Russia, land of contradictions and controversies without football

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Now many years later, we must not be afraid of affirming that Russian football has failed in everything. Everyone was expecting other achievements from that flow that had brought to light CSKA and Zenit in the UEFA Cup, and also the third place of the Russian National Team at the European Championship in Austria and Switzerland in 2008.

Russia v Galles - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group B

Something has clearly gone wrong, but what?

As discussed previously in, Russia has collapsed, speaking from a football point of view, at the last European Championship in France. The factors that have led to this downfall are innumerable and, as already explained, each of them has contributed to the destruction of expectations.

However, in recent months a wind of change has been noted. The summer of 2016 was said to be the one of rebirth and partly we are witnessing an evolution of Russian football concept.

No more money spent on overpaid players with huge salaries. Due to the ruble crisis, in fact, we see the optimization of internal resources, and more and more clubs are relying on players from their academies. No more players bought just for their names, if someone is signed is merely because he could help the team and respects the club’s strategies. Furthermore, stop with the idea  that in Russia there’s plenty of money or golden oasis for players without ambition.
As recently confirmed by Hebei China Fortune head coach Manuel Pellegrini, following a friendly game against Lokomotiv:

The Russian Premier League is very important for Europe as it’s very likely the first league for importance after the so-called top-5 leagues.”

Hulk and Witsel’s departures have probably marked the end of an era.

Zenit themselves have focused only on small operations this winter, without crazy transfers on the market. This could also be said of Spartak who, however, can count on large revenues from sponsors, merchandising and tickets, with an average attendance which can compete with the European top tiers. And it’s Spartak that Russian clubs should look at as a model, which means to stop benefiting from public funding and to become self-sufficient in order to fight at the highest level. Obviously it’s not all that easy. The process is long and complex.

As previously said, there were very few big signing, with Russian clubs that were active mostly internally with no high-profile operations. Among the most important arrivals there are undoubtedly the likes of Luiz Adriano, Jefferson Farfán and Branislav Ivanović. Despite all of them being 30, however, they’re valuable players who definitely could help European teams.

The most interesting moves are  Hernani, chosen by Lucescu to replace Axel Witsel, Cristian Ramírez, an interesting Ecuadorian left-back signed from Krasnodar, and Viktor Claesson, a very talented midfielder with a bright future. Aleksandr Hleb is also back to Russia, at Samara, with the tough task to replace Yohan Mollo, who moved to Zenit.

Cristian Ramirez, nuovo acquisto del Krasnodar (Foto LaPresse)

The picture is clearly not the most exciting especially when you consider how much was spent. Luiz Adriano, Farfán and especially Ivanović all arrived on a free transfer. Hernani was the largest purchase, with Gazprom paying nearly €8M to Atletico Paranaense. Not even four, however, were the millions spent by Krasnodar, who were finally active due to the departures of Jędrzejczyk and Akhmedov.

Branislav Ivanovic, arrivato a gennaio allo Zenit (Foto LaPresse)

Buy to sell: that’s the new frontier of Russian football.

As already said, just a few clubs can spend without first having sold someone. Among them there’s surprisingly Terek, which are looking for an European spot and have managed to bring to Grozny AS Roma defender Gyömbér, Ozdoev from Rubin and especially Bernard Berisha from Anzhi for around €2,5M. Generally speaking, the attitude is to look for a bargain or to sign a young player who can bring a big earn in the future. It’s not a case that the habit of scouting is spreading, taking clubs like Porto and Udinese as a model, as they were able to make a real business of this over the years. For instance, Amkar, that have made a sensational season so far, demonstrated the benefits of doing an excellent planning by gaining a good amount of money from the departures of Selikhov and Dzhikiya, two that until a few years ago were playing in lower leagues, to a top club like Spartak.

What is more surprising, however, is the change of mentality.

The fail at Euro 2016 has led to a wave of controversies, also about Minister of Sport Vitaliy Mutko. It’s difficult to avoid a failure at the home World Cup, however most clubs are trying to save what can be saved. Russian players seem to make more efforts than usual, showing their desire to earn a call from the National Team coached by Cherchesov. This desire to wear the shirt of Sbornaya is definitely a good sign for team’s spirit.

Going back to a few months ago, the recent European Championship in France have once again demonstrated how determination sometimes helps more than technique and class. Perhaps it’s here where Russia should point at: at the heart, at the identity of a proud nation that is ready to support the 11 on the pitch until the 90th and after, at the anger of wanting to prove everyone that Russia is still alive.

Furthermore, it also seems that the National Team’s identity already exists. Nearly six of the current 16 Russian Premier League clubs have adopted 3-5-2 formation of Italian origin.

The biggest example is the Rostov‘s Berdyev, who in the last year has fully demonstrated how this system works by winning a silver medal and qualifying for the Champions League group stage with a team that was on the brink of being relegated. Amkar have also taken advantage from it, while CSKA, Lokomotiv and Spartak are alternating this formation as well as Ufa.


A line-up which ensures compactness and also a density of players in a strategic part on the pitch for Russia, which is the defense.

Despite not having reliable players in the positions, with the right tactical advice the probability of suffering goals decreases and it’s not a coincidence that among the five best defenses of the RPL there are five teams that currently rely on the 3-5-2. All of this, however, is not that comforting. From a team like Russia and especially from the biggest country worldwide it’s reasonable to expect much more, particularly from the numerical point of view. In fact, Stanislav Cherchesov can look at just a tight range of players. A sort of “exclusive club” that Cherchesov is trying to abolish.

The former head coach of Dinamo Moscow and Legia had a lot of fun in experimenting, demonstrating his flexibility in a rigid context and hostile to change.

Several new players have been tested and it shouldn’t surprise that results have not been really exciting. The defeats against Costa Rica and Qatar are hard to accept, especially as Russia were often outclassed. It’s also true that not even Rome was built in a day. Only those players who have character will have the strength to react and Cherchesov knows this very well.

He had the courage to cut Kokorin and now he has no fear in relying on players from mid-table clubs.

However, this only shows once again the mediocrity in which Russian football is living. Very few people have the ambition to move to Europe, and those few who do, fail to success and discourage others to leave their homeland.

And here emerge problems with youth and investments made by clubs in academies.

Moscow schools aside, only in Krasnodar there’s something comparable. In Kazan they have long time ago stopped focusing on local youth players, preferring to overpay talents from other teams. Moreover, Smena (the academy of Zenit) is far from that time which used to produce players like Malafeev, Denisov, Kerzhakov and Arshavin. Without a real plan of development, there are many young talents who lose the right direction as soon as they get into the first team.

At the moment, unfortunately, there are no solutions on the horizon.

With the opening of new stadiums, or rather future cathedrals in the desert, the pitch conditions will surely improve, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Without competence of coaches, who tend to trust more experienced players, the situation is unlikely to be changed.

In the land of contradictions which is Russia, something has been done, but a few months before the Confederations Cup and a year before the home World Cup, maybe just a miracle could save the country from the wrong decisions taken in recent years.

In a long process that takes time, Cherchesov seems only a card to play in the hope that he will become the jolly of the situation. As also Russian football fans are expecting on the way to 2018 World Cup.

Cover photo ©Pinterest
Euro 2016 Russia ©LaPresse
oto Cristian Ramirez ©LaPresse
oto Stanislav Cherchesov ©AFP
oto Kurban Berdyev ©Espn
Aleksandr Kokorin ©LaPresse