Richard van Poortvliet: Holidays over, is Russia warming to tasks ahead?

Russia is finally beginning to return to normal after an extended holiday period. New Year, the Orthodox Christmas and the Orthodox New Year have all been celebrated as millions begin to return to work. However, the resumption of the domestic football season is still some way off, as large parts of Russia are still under blankets of snow. In anticipation of the season getting back underway with the resumption of European football for Zenit St Petersburg, Anzhi Makhachkala and Rubin in the middle of February, I will look at five aspects of the game, which I would like to see drastically change during the next 12 months.

Racism

2013 wasn’t a good year for Russia on this front and it’s almost a case of where to start, as there were so many unsavoury incidents. From Spartak Moscow fans unveiling a Nazi flag at their Russian Cup tie at Shinnik Yarolsavl, to CSKA Moscow supporters racially taunting Yaya Toure during their UEFA Champions League clash with Manchester City. I have touched on the topic of racism in Russian football on numerous occasions in the past, so I won’t go into the causes, but rather briefly look at the solutions to how this problem can be solved.

Hitting the clubs where it hurts will certainly have an effect. Spartak Moscow lost $1.4 million after being forced to play two home games behind closed doors and this led the club to take much stronger action in trying to find and then prosecute the perpetrators involved in the incident in Yaroslavl. However, there also needs to be a realisation amongst the clubs that there is a problem in the first place. At first, CSKA denied any racist chanting had taken place, despite the fact it was clearly audible. While Spartak tried to place the blame on insufficient security checks for their fans by the home club Shinnik Yaroslavl.

It is up to these clubs and the authorities in Russia to try and root out of the problem of racism. The clubs need to work more closely with the local police and the Russian Football Union to try and create a database and make sure those who have caused trouble at Russian football grounds are not given the chance to repeat these actions. This is beginning to happen, with seven-year stadium bans being handed out to known hooligans. However, we will seen in 2014 whether these measures are having much of an impact on Russian football to try and tackle the problems of racism and hooliganism for good.

Pitches

Could you imagine Arsenal having to play a home UEFA Champions League match in Glasgow because there were no pitches in the English capital capable of hosting such a tie? I didn’t think so. However, this is exactly what happened to CSKA Moscow, as they were forced to travel 630 kilometres to St Petersburg in order to play their Champions League clash with Viktoria Plzen as there were no pitches in Moscow, a city of around 15 million people, that could host the game. Currently, there are only two stadiums, Lokomotiv and the Arena Khimki (which technically isn’t actually in Moscow itself), which are capable of holding top-flight matches. This is a rather embarrassing situation, especially when Russian clubs can spend ten’s of millions of dollars on buying new players, but can’t even provide their team with a decent playing surface to play on in their own city. This is a problem that should be solved within the next couple of years. Spartak Moscow are due to open their new ground in the summer, while CSKA’s and Dynamo’s stadiums should be completed within the next couple of years.

Russian clubs in Europe

2008 seems like a long time ago. Russia were turning heads at Euro 2008 with their brand of free-flowing football, which came fresh from Zenit St Petersburg becoming the first Russian side to win a major European competition, as they beat Glasgow Rangers in Manchester to claim the UEFA Cup. However, since then the St Petersburg ‘giants’ have done almost nothing on the European stage and despite the vast funds they have at their disposal, they have only managed to qualify for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League twice since 2008 and have never got past the Round of 16. It is unlikely they will create history this year, as they are paired with Borussia Dortmund, a club, which reached the final of last year’s competition.

Former Manchester United and Russia winger, Andrey Kanchelskis pointed out that journalists and officials within the country are over rating the strength of the domestic championships and he seems to have a valid point.

Despite having the ability to buy some of the top players from around Europe, Russia’s clubs are not producing results on a European stage. CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg both suffered defeats to Viktoria Plzen and Austria Vienna in this season’s competition, despite both their opponents having vastly inferior budgets and spending power.

Following Zenit’s triumph in 2008, it seemed only a matter of time before a Russian side won the Champions League. However, a more realistic expectation would be for a Russian side to reach the quarter-finals of the competition, which was last achieved by CSKA in 2010. At present, there is a vast gap between the top Russian clubs and their European equivalents – a lot greater than a number of pundits in the country actually realise.

Lack of Russian head coaches

There are currently nine Russians, three Belarusians, and one each from Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Italy coaching in the Russian Premier League. While there is a healthy proportion of home grown talent, the national team has persisted with foreign head coaches for the last eight years – a trend which is likely to continue, with Fabio Capello set to be offered a new contract to coach Russia past the Brazil World Cup.

With the exception of Luciano Spalletti at Zenit, and Dan Petrescu from his time at Kuban Krasnodar, it is difficult to find an example of a foreign coach who has succeeded in the Russian Premier League. Of course there was Dick Advocaat, who helped Zenit win the league title and the UEFA Cup, but the likes of Slaven Bilic, Michael Laudrup and Unai Emery have been failures. All three managers had excellent reputations before taking up their positions and were brought in at considerable expense, however, no one was able to make an impact, with Bilic lasting the longest – before he was sacked by Lokomotiv Moscow after just 13 months.

Never the less, there seems a reluctance amongst chairman to give young Russian coaches a chance, rather it is desirable to bring in a high profile name from abroad, without any guarantees of success. I would like to see more clubs follow CSKA Moscow’s example and back a Russian coach for a period of time. Leonid Slutsky has been in charge for over four years, guiding the Armymen to the Russian Premier League title in 2013 and the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals in 2010. Only once homegrown managers are given the chance on the biggest stage will we know if they are capable of fulfilling their potential.

Young talent

Russia had one of the oldest squads at the Euro 2012 championships in Poland and Ukraine and this is a trend that is likely to continue in Brazil this year. With the exception of Aleksandr Kokorin (Alan Dzagoev has been in the national team since 2009), there is little young talent emerging within the Russian Premier League.

Although Russia’s domestic league does have a foreign quota, which states six players with Russian passports must be on the pitch at the same time, this has not helped to give Fabio Capello a wider pool of players to choose from. Again, part of the problem is with club owners and managers preferring to buy players from abroad, even if they are of inferior quality to young domestic players. I would like to see clubs in the Russian Premier League take a risk on young players, rather than try to seek short term gains, which is to the detriment of Russian football in the long term.

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