Naturalisation and Foreign Player Limits in Russian Football

Vladimir Putin and Vitaly Mutko. Photo: Kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin and Vitaly Mutko. Photo: Kremlin.ru

In the last couple of years, Russian football has seen a huge increase of naturalised players in the country’s top division, as well as the first ever naturalised players in the national team. Although this was a controversial decision by the Russian Football Union (RFU), what really caught many people’s eye was how these players were able to obtain citizenship.

Lokomotiv Moscow goalkeeper Marinato Guilherme was the first non-Russian to play for the national team, and although many Russian fans disagreed with the fact that the Brazilian-born was going to play for Sbornaya, it was undeniable that he had earned his right to obtain citizenship, having lived in Moscow since 2007 and passed all the required tests to gain citizenship. This, however, cannot be said for the players who were to follow in his footsteps, German Roman Neustädter and Brazilian Mário Fernandes.

In Russia, there are two main reasons why a player would be naturalised. The first is so that they can play for the Russian national team. As the home World Cup approaches, Russia are looking to strengthen their side by any means possible to achieve success, which is why we have seen the state and RFU aggressively pursuing new players. The second reason is so that the players can avoid the foreigner limits in the Russian Football Premier League (RFPL). This is an advantage for both the player and the club they play for.

Roman Neustädter was born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, while it was part of the Soviet Union, and is the son of a Russian mother and a Kazakh father. A problem arose for the then-Schalke 04 player as he wished to have dual German-Russian citizenship. However, the process for this was taking too long, and the European Championships in France were fast approaching. Just a month before the tournament, many people had doubted that he would be able to obtain Russian citizenship in time, even if he gave up his German citizenship. On the 25th of May 2016 however, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a special decree, granting Roman Neustädter citizenship, so that he would be eligible for registration for Euro 2016. This showed the willingness of the government to get involved with naturalising players if it were to benefit the national team.

The case of Mario Fernandes was a bit different. Unlike Neustädter, the Brazilian had no birth right to his Russian citizenship, but still, Putin granted it to him last summer in a presidential decree. Fernandes is however yet to receive his debut for Sbornaya, as FIFA’s rules on naturalisation didn’t allow him to play for Russia until May this year. He was expected to play at the Confederations Cup, but picked up an injury at the end of the season. CSKA Moscow’s general director Roman Babaev said that the player could have been naturalised earlier if not for his call up for the Brazilian national team in 2014. This example shows the eagerness by clubs to naturalise players in order to avoid the foreigner limits, even if the player cannot speak the language or play for the national team for years to come.

To fully understand both of these reasons for naturalisation, you must look at the ideas behind the foreigner limits in the RFPL, as well as the reasons for using non-Russian born players in the national team.

The history of foreigner limits in the RFPL and the hypocrisy behind them:

The first foreigner limit in the RFPL was implemented in 2005. The idea behind this was to stop average foreign players playing ahead of Russians of the same quality. This limit allowed for just five foreign players to play at a time, but it had a massive loophole. Any player who had been capped for their national team more than ten times was not affected by the limit, and could play without any restrictions. This loophole was evident in a match between Dynamo Moscow and FC Moscow, where Dynamo had fielded a starting eleven that included no Russian players.

There was no surprise that the aforementioned limit didn’t last long, and in 2006, it was replaced by a ‘7+4’ system, which allowed up to seven foreigners to play at a time for a team, as long as four Russian players were being used. This was the rule used up until the 2014/15 season, with the exception of seasons between 2009 and 2012, when the number of foreigners was reduced from seven to six.

In December 2014, the Russian Football Union (RFU) made the decision to implement a foreigner limit known as the ‘10+15 system’, meaning that Russian clubs could register up to ten foreign players and fifteen Russians, and then use whoever they preferred. The idea was to create more competition in the squads, but it didn’t last long as then sports minister Vitaly Mutko was against it, meaning the idea was eventually abandoned before ever being used. This saw the return to the ‘6+5’ system, which it intends to use until at least after the World Cup in 2018 is over. This limit constantly sparks arguments between fans, managers and even players, who all seem to have different opinions on the matter. The only opinions that do seem to matter, however, are those of  Vitaly Mutko, deputy prime minister and president of the RFU, and that of Putin, who both support the idea of the ‘6+5’ foreigner limit.

The opinions of these important figures, however, seem to be very contradictory. On the one hand, they try to force a limit upon clubs so that more domestic players develop, but on the other hand, they seem to jump at the thought of naturalising any decent foreign player in the league. As well as this, these naturalised foreign players are always playing for the top teams in the league, giving the mid-table and relegation teams a disadvantage. Every few months there are new rumours of players who are going to become Russian citizens, and at this stage, Russian fans are not even surprised when they hear the rumours. And why would they be? Even celebrities who have no connections with Russia, like Roy Jones Jr. and Steven Seagal, can acquire citizenship.

The latest such rumour surfaced about Yohan Mollo, a French winger who signed for Zenit St. Petersburg from Krylia Sovetov in the winter transfer window. Although he has declined these rumours, having lived in Russia for just under two years, he has made a significant attempt to learn the language and integrate into Russian life, so this scenario may be a reality in the future.

The question of whether the limit actually works or not is one that is constantly being asked. If you take the top five leagues in Europe, you can see that they all have their own rulings on foreign and homegrown players, but none of them are as strict as that of the RFPL. The problem that this can cause is that teams are limited to the abilities of their Russian players, and at a time when the Russian national team has reached its lowest points in the FIFA World Rankings, this is not a promising situation for teams in the league. The limit also makes Russian players much more valuable, and as a result, many of these players never move to leagues abroad and pick up experience that could help the national team, which means it gets harder for young players to earn a spot in the squads.

The biggest argument against the limit is that the best Russian players would still develop and play for Russian teams if they were good enough, and this is one that is hard to argue against. All of the players who played for Russia in the 2008 European Championships had implemented themselves in teams before foreigner limits had been introduced, and this was the best performance at a tournament played by Russia after the fall of the USSR. Since then, Russia have been increasingly poor in international tournaments, and many Russian football fans feel like it is time to return to having no foreigner limit, or having one that is more lenient, in the hope of future glory. As mentioned before, the RFU do not believe this is the right way forward, especially before the World Cup, and have instead opted for foreign player naturalisation.

National team naturalisation:

After the disappointing performances from the Russian national team in recent major competitions, the fans have started to lose faith in the country’s footballers. When the RFU started to naturalise players, it was clear they felt that the national team was not up to par, and that they needed to increase its quality quickly to avoid embarrassment at their home World Cup. This was seen as somewhat of a quick fix to the problems that have been building up in the last few years. Roman Neustädter was the first player who was naturalised for this reason, as a pair of younger legs in a defence dominated by Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutskiy brothers. Mário Fernandes too was naturalised to help Sbornaya in defence, however, he was given citizenship earlier to allow him to play for CSKA without the restrictions of the foreign limits.

As well as these two examples, there are a huge number of foreign players who still could be naturalised and called up in time for the World Cup in 2018, some that are playing in the RFPL, like Ari, Maicon, and Joaozinho (who already holds a Russian passport), as well as players with Russian roots that play their football abroad, like Konstantin Rausch and Edgar Prib. Realistically, any player who has lived in Russia for five or more years, or has Russian ancestry, would be eligible to play for the national team (as long as they have not played for another national team in an official match). Because of this, there are lots of players outside of the ones already mentioned that could play for the national team.

The importance of the Confederations Cup for Russia cannot be underestimated. For the RFU, Vitaly Mutko, the team, and everybody involved, it will be the last chance before the World Cup to play in a competitive atmosphere, and to show that the use of foreigner limits and naturalised players have been good choices, and not ones that will lead to embarrassment. For players, it will be their chance to prove to manager Stanislav Cherchesov that they are hungry for success and willing to give everything for the results of the team. For Cherchesov, the competition will give indications on what to do next, and whether more players will need to be naturalised before the World Cup next year. Only time will tell whether the RFU’s strategy will work for Sbornaya, but this summer will certainly give us a glimpse of what to expect next year.

Author: Artem Makarevitch

Born in Russia, raised in Ireland. Studying Sports and Exercise Management in University College Dublin. Part-time youth football coach, full-time Russian football fan. Zenit St. Petersburg supporter.

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