Home is where the heart is. This is certainly the case for Russian footballers. While players from leagues around Europe flock to play abroad, the same cannot be said for those with a Russian passport. In the few occasions that Russian’s have ventured to ply their trade away from the country of their birth, the end results have been less than spectacular, with a few exceptions.
Russia has plenty of talented footballers, so why is their a reluctance to seek new horizon’s further a field?
Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavluchenko, Yury Zhirkov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinovall moved to the English Premier League, with much expectation that they could build on the success of helping their country to the Euro 2008 semi-finals, where they were eventually beaten by the winners, Spain.
However, despite some fleeting brilliance, such as Arshavin’s four goals against Liverpool, the Russian contingent proved largely to be failures and all four would return home, where they have failed to capture the same form that they showed before moving to England. The question that perplexes many, is why did they fail to make an impact, when all the ingredients were there for them to establish themselves in England?
The general perception of Russian hockey players in the NHL is they are highly skilful sportsmen, but with little desire to fight for the team’s cause. The same criticism has been thrown at Russian footballers playing abroad. For instance, with the exception of Zhirkov, work rate was often one of the major factors why these players did not get more game time, and towards the end of their English careers, they would spend a lot more time sitting on the bench, or even failing to make the match day squad.
Russians are often perceived to be European due to their looks, however there is a distinct difference in mentality between Russia and their western European counterparts. These can be seen as generalisations, but while the latter tend to be more conservative, Russians prefer to live for the moment and are not interested in the more mundane facts of life.
One footballer who did excel abroad was Aleksandr Mostovoy, who scored 55 goals in 235 appearances for Celta Vigo in eight seasons. The former Russian international is critical of those failing to make the grade, saying: “There is a feeling that for some reason Russians have a different mentality and they find it difficult to adapt. The problem is that there are inflated opinions about the ability of our own footballers, so many of them consider themselves stars, when this is not the case.”
Mostovoy certainly does have a point. Due to the wealth of the Russian league, young players are earning large sums of money in their late teens and do not have an appreciation of just how hard it can be to try and make a living. Contrast this to players from the former Yugoslavia or the Czech Republic for example, who have made an impact in leagues across Europe.
These domestic championships do not even come close to being able to offer the same riches as their Russian counterparts. Therefore players, at a young age, are forced to move to foreign clubs in order to try and make a good living. They have the hunger and desire to succeed abroad – in the main, Russian players do not, as they already earn good salaries and have the comfort of playing in their own country.
If one looks back to the 1990s, there were a number of Russians playing in the top leagues around Europe. Andrey Kanchelskis had a very successful spell at Manchester United, while Valery Karpin, Mostovoy, and Dmitry Alenichev all exceled in the Iberian Peninsula.
During the 90s, Russian players were unable to command high wages at home and therefore, there was the obvious appeal to play abroad to earn a higher income. Over the past five years, only Dmitry Bulykin and Marat Izmailov, who have played for clubs in the Netherlands and Portugal, could say that they have made an impact playing abroad.
Big business has played a major part in helping Russian clubs to pay astronomical wages. At least half the clubs in the domestic Premier League have wealthy backers who have no qualms about shelling out €100,000 a week on a star player. However, there is another reason why Russian footballers are paid so well to stay at home and why they are reluctant to leave.
Since 2005, a quota has been in place within the Russian Premier League, to limit the amount of foreigners who can play in any one game. The rule has recently been relaxed to allow seven foreigners in the starting 11, from six. Nevertheless, with high class talent at a premium, those Russian players in demand can expect to earn even higher wages, not to mention the added bonus of only having to pay 13% tax on their earnings.
It is unlikely in the near future that we will see top Russian footballers moving abroad to play, as the rewards and comfort of playing at home are so great. This will of course help continuity within the national team with everyone playing in the same domestic championship. However, it is a shame that Russian players are losing out on the chance to develop their skills in different environments and with it, become better players in the process.
Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.