Richard van Poortvliet: Where player quotas have had an unbalancing effect

Just two years ago, life could not have been better for Magomed Ozdoev. He was in with a chance of being called up to the Russia squad for EURO 2012, following some excellent displays for his club side, Lokomotiv Moscow and was expected to be a linchpin in midfield for both club and country for the next decade.

Things have not fallen into place for the 21 year-old. He has only started four matches this season and has yet to complete 90 minutes on the pitch this season in the Russian Premier League. Russia currently has a limit of seven foreigners who can appear in a club’s starting line-up, which should help Ozdoev’s cause, however, according to the midfielder, nothing could be further from the truth.

“If a player wants to develop, he will go to Europe, but to leave Russia is difficult,” the former young Russian footballer of the year mentioned. “It’s difficult for the clubs to agree to a deal amongst themselves. We have a limit and, therefore, clubs do not want to let a good Russian player leave as it will be difficult to find a similar player for that position with the necessary passport.”

This is a major problem that is hurting Russian football at present. Youngsters, who are still in their teens and have not even broken into the first team, are on vastly inflated salaries because they hold a Russian passport.

“I have played at Dynamo Kiev, Terek Grozny and Lokomotiv Moscow and strong competition really helps youngsters progress,” Ozdoev added. “A limit on foreign players in its current form does not help. I know players who have asked their clubs for more money even though they are not in the first 11. Then these players fall out of favour and start to blame the club – they blame everyone except themselves,” the 21 year-old concluded.

This is a matter that the Russian Football Union are looking to address. Young players in Russia do not have the hunger of their counterparts in Serbia or the Czech Republic for example. Players in those countries do not earn high salary’s at the start of their careers, therefore it is imperative for them to work hard and seal a move to a top European league, where they can earn much larger sums. An average Russian player can still be in his teens, yet have more money than he knows what to do with.

CSKA Moscow’s sporting director, Roman Babaev believes that there should be a salary cap for players under the age of 21. “We believe it is vital to limit salaries for those players under 21. Everyone one knows what is going on now. We also need to look at increasing the amount of compensation that a youth academy receives, when a young player signs for a professional club as this will increase the motivation of the schools to produce players.”

The limit on foreigners in Russia could actually be hindering the development of football in the country in completely the opposite way it was designed. Four Russian players know they will appear in the starting eleven no matter how badly they perform, so there can be a lack of motivation to better performances. One solution to the problem regarding the foreigner’s rule is to implement a new squad system for each team, each season. The squad would consist of 25 players, of which 10 could be foreigners and the rest Russians. There would be no limit to the amount of foreigners appearing in the starting eleven.

The Russian Minister for Sport, Vitaly Mutko, who also used to be the President of the Russian Football Union and is a member of FIFA’s executive committee talks of the need to find a “balance”, which will suit the needs of the club owners and also the future of the Russian national football team.

“In 2005, we had a formula that five Russian’s and up to six foreigners could be in the starting eleven. Now Sepp Blatter is talking about this. This is the optimal balance,” Mutko stated.

I believe the greatest problem facing the development of Russian football is not the limit on foreigners; rather that it is with the structure of youth football in the country. At present Russian players leave their academys at the age of 17 and are thrown straight into the deep end of trying to compete for a place in the first team. Not every footballer matures at such a young age, such as Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi. However, there is no transitional stage for Russian youngsters, in trying to adapt to the pressures of playing professional football.

The head co-ordinator of the CSKA Moscow youth academy, Andres Lillini, pointed out these difficulties. During his time with Boca Juniors, he coached the likes of Carlos Tevez and Nicolas Gaitan, while he believes youngsters in Russia are not being given the right transition to compete with fully grown men.

“Russian players are extremely talented and their skill level and tactical awareness are very well developed,” the Argentine said. The main difference between Russia and other countries where I have worked is there are fewer tournaments and match practice for the children. I think it is because of this that it takes longer for Russian youngsters to break into the first teams as they are not used to playing in pressurised situations,” Lillini continued.

Some of the footballing facilities for young players in Russia are amongst the best in the world, such as the stunning FC Krasnodar academy in the south of the country. CSKA Moscow are regularly one of the top youth sides in Europe and they finished above both Bayern Munich and Manchester City, in the group stages of the UEFA Youth League this season.

An interesting phenomenon within Russia in recent years is how a number of players only start to reach their peak towards their late 20s. One only has to look at two of the country’s star midfielders over the last few years, Konstantin Zryanov and Roman Shirokov, as a case in point. Both were anonymous in their early 20s and it was only after good coaching and getting used to playing at a higher tempo that they began to blossom as they approached 30.

There is certainly talent in Russia, but perhaps it is time for the powers that be within the country to start addressing problems with the structure of youth football, rather than blaming foreign imports for keeping Russian youngsters from breaking into the first teams of their clubs.

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