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In principle it was a great idea and began well with Sergey visiting Malta ahead of the first players from Russia to arrive on “The Rock” over New Year 2009-10. But instead of leading title challengers under Roddy Collins’ men forward, one of the Russian players ended up winning the Maltese League title, in rugby.
For a nation in the middle of a FIFA World Cup bid, the Russian Football Union were awfully understaffed and resourced in the technology sphere. What was a simple procedure in transferring registration of players (International Transfer Certificate), took three days as a) “We don’t have many players going to the EU”, b) “The software upload took two days and c) “The internet has been off all day”.
The story of computers used in the bid itself being wiped, is correct and the reason is the bid organisation had no funds to buy their own and were basically loaned the equipment. And as is standard at the end of use they are wiped and passed on/recycled. It was convenient, but having seen how the RFU operated since 2007, I was not surprised.
I returned from Malta for Christmas and also to finalise the last pieces of the transfer. One player, striker Viktor Zlydarev, was on the way to us and the fans were excited. At 6 foot 4 and built like a tank, he was an ideal Roddy Collins target man. However Roddy had just left the club and the incoming coach wanted to cancel the transfer from the off. Viktor and I travelled to Malta together and he got stuck into training. His relaxed attitude was liked by team mates, staff and fans alike. His towering presence gave us hope that the losing three match skid under the new coach could be reversed.
The coach, a Serb who had previously worked at the club, decided that he would get rid of Viktor and he was clever in doing so. He put the powerful Russian out on the wing, tracking back lightning fast wingers, or played him alongside a lumbering local striker whose idea of staying onside was that he never left the halfway line. It was painful to see a professional being humiliated and amazingly the fans, and some club directors, bought into it.
By March it was intolerable and Viktor was miserable. A group of the senior players gathered around him and kept his morale up, but it was too late. The coach was briefing journalists against the Russian, while at the same time questioning my role in his acquisition. Apparently I was getting paid by Roman Abramovich to organise transferring a regional Russian forward to the EU. Sadly people listened.
So before the signing period ended, Viktor and I sat with the then club President, Joe Cauchi, and agreed to end his contract. Joe would pay for him to return home after a fortnight and paid him from his own pocket a bonus. Joe gave him a hug and apologised, he’d later come to see Viktor and his fiancee off at the airport. It was the most humane action I’ve ever seen from a top club administrator in over 30 years in the game.
With a couple of weeks to kill and stay in shape, Viktor joined me with Kavallieri RFC. He took to the “eggball game” immediately and his speed, footwork and vision meant he was a star centre. He also loved tackling, so that helped. He never scored a try but set up a half-dozen and discussions began to keep him at the club in Malta and to get him a passport. Viktor wanted to return to Russian football and had a contract offer from a 2nd Division (3rd tier) club in the Volga region to go home to, this despite an offer from Palermo to go on trial with them.
However that season he and I enjoyed playing on a title winning team. Against all the odds Kavallieri RFC won the league but were robbed in the cup final. Viktor and I were both lucky enough to play rugby-10’s too ,where we lost both league and cup finals. He’d gone back to Russia before he could receive his medal and never played rugby again. His football career continues with him playing futsal semi-professionally while also working as an award winning First Responder.
So when Russia took the field, the same one where Viktor played for Floriana FC, on Wednesday against Malta, they were following in the footsteps of the first and only Russian to be a Champion of Malta, in rugby.