Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

A bear that never really learned to punch its weight

If sport reflects society then the failure of Russian football at the highest level does not just result from its turbulent development. Glenn Moore reports

In August the Americans showed a B-52 bomber at the Moscow airshow. What followed was an even more seismic leap from the Cold War era as a Russian businessman asked to buy it. He was told it would cost at least £250m. " That is no problem. It is such a cool machine," said the Russian. It was not, however, for sale.

Things have changed in Russia, as England will find when their coach sits in gridlocked streets, lit by gaudy neon signs and flanked by high-end retailers. Of more interest to Steve McClaren is the progress, or otherwise, of its indigenous footballers.



There are few better examples of the way sport can reflect society than the way Russian football has ebbed and flowed with the political currents. Having struggled to gain a foothold in Tsarist Russia it became, like every other aspect of life, subject to the whims of the Soviet leadership. Now it is constantly reshaped by the gusts of change blowing through modern Russia.



A once insular game finds its national team funded by an absentee billionaire and coached by a Dutchman, its clubs are as reliant on foreigners as those of England. What has not changed, and McClaren will hope it does not for a while yet, is the inability, for the last three decades, of the Russian bear to punch its weight on the international stage.



As everywhere else, the game was introduced by Britons, one of the earliest leading clubs, OKS Moscow, played in blue-and-white halved shirts as the cotton-mill owners who formed it were from Blackburn. Unlike most everywhere else the game was slow to take root, not penetrating the masses for a generation, in part because of the popularity of cycling, in part because a paranoid state did not permit workers' organisations for fear of them being a cover for fermenting revolution.



Football's popularity was, however, impossible to contain. Regional leagues were formed and, in 1912, Russia played its first internationals. However, after eight winless matches, including a politically embarrassing 16-0 thrashing by Germany at the Stockholm Olympics, the Great War broke out. In Russia this led to the 1917 Revolution after which nothing was the same again.



Organised sport re-emerged in the early 1920s though, apart from a brace of internationals against Turkey, both won, the football was a strictly internal affair. By the 1930s, under Stalin, clubs were linked with various state enterprises. Central House, or CSKA, were the Army team, the various Dynamos the police/secret service teams, Lokomotiv for the railway workers, and so on, with the exception of the Moscow club, Spartak, formed by Nikolai Starostin, an enigmatic fixer and football fanatic, which came to represent the "little people" even a command economy needs, like barbers and shopkeepers.



For decades Spartak v Dynamo matches came to represent, in somewhat simplistic terms, the individual versus the state. Spartak thus became wildly popular but Dynamo, helped by friends in dangerous places, and CSKA, who signed good players by calling them up to Army duty, matched their success.



It was Dynamo Moscow, augmented by players from CSKA, who opened British eyes to the quality of Russian football when, to fevered interest, they toured in 1945 on a post-War friendship mission. Huge crowds saw them beat Arsenal and Cardiff, and draw with Chelsea and Rangers. They introduced such foreign practices as pre-match warm-ups, a new tactical approach and an emphasis on diet and health most British clubs would not follow for 50 years.



Encouraged, Stalin allowed the Soviet Union to enter the Olympics. However, they lost to Yugoslavia, a calamitous failure given Marshal Tito was busy rejecting Stalin's authority. CSKA, who provided the bulk of the team, were disbanded, re-forming only after Stalin's death the following year.



Results improved. Strengthened by players drawn from across the Soviet Union the national team were a force throughout the Sixties. Taking advantage of a weak field they won the inaugural European Championship in 1960. Their leading player was Lev Yashin, the legendary goalkeeper, and, like several key players, a Russian.



The Soviet Union, with Yashin still in goal, reached the finals of the 1964 and 1972 European Championships and the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup and 1968 European Championship. But with the authorities pushing resources, and promising young athletes, towards Olympic sports, results declined. Technically skilled, hard-running, but lacking individual flair the Soviet teams came to embody their society. Politics also intervened. The Soviets missed out on the 1974 World Cup as they refused to compete in a play-off against Chile in Santiago's national stadium on the understandable, morally justified but nevertheless politically motivated grounds that the arena was being used for summary executions by the newly installed regime of General Pinochet.



Thereafter the Soviet Union only once went past the quarter-finals in a major competition and though they went on to reach the final of the 1988 European Championship only two of the players came from Russia. Georgia's Dynamo Tbilisi, and especially Valery Lobanovski's scientifically manufactured Dynamo Kiev, had left the Moscow sides trailing, the Ukrainians also winning the only European trophies, two Cup-Winners' Cups, lifted by Soviet Union teams.



By 1991 glasnost and perestroika were on everyone's lips as the Soviet Union broke up. Within three years, the Russian team had regained its identity, but lost the use of skilful Georgians such as Aleksandr Chivadze, and bright Ukrainians like Andrei Kanchelskis. The clubs fell into financial crisis. Subsequent national results have been dire. Russia have qualified for only three of six major tournaments entered, and gone out in the first round each time.



Thus the hiring of Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman's salary, of course, is underwritten by Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich. For the lucky few, and that includes plenty of footballers, Russia is awash with cash. Millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations have replaced the old state patrons. This has sparked concerns about money-laundering and corruption, but also a revival in quality at club level – in 2005 CSKA Moscow became the first Russian side to win a European trophy, the Uefa Cup. Six days earlier Dynamo Moscow launched a £19m raid on the European Cup holders, Porto, to sign Maniche, Costinha and Derlei. The previous year, Spartak Moscow had paid a record £7m for Boca Juniors striker Fernando Cavenaghi.



None of these players remain, but their arrival highlighted an influx of foreign players so extensive even the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has questioned it. It is easy to explain. When Gary O'Connor left Hibs for Lokomotiv Moscow his salary went from £2,000 a week to £16,000 tax-free with bonuses of up to £250,000. "It was ridiculous money," he said after signing for Birmingham City. "I bought the Ferrari with a bonus."



One consequence of this wealth is that, like McClaren, Hiddink largely selects from domestic teams. Seville's Alexander Kerzhakov and Fulham's Alexei Smertin are among the few major Russian players operating elsewhere. But then, unlike the oligarchs, Russian footballers have rarely made an impact beyond their borders, collectively or individually. England will be aiming to extend that failing.



Russian football: A brief history



1860s Football introduced to Russia by British businessmen, workers and sailors.



1912 All-Russia Football Union formed, affiliates to Fifa.



1912 Russia lose to Finland in first international.



1917 Russian revolution. Clubs reorganised along Soviet lines.



1924-25 Soviet Union plays twice against Turkey, then disappears from international competition until 1952.



1945 Dynamo Moscow visit Britain.



1960 Soviet Union win European Championship. Subsequently loses finals in 1964, 1972, 1988.



1966 Soviet Union reach World Cup semi-finals.



1982 Luzhniki stadium tragedy, up to 340 spectators killed in a crush at a Uefa Cup match between Spartak Moscow and the Dutch side, Haarlem



1991 Break-up of Soviet Union, formation of Commonwealth of Independent States including most former Soviet republics.



1992 CIS briefly field combined sports teams with footballers drawing 2-2 with England in April 1992. In August "Russia" reappears on football fixture lists.



1992 Dimitri Kharine joins Chelsea, becoming the first Russian to play in England.



2005 CSKA Moscow become first Russian team to win a European trophy, the Uefa Cup.