knew what would happen (Semin and Krasnozhan had suffered the same), but so too did Leonid Kuchuk, the next man in, and he too was disgracefully blackened and forced out. Rent-a-coach survivor Miodrag Bozovic is now in the job and while he expressed his surprise at hearing of the sale of his best striker and not knowing who the new striker was, he is in a good position.
As decent a coach as he is, he does exactly what he is told by his employers, without question. This one fact is key for keeping gainful employment in Russia. However, should he raise his head, he will become the latest coach a) “selling matches”, b) “demanding money from transfers”, c) “not picking good teams” or d) all of the above.
It is a little comforting to know that it is not just men who can be so concerned with self-glorification, personal financial gain and always being right when at the helm of football clubs. The only difference is that they don’t have the sexism defence, or powerful political and media friends. It will be a long hard season in Cherkizova!
Interesting Update: Back Page Football was read in the corridors of power (and had an impact). Less than a week after the article “Where in the world?” (https://backpagefootball.com/world/90891/) appeared, the Russian Football Union acted and announced the June match with Austria would be in the Otkritie Arena in Moscow. No other fixtures have been organised yet. However this is a great example that those in power are taking notice. More on how this came about later!