Who fears to speak of Russia 2018

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The removal of Don Fabio Capello and arrival of Leonid Slutsky was supposed to herald a new dawn, or at least, building for Russia 2018 and a first foray past the Group Stage.

With Russia-related scandals constantly emerging, more than a few are hoping the trend of sports event removal from Russia might keep going and FIFA cave to unending Anglo-American pressure.

Far better to be stripped than humiliated in front of furious home fans.

There is genuine fear that Russia 2018 could be more devastating for the country than another currency collapse. Have we hit rock bottom? How did we get here? And is it really as bad as all that?

FIFA ranking free fall

Eleven years ago Russia were 3rd in the World. Since FIFA began their rankings the country has an average ranking of 20th, however this tells only part of the story. There have been two drops before now, both occurred as ‘Golden Generations’ ended, though neither have been as severe and inopportune.

As the USSR broke up, Russia gathered the best footballers and built on an already solid base. Allowing players to move abroad meant they were improving their bank balances and abilities. Bringing it all together they peaked in the mid-90s, qualifying for the ’94 World Cup and ’96 European Championships respectively.

While the National teams were competitive, Russian clubs were in chaos and the youth development system was DOA at the dawn of the 21st Century.

The 2000’s saw the country recover domestically after financial collapse and only after Russian clubs began to invest in development did the National Team catch fire. The youth legacy of the Soviet Union delivered its final load.

The exciting, attacking football played by Guus Hiddink’s side in qualifying at the UEFA 2008 European Championship was the second high point.

Household names were made of Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Igor Akinfeev and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, though they never kicked on.

Russia had never been lower than 40th before last year’s 56th. Now 63rd, new depth is being plumbed and it might not be rock bottom yet.

Homebirds United – Where it went wrong

At the 2017 Confederations Cup Russia were the only team with a 100% home-based side. Now this was conflated by some less familiar with the situation to bolster the “Russian National Team doping” narrative.

However, a short read of material (in English) about Russian football and it’s obvious that Russian players prefer to be at home than having to struggle abroad.

I’ve addressed this many times and the current squad do have players capable of making a living abroad, though certainly not in any of the top tier divisions.

This fact is at odds with the situation twenty years ago and is a major factor in the nation’s fall from footballing grace before Russia 2018.

Yes there are many issues from poor youth development, corruption, poor player welfare and that’s only the start. Some of the same problems exist in Ireland, Northern Ireland and worse in Bosnia and Croatia.

Yet their national teams are 29th, 22nd, 30th and 15th respectively. Ireland had no home-based players in the last squad, Northern Ireland and Bosnia one apiece, Croatia had 4.

All nations had players from the top four leagues in Europe – Spain, Italy, Germany and England. Russia 2018 is less than a year away and barring a miracle, there will be no Russian player playing for a top flight club before the World Cup kicks off.

Ever decreasing pools of talent

The history of Russian squads at major Championships – I’ll begin in 1994, as the 1992 UEFA European Championship side was a hangover from the USSR and called the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’.

In any case, they finished bottom of their group, drawing with reigning champs Holland and 1990 World Cup winners Germany, before managing to lose 3-0 to Scotland.

At World Cup ’94, twelve of 22 plied their trade abroad (Portugal, Germany, England, Spain, France), including current head coach Stanislav Cherchesov then with Dynamo Dresden.

Worryingly, nine of the Russia-based players were with Spartak Moscow with only Dynamo Moscow’s Omari Tetradze the odd man out.

At the ’96 European Championships in England, again twelve of 22 were based outside of Russia (including current Moldova manager Igor Dobrovolski), with Italy and Austria added to the destinations. Cherchesov was in Austria with Tirol Innsbruck and Andrei Kanchelskis was doing the business with Everton.

Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow had three players each in the squad respectively; reigning Russian Champions Alania Vladikavkaz had Omari Tetradze and Igor Yanovskiy and Lokomotiv Moscow’s Sergei Ovchinnikov was number 22.

The Saipan-tainted 2002 World Cup saw a change in the balance of home/abroad-based players that has never recovered. Nine of 23 were based outside of Russia (Italy, Holland, France, Spain, Austria, Portugal).

Two players were selected from the shooting star club Uralan Elista. Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, was undergoing central development and spent big to bring in established stars Aleksandr Filimonov and Igor Chugainov.

The club has gone bust twice since and currently plays in the Amateur 3rd Division.

The 2004 Euro’s welcomed 20 home-based Russian players and just three abroad (England, Spain, Portugal). By 2008 side which stormed the Euro’s had just one of 23 abroad – Nurnberg’s Ivan Saenko.

From this squad Andrei Arshavin, Diniyar Bilyatedinov, Yuri Zhirkov and Roman Pavluchenko moved abroad in 2009 on the strength of the “Russian Buzz”.

While Pavel Pogrebnyak was pulled from the final squad, he too moved abroad and is seen as the only real success of the pack.

The drinking scandal surrounding the play-off loss to Slovenia in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup was rescued slightly as the team topped the qualifying group for the 2012 Euros.

Three of 23 were based abroad, Arshavin and Pogrebnyak in England and Marat Izmailov with Sporting in Portugal.

Fabio Capello guided the remnants of 2008 to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and did so with not a single foreign-based player.

Having successfully removed ‘Don Fabio’ and piggybacked on his qualifying start, current Hull City boss Leonid Slutsky halted the squad renewal and took 22 home-based players to the Euro’s in France 2016. Taking seven of his own CSKA players with him, he allowed six Zenit rivals, three Lokomotiv and Krasnodar stars, two from Spartak and Terek Grozny’s Oleg Ivanov.

Russia naturalised Lokomotiv’s stopper Guilherme Marinato along with Neustadter to freshen up the ranks. We know how it all ended last year.

Russia 2018 – Fear or Fortune

Despite lies to the contrary, no National team players will move to a major league. This agent driven nonsense from a month ago related to Aleksander Golovin’s mythical move abroad.

This silliness crops up regularly in Russian media and journalists – no different to their counterparts in Ireland and Britain – don’t bother checking. Doing an agent’s or club’s bidding means payback down the line, or a debt repaid.

So for Russia 2018 should home fans be fearful? Short answer, yes.

Of course the home team will do their best, but you cannot make chicken salad from chicken shit. The tools for the job are not their for Cherchesov, nor will they be for his replacement to qualify for the UEFA jamboree in 2020.

As for Qatar in 2022, there is nothing at present in the youth system that would leave 2018 as the low point in Russian National Team performances on the World stage.

While Russian players hide at home, the football system and culture continues to rot and many fear to speak of Russia 2018.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian based sports journalist and consultant, working with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports FM in Moscow, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and commentated at the FIFA World Cup 2018.

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