Do they eat their young – Russian football’s youth apocalypse

You could have heard a pin drop when he slid in and the kid hit the floor. He was fine – kids bounce, usually. The parents all glared at me, I focused on Tim and didn’t smile, though I instantly regretted not searching ‘Liam Brady passes’. I admire Doctors who are in the unenviable position of telling a person that their career in sports is not going to happen. Telling a person that despite everything on the outside, an underdeveloped heart valve prevents them from getting a medical clearance cert. Was breaking hearts in the course description when they applied for Medicine in University?

Last week I was ahead of the game. Put the finishing touches to Racism Part 2, complete with rock solid quotes from a sit down interview with three African players from Premier League clubs, copper-fastened with a RFS official’s exasperation at his bosses lack of action. My articles for Championat were also done and I was to meet with my partner from the portal.  A full weekend beckoned of sport, childcare and enjoying decent Moscow weather.

The plan was to go see CSKA play Metallurg Friday night. Saturday I’d take Tim to his first organised football training, and his second on Sunday morning. After the Sunday training we’d even go to Spartak-Rostov with sponsor tickets. And mashed in there we’d visit the Retro-Automobile Museum which is his “most lovely museum in the world”. Life does not get better.

At 19:45 on Wednesday things went a little awry. To take part in football training Tim needed a medical cert, which included a visit to a cardiologist. She found a slight anomaly, investigated with an EKG and Ultrasound, the latter scaring him to tears as he heard his heart beating in full Dolby Digital. His panic reached back to memories of my Dad and his other Grandad being ill with heart complaints.

The Cardiologist sat us down at 20.45 and told me that she would only allow him to play ‘Amateur’ football, as she could not certify him to play ‘Professional’. I laughed and asked if she was for real; she most certainly was. Tim would be graded as an amateur until his heart valve became normal – he turns six next month. She did, however, give a wink, wink question of “are you sure he’s going to be amateur” – i.e if I wanted she’d sign the cert and let him become ‘professional’. Russia is like that.

I remembered why I insisted he join a program where kids learn basics, play for fun, without competition, are mixed and allowed to have the craic. A friend of mine wanted him at the trials in Loko two weeks ago, but I declined. That is correct, trials, for kids from 4 years of age! All major clubs do the same and the various football ‘schools’ pick up the leftovers.

The parents or guardians who are fortunate enough to be able to boast that their kids were “good enough” to pass the trials then have them at four sessions a week, usually with a match every two weeks. Sink this in, four years old, already in kindergarden, go football training 4 times per week, at least! In whose good is this being served and whose dreams are being played out through their kids?

Russian produces relatively competitive footballers at 15-18 years of age, who promptly flop and disappear, leaving a few decent skins and lots of detritus to inhabit the pro ranks. Survive the disaster that is youth football in Russia and you can get a decent pro contract, without the basics of sport, football and life. Of course if you are close with an Academy head, or willing/able to pay a few bribes, you can get your first pro contract despite possessing less ability or potential than peers. Should your parents be linked politically or simply buy a club then you can play Premier league and Internationally. However the decrepit system that churns out dross masquerading as professional footballers in Russia is based on this pointless, idiotic and counter-productive culture and youth football system.

I’ve attended youth training sessions across Russia, spoken with coaches, parents, players. I’ve worked in a professional capacity with young lads just out of academies and trying to sort them with clubs, or jobs and studies. In an older article I gave an overview to what happens here and it would frighten the life out of you. Which is why I refused to have Tim go for trials at Loko and 2 other schools in Moscow. I know, like and trust many coaches working in these clubs (and others), but I do not see the point in putting kids into a system designed to destroy them as athletes and people, especially beginning at four years old. A system designed to fail.

The one place that was doing a half decent job of developing intelligent, rounded and talented players, the Konopylov Academy in Togliatti, was shafted by under-performing big club outfits that saw their own outmoded and corrupt methods being shown up time and again. There are quality youth coaches in the country, though they are in the minority. The majority are men and women who land a role, pick an easy salary and vent their frustration on those in their charge.

My dream of Tim enjoying sport and getting involved in a team sport didn’t suffer too much once I was told that he was healthy and the problem would correct itself. For the wee man himself, he didn’t know he was an ‘amateur’ and approached Saturday afternoon’s induction into the global game with relish.

He’d asked my sister for my playing position, and, upon learning that his Dad, Grandad and Uncle played in defence, he became a defender too. At his request, over a pre-training snack, he wanted to see what Defenders do. ‘Good football defending’ on Youtube meant lots of sliding tackles and he arrived at the gym ready to go. The first inkling something was up was when he began practicing sliding tackles before the mini-game.

Afterwards in he changing room his sliding tackle was all he could talk about, much to the chagrin of the other parents. On Sunday when it came to the mini-game all other kids wanted to be on his team, I put that down to the winning personality inherited from his paternal Grandmother. He didn’t maim anyone, though he asked, “Why do all the parents and Mammy’s shout, are they not educated?”

It seems that even when you find a place where the coaches and system want kids to develop, the parents are still dead set on dragging them into a system where failure is the only option. The kids may all be classed as ‘amateur’, nobody seems to have told the Mammies and Daddies that.

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.

4 thoughts on “Do they eat their young – Russian football’s youth apocalypse

  1. I thought Russian youth football is now on the up? Regular good performances at the Under 19 Uefa Champions Leagues, 2013 Under 17 European Champions, 2015 Under 17 European Championship – 3rd Place, 2015 Under 19 European Championships – 2nd Place (With big wins against the likes of the Spanish, Germans, Belgium etc).

    Russia’s performance at youth level has not been this good since the fall of the USSR.

    I’m actually anticipating a rise in Russian football. Even the current ‘younger’ players look quite decent, Shatov, Kokorin, Dzagoev,Cheryshev (Tore up in the La Liga last season) etc.

    1. Jono, it appears to be so, though the system is still designed to fail. Younger players have surface quality but have not been given the tools to develop. In addition players at least 6 Russian under-23 players who are in RFPL squads right now are there purely on bribes or connections, it gets worse moving down the leagues. For a country with its history in the sport and depth of playing pool, it is producing very little at the senior ranks. Unfortunately youngsters do not need to challenge themselves to earn a decent living and the drop-off from 18-21 in talent is frightening.

      A massive overhaul needs to be made in the quality of coach education, transparency in the youth system and better child safety protocols. The sheer volume of abuse and mistreatment of young players needs to be faced up to here, not just in football.

  2. hello im french, so excuse me for my bad english but im passionate about russian football. Do you think, the academy of galitsky is the model that russian club must follow ? They have great achievement fastly.

  3. i have seen their u13 squad in the “mondial de plomelin” tournament near my home, they have beaten LYON and Anderlecht, two of the best academies in Europe!!

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