By Andrew Flint –
On an average summer’s day in a typical Russian city, you will see plenty of teenagers on the streets. Some will gather in the town square under a statue of Lenin or near the town hall, perhaps stealing a cheeky cigarette, or taking endless pictures of one another on their camera phones. Many will be decked out in skinny jeans and hipster shirts in various garish colours. All will be glued to a screen of some description, but what sadly is almost certain, is that none of them will have a ball at their feet.
Few of the youngest generation are drawn to seriously backing football—least of all their native clubs—while interest in playing the game is largely confined to indoor five-a-side or futsal, a format at which Russia excels. To a large degree, the reason for this drop in participation is the poor performance of the major teams, and the lack of homegrown stars alongside foreign imports. Attempts to remedy this perceived imbalance of representation in Russian club football floundered primarily because they are based on a flawed ideology.
U-19 – A Silver Lining?
The quota system for native players and ‘legionnaires’ (as non-Russians are called) has been a directionless mess over the past decade, as it jumped from a minimum of four Russians in the starting line-up to five in 2009, then back to four three years later, and is now expected to return to five. Advocates claim that it will encourage the blooding of more Russian youngsters, but the system has had the opposite effect. For many, it has furthered a lethargic approach toward self improvement; because they have become more valuable simply due to an artificial requirement, they lack the drive to leave their comfort zone.
Sunday’s Under-19 European Championships Final in Greece offered a glimmer of hope. Although Russia were comfortably beaten 2-0 by a technically gifted Spanish side, they had won the group game against them 3-1, as well as drawing with Germany on the way. Perhaps the highest profile member of the team is Nikita Chernov of CSKA Moscow, who scored twice in the semi-final against the hosts, and has already made his full international debut without having played a minute of league football for his club. The tournament’s overall top goalscorer in qualifying with 10 in six matches was the powerful Zenit Sankt Petersburg striker Ramil Sheydaev, who scored the winner in the first meeting with Spain.
Sheydaev’s physical presence offered a rare outlet for the runners up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but in truth he rarely got a chance to become influential as the successors to Xavi, David Silva and Andrés Iniesta, passed their way around their opponents. The confidence and ambition of the Spaniards was too much for Russia to handle, but there is no shame in falling at the final hurdle of an exhaustive process that took in two group stages before the 8-team finals.
This generation of players triumphed two years ago in Slovakia at the Under-17 European Championships, and once again goalkeeper Spartak Moscow‘s Anton Mitryushkin was the star, having won the player of tournament award in 2013. The then-captain only conceded once in that previous tournament, saving four penalties in shootouts, and even scoring the winning penalty in the semi final. The class of this level is evident by a glance down the list of previous winners: Wayne Rooney, Miguel Veloso, Nuri Sahin, World Cup Final winning goalscorer Mario Götze, Cesc Fabregas, Bojan Krkić, and Toni Kroos. The succession through to the following age level has clearly helped bond the group, and with the right guidance, some should soon be starting to knock on the door of their clubs for game time.
Russian Youth Football Development – A Blurred Picture
Unfortunately the picture of youth development across the nation as a whole is a blurred one. The relative success of the Under-19 side standing toe to toe with their finest European counterparts points to a healthy foundation on which to base the regeneration of the national team’s standing, while the promotion of Spartak-2 and Zenit-2 to the Football National League (FNL) have shown that the major clubs’ junior teams are starting to compete at a decent level of competitive football. Roman Abramovich‘s investment company Milhouse injected millions of dollars into the stunning Yuriy Khonoplyov Academy in Togliatti, where CSKA’s playmaker Alan Dzagoev was developed.
The above examples are, however, exceptions to the normal state of affairs. Mitryoshkin has only appeared six times for Evgeniy Bushmanov’s Spartak second string in two years, despite his heroics in successive international tournaments. Rubin-2 have struggled to survive in the third tier Ural-Povolzhe league, while Konstantin Galkin, the former manager of FC Tyumen, expressed serious doubts that the club’s junior side could cope at any level of the professional structure, despite boasting the regional centre of excellence as their base.
Evgeniy Savin, who has sponsored an annual youth tournament—the Kubok Savina—since 2010, shifted uncomfortably when Futbolgrad asked him about this situation. “Well, all I can say is when the Race of Champions (an exhibition of the world’s leading Biathlon racers) was staged here at the Geolog, the juniors had to be moved from their training pitch while tons of artificial snow was dumped.” The priorities of the city administration speak volumes: the chance to draw in 10,000 paying spectators to see big names ski and shoot took precedence over what is supposed to be the best regional centre for the development for football.
There is a bizarre ruling in the Second Division that prevents clubs from promoting players from the second team to the first, once player registration has been formally submitted at the beginning of each transfer window, while clubs have to name a minimum of two players produced by their youth system in their 25-man first-team squad. This is in dramatic contrast to the English Premier League, where the official squad list can be supplemented by additional youth team players, although there are limits on the movement backwards and forwards between the squads throughout the season. The scale of the league should make no difference—taking away the youngsters’ incentive to push them selves and progress in their careers is seriously damaging to their future ability to do so.
Capello Sacking – An Impetus For Change?
Evgeniy Lovchev was a full back for Spartak Moscow in the Soviet Union and, curiously, the first player in history to receive a yellow card. He believes that the inspiration of young players should be the goal: “When I was developing, I was training alongside former Olympic champions and great players,” he revealed to Futbolgrad at an Under-9s youth tournament in May. “Now there is too much focus on money; many governments don’t have enough to spend on full programs, so it is important that players such as Savin and Alexey Smertin sponsor tournaments like this. Many coaches now work for the money, their reputation, but not for the ideal of development. When I trained in the Soviet Union, I trained alongside full professionals, and learned a huge amount.”
The system of second teams is a complicated one. The concept of offering developing players a more directly challenging environment is sound, in much the same way that many European nations use B teams. This is a matter that has been discussed recently in England, and although it would be stongly opposed by those clubs that are unwilling to have their status in the league system challenged, it offers an imaginative alternative to the current reserve league. The separation between the two teams in Russia is a problem, especially in the lower leagues, and unless this hindrance is addressed intelligently, players will continue to be lost along the path to turning professional.
Subsequent to Fabio Capello’s sacking as Russia’s senior manager, there is an opportunity to establish a more definite direction. With many expecting that CSKA manager Leonid Slutskiy will be offered the job, possibly in a combined role with his club duties, it is almost certain that the trend of employing foreign head coaches is over. There is a slight danger that this decision panders to the increasingly nationalistic sentiments prevalent today—the fact that the national side has floundered in recent years, is not due solely to the nationality of the coach, but rather to a myriad of other factors. The need for change has been recognized, however, and must be embraced as a positive move. What is required now is a considered structure for Russian youth to follow—whether this will be implemented in time to have an effect at the World Cup on home soil in less than three years remains to be seen.
Andrew Flint is a English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.