Russian Transfers – Homeward Bound

Russian tifo before the group stage game against  Poland. Photo: Piotr Drabik

Russian tifo before the group stage game against Poland. Photo: Piotr Drabik

Each year we read the same nonsense with Russian transfers. XXXX is on the way to an English or German club. It’s a done deal. It’s in the final stages. A month ago CSKA Moscow’s Golovin was about to join Arsenal. That was June 10th. Three days later the same news outlet reported Arsenal’s Russian scout, Pavel Kucherov, said

He is not talented enough for the European level and it’s unrealistic to discuss his transfer to a top Premier League club.

Fanboys and journos went into overdrive with a range of suggestions for the 21-year-old. That he’d be sent on loan to Hull City, linking with Leonid Slutsky, or that he’d stay in Moscow for another year. The combination of EA Sports FIFA and Football Manager games have left an entire generation believing what they play is real.

On July 5th, CSKA’s general director, Roman Babaev, said no offer has been made. With his real value far below that of the £10-15million constantly mentioned, it would be no surprise if he moves to Zenit St. Petersburg or gets a big new contract with CSKA. He’s simply not good enough right now to go abroad. Full stop.

Fantasy Russian Transfers

It is understandable that local media wish to big up the home league and also sell advertising. Clickbait is vital for the survival of publications, news sites and so on. The bigger the lie, the more clicks you get, which means more traffic and revenue in simplest terms. Forums light up, journos trawl for info, an unnamed source, an agent (legal or illegal) on the make and nonsense follows. And it’s not just Russian football.

The nonsense around Russian transfers is substantially more ridiculous than those we endure in British media or on the European Continent. Like, whatever happened to Aleksandr Kokorin?

Kokorin down and out

The Belgorod native was a decent talent when he was poached from Lokomotiv Moscow and at times impressive for Dinamo Moscow. His ill-advised move to Anzhi Makhachkala in the summer of 2013 had more than a whiff of dirty dealings about it, though he soon returned to Dinamo until agents and media conspired to get him a move – especially as not being paid by Dinamo was annoying for the player and his entourage.

No foreign club were willing to stump up the cash for a fragile and inconsistent player, but Arsenal were used as a battering ram to scare a Russian club straight. In August 2015, Arsenal, according to Metro via the Telegraph, were heavily linked witht he striker. In that same article further false info had been planted – that PSG, Spurs and Manchester United were also interested. Though adding Zenit to that array of European heavyweights must surely have copped some journos onto the game? Apparently not.

Referencing Russian media, Kokorin was “agreeing personal terms”. A month later and Arsenal had given up on the striker. This came on the word of Konstantin Sarsania, the agent/administrator who’s now Zenit’s sports director, and of course Kokorin ended up at Zenit.

June, 2016, the lies were back again, and Arsenal once more into the lie machine. Desperate to make money on their player, he was ‘rumoured’ to be of interest to clubs in Italy, England and France. He’d only been half a season in St. Petes and he was to be shipped on.

Aleksandr was not alone in pretending to want to move abroad then settle for a top Russian club. The amount of money a Russian player with two functioning legs can command within Russia is a huge compensation for self-development. Gone are the heroes like Karpin, Cherchesov, Smertin and Pogrebnyak who went abroad to develop, learn and become better players. And now, Fyodor Smolov.

Fed up with Fyodor

Talented, tough and intelligent, Smolov never looks like a man too interested in leaving his comfort zone. Guided by German agent Tkachenko & Co he was never going to leave Russia. With his high profile ex-wife, World Cup ambassador Viktoria Lopyreva, he was newsworthy enough to be linked with foreign moves in 2013-14, then in 2015, having had a good season with Ural, moved to FC Krasnodar. He’d reached his level and would be paid regularly. 24 goals in 44 games and a season later, the need for news erupted again. Should he stay or should he go? One good season with a decent team and rumours grew legs.

Russian transfers redux, December 2016, needing a higher salary to justify helping his club into the Europa League once more, he and his agents, with a needy media, put the mill into overdrive. England and Germany were on the cards, according to the player. Paper never refused ink, laptops never refused keystrokes, so the circus was fueled by a need to read. He had a pick of German clubs to go to, including Dortmund, or so we were supposed to believe. It was all nonsense, he stayed in Southern Russia. In May this year, Fenerbahce were supposed to be interested.

The worm has turned and like Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba and many more, the path to self-development leads to another Russian club. Having turned down Zenit, we hear, Smolov has apparently asked Krasnodar to let him go to Spartak. That we even bother to engage in discussion of Russian transfers abroad is lunacy so long as local football culture remains as it is. Under-educated players, self-aggrandizing fans and managers, fearful apparatchiks and possessive owners. It’s the Russian version of the Stockholm Syndrome. Players can’t and/or won’t go.

Bound to Home

Discussing Russian transfers in a global context only relates to foreign players. Locals are still left without the skills to adapt and develop a career abroad. The steady decline from the end of the ’90’s of Russian internationals thriving abroad has not only degraded the national team, it has left a domestic scene bereft of hope.

Two weeks ago, my colleague and I interviewed a group of young players fresh from their RFPL club academy. Of the six we spoke with, not one could speak a 2nd language. All aimed to play in the Russian top flight, rightly so. At worst, they agreed, the FNL is a minimum. When asked if they’d consider going abroad to try their hand, the hemming and hawing started. We openly discussed going to leagues in Scandinavia, Ireland etc. Language, culture and salary stood united as deterrents. Though all under the age of 20, they had no interest in trying their hand abroad unless it was in a top league. Yet, from seeing them play last season, they would be lucky to get their game with Drogheda United let alone West Ham United.

Which is not surprising. Back in winter 2010, I was approached by a Russian agent to co-operate in getting his player, then a national team player, a contract abroad. Legally, he couldn’t play in Britain, and there was no interest in Germany, France or Italy, while Spain was out due to financial instability of all but a few clubs. Our head office in Croatia had a solid offer: two years, $500,000, $50,000 signing bonus and lots of good add-ons. Since he’d not been paid since March, he had a legal right to break his club contract and move for free. His agent was ahead of the curve on that so all that remained was going to Zagreb to meet the club officials and sign on the dotted line. Need I write more?

Chances and Chancers

“He’s not on our radar, no.” This was the word back from a CSKA Moscow official, doubling down on my suspicion that an information request was a business punt. I’d already gotten word from the player’s agent, a connected Russian journalist and a coach from CSKA. I contacted a local journalist in Ireland who covers the Irish club and gets the first scoop every time. “A move’s agreed already, just not releasing it yet, you don’t either now. But it’s not CSKA.” Apparently the person, close to club owner Evgeny Giner, was either a liar or the person who told me the Irish player was on the CSKA wishlist was misled, or was chancing his arm.

I feel bad calling the person making the request a chancer, as this is an occurrence so often in sports and media. A tennis player’s mother asked me, in May this year, to work with her daughter. The daughter is under contract to a dodgy NIKE linked agent who is friends with the son of Shamil Tarpishcev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federations, who has ruled Russian tennis since the 1970’s. The woman complained that since signing the contract nothing happened, bar getting a few racquets and clothes. Once before I’d facilitated a tennis player canceling a contract with an agent – only for it to backfire on me. Once bitten.

While working in Germany, I sat at the next table to a visiting club official, a players agent and a presenter from Premiere TV Channel in a Frankfurt restaurant. They were discussing how to “play” moving two club heroes on. Having failed to get rid of the players in the summer window, they wanted to force both out. The agent was not contracted to either, but was there to court suitors. The presenter was advising on a media plan and it came as no surprise to me that it was he and his fellow journalist, and (secret) mistress, who had the stories out within a week. Both players moved and the club did the double.

Many Russian players are wary of offers to move abroad, especially a tiny minority have another European language. Russian agents make more money for less work keeping players at home and the majority, too, don’t speak another European language. So for them a move to Arsenal is a good bargaining chip, nothing else. It’s just business. And we in the media, the supporters, players, agents, functionaries and advertisers love it. Otherwise why would we click the bait? And bait for clicks.

Author: Alan Moore

A Russia-based Sports Journalist and Consultant, worked with major sports clubs including:- Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt. Boxed Internationally, played semi-pro football and I worked full-time in sports management/consultancy from 2003-13.

First published professionally on football in 1990, first Russian league match in 1991, now Hosting Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow and writing the odd article.

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