I’ve met the man four times since he arrived in Moscow in July. I’ve turned down interviews with him (clash of schedules) twice and had questions submitted to him refused once. We did manage to chat off the record, while on the record he told me of his views on Moscow and his plans to make Lokomotiv a super club.
Ralf Rangnick was brought in to revolutionise FC Lokomotiv Moscow ahead of a move to the Luzhniki Stadium. His bombast fizzled out with less than 5,000 fans watching Loko capitulate to a poor Akhmat Grozny at the RZD Arena last Saturday.
Long lost summer of hope
There were rumours going back to 2018 that Loko would move to the Luzhniki for big matches in the UEFA Champions League. The then-club CEO said it would never happen as he wanted to build an identity. Plus, there would never be a demand for 60,000 or more tickets, even in 2019 when Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus strolled into town.
Having rid Loko of the putrid Olga Smorodskaya and her sport director son-in-law, the club went up a gear in 2016. In came former Zenit commercial director Ilya Gerkus and he brought back fan legend Yuri Semin. To remove the smell of corruption and Semin’s sticky fingers from transfer dealings, he made a huge step in appointing former Schalke 04 man Erik Stoffelshaus the next year. The German made an immediate impact with low-to-no cost signings like Maciej Rybus, Jefferson Farfan and Eder, who fired Loko to a shock 2017-18 Russian Premier League win.
On and off the field the club were thriving, but worrying sounds came from Russian Railways (the club’s owner) and Yuri Semin. Semin was peeved that he was no longer the sole arbiter of who to buy and sell, even moreso when his friends in the south of Spain were out of the loop. Eventually, in mid-December 2018, eight months after winning the league, two of the men most responsible for the on and off field revolution in the east of Moscow were gone.
In the kitchen
Back in 2007 I had my first experience working on a project with Lokomotiv Moscow. Since then I’ve dealt with them in a media and professional sense every year since. There were personnel changes, ups and downs, but it always felt more homely than any other Moscow club. In 2016 I’d the depressing experience of seeing them play an almost dead rubber in front of 5,000 fans and the club actually setting the police on them.
When Ilya Gerkus came in, then Erik Stoffelshaus, I was a little skeptical, but gave them time. Changes were made, putting supporters first, bringing in really good professionals at every level of the club and proper plans into action. They were raking in more money than boastful Spartak and winning everywhere. But Semin was unhappy. While I was working on a Capital FM-Lokomotiv project, he avoided interviews because he had his go-to fanboys in the media to use, he made sure the only news was anti-Gerkus/Stoffelshaus. He lasted another year and a bit before he too was shafted by new forces moving within the club.
By this time, Loko had purged the club of the professional media and commercial staff, because high priced staff were no longer needed. I was still in the kitchen, as they say here, but almost out the back door. Despite a friendly facade, they were gradually withdrawing from the local community.
A plan was hatched to move Lokomotiv Moscow from the 20-year-old RZD Arena to the Luzhniki in 2020. Ostensibly to renovate the area and stadium, as there were some minor issues with the roof. However those involved saw dollar signs. Where Lokomotiv Moscow are located, in Cherkizovo, there are fine transport facilities and the entire area contains not only the main RZD Arena, but also the 10,000 all-seater Sapsan Arena, an indoor multisport centre and ice rink. A full size field within an air dome, a park, academy housing, a multi-story car park, tennis courts and a number of outdoor training fields – including a full-size field with an identical surface to the RZD Arena.
When one of the directors of the club said in April this year “this is a huge piece of real estate”, he let the cat out of the bag. A Roman Abramovich associate, Evgeni Merkel, appeared on the Board of Directors and the big man himself was supposed to be buying a stake. The truth was far more unpalatable. A 50-year lease with the operating company for the Luzhniki Stadium had a clause in it that the club would immediately rent a training field within the complex for a minimum of 10 years, beginning in June 2021. The club are still paying heavily for this, while not using it. The plan was to move the club and sell the land for redevelopment. Moscow needs housing and the area is within the MKAD (Moscow Circle Road) which is the accepted boundary of the city and it’s power.
Once rumours became louder and leaks wetter, the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, announced that Lokomotiv would not be moving to the Luzhniki and that there would be no way the Lokomotiv sports complex would be sold off for redevelopment. The trouble was, they’d already taken a downpayment for the sale, signed off on the training facilities at the Luzhniki and brought in Ralf Rangnick on a contract higher than any of the players at the club to “create a Russian Red Bull”.
I want to create a Russian Red Bull. A system to bring the best players in and develop them. Russian football has the potential to do this, just we need a good plan and program.
When he told me that in our first meeting, alarm bells went off in my head. Six years ago I wrote about it on these pages and until now not a single journalist has investigated Red Bull, nor have any football authorities. Ralf’s dream of a Red Bull in Moscow had turned even the most dedicated from the club, except journalists who were desperate for a quote or two.
With Rangnick came Spartak Moscow reject Thomas Zorn as technical director and lots of odd transfer dealings, topped off with massive agents fees. This was no surprise, except to Russian sports media, given the CEO appointed by the club owners. A fish rots from the head down and Lokomotiv were back in the bad old days of 2016. The players who arrived in where largely terrible. Alexis Beka Beka has been ok but the others like Tin Jedvaj, Tino Andjorin and Gyrano Kerk, remain baffling choices. The senior players at the club also rejected his ideas and “advice”, with some willing to go on the record with their complaints.
Top down chaos
As Loko crashed to a 2-1 loss against one of the worst away teams in the league last Saturday, I noticed the camera zoom in on both Ralf and the man who installed him, Vladimir Leonchenko, the club CEO. To say that Leonchenko is out of his depth is an understatement. The former journeyman footballer, wannabe agent and dupe for one of the blackest of black eyes for Russian football, the Professional Footballer and Coach and Agent Union, Leonchenko was at his lowest ebb.
Having signed Rangnick to a €2.3million-a-year contract, given him tens of millions to spend and then letting him install a puppet, Gisdol, on the bench, Leonchenko was swimming with bigger sharks than even at Fakel Voronezh. After being the face of the disgraced PSFT, he was desperate to have all traces removed once his benefactor was hounded out of FIFPRo. At Loko he knew by August he’d made an almighty mess. He desperately tried to hang onto his job by offloading Rangnick, Zorn and Gisdol last month, yet there were no takers. Now, Manchester United look like willing gillies.
Rangnick fit in perfectly to the absolute madness at Lokomotiv Moscow. They purged themselves of top level media and sales operators. They alienated supporters and former players. Even community clubs, like my own Moscow Shamrocks GAA Club, found it hard to keep up with rent increases each quarter. Sponsors have not renewed contracts and the product on the pitch has also become difficult to sell. If Serbian Marko Nikolic’s conservative style was tough, the anti-revolution dross at the RZD is worse.
The English media will talk now about gegenpressing. About intensity. Manchester United fans will want to see him push their failing stars. Yet not one, I guarantee you, not one will point out his links to Bernd Pansold at Red Bull, nor his disdain for anti-doping. He has a history that will not be explored, but as with all fanbases, will any care if he gets results?
King Ralf will be happy to get away from Moscow, he’ll have another few months with a fat contract and possibly the players at Old Trafford might not refuse to follow his “program”, as happened at Lokomotiv. Lokomotiv Moscow’s gain is now Manchester United’s loss.