How Politics Is Destroying Russian Football

Russia fans hold up giant banner before Euro 2012 soccer match against Poland in Warsaw

Russia – the largest country in the world, with some of the most populated cities in the world. A land of freezing weather and oodles of oil, which today means a lot of money. Russia also is a country of something else: a land full of football potential. This year’s Champions League display by Zenit has been one of the country’s best, which is very embarrassing. A Russian team has never won the Champions League due to arrogance and ignorance, both of which have cost them the opportunity to be a dominant nation in the world of football.

There are two things that any given country needs to be a successful footballing nation: money and fan support. These are elements that the top five leagues in Europe have in abundance. Behind them are countries such as Portugal and Holland that tend to fall off in one of the categories, which is why their teams are not quite international giants.


An artist’s impression of the Gazprom Arena – the stunning new home of Zenit St. Petersburg.

But Russia has money and fans. Moscow is the 10th largest city in the world and home to three of Russia’s biggest clubs: CSKA, Dynamo and Lokomotiv. Then there is St. Petersburg, one of the top 50 most populated cities in the world and home to another giant, Zenit St. Petersburg. What Zenit lacks in support, it makes up for in finances; the team is owned by Gazprom Oil and Gas, which took a controlling stake in the club in 2005 and immediately invested $100 million into new players and a new stadium. They have grown immensely since and are known for having the seventh-largest transfer budget in world football. They have also begun to build another new stadium which will be known as Gazprom Arena and will be one of the top stadiums in football.

Back in Moscow, CSKA and Dynamo are owned by VTB Bank, one of the richest banks in the world. CSKA is also owned by billionaire Russian businessman Yevgeny Giner. Lokotmotiv is owned by TransTelekom Railroads, another billion-dollar company.

So Russia has no less than four clubs that fit the international power model of huge fan base and strong finances. Everything is in place for any of them to be forces in Europe, yet they are not. Many wonder why they have not reached this level. Is it poor money management? Is it the unforgiving weather that makes it an unlikely destination for better players? No. The real problem here is that Russia has forgotten one of the greatest rules in all of sports: politics and sports are not meant to work with one another.


Brazilian international Hulk is the face of Zenit.


The arrogance and ignorance of Russia’s government has led to it destroying the potential it has in the world of football. The first evidence of this is Russia’s new 6+5 rule, put into place this summer for all of its teams. This rule states that at all times each team must have at least five players on the field who are eligible to play for the Russian National team and can only feature six who are not. From a nationalistic standpoint, Russia believes it will create more playing time for its native players – which it will, thus improving them in preparation for the upcoming international tournaments, including the 2018 World Cup, which Russia is hosting. However, this rule will not improve the players, who are not competing against top talent and do not have to fight as hard for a place in the side. Footballers know that if they are Russian, they will play. All this rule really does is make clubs overpay for Russian players in transfer fees and salary.

If you need proof, look no further than Turkey, a country much smaller than Russia. It used to have a 7+4 rule that Russia followed up until this year and that is exactly what happened: Its national team did not improve, and the Turks have only recently shown growth because they now have a quality manager in Fatih Terim. Additionally, the rise in player prices is obvious; Bursaspor set an asking price of 12 million euros for 19-year-old midfielder Ozan Tufan who has made his way onto the Turkish national team. This year, Turkey changed its foreign rules to feature Turkish players merely in the match day squad rather than on the pitch and also limit how many foreigners can be registered for each team. Although I still do not agree with this rule, it is much more reasonable and fans will almost definitely see significant growth in the quality of play in the Turkish League – and from Turkish players – over the next five to ten years.


Turkey reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002 but they have struggled to reach those same heights in more recent years.

Russia’s top clubs have plenty of money, which means they should be able to handle the rise in player salaries and transfer fees. But it has become a struggle thanks to Russia’s government, which has been battling a financial crisis which has seen the value of the ruble – Russia’s form of currency – decrease by more than 50 percent. This crisis happened because Russia did not have the budget to deal with the huge drop in oil prices from June to December in 2014, instead investing their money in the annexation of Crimea and their political interventions in Ukraine.
These poor political decisions have affected Russia’s football. Players in the Russian Premier League had to sign what is known as the ruble crisis memorandum. This converted every player’s salary to rubles, as many were still being paid in euros. The exchange rate was one euro to 55 rubles, which is only about 71 percent of the true exchange rate – meaning that players were now losing 29 percent of their salary. Many foreign players only signed this memorandum with the promise of being sold, such as Seydou Doumbia, Mathieu Valbuena and William Vainqueur, to name a few. Zenit St. Petersburg were the only club with the financial power to renegotiate contracts with some of their stars and also lucky enough that one of their best players, Hulk, accepted the pay cut. However, Zenit were forced to sell another of their stars, Salomon Rondon, due to the 6+5 rule as they couldn’t find game time for him.

“The arrogance and ignorance of Russia’s government has led to it destroying the potential it has in the world of football.”

The 6+5 rule and the ruble crisis memorandum have given the hierarchy of the league and Russia’s government what they wanted: a league featuring mainly Russian players. What they do not understand is the opportunity that they are squandering, and the fact that this will not help their national team improve for upcoming international tournaments – including the biggest one of all, in their own backyard. This is why many of the league’s current stars want out, such as Axel Witsel, Ezeqiuel Garay, Seydou Doumbia and even manager Andre Villas Boas. They came for the money and the potential, but Russian government has turned these selling points into empty promises by allowing politics and nationalism to interfere with sports.


By Andrew Bernucca a Guest Writer for TFN on 21/12/2015 at 21:26


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