Over a year ago I penned a piece for BackPageFootball that was received quite strongly when translated into Russian for a local site. It was about the desire, or rather lack of, for Russian players to go outside the country and break into top level or even medium level leagues.
Cautiously accepting an invitation I spoke with a group of fans from one particular Moscow club, a medley bunch of hard core supporters who wanted an explanation of why I was disrespecting their heroes and Russian manhood.
Following a long night of carousing with them, after the forum, I stayed in touch with two of the main men. I promised I’d keep an eye on things and write an update. The reminder arrived last week.
We discussed three questions that night:
1. Why should a Russian player go abroad? Money, Self-Improvement/Career Development, Chance of European Success, Improving Image for National Team Selection.
2. Where would you go if you had the chance? England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Other.
3. Will this benefit Russian football (inspire young players, improve National Team, improve image of Russian players)? Yes, No.
These would be my questions for 16 players, aged 19-22 who are current professionals in Russia. With most away at camps, the job was easier to get two or three together on a Skype call at one time. From conversations with 16 players from Second Division (7), National Championship (3) and Premier League (6) clubs, from January 20-22, this is what I got back.
1. Money – 12, Improving Image – 3, Self-Improvement 1.
2. England – 13, Spain – 1, Other – 2.
3. Yes – 5, No – 11.
The response to the second question was most interesting, none believed they’d have a chance to play in England, or anywhere in Europe due to visa restrictions. When I asked if they’d consider going somewhere outside of the top seven or eight leagues to build up experience, or a name for themselves and most importantly (if in the EU) possible citizenship, only two players said yes. Both were 2nd Division players on contracts less than $500 per month. To those who said they wouldn’t consider it, the reasons were – money (10), girlfriend (1), family (2), language (1).
Each player was happy to chat and discuss their careers, even the prospect of non-payment, which all of them have experienced at some point or presently. One had to write off a year of his contract with a Premier club because they were broke.
Now with a National Championship, team he explained his agent had managed to get some cash, a fourth hand Lada Niva jeep and a gift voucher for Marks and Spencers worth 5,000 roubles. (I asked him what did he buy in Marks and Sparks, he said he’d given it to his sister for a birthday present and didn’t know what she’d bought.)
When they begin playing football Russian players are the same as players from any other country, it is the system which fails them. At present there are no local players in the Russian Premier League who would get a game in any of the top-five leagues in Europe, even current Internationals. Once the factors of language, fitness, durability, tactical awareness and strength are accounted for, some would look out of place in the League of Ireland teams.
It is not that they are lacking in talent, far from it. Many players in the Second Division, with the right development and nurturing, would thrill crowds with their speed, trickery and ability to pick a pass. But without the desire to address the factors above, they will earn nice salaries (when paid) and never leave the Motherland.
One small case in point: a former client of ours, tall, good physique, fast, great touch and control, able to score goals and brave. He’d been with 2 major Moscow club Academies and received (at the time) $3,000 a month, as a 16-year-old. At 18 he was knocking about with Torpedo Moscow’s youth sides, training once a day and not progressing or earning any salary.
On trial at a strong second Division Russian club he showed promise but lacked something. Doing what we did with our tennis players, we sent him to Ireland to a) toughen up, b) give him a different view and structure, c) develop him as a person. He trialled with a Premier Division team who needed him to add to his game, so he joined a Leinster Senior League team and got himself into education.
Once the novelty of life wore off, he realised it would be hard work. My colleague in Ireland (who was giving him one-on-one training) asked – “Does he like being a footballer or playing football?” It was a signal for him to come home, which he happily did. He was a good lad, kind, more intelligent than he knew and sadly failed by a system that was paying him a small fortune as a 16-year-old without developing as a footballer or person.
Not one club in Russia in the Premier, National Championship or 2nd Division are even remotely preparing their young players to excel, and certainly not for a life outside of football.
Of course players and families largely buy into this and the golden boy prefers to stay closer to his Mother’s table than sit in digs in Hamilton and be expected to do something akin to training. Why slog and push yourself, when you can rock up for ‘training’ each day with coaches who should not be let out the front door, let alone in the door of a professional Academy. Coaches who ensure players get contracts for reserve teams once they are bunged enough, and then given a monthly cut.
If the youth development system in Russia would actually begin developing players, instead of sucking money and energy from the game. If the system actually educated players on simple basics as nutrition, fitness and tactics (tactics after a certain age, or any age) they would have the physical and tactical ability to challenge the best. It is done with hockey, so why not football?
There are coaches who can deliver such programmes, but they are in the minority, and it shows. When a Premier League club’s physical trainer insists that cottage cheese, sausage and yoghurt, washed down with orange juice is the best pre-match meal, you would envisage players lining up at airports to flee the country. Instead they sit meekly and accept their fate.
As I will tell the Forum next week in Moscow, imagine our young players as the ants who accompanied Homer Simpson into space cried when they were broken out of their glass prison, “Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!” Freedom to build a career and inspire thousands doesn’t seem so good when sitting on a big contract and not needing to produce. If the people who run clubs and coach players are not expected to do so, why should players?