Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Steven Beacom: Northern Ireland upset in Russia would add to Fab molotov cocktail

Fabio Capello

As Northern Ireland’s footballers flew into Moscow on Wednesday to begin their World Cup qualifying campaign, they arrived in a nation awash with money.

Football money, that is.

The cash splashed about in the Premier League in England is mind-boggling, but right now even Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are finding it tough to compete with the finances swirling around the Russian club scene.

Just this week Zenit St Petersburg announced they had signed Porto’s Brazilian striker and Chelsea-target Hulk for £32 million.

Enough to make you green with envy.

For good measure Zenit also snapped up Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica for the same fee.

Both are on astronomical wages, though not as high as Samuel Eto’o who even outstrips Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of annual salary.

Former Barcelona hero Eto'o earns a staggering €20m per year with Russian Premier League club FC Anzhi Makhachkala.

All this dough comes from just about every football team having a rich owner like Roman Abramovich.

These billionaires recruit top foreign stars with a wave of a chequebook.

The problem, like in England, is with so many foreigners arriving, there is less room for home-grown talent to blossom which has a negative impact on the national team.

Fabio Capello, the recently appointed Russian coach, wants a change to the ruling which states in every starting XI in the Russian Premier League only four locals have to be selected.

Capello also wants to rein in the massive bonuses given to national team players, maintaining they should only be paid out if qualification is secured or they go far in a tournament rather than after each individual win.

The irony here is that Capello is on a reputed £7 million a year regardless of how well or badly he does.

The 66-year-old, after leaving the England coaching job in February over John Terry being stripped of the captaincy, took charge of Russia in July, replacing Dick Advocaat who was deemed a failure when the team didn’t get out of the Euro 2012 group stages, despite making a promising start to the competition.

One of the criticisms in Red Square of that squad was that too many of them were assured of their place and were simply too comfortable.

Nobody is comfortable now with Capello making his presence felt straightaway dropping skipper Andrei Arshavin from the panel to face Northern Ireland in Moscow's Lokomotiv Stadium in tomorrow’s opening World Cup qualifier.

Fellow senior squad regulars Roman Pavlyuchenko, formerly of Spurs, and Reading’s Pavel Pogrebnyak were also omitted.

Capello says: “Nobody will have any privileges. We are all friends here, we are equals. To get results we must work for the team. The key element will be mutual respect.”

To that end he has opted for a youthful squad who exclusively play their football domestically in the Russian Premier League.

The names will be largely unknown to Northern Ireland fans, but in Russia there is plenty of excitement about 22-year-old CSKA Moscow creative midfielder Alan Dzagoev.

Zenit’s Alexander Kerzhakov and Alexander Kokorin from Dynamo Moscow are in line to lead the attack with defender Sergei Ignashevich from CSKA likely to be given the task of keeping Kyle Lafferty quiet.

Capello’s first match – a friendly at home to Ivory Coast last month - ended in a 1-1 draw.

The Italian, who it appears will make as much effort with the Russian language as he did with English while working for the FA, expects a convincing victory against Northern Ireland.

And he also expects to qualify for the World Cup finals in Rio in 2014, believing quite rightly that Portugal will be his toughest competition in a group that also contains Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

The winners of the section automatically qualify for Brazil with the runners-up involved in a two legged play-off.

Capello said: “The main thing we have to achieve now is to win back the support of Russian fans who feel insulted after Euro 2012.”

In 2018, Russia, who as a football nation have underperformed down the years, will host the World Cup finals.

They are desperate to make at least the semi-finals in that competition and the countdown has effectively started to achieving that aim.

On the pitch Russia want to bring young players through in order for them to gain World Cup experience in Brazil setting them up for the tournament in their own backyard.

Off the pitch the government want the football authorities to clean up their act.

Last week, some of the country’s most powerful officials resigned from the nation’s football union after it became the focus of a financial probe into suspected crony deals between its bosses and bankers.

Russian football is full of money, intrigue and corruption. Wouldn’t it be something if a shock Northern Ireland victory tomorrow could add even more spice?

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