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Richard van Poortvliet: Russians’ World Cup winter shows no signs of ending, new growth needed

2018 may seem like along way into the future at the moment, however, the FIFA World Cup finals are getting ever closer for the host nation Russia. While the construction of the country’s stadia and the worries of racist abuse have grabbed most of the headlines, very little has been written about how the national team may fair at world football’s biggest tournament.

Legendary Brazilian Pele once said: “The day Russia win the football World Cup, will be the day Brazil win the Ice Hockey World Championships.” Not since the 1960s, when the two time World Cup winner was in his prime have Russia, or the Soviet Union, looked remotely like winning football’s biggest prize. Russia recently just qualified for their first World Cup since 2002, however as former Manchester United winger Andrey Kanchelskis says, “just getting out of the group stages will be an achievement”. While the former Russian great believes football in his country is on a downward spiral:

“The level of football in Russia is very mediocre at the moment. In comparison to Soviet times, it has fallen considerably,” stated the 44 year-old, who is now based in Moscow. “A lot of people – including journalists – think the standard of football in our country is one of the best in the world. But our league will only be one of the best in Europe when we’re playing in the Champions League quarter-finals on a regular basis. This means every year – not just once every ten years. If we look at who is playing in the quarter-finals and beyond, in the Champions League, it is English, German and Spanish sides. The level of football in these countries is superb.”

Russia has plenty of money to throw at building new stadiums and buying expensive players from abroad. Zenit St Petersburg shelled out in the region of €100 million last year to bring in Hulk and Axel Witsel. However, what is being ignored, is the development of youngsters around the country. There are exceptions of course. CSKA have one of the best youth academies on the continent and their results in the UEFA Youth Champions League this season back up these claims, while the facilities on offer at the youth academy at FC Krasnodar, set up by owner Sergey Galitsky, would be the envy of any club in the world. However, brush below the surface and there is very little substance to youth football development in Russia.

Kanchelskis knows a thing or two about coaching and is currently renewing his coaching badges in the Russian capital. Since hanging up his boots for good in 2007, he has coached the now defunct Moscow side Torpedo Zil, and second-tier newcomers Ufa. However, the former double winner with Manchester United believes, is scathing about the lack of investment at grassroots level. “The top clubs in Russia, like CSKA, Spartak – even Krasnodar – have very good youth academies,” Kanchelskis said. “However, apart from these, there is nothing. If you look at England or Germany, a first or second division club there will have its own academy. They look after their young players – and this is why they’re progressing. We don’t have this in Russia. There are just five or six clubs who have an academy and – for a country of over 140 million people – this isn’t a lot.”

A lack of public pitches, especially those in-doors, which are essential during the long Russian winter, certainly don’t help matters. While costs can be prohibitive for many, given the financial clout needed to pay for a child’s tuition at youth football clubs. For those youngsters who do graduate from the youth academies around Russia, the problems don’t stop there. Breaking into a first team in the Russian Premier League is no easy task.

“The main problem in Russia is that we have a lot of foreigners in our league and our youth players aren’t getting the chance to play”, Kanchelskis notes. “Because of this, they aren’t progressing. Club owners want results today…not tomorrow, but today. This is a big problem. They feel it’s much better to buy a player for €5 million from South America, or Europe, rather than develop our own young players.” Although there is a rule governing the amount of foreigners playing in the Russian Premier League (four Russians have to be on the pitch at all times), this has done little to help the development of Russian youngsters.

Young players in Russia are often paid vastly exaggerated salaries, meaning they have little incentive to progress, as they are already financially secure for life in their early 20s. During the 90s Kanchelskis was one of a number of foreign players to succeed abroad, however, in the last ten years, only Dmitry Alenichev, who was a Champions League and UEFA Cup winner with Porto and Dmitry Bulykin, who scored almost a goal every other game during his three season’s playing in the Netherlands, could say they have had any long term success playing outside of Russia.

The draw of high wages, low taxes, familiar language and home comforts, has meant the likes of CSKA’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and midfielder Alan Dzagoev prefer to stay in Russia, rather than play for some of Europe’s top clubs, much to the disappointment of Kanchelskis, who believes Russian players are ‘stagnating’ by playing their club football at home.

The age of the Russian squad at the Euro 2012 Championships in Poland and Ukraine was one of the highest in the tournament. The same group of players are still with the squad, while with the exception of Aleksandr Kokorin and Alan Dzagoev; there are no talented youngsters in their early 20s coming through. Therefore, next year’s World Cup could be the last opportunity for this talented group to achieve success, as unfortunately with their own home World Cup looming, success on the pitch is looking a distant prospect for Russia.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.