The Russian national team lay amidst ruin for numerous months – parallel to the fortunes of the national currency, the rouble.
The announcement of Fabio Capello’s departure from his role as head coach was finally announced on 14 July 2015, as the RFU publicised that they “sincerely thank Fabio for his work”.
Capello was replaced by Volgograd-born Leonid Slutsky, the RFU announced on 7 August 2015. Slutsky will only be in charge until the end of the current 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign, with the specific remit of salvaging their disastrous start.
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In reality, Capello struggled in his role with Russia’s poor showing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup particularly disappointing. The head coach’s wage was already high at 415.8 million roubles in June 2014; the highest salary of any coach in the competition.
As the price of rouble against the Euro tumbled, Capello was forced to be paid in Euros as his salary doubled to 749.3 million roubles by December, earning 62.4 million roubles per month.
Consequentially, the RFU could no longer afford to pay Capello as the Italian worked with no pay until May 2015, when Uzbek oligarch and Arsenal majority shareholder Alisher Usmanov loaned the RFU €5.9m in order to pay him and then again in late-June as he loaned them another €4.9m for the same purpose. The RFU is now over $25m in debt to differing creditors and have had to significantly scale back the $12bn budget for the 2018 World Cup.
These financial difficulties and the continuing poor form of the national team forced the RFU to issue the above statement and relieve him of his duties. However, the problem is not merely at the feet of the totalitarian Italian, but root further within the Russian Premier League and the RFU.
Manuel Veth, editor-in-chief of Futbolgrad, has recently claimed the Capello has been portrayed as a scapegoat by many involved within the annals of Russian footballing power while the RFU attempts to further address the true cause of the stagnation of the Sbornaya.
The removal of Capello is largely set upon a financial basis, with Slutsky remarkably having agreed to temporarily take charge on a voluntary basis, earning merely a bonus if the team can qualify for the tournament. However, there are two other key facets to the managerial change; football and nationality.
Capello’s tenure ended miserably–the team won only two of his last ten matches–and Slutsky is seen as the most prominent coach in Russia at present. There are links to Jose Mourinho if they are not at first obvious; both began their coaching at a young age and neither actually played professional football.
Slutsky was forced to retire as a young goalkeeper at the age of 19 when he sustained a knee injury in the process of attempting to save a neighbour’s cat from a tree. However, in footballing terms the pair could not be more alike, Slutsky is a welcoming interviewee, thoughtful in both his insights towards football and his relationships with his players.
He also has experience working without a significant budget, as the CSKA President Yevgeni Giner has focused upon making the club a profitable business for just under a decade. As such, Slutsky has worked with a relatively low budget in comparison to Zenit, Spartak and Dynamo, and even won the Russian Premier League in 2013 and 2014 after the former spent over €80m on Hulk and Axel Witsel.
Slutsky is arguably the most suited coach to the role of managing both a national and domestic team, a common occurrence in the history of the Russian and Soviet national teams. Boris Arkadyev coached the U.S.S.R at the 1952 Olympics whilst also taking charge of CSKA, Konstantin Beskov repeated this in 1980 but as coach of Spartak and Oleg Romantsev held both jobs concurrently in 1996 and 2002–the first of which Spartak failed to win the championship and Russia finished bottom of Group C in Euro 1996.
However, if any coach will be able ot pull off the difficult task of balancing both domestic competition and the high hopes of the Sbornaya, that is Leonid Slutsky.
Former assistant head coach of Russia and current Chairman of the Board of the Association of Russian Football, Mikhail Gershkovich claimed that the national team under Capello “forgot to play football”, and her football became one of “only hard work”, but under Slutsky the team “has a new leader capable of making the team rise to the occasion”. Slutsky himself is just as immodest, claiming to Sport Express that “I am an artist, and the national team job inspires me”.
Early signs of promise were evident in the crucial 1-0 victory over Sweden on Saturday evening, with the goal a result of a combination of excellent play from the recalled captain Roman Shirokov, Igor Smolnikov and Artyom Dzyuba. Russia struggled defensively against a Sweden side which included star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but hung on for victory.
Many Russians will be pleased by the nature of the victory with the goal and build-up play particularly differing from how the national team played under Capello. Slutsky also returned Igor Denisov and Alan Dzagoev to the starting line-up, with the whole team designed to utilise Dzagoev’s destructive ability on the ball, a player who was often un-favoured under Capello for his lack of defensive work rate.
Slutsky is the first Russian coach since Caretaker Manager Aleksandr Borodyuk was replaced by Guus Hink in 2006. This is part of a specific remit set-up by an amendment to the Federal Law “On Physical Culture and Sport in the Russian Federation”.
This law was signed on 1 July by Vladimir Putin authorising the Sports Ministry to determine the acceptable number of foreign athletes in team sports, as previously each differing sporting federation would determine their own autonomous quota. On July 14 2015, the executive committee of the Russian Football Union (RFU) introduced a new formula to figure out the quota limiting foreigners, often called ‘Legionnaires’ within Russia. This new formula is six foreigners and fix Russians on the field, a stricter version of last season’s seven and four ruling.
The Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko has proclaimed this as “Protection” for Russian youth products, which will “be introduced into all types of sport”. Mutko has also been selected as the new President of the RFU in recent elections held on the 2 September.
This move gives Mutko and in-turn Vladimir Putin unprecedented control over Russian football in the lead-up to the 2018 Russian World Cup.The Director of the Russian Premier League, Sergei Cheban, has announced his support for the new quota, with an aim toward “normalisation of foreigners”.
Futbolgrad published a list of the Top 30 players in the post-Soviet space in January 2015, with only Aleksandr Kokorin the only Russian included (ranked 18th), despite five of the top ten being legionnaires. Lokomotiv Moscow president Olga Smorodskaia stated that she wants to remove all legionnaires from the league as they hinder the progress of domestic talent.
Although on the face of it, introducing quotas forcing five Russian players to be on the pitch at all times for each club is surely a positive step in the progress of the Sbornaya, without the adequate youth and academy development this will prove to be a step back. Many young Russian players will be thrust into the first team too early in order to reach this quota. Others who are immediately successful may not develop accordingly after that as they will receive “too much too soon”.
Both the Bundesliga and the English Premier League place no specific quotas on the amount of players in their nation that must be on the pitch at one time but both have senior national squads ranked in the Top 10 of FIFA’s World Rankings and 12 of the last 20 Champions League Finalists are either German or English clubs.
The German football association have forced all clubs in their top two-leagues to have a mandatory youth academy and England have recently overhauled their national youth training set-up at St. George’s Park.
Russian youth development, in the contrary has stagnated since the 2008 European Championships. Alan Dzagoev was developed at the new Yuriy Khonoplyov Academy in Togliatti, newly funded by Roman Abramovich, but no other prominent youngster has emerged from the academy. Furthermore, most Under-21 sides in Russia (often remarked as Zenit-2, or Rubin-2 etc.) struggle in the regional Russian footballing pyramid, with only Zenit-2 relatively successful in the National Football League (Second Tier).
Yet this division has rules which do not actually allow sides to promote their youth products who were not named immediately in their original 25-man squads. This is in stark difference to England, where any player under the age of 21 can play for the club and need not even be registered in their 25-man squad lists.
The RFU need to lead more change. Mutko may be a shrewd operator but he cannot escape the allegations of corruption – when he oversaw Russia’s worst-ever Olympic performance in Vanvouver, he accumulated expenses of over $1,408 per night on hotel rooms and ate 97 breakfasts, totalling 20-per-day, and was forced to claim in English that “there was no criminality in Russia”, when dismissing allegations of bribery in the case of hosting the 2018 World Cup. However, Slutsky can lead Russia to EURO 2016, and his appointment as a Russian in charge of Russia is a step in the right direction.