Fabio Capello ruffles Russian feathers
When Fabio Capello began as England manager he banned tomato ketchup. He must have thought it worked, because he has started as Russia manager in almost precisely the same way: banning shisha pipes.
The decision was popular with Russians. Capello might be surprised to find himself in a football culture as driven by trivia as the one he has left, but his new job, which starts in earnest this afternoon against Northern Ireland in Moscow, is strikingly similar to his old one. Following failure, managing transition from a fading generation, responding to public pressure over the captaincy, fending off criticisms of being an overpaid import; it is the same story in a different alphabet.
Banning shisha pipes is just the start of it. After Russia's failure to reach the 2010 World Cup, there was a wide-spread presumption that shisha – a flavoured tabacco – was to blame. Sensing an opportunity to assert his control and please the fans, Capello has begun with the same imposition of rules and rigour which dominated his England tenure. "He pays a lot of attention to discipline," noted Lokomotiv Moscow winger Aleksandr Samedov.
The players might not enjoy it but the public certainly do. There is national frustration at Russia's failure to qualify from a gift of a group at Euro 2012 and a desire for a new start. The old generation, who did so well at Euro 2008, looked tired this summer. There is a demand for fresh ideas from the top.
"People are definitely angry," Russian football journalist Ivan Kalashnikov told The Independent. "The great part of this anger is at [former manager] Dick Advocaat and former president of the Russian Football Union Sergei Fursenko: it was a partnership. Many people prefer to think of this as a new start. The team at Euro 2012 was the same as at 2008, these players should be replaced now."
The most important one is Andrei Arshavin. The icon of his generation, Arshavin was the best player of Russia's 2008 peak, legitimately one of the finest in the world. He became captain soon after but his form has dipped in recent years. His comments after Euro 2012, saying it was the fans' "problem" that they had such high expectations, were not well received.
For Capello's first and only game so far, a 1-1 draw with Ivory Coast, Arshavin was left on the bench. Igor Denisov, the Zenit midfielder, was captain and did not hand over the armband when Arshavin came on. For today's game, and Tuesday's in Israel, Arshavin has not even been included in the squad. Denisov is the new captain.
The move feels like a symbolic repudiation of the last few years. Capello does not pick on reputation, as David Beckham found out. Aleksandr Bubnov, who won 34 caps for the USSR side, is delighted with Capello.
"Arshavin was badly prepared under Advocaat but he got a place in the side nonetheless," Bubnov told Sovietsky Sport. "But these are different times, when it's actual work in training and performance in matches that count. Arshavin is no longer the most important; he can't dictate the starting line-up, and he's no longer untouchable. And that's great."
Arshavin will always be a hero in Russia but the supporters are sympathetic to the manager. "Everything Capello did about Arshavin just felt right for most of the fans," Kalashnikov, deputy editor of Sport.ru, said. "Given the last issues with captaincy which he had with England, maybe he really thought about it."
There are casualties beyond Arshavin. Roman Pavyluchenko and Yuri Zhirkov, two other heroes of Guus Hiddink's 2008 side, have been left out. There is no great new generation emerging, although Capello's team will likely be built around 22-year-old Alan Dzagoev. Capello is clearly no radical, as he showed in England, but he is not a sentimentalist either. If Zhirkov, Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko want to be part of Russian sides they will have to earn the right.
But it was not on-pitch matters that pushed Capello out of the England job. The Russian Football Union is a complex organisation, which itself has been through recent turmoil. Fursenko quit after the failure at Euro 2012; he was close to Advocaat, having worked with him at Zenit. Fursenko has been replaced by Nikolay Tolstykh, a former footballer thought to be less keen to use the national team to raise money abroad than Fursenko was.
Money is an issue, though. Capello is one of the highest paid national managers in the world, earning £7.8m per year. Not all of this will come from the RFU, with some funding thought to come from billionaire Spartak Moscow owner Leonid Fedun and Suleiman Kerimov of Anzhi Makhachkala. But as Capello knows well from England, with great wages come great expectations. Russia must qualify for their first World Cup since 2002. "If Russia does not get to the World Cup it should be considered a failure," said Kalashnikov. "Why appoint a manager that big and at that cost and not play there?"