It really is unfortunate – a quick glance at the ESPN FC RPL headlines reveals nothing more than transfer rumors and scandals. You won’t find any mention of CSKA’s title, the battle for Europa League places or Alania and Mordovia’s relegation.
For most of the English-language media, the only Russian football that matters is played at the international level. The country’s run to the Euro 2008 semis, Pavlyuchenko, Arshavin and Zhirkov’s subsequent moves to high-profile English clubs, as well as CSKA and Zenit’s UEFA Cup titles established that foothold. But domestic football continues to be overlooked, except when juicy scandals hit, such as the Zenit fan manifesto that encouraged the club to pass on black and homosexual players.
Equally unfortunate, however, is the fact that the best Russian football scandals are often passed over if they don’t have anything to do with exorbitant salaries, racism, homophobia, or Chechnya.
Spend just a few weeks following the story lines in Russian football and you’ll soon realize that the biggest draw often isn’t the play on the field, but rather the fraught relationships between players, fans, coaches, administrators, and officials that grow juicier and juicier each week.
Oh, sure, the football itself is fine in Russia. There aren’t many other leagues that can boast a rivalry like Spartak-CSKA, with 70,000+ regularly showing up at Luzhniki for the top Moscow derby. But nothing makes it that special, either, when compared to the top Western European competitions. Harsh winters, terrible infrastructure and poorly attended matches, as well as a prevalent defensive emphasis, can turn the RPL into a bit of a drag from November to mid-April.
The sustaining force in the sport is its drama, both on the field and off it. Case in point – this weekend’s dose of controversy that engulfed three of the nation’s top football stars – Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Kokorin and Roman Shirokov.
Shirokov, Zenit’s inscrutable 31-year-old Russian midfielder, is accustomed to the spotlight. Bitterly sarcastic and honest in interviews, he’s been in a simmering conflict with Zenit’s hardcore supporters since December 2011, when he called them “morons” for nearly earning the club a technical defeat vs APOEL in the Champions League. Yesterday, after the curva, where his antagonists sit, booed his appearance in the 59th minute, Shirokov celebrated an extra-time goal by nonchalantly turning to the stand and twice demonstratively signaling the fans to shove it.
More than 2000 km south of St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Kokorin’s Dynamo trailed last-place Alania, 1-0, in Vladikavkaz. Kokorin, Russia’s brightest hope at forward, and just 22 years old, has seen little playing time since getting nicked in a March friendly with Brazil. But the club needed him with just two matches left in the season and a Europa League place hanging in the balance.
Frustrated all match, Kokorin only made matters worse with a flying tackle on Danilo Neco in the 83rd minute. Half a dozen Alania players mobbed the youngster, including Georgi Chanturia, Kokorin slapped Chanturia in response, Chanturia lost his head and the rest…well, you can see for yourself here.
Kokorin got sent off, along with teammate Balazs Dzsudzsak, Chanturia and another Alania player. Dynamo lost the match, seriously jeopardizing its European chances, and Alania boss Valery Gazzaev stirred up a bit more controversy after the match, venting that Dynamo manager Dan Petrescu damaged a locker-room door at halftime and brought on the inicident by encouraging his players to be overly aggressive.
The first scandal, meanwhile, popped up when a video surfaced showing CSKA midfielder Alan Dzagoev celebrating his club’s RPL title on Saturday by leading fans in a bawdy cheer of “One, two, three – suck it, Zenit!” Considerably more offensive in the original Russian, Dzagoev, another young star who’s been linked to big clubs abroad, issued his mea culpa with the help of Sport-Express journalist Boris Levin. “I didn’t want to insult anyone,” Dzagoev told Levin. “How could I want to offend my teammates on the Russian national team?!”
Sports are drama. There’s little difference emotionally between the soap opera addict who’s watched every episode for the last 20 years and the football nut clicking refresh a dozen times a day on Sport-Express.ru and watching every game he can. We all want to know what happens next.
Now we’ll watch Alania – Dynamo a little more closely next season, especially if Chanturia and Kokorin are playing and Gazzaev and Petrescu are managing. And did Kokorin sabotage Dynamo’s Europa League hopes, with a lengthy suspension almost certain to follow? Dynamo most likely have to beat Volga at home next weekend. The loss of Kokorin, and possibly Dzsudzsak, won’t help.
How’s Dzagoev going to get on with the half a dozen Zenit players he’s teammates with on the Russian national team?
And what’s Shirokov’s next move? He’s got the support of his teammates and coach, but who wants to be booed at home and on the road, especially when you may be Russia’s top midfielder and were a key contributor to Zenit’s back-to-back titles? There are plenty of other RPL clubs that would be happy to bring him on this summer.
Sometimes a little scandal is good. This is entertainment we’re talking about after all, not politics, and the RPL is worth every kopek these days.
Author: Andy Shenk
I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.