The world watched in amazement as Andrey Arshavin scored through the legs of veteran Edwin van der Sar to knock home Russia’s 3rd goal of the match in the 116th minute of the quarter finals of the EURO 2008 to put the match beyond the high flying Dutchmen. Their stellar displays had made the likes of Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko the hottest properties in European football. Along with this, CSKA and Zenit’s UEFA Cup victories, within three years of each other led many to believe that, Russia’s golden generation were taking them back to the times when the USSR was a force to be reckoned with. However, two years on, the optimism has disappeared and the right to host 2018 WC remains the only glimmer of hope for football in the country which has been ravaged with problems in every area of the game – whether it is on the pitch, or in the financial or cultural spheres.
The performance of the national team has, to a large extent symbolized the decline in football in Russia; with Guus Hiddink’s achievements in the EURO 2008 marred by the disappointment of losing to Slovenia in the knock out qualifying round meant that Russia wouldn’t be one of the teams competing for the top prize in football in the summer of 2010. Now desperate to qualify for the Euro 2012, the Russians find themselves in a challenging position tied at the top spot with Republic of Ireland and Slovakia, five games into the qualifiers.
The primary problem for them has been scoring with the manager persisting with the one striker system even against much weaker teams despite Aleksandr Kerzakov obviously lacking in confidence. The 1-0 home loss to Slovenia and a goalless draw with Armenia has done little to improve the morale of the team.
Despite his unsavory exit, following in Hiddink’s footsteps was never going to be an easy task for Dick Advocaat, but the man who once received a congratulatory phone call from Vladimir Putin after leading Zenit to the UEFA Cup in 2008, is now the biggest culprit in the eyes of the Russia public as suggested by the fans reaction to their goalless draw at home against Armenia. Arshavin too has taken plenty of flak from fans and former players for his uninspired performances on the pitch and his obvious lack of fitness which has resulted in a poor season for Arsenal too.
The financial aspect of the football clubs in Russia have also been the centre of countless controversies in recent past. Whether it was the accusation that Rubin Kazan used unfair means to fuel their rapid rise or the controversy surrounding bribing of referees, several doubts have been cast about the way the game is run, making people question the integrity of the sport in the country.
The massive gulf in the financial state of the top four clubs from the other clubs is a serious issue largely ignored by the Russian Premier League bosses. While the richest club Zenit funded by Gazprom, manages to spend in excess of 50 million euros every year, smaller clubs largely state funded linger on the verge of bankruptcy as government organizations rarely pay attention to their problems.
Mismanagement of finances has affected several clubs. After a downpour of sponsorship deals during the economic and footballing heydays of 2008 in Russia, clubs like Tomask faced bankruptcy towards the end of 2009 when the economic crisis took its toll, only to be rescued by appeals for help by Putin. FC Moskva, Torpedo Moskow and FC Saturn all faced the consequences of rash spending and many erstwhile top-rung sides now find themselves in the second division.
However, the biggest blot on the image of the game in the country has been the racism and violence among fans. In a country with a well known history of football violence, an increase in the number of fan riots in recent years can only be bad news. Zenit’s UEFA Cup victory was marred by clashes between their fans with Glasgow Rangers fans in Manchester; as was their win over Rostov in November last year when the team managed by Spaletti wrapped up the Premier League title. Taking the sheen off a fantastic campaign for Zenit, all the media focus was deviated towards the happenings after the match when fans invaded the pitch and tore down one of the goals at the Petrovsky, the home of Zenit St. Petersburg. The riots where then taken to the streets where police was forced into action. It wasn’t the first of the season either. In a Europa Cup clash against Hajduk Split, clashes between the two sets of fans were reported.
While Zenit fans have repeatedly shown militant tendencies, Spartak fans, unfortunately, have followed them every step of the way. In December 2010, the shooting of a fan saw one of the biggest race riots in Russian history. In the same year, UEFA fined Spartak 75,000 euros after its supporters invaded the pitch during a Champions League match away to Zilina in Slovakia. Racism has been a long standing problem in Russian football and several clubs have been fined frequently for their fans’ taunts against African players.
And these are just the problems on the surface. Last month, a Montenegrin footballer had launched a complained against Kuban Krasnodar, the club that he represented, to FIFA and UEFA that the club had threatened him into him into breaking their contract. The legal proceeding on the matter, are still on.
Prior to Russia’s match against Armenia, accusations were made by an Armenian national newspaper that the football association had been offered money by the bigwigs in Russian football to throw away the three points when the two teams met in the EURO 2012 qualifiers. If true, it must be dealt with severely as it raises questions about several other issues, one of which being whether Russia earned the right to host the 2018 World Cup by unfair means.
There have also been constant whispers about the association of Russian mafia with the sport and the say it has on the results of the matches played in the country. Despite being dismissed by Russian authorities as media sensationalism, several accusations may hold water. Corruption is an issue that has hounded Russia in every sector and it does not look like football can be rid of it anytime soon.
The World Cup in 2018 is being viewed by the authorities as an opportunity for the country to become a part of the footballing elite, a dream cultivated during the sensational run in EURO 2008 which has since suffered more than a few knocks. For that to happen, the country may need a major overhauling of not just infrastructure but also its image in footballing circles. Whether eight years is sufficient time to overcome the barrage of problems faced by the country today is anybody’s guess.
– Kumar Shivam