Manuel Veth –
Russian national team (Sbornaya) coach Leonid Slutsky has announced his 29-men squad for Russia’s friendlies against Lithuania (on March 26 in Moscow), and France (on March 29 in Paris).
Kerzhakov to Make Return
Among those nominated was the 33-year-old FC Zürich striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The former Zenit Saint Petersburg striker has played well since going on loan to Switzerland during the winter break, and has now been awarded with his first call up to the Sbornaya in nine months.
Kerzhakov’s hope was that a move to Switzerland would give him a good chance to make Russia’s squad for this summer’s European Championship in France, and while a call up to the friendly matches won’t guarantee him a spot for this summer’s tournament it certainly shows that he has returned onto Slutsky’s radar when it comes to making the final decision on the squad in May.
Kerzhakov told championat.com “Of course I am very happy. It is nice that I have not been forgotten, and that I have once again been called up to the national team. I have said many times that it was one of my goals [to return to the national team]. This is why I moved to Switzerland…”
Kerzhakov’s return to the national team was indeed one of the major stories after Slutsky announced his squad for the upcoming friendlies. The other story was the nomination of the Brazilian born Lokomotiv Moscow goalkeeper Guilherme Alvim Marinato.
Naturalised Guilherme Receives his First Call Up
Futbolgrad reported on January 24 that Guilherme’s call up was only a matter of time, as the Brazilian has lived in the country since 2007, and received a Russian passport in November 2015.
Indeed Guilherme has been outspoken in the past about his desire to play for the Sbornaya. Asked how he felt about his call up to the national team Guilherme said: “Happiness! I am extremely glad I got this opportunity. I am so pleased, as my heart is half Russian! I have been in Russia for a long time, and I love this country.”
Guilherme’s club coach Igor Cherevchenko—who in 2009 spoke out against using naturalized players in the Russian national team players but has since adjusted his position—told championat.com “Of course Guilherme earned the call up to the national team. I have always thought, and still think, that he is one of the best keepers in the Russian Football Premier League.”
Most Pundits Welcome Guilherme’s Call Up
Former Lokomotiv Moscow goalkeeper Ruslan Nigmatullin has also spoken positively about Guilherme’s call up “I have an ambivalent attitude towards naturalization as a whole, but in the case of Guilherme I am strongly support it. I would like to urge Russian goalkeepers to take this as a motivation, so that we don’t have to naturalize keepers in the future.”
Igor Lebedev, a member of the executive committee of the Russian Football Union, said “with all due respect to Igor Akinfeev [Russia’s long standing number one keeper], the national team needs a good back up for him at Euro 2016. Hence his call up has been a very responsible action.”
Some, like Russia’s assistant coach, pointed out the fact that Guilherme learned Russian and took the path to citizenship like any regular person would have to do “Guilherme has been successful at Lokomotiv, and then successfully applied for Russian citizenship. All of this gives us the opportunity to invite him to the team. Now we can watch him practice. I do not see anything unusual here—but this is of course just my opinion.”
Former Lokomotiv defender Igor Chugaynov also commented positively “Guilherme is an experienced and reliable goalkeeper. Well, and who else could be a substitute for Igor Akinfeev in the Russian team? Yuri Lodygin didn’t convince in the Champions League. And Artem Rebrov is not experience enough. Only Guilherme is a well-established goalkeeper, who can step in immediately and be a good replacement for Akinfeev. Furthermore, the Russian national team will accept Guilherme without a problem. There are a group of highly professional players not a kindergarten, and football teams are always focused on results.
The only person that has spoken out against Guilherme’s nomination has been former Russian national team coach Boris Ignatyev. “He is a good goalkeeper, but I am against the fact that foreigners play on our team.”
Fans Are Still Divided On Naturalisation
While the response amongst those involved in the game was mostly positive, a poll conducted by championat.com shows that most Russians are still divided on the issue, with 32% supporting Guilherme’s call up and 32% totally opposing it. Meanwhile 12% believed that Guilherme didn’t play well enough in recent weeks to deserve a call up, and 24% believed that it wouldn’t matter, as Akinfeev would be the number one keeper anyways.
Yet Guilherme could just be the beginning as Russia is still amidst negotiations with German authorities to grant Schalke’s midfielder Roman Neustädter a Russian passport. A naturalization of Neustädter has hit several roadblocks in recent weeks, as German authorities demand that Neustädter give up his German passport if he accepts a Russian passport.
Meanwhile CSKA Moscow’s 25-year-old Brazilian defender Mario Fernandes has submitted his documents to obtain a Russian passport, but the Vitaly Mutko, president of the Russian Football Union has told Sport-Express that Fernandes won’t be eligible in time to play for Russia at Euro 2016 this summer, but will remain an option for Russia’s squad at the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup, both of which will be hosted by Russia.
In many ways the current squad may represent two eras for the Sbornaya, as Kerzhakov represents the old guard, whereas Guilherme’s call up may ring in a new era for the national team, as he could break down barriers that will make it more acceptable for foreigners to wear the shirt of the Sbornaya.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available to readers later this year. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.