Andrei Kanchelskis Exclusive Interview: “There are many problems in Russian football”

Andrei Kanchelskis in Red Square, Moscow, with St Basil’s Cathedral in the background ahead of Torpedo Moscow – Manchester United in the UEFA Cup. Source: Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS via Getty Images.

It may only be just over a year since Andrei Kanchelskis was employed in professional football, but it already seems a lifetime away. The flying winger blazed a remarkable trail across Great Britain and Italy in his playing days before enduring a number of frustrating managerial positions back in his homeland that was strewn with incompetent, baseball-bat-wielding and at times unqualified sporting directors and chairmen. What is sometimes forgotten is quite how well Kanchelskis himself actually performed in the majority of his managerial postings, and how deeply he still cares about the health of the Russian game.

Russian Football News caught up with the former Soviet Union, CIS and Russia legend ahead of the internationals against Spain and Argentina last November to gain an insight into his thoughts on the game today. As a British citizen, he has picked up some traits that mark him out as a different character to many of his compatriots, and he isn’t afraid to show them. His insistence on quality preparation saw him lock horns with current FC Ural head coach Aleksandr Tarkhanov while playing under him at Solaris Moscow towards the end of his playing career.

 

The Standard of Russian Coaching

Tarkhanov had picked up a habit of some Brazilian clubs training with deflated balls on the beach to improve their decision making and use of the ball on the ground. Needless to say, the move drew confusion from the squad, as he explained to RFN.

This is good for the young players, the kids, not for the professionals. It was strange, because a lot of players didn’t understand. I understand it’s OK for young kids, 16 or 17 years old; it’s very good for technical dribbling, but not for professionals. It’s not possible to use this approach in training matches at Bayern Munich, Juventus and so forth, people will say you’re crazy you know?

Leonid Slutsky’s failed adventure as Hull City manager is a sad indictment in many ways of the mentality of Russian football as a whole. The fact he ventured outside his homeland at all was a huge surprise, but the manner in which he struggled massively – despite having won three Russian Football Premier League (RFPL) titles, two Russian Cups and a Russian Super Cup – demonstrated the relative dearth in quality coaching.

Slutsky enjoyed several fruitful years domestically at CSKA Moscow but was frequently found wanting on the European stage. A rigid tactical system and an increasingly stale squad were obvious elements in poor continental showings, and considering he was largely seen to be the top manager in the country, it is not hard to see why Kanchelskis holds a low opinion of the standard of coaching.

One coach, you know Grigoryan, he coached women for ten years, and now he’s coaching men’s teams. I don’t understand what is happening. I was saying this morning on the radio there are too many problems in Russian football. The national team in in 65th position in the ratings – Argentina is fourth, because there are too many apparatchiks working in Russian football.

 

Russian Youth Development

“This is probably the whole system because after the USSR broke up, there had been a lot of good teams like those from Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia,” Kanchelskis postulated. “Too many good players played for just one ‘national’ team. There were good schools, good colleges, but now there is nothing, zero.” The disintegration of the much-vaunted centralised academy system after the fall of the Soviet Union that took place just after Kanchelskis left for Manchester United has indeed left a gaping hole in the development of young players.

The playing talent of up and coming youngsters is not the only issue he pointed out though;

We need more patriotic people who understand the system. Young people don’t understand the history of Russia, of the USSR. When I was younger all young players had stories of old players who played in Russia, they listened to and watched old historic games. Now it’s not interesting for youngsters. Who is [Vladimir] Lenin, [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Nikita] Khrushchev? Young people don’t know, especially in football as well.

When Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamaev were photographed partying lavishly with champagne in a Monaco nightspot after Russia’s dismal Euro 2016 performance, they became just the latest in a long string of players who symbolised an apathy towards excellence. The artificial foreigner limits have been highlighted by many as a principal cause of a weak collective character, but perhaps there is more to this than simply personality deficiencies.

Kanchelskis played under some legendary coaches in his time including Valeriy Lobanovsky and Sir Alex Ferguson, giving him a broader appreciation for different coaching philosophies and tactical systems, but it was in his formative years that he built his core principles. As he explains in his excellent autobiography Russians Winters, the academy he moved to as a young teenager in Kharkhiv taught him the need to constantly work hard to improve his game and mentality. This drive is something he sees as lacking in today’s crop of stars.

RFN writer Andrew Flint meets Kanchelskis in Moscow.

Russian Players Abroad

Recently Fedor Smolov has been heavily linked to West Ham, while whispers of Zenit St. Petersburg’s Aleksandr Kokorin and Alan Dzagoev of CSKA taking the plunge outside Russia have swirled for a long time. A few days before RFN met Kanchelskis in a Moscow coffee house, the latter had openly criticised the standard of the RFPL, claiming that only matches against Spartak Moscow, Zenit and FC Krasnodar offered a real challenge. Despite Kanchelskis’ criticism of Dzagoev’s unwillingness to test himself abroad, the former winger agrees with the complaints top players are making about the quality on offer;

[They] play one game with concentration [against a top team], then the next he goes to Amkar [Perm], [FC] Orenburg or Arsenal [Tula], and you play in a very bad stadium, and it’s hard. It’s a different determination, different concentration, because they play very small teams on astroturf.

This is a big problem playing small teams like Tom Tomsk with a terrible ground, there’s no money, and it’s a big problem. When you fly eight hours to Khabarovsk, to a bad stadium and play on a bad pitch, this is you know… fucking hell, it’s not good for concentration. No players like it; they want to finish the game, get on the plane and go home.

A few days later in the pre-match press conference ahead of the thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain in St. Petersburg, RFN asked Dzagoev about his future plans and ambitions, to which he replied by saying he wanted to move abroad. The fact remains that no top Russian players – other than Smolov’s potential transfer – have moved outside their home country for some time, which frustrates Kanchelskis.

Sure sure, the top three are good he says. Well he should go to England, to Germany, play against the same level teams every time. Why are you not going? I say to these players – to Dzagoev, Kokorin, [Aleksandr] Golovin – try to move to Europe, because it’s good for the players. It’s good for the national team as well, because they play different football and every game is a higher level.

The cultural shock, uncertainty of regular playing time, and lower potential earnings have all been cited as tangible factors dissuading players to take the plunge, but there is another simpler reason. “They’re scared,” Kanchelskis sighed, as he sipped his tea – with milk, unlike most Russians – whilst gazing out of the window;

They’re scared of not playing, not getting into the starting eleven, not playing for the national team with the World Cup. Some players are scared about the money; players in Spain, Germany and Italy, they pay more tax. Players are very, very scared, especially in World Cup year. If there was no World Cup on home soil…

 

Bureaucracy and Lack of Honesty

Nowadays, his only direct connection to the sport is his coaching role with the Russian university students team. It seems unlikely that he would consider a return to the professional game; the satisfaction he gets from coaching the students without any of the bureaucracy of management and officialdom is more than enough. There is no fear, money or fame to corrupt the simplest of things – learning.

For an ambitious personality though, a mere dissatisfaction with the motivation of young players shouldn’t be the sole reason. Is there anything else that frustrates Kanchelskis about Russian football today?

Everyone was saying before that Russian football is okay, it is good, it is improving. They were saying to the fans we need a big atmosphere, but you can see the level. When they beat New Zealand [at the Confederations Cup last summer], who are a very good team you know, people said we have an excellent team, some very good players, and there is no problem for Russia.

It isn’t true though. Sometimes people never say the truth. If they say the truth, they are told they are not patriotic, that they don’t like Russia; everything in Russia is ok, this is football… If you say the truth, a true story about what is happening now in Russian football, the second division is a very, very bad level. I remember when this level had some very good teams. Now, it is terrible; no good teams, no money, not many teams are ready for promotion to the Premier League.

Perhaps if Smolov secures his move to England, a gradual shift of talent towards other countries may begin, and Russia’s golden boy could kick-start a more truthful level of introspection. After all, there will be no hiding place in the summer; if ever there was a time for Russian football to regain its lost respect, 2018 would be it.

READ MORE: Russian Winters: Andrei Kanchelskis Autobiography Review

Andrei Kanchelskis’ excellent autobiography Russian Winters is out now, available from deCoubertin Books.

Author: Andrew Flint

I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…

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