Land of Snow and Glory: Behind the Stereotypes and Half-Truths of Russian Football

It seems quite some time since a World Cup was hosted by a country without serious question marks hanging over their suitability. Brazil’s stadia have for the most part become hideously over-sized white elephants, not to mention the hysteria over fears of crime and mass protests at public spending in the run-up to 2014. South Africa’s right to host the 2010 edition relied on the geographic location as much as anything.

Sepp Blatter was quite open about his determination to deliver the first ever African finals, but the identity of the winning bidders was unsurprisingly shrouded in controversy amidst claims of a $10 million bribe to secure the honour for Nelson Mandela’s homeland. Even Germany’s successful staging of the 2006 event was overshadowed by investigations into alleged illegal payments made by Franz Beckenbauer to FIFA executive member.

Russia has had to battle a whole host of unique prejudices and catastrophes ever since Andrei Arshavin held up the contents of the winning envelope. The sporting world was rocked to the core about 18 months ago by revelations that state-sponsored doping had been orchestrated by Girogriy Rodchenkov, head of Moscow’s previously-celebrated RUSADA testing laboratory, with Russian athletics thrown into chaos. Footballers’ names were mentioned in the study published by Richard McLaren, but the sport as a whole has emerged from the shattering episode with considerably less damage than the Olympic sports.

Racism is a brush that the country has been tarred with for some time, often with irresponsible agenda-driven reporting, as tabloid newspapers have whipped up a fervour of Cold War sentiments. Many have even called for Russia to be stripped of the right to host next summer’s FIFA tournament. Hooliganism has been propagated as another black mark, despite reports such as the BBC’s woefully misleading documentary failing to paint an accurate picture. Mud sticks though, and the image of the largest country on earth is not an apparently positive one.

But what is the actual state of the nation’s football itself? Manchester United and Liverpool both played Champions League matches against the supposed cream of Russian football and were utterly dominant throughout both matches. The chasm between the English teams and their respective hosts was enormous, even if Liverpool somehow contrived to miss countless gilt-edged scoring opportunities.

One quarter-final appearance in over two decades – and only three in the Europa League since Zenit St Petersburg’s 2008 UEFA Cup win –  is an abysmal record. This even prompted the Russian Football Union to alter the entire Russian calendar to mirror the European autumn-spring season. For obvious reasons the winter break is enforced, and lasts three and a half months, after which clubs still left in Europe traditionally crumble.

Only a handful of seasons ago, some of the top names on the continent were plying their trade in Russia. Hulk, Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay were all lured by Gazprom’s billions to Peter the Great’s ‘Gateway to Europe’. All have since departed as even the bottomless pit funding Vladimir Putin’s native city is becoming increasingly finite. Compare the spending power of CSKA Moscow and Manchester United. While the latter splurged around £140 million this summer alone, CSKA have spent just £900k in the last six windows combined – and that was all on one loan fee for a player they had sold six months previously.

The problem for all but the wealthiest few is that there simply isn’t the interest from private investors. A few short-lived examples have died out before they truly got going. Anzhi Makhachkala’s mad helter-skelter ride under Suleyman Kerimov the most high-profile example. The fact is that almost all clubs are owned and funded by regional governments or state-run companies, which ruthlessly dictate budgets. To give you a brief flavour of the scale, a lower-end Premier League club can pay an average salary of around £1,500 a week if they’re lucky.

Even player representation is a murky world that is somehow allowed to continue without a clear body acting transparently. The Union of Football Players, Trainers and Agents – registered with FIFPro – was established a few years ago using forged documents. Some even contained forged signatures of a number of top international players. The organisation has also charged clubs a substantial fee in the past to sign free agents. Consider the maddening oxymoron for a moment. An organisation purporting to act in the interests of players while at the same time profiting from their careers? This, unfortunately, is symptomatic of the issues surrounding the game.

As for the national team, faith is at an all-time low. Fabio Capello’s turgid reign depleted what little connection had remained from last decade’s relative successes. The pathetic capitulation during last summer’s Euro 2016 tournament was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

All is not lost. Current manager Stanislav Cherchesov has been bold in cutting long-established but disruptive or ineffective stalwarts such as the Berezutskiy twins, Igor Denisov – who called Cherchesov ‘a clown’ a couple of years ago – and Sergey Ignashevich. At the manager’s disposal are some potentially thrilling young talents, such as Aleksandr Golovin and Alexey Miranchuk. Both are wonderfully talented midfielders already backed by significant experience at club level.

Academies are starting to produce a generation of exciting youngsters. FC Krasnodar, one of the very few privately-owned clubs in the country, built one of Europe’s most impressive facilities, and is seeing the likes of Magomed Suleymanov and Ivan Ignatyev breaking into the first team. Last year CSKA made the quarter-finals of the UEFA Youth League, with previous graduates Fedor Chalov, Timur Zhamaletdinov, Konstantin Kuchaev – who scored the consolation against United last week – and Nikita Chernov all featuring at senior level this season.

The last year has seen a huge amount of evolution and experimentation. The national team has played a series of mixed friendlies in lieu of competitive responsibilities. Results have been very underwhelming, none more so than a 4-3 loss at home to Costa Rica. The main positive, though, is that the change that has been so painfully necessary for a while is taking place. The re-emergence of Aleksandr Kokorin this season – 15 goals in 18 games in all competitions so far already – and continued brilliance of Fyodor Smolov leaves a potentially dangerous attacking lineup.

Football has a long way to go to return to the highs of continental successes of a decade ago, when CSKA and Zenit lifted the UEFA Cup and Russia dazzled their way to the European Championships semi-final. The chronic mismanagement of the sport at a macro and micro level is a huge obstacle to the healthy development of Russian football, while the socio-political issues surrounding the domestic scene remain unaddressed. There are shoots of green bursting through the deep-lying snow, however, and in future columns I will bring you the latest insight into the world of Russian football in the run-up to next summer.