After their team’s failure to secure automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Russians again find themselves asking why their nation isn’t better at football.
A viral video captured the dour mood for many Russian football fans on Sunday.
With the team locked at 0-0 in their crucial World Cup qualifier against Croatia in a sodden Split, former Soviet international Evgeny Lovchev had seen enough by half-time. Russia were “sh*t”, according to Lovchev in the TV studio, and suggesting anything otherwise to the viewers back home was merely deceiving them.
Enraged by the reassurances from his fellow pundits that clinging on for a draw was all that Russia needed to do, Lovchev ended up storming out.
🤬 Ловчев напрочь разругался с Геничем. Даже из студии ушел.
— МАТЧ ПРЕМЬЕР (@matchpremier) November 14, 2021
The meltdown made for entertaining viewing, but Lovchev was ultimately proved right. On a waterlogged pitch, Russia sank to a 1-0 defeat thanks to a late own-goal. The win for Croatia sealed top spot for them in the group and automatic passage to Qatar; Russia finished second and will now have to navigate the play-offs.
Even manager Valeri Karpin admitted afterwards that it was no more than his team deserved, accusing them of being “scared”. Croatia enjoyed 69% of possession and managed 19 shots. Russia mustered two, neither of which was on target.
It was hard to argue with the result. Even in the drenched conditions, Croatian maestro Luka Modric pulled the strings while Russia struggled to compose anything resembling a sustained threat going forward.
By full-time, the mood in Russia was damper than the drenched pitch.
Russia still have the consolation of moving into the 12-team play-offs next March, but with only three nations emerging from that – and with the likes of Italy, Portugal and Sweden lurking in next Friday’s draw – optimism is scant.
If Russia don’t make it, it will be the third of the past five World Cup Finals that they have failed to qualify for. It will also serve as another wince-inducing blow after the shambles of the early Euro 2020 exit during the summer.
Even the change in manager from Stanislav Cherchesov to former international midfielder Karpin in the wake of that fiasco failed to have the instant impact fans had hoped for.
Against Croatia, Russia resembled a team devoid of a coherent plan for most of the match. Some of the personnel on the pitch – including unfortunate own-goal victim Fedor Kudryashov – have long faced doubts over their caliber at this level.
Plenty would argue that there is no disgrace in being pipped by Croatia to top spot in the group – after all, the Croats went all the way to the World Cup final in 2018. They have long punched above their weight in international football, such is the talent of their players.
But their success and Russia’s relative failure means the latter is mired in a familiar debate: why can’t a nation of 145 million people, which enjoys consistent triumphs in numerous sporting disciplines, forge a football team to match its superpower status in other areas? Why aren’t they better than teams like Croatia?
Ask fans and pundits and you’ll receive a cacophony of varying opinions. Former Russia manager Leonid Slutsky famously once claimed that Russia is simply a ‘non-football’ country. The nation just had to face up to that fact, almost like admitting you’re an alcohol, the colourful trainer explained.
That seems somewhat simplistic, not to mention hard to square with football’s popularity in Russia, with surveys consistently putting it ahead of ice hockey as the nation’s favourite sport.
Indeed, dig a bit deeper, and salient themes regarding Russia’s football struggles will appear time and again.
The most consistently contentious surrounds the restriction on the number of foreign players in the Russian Premier League. The present rules allow a maximum of eight foreigners – known as ‘legionnaires’ – in any 25-man squad. Discussions have dragged on regarding whether that limit will be eased or potentially abolished altogether, but a decision continues to be kicked down the road by the football authorities.
Allowing more foreign players into the league would drive standards upwards and push locals to up their game, or so the argument goes. It would also make Russian players less comfortable in the knowledge that there are quotas to be filled, which at present means wages and transfer fees for Russians can often be inflated.
But rather than bringing the talent to them, just as crucial is the need for Russian players to seek opportunities abroad in Europe’s big leagues. Tellingly, only one of Russia’s starting XI against Croatia on Sunday plays his club football in a Top-5 European division – Aleksandr Golovin of French Ligue 1 outfit Monaco. (Alexey Miranchuk, of Serie A team Atalanta, remained on the bench.)
Compare that with Croatia, who had nine of their starting line-up at clubs in Europe’s big leagues.
Russian players are often accused of being content to remain safely ensconced at domestic clubs, picking up tidy wage packets and seeing out their careers in comfort. That is seen as a major issue for their development and that of the national team.
A more superficial observation would be that after the billions lavished on hosting the 2018 World Cup, Russia has no shortage of gleaming football stadiums and infrastructure. Surely that ensured a strong legacy and good foundation for future progress?
To a certain extent, that’s true. The bigger Russian Premier League clubs do boast impressive facilities that would rival most across Europe, while a UEFA study from 2020 stated that top-division clubs in Russia invest an average €2.8 million annually on youth development. That was enough to put them sixth on a continental list, behind only England, Germany, France, Spain and Italy.
Krasnodar in the south of Russia has been held up as a shining example of the way forward. Backed by billionaire businessman Sergey Galitsky, the facilities are world-class and the emphasis is on bringing through a new generation of footballers. Elsewhere, second-tier Moscow outfit FC Chertanovo have been praised for their academy set-up, although allegations recently emerged about murky dealings with football agents.
Providing some salve to the wounds of the Croatia defeat were victories by the Russian U21s against Spain on Tuesday and by the Under-19s against Germany last Saturday. There is a crop of promising young players either already breaking through at senior international level or knocking on the door. Attacking midfielder Arsen Zakharyan of Dynamo Moscow is one, and he was unlucky to miss the Croatia game with injury. Aged 18, he is already said to be on the radar of some big European names.
“Young footballers have always appeared – there is not a single five-year plan in which there were no good, promising footballers,” said Karpin in the wake of the defeat to Croatia.
“In every five-year plan, you can recruit quality players. But their further development is a question.”
The hope will be that the likes of Zakharyan take any chance they are given for a step up, rather than settling for cushy mediocrity in the Russian league.
But stats such as the spending from top Russian clubs on youth development cannot tell the whole picture. It’s hard to argue that Russia is making the most of its potential talent pool, and lower down the football pyramid there is nothing like the kind of organization seen in countries such as Germany, Spain, or England, to name just a few.
Obvious climate reasons mean outdoor football on a decent pitch is often out of the question in Russia, while indoor training for kids can be costly – assuming facilities are available.
There’s only so much you can learn from the ‘korobka’ culture on the concrete pitches typically dotted throughout Russian cities; to develop properly, youngsters eventually need to hone their skills in a much better environment. But even if players do find their way to a team, a 2018 report stated that 56% of Russian coaches weren’t qualified for the task.
It’s not just a case of Russia being bad. There are reasons why countries such as Germany, Italy, Brazil or Argentina have had long-standing success. Partly that is cultural: football permeates the social fabric in those countries in ways it never has in Russia.
It is also structural. After a woeful performance at Euro 2000, Germany embarked on an overhaul at youth level which paid dividends with the generation that won the 2014 World Cup. Even perennial underachievers England have launched their ‘DNA’ project and built the impressive St. George’s Park, with strategic planning cited as one reason for the challenge the team mounted at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. France has the famous Clairefontaine talent factory, Spain has its institutions such as La Masia at Barcelona.
Russia has no such equivalent, and is still grasping for an overarching recipe for success – or even the ingredients it might need for one.
Russia isn’t entirely alien to significant football glory. The Soviet Union won the inaugural European Championships in 1960 and were runners-up three times afterwards. At the World Cup, they reached the quarter-finals on three occasions and the semi-finals in England in 1966.
There were Soviet football icons which became global legends. The annual France Football award for the world’s best goalkeeper is handed out in Lev Yashin’s honour. Ukrainian coaching genius Valeriy Lobanovskyi helped revolutionize the way the game was played, drilling his teams to perfection.
Sport in the Soviet Union was a matter of ideological prestige, of furthering the socialist cause. Centralized structures ensured resources were allocated accordingly. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the descent of Russia into the chaos of the 1990s frayed much of that structure and left football – like broader Russian society – picking up the pieces.
At club level, Russian football did recover to enjoy what now seems like a golden period. CSKA Moscow won the UEFA Cup in 2005, following by Zenit St. Petersburg three years later. In Zenit’s case, they went on to beat Manchester United in the Super Cup. That same year, Russia embarked on their swashbuckling run to the European Championship semi-finals, with Andrey Arshavin weaving his magic under the tutelage of Dutch master Guus Hiddink.
But just as Russian football potentially seemed on the cusp of something special, it failed to back up that success by even making it to the 2010 World Cup. The run to the quarter-final on home soil in 2018 remains their best return in four appearances as an independent nation on the world’s biggest football stage.
In club terms, Russia has been steadily slipping down the UEFA coefficient table in recent seasons on the back of poor results in the Champions League and other UEFA competitions. Russia is now 10th in that table, behind even Scotland.
Returning to the international front, Karpin has suggested he might not be able to “psychologically prepare” the team for their March play-off bid, casting doubt on his own position.
“What can I do in four months, or even in a year or two?” answered Karpin when asked if he could change something before the play-offs.
That summed up much of the debate: there is no simple remedy to Russia’s football problems; and if there were, surely someone would have solved them by now and Russia would have enjoyed far more success.
Come the end of March, you fear that we might well be having this very same conversation.
By Liam Tyler
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.