Editorial: Structural Problems are the Reasons for Russia’s Early Exit

The Russian national team prior to the game against New Zealand. Photo: Кирилл Венедиктов - soccer.ru

The Russian national team prior to the game against New Zealand. Photo: Кирилл Венедиктов – soccer.ru

Three games, one victory and a quick exit. That was the result of Russia’s first major tournament on home soil, the Confederations Cup. The quick exit naturally let to discussions about who was to blame for the failure of once again not making it out the group stage, but head coach of Sbornaya, Stanislav Cherchesov, was quick to end these discussions. “This is my mistake,” he said in the press conference after the final game against Mexico, which was lost 2-1, and continued: “I will take it upon myself.”

At the same time, he also protected goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who gave away the decisive goal, stating that everybody is entitled to make mistakes and that he would stay a part of the national team.

Nevertheless, as admirable as it is for Cherchesov to be sticking out for his players and taking the blame, the roots for the Russian failure go deeper than just the head coach. It is not about 3-5-2 versus 4-4-3, Akinfeev versus Guilherme or whether Fedor Smolov should be partnered with Aleksandr Bukharov or Dmitry Poloz.

These are merely cosmetic changes in the bigger picture. No, the blame should be put on the men in charge of Russian football. Over the years, Russian football has developed some deep structural problems, which cannot be solved by replacing one head coach with another.

Leonid Slutsky during his time in charge of the Russian national team. Photo: Дмитрий Садовников

Leonid Slutsky during his time in charge of the Russian national team. Photo: Дмитрий Садовников

After last summer’s embarrassing Euro 2016 display, recently appointed Hull City manager Leonid Slutsky articulated one of the biggest problems in Russian football, the foreigner limit in the Russian Football Premier League, which dictates that a minimum of five Russians must be on the field at all time. “If you could work at 30 percent and still get paid at 100 percent, would you work even at 50 percent?” the coached asked then.

Having experience as both head of the national team as well as CSKA Moscow, the most successful team since the introduction of the foreigner limit in 2005, Slutsky knows what he is talking about, and he has become one of the most vocal critics of the limit.

Having won three Russian championships, and guided CSKA to the Champions League quarterfinal, to date Russia’s best result in the competition, Slutsky is by far the most successful Russian coach this decade, and the fact he says the first thing he’d change about Russian football is abolishing the foreigner limit should therefore be taken seriously.

The problems with the limit are many, as recently explained by RFN’s Artëm Makarevitch, but in short, it destroys competition within Russian club squads. Since the Russian players are certain of playing time, they, as Slutsky put it, don’t have the motivation to be at 100 percent, and on top of that their wages are constantly increased as the best club fights to have the best Russian players, thus effectively making moves abroad to stronger leagues uninteresting from a financial point of view.

Curiously, the foreigner limit itself was introduced to solve an even deeper issue, the lack of proper talent development in the country. In 2007, a large-scale FIFA survey counted the amount of football players among the 207 member countries, and the results were quite positive for Russia. With more than 5.8 million football players, Russia had the tenth most players in the entire world after populous nations such as India, USA, China and Brazil. Russia was also tenth in the number of registered players, proving just how big a pool of players the country can dip into.

Unfortunately, however, the massive talent pool isn’t utilized properly. In the modern world where football has become a science, having a group of lads chase a ball in a park is no longer enough to reach the top, and it requires smart forward thinking and planning to be successful. If you manage this however, things can improve quickly. The perfect example of this is Iceland and its success at the European Championships last summer.

On the small Nordic island, every single coach is paid, and they need at least the UEFA B license to coach the U10 players and upwards, meaning that every single child is coached by a fully educated coach. On top of that, the country has one qualified coach for every 825 persons.

In 2013, Russia had 436 coaches with UEFA B license, 257 with A license and 138 with the PRO license, a total of 831 coaches with UEFA licenses according to statistics from UEFA. In comparison Turkey had 4416, Switzerland 4359, Northern Ireland and Czechia 5586. The list goes on, but surely the picture is already clear.

Germany is another country that underwent a highly successful transformation. Post Euro 2000 the country completely revamped its approach to talent development, and nearly two decades later, their achievements speak for themselves.

Last year, I had the pleasure of being shown around the academies of both Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow, and both places the administrators bragged highly about the amount of titles their youth teams win. Winning early on was obviously more important than developing players who could actually go on to have successful professional careers and help the senior teams and national team.

Luckily, there are exceptions, such as Chertanovo FC from Moscow where all the coaches are fully UEFA licensed. The Professional Football League (second tier) club works systematically with young players with a focus on developing, and it is clearly working. Despite working on a significantly smaller budget than the big boys, its players are constantly called up to Russia’s youth teams, and they send one player after another on to Premier League sides.

READ MORE: Chertanovo – How the Russian Athletic Bilbao is Shaping the Future

Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm across the country. Instead, Sbornaya’s future spends their time with unqualified coaches at criminally underfunded schools.

Meanwhile, deputy prime minister and president of the Russian Football Union Vitaly Mutko tries to solve the problems by tightening the limit, and by naturalizing foreigners with the help of Vladimir Putin.

Long-term however, this isn’t helping one bit, and the Russian national team won’t earn its spot among the elite until the people in charge open their eyes and accept the problems. Because the problems in Russian football cannot be solved with a bandage; there is need for major surgery, otherwise they could eventually be even lower than their current 63rd place in the FIFA World Rankings.

Toke Møller Theilade

Author: Toke Møller Theilade

Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.

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