Despite breakneck “Europeanisation”, Russian football hasn’t lost its trademark authenticity: managers still struggle to string words together at press conferences; no one knows any foreign languages, even though half the players are highly-paid South Americans; fans still charge on to the pitches, which still look like vegetable patches. If online protest group Stand Against Modern Football knew a bit more about the Russian game, they’d be sure to move their headquarters here.
The Russian national team is the chief joy and heartbreak of any Russian. In many respects the national side resembles England: a decent, if overrated squad, exaggerated ambitions and habitual failures, each more painful than the last; they’re even both familiar with strict but stylish Italian coach Fabio Capello, once of England, now with Russia. One of the chief roles of the national side in Russian society is as a prompt for sarcastic witticisms: everyone knows you’re supposed to make fun of the team, even people who’ve never seen a ball kicked in anger. But when rare successes do come along (most recently at Euro 2008) the whole nation hits the streets, holding a flag in their right hand and a beer in their left.
That said, this time round the national team feels a bit different: there are no sparkling but selfish players like Andrei Arshavin in 2008; no stars of foreign leagues like former Porto player Dmitry Alenichev. All the squad are based in Russia, making them something of a surprise package. What’s more, the group is free from the usual internal conflicts and play careful, good-looking football as a team.
The old diagnosis of former coach Guus Hiddink that Russia can beat anyone, but also lose to anyone, could prove to be anachronistic. A team under the iron rule of Capello is unlikely to give in to all-comers (in this case, Algeria and South Korea, who, along with new powerhouse Belgium, make up Russia’s group). Whisper it only, this could be the year Russia makes it out of the World Cup group stages for the first time ever.
Much ink has been spilled on the unique nature of the Russian soul, its predisposition towards both largesse and laziness. Russian football is a case in point. Despite having a decent league of their own, Russian footballers almost never make it on foreign soil. When the Iron Curtain came crashing down, dozens of ex-Soviet stars took the first plane out of the country, but only a few of them — notably Manchester United flyer Andrei Kanchelskis and Celta Vigo duo Alexander Mostovoy and Valery Karpin — managed to really make a name for themselves. The majority who have tried have been undone either by a flaky temperament, a taste for booze — or, most often, a bit of both.
The most recent wave of emigration came after Russia’s moderate success at Euro 2008, when Andrei Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov made their way to England. The talented quartet started promisingly, but quickly came unstuck. Largely they suffered from an unwillingness to demand more from themselves, both on and off the pitch. An honourable exception here was Yuri Zhirkov, who could have made a serious go of it in the Premier League were it not for chronic homesickness and his obsession with tanks. Yes, tanks: Zhirkov is a serious collector of anything connected with the Second World War, including military hardware. So, despite the pleading of his then boss at Chelsea Villas-Boas, he quit London for the tropical climes of Dagestan and Anzhi Makhachkala.
The Russian championship is a unique spectacle, at once intriguing and mind-numbingly dull. Despite the fact that, in four years’ time, the World Cup roadshow will be pitching up in Russia, most teams still don’t have their own stadium — a legacy of the collapse of Soviet infrastructure.
Nonetheless, the league does hold its own in terms of quality — the overall standard is about the same level as the French or Portuguese league. The main difference is the absence of ever-present big-hitters: in the Russian league, any team really can beat any other.
The club with the most overall silverware in the cupboard is Spartak Moscow: they won nine championships in the 1990s, but are now going through an extended drought, with the 2003 Russian Cup their last trophy.
In their wake, Gazprom-fuelled Zenit St Petersburg have emerged as high-achieving high-rollers. Nevertheless, despite the presence of Brazilian super-striker Hulk in attack, and one-time managerial wunderkind Andre Villas-Boas calling the shots, the petrochemical-powered Petersburgers have failed to take the title from CSKA, a team known for their fiscal good sense and the smarts of their coach, Leonid Slutsky — the only Russian manager not reminiscent of a hard-bitten, intellectually challenged gym teacher.
Gas giant Gazprom plays a big role in Russian football. As well as Zenit, it sponsors sports channel NTV Plus and, through its subsidiary Sogaz, the league. What’s more, it’s the title sponsor of the Champions League — something which prompts a lot of jokes, considering that, unlike the other major sponsors, Gazprom doesn’t sell anything you can buy in a shop or drink during a match. Gazprom’s support of the Champions League is a naked PR move — an attempt simply to remind people that Russia exists. Not even cigarette paper can be put between Gazprom and the Kremlin these days, which hardly wins either Zenith or Gazprom much love among fans.
Although the morality police love to pontificate about the immorality of Russian fans, there is something touchingly old-fashioned and non-conformist about their behaviour. Many who oppose the state of modern football — transformed by big money from the Middle East and Asia into a sort of sporting Disneyland — might be happy to hear that Russia remains a stronghold of certain footballing traditions: fighting before, during and after matches, lobbing seats and hurling abusive chants, shouting yourself hoarse and getting into rows with the management.
Going to the football in Russia is no picnic; it’s a feat of endurance. As a consequence, the spectators that hit the stands are for the most part teenagers, hardcore fans and lairy lager louts. And they behave accordingly: throwing flares, booing when they see black players, swearing and smoking as if their lives depended on it.
The '90s witnessed a fashion for fights in the stands between police special forces and fans. All agree, however, that the best recent fight actually took place on the pitch itself, in 2006, when hardcore fans leapt the barricades to join the brawling players of CSKA and Saturn.
In European competition, Russian clubs alternate between shameful failure and relative success (ie making it through the Champions League group stages before crashing out at the quarter finals). Russian teams have picked up three trophies since the end of the Soviet Union: two UEFA Cups (CSKA in 2005 and Zenit in 2008) and a Super Cup for Zenit, who beat Manchester United in 2008. European competition normally brings out the best in the many foreign players plying their trade in Russia: it’s a shop window that offers them the prospect of getting picked up by a real European giant, as happened to former CSKA stars Keisuke Honda from Japan and Serbia’s Milos Krasic who secured transfers to AC Milan and Juventus respectively.
Russian players have always known how to let their hair down, but when it comes to the urge for self-destruction while playing abroad, no one beats former Milwall pair Sergei Yuran and Vasily Kulkov. They weren’t in London long and they didn’t shine on the pitch, scoring only one goal between them. Nonetheless, Yuran became a firm favourite at Millwall in his 16-month stay, thanks to his tendency to get sent off, get into fights and get caught drunk behind the wheel.