Close your eyes and go on a journey with us. Think of Russia. What do you see it? Palace towers that look like candy canes? Big-ass missiles surrounded by marching troops in military parades? A tiny, despotic president with terrible hair and a pouty face hunting bare-chested? Because that’s what we see.
And when we think of Russian soccer, we see mega-transfers for good-but-not-quite-great players and Fabio Capello not getting paid. Also: things kind of falling apart.
If you see the same as we do, congratulations. You are well-informed, geopolitically aware and generally a fine human socceristically-inclined specimen. (If you don’t, you aren’t reading this site nearly enough.)
But let’s talk about Russia some more. Because we’re erudite like that. Its woes are something of a cliché. A quickly developing country – such as Russia in the Vladimir Putin era, whatever you may think of him – is suddenly flush with heretofore unfathomable mountains of money. It goes out and buys something very shiny and expensive, confident that the cash flow is now a constant. When said quickly developing country’s economy inevitably suffers its growing pains, that very shiny and expensive thing becomes a terrible burden. The supreme confidence disintegrates, and debilitating doubt takes hold. And in the end, everybody winds up looking a bit silly.
The shiny and very expensive thing, in this case, was Capello, the debonair Italian manager with the regal résumé and the baller art collection. He would turn around the Russian national team, stuck in a rut but with some prospects of real promise coming through. He got a contract for some $11 million annually – stupid money for a national team manager – which, just a year ago, was renewed through the 2018 World Cup.
This all seemed fairly sensible at the time. Propped by miniature tiger-stroking oligarchs, the Russian Premier League seemed to be improving faster than any other competition. As recently as last November, it was the sixth highest-paying league in the world, according to a Daily Mail survey, following England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. On average, RPL players were making $1.37 million a year, far more than their counterparts in Brazil, making an average of $886,000 in the seventh-highest paying league.
In other words, Russia had quietly crept into the small club of the world’s elite soccer leagues. Money, after all, correlates directly to the caliber of players you attract – which in turn is equal to your level of play – in an open and almost entirely unconstrained market. And money they had.
The entire national team was brought back from abroad by the league’s biggest clubs. Zenit St. Petersburg, which had never been afraid of a little boutique shopping, blew more than $100 million to bring Hulk and Axel Witsel over from Portugal, when both players had options in the top leagues. Anzhi Makhackhala was building a juggernaut in Dagestan with Suleyman Kerimov’s spare couch change. For a time, he made an aging Samuel Eto’o the highest-paid player in the world.
And then, of course, everything ended in tears. The first sign of trouble afoot came when it transpired that the Russian Football Union hadn’t been paying Capello since the World Cup last June and has missed one self-imposed deadline after another since. This wasn’t totally shocking. The RFU is famous for its mismanagement and financial brinksmanship. It needed an emergency loan from an oligarch just to make sure the national team could properly practice in their preparations for Brazil.
But then the Russian economy took a dump. The reason was twofold. The first was the collapse of the international market for gas and oil, from which Russia extracts most of its wealth and influence. The other was Putin Putining extra hard. His tomfoolery in Ukraine – the pseudo-non invasion; the annexation of Crimea; the continued and illegal military activity in a bordering sovereign nation – landed him a pile of harsh economic sanctions from the West.
Russia is slipping into a bad recession, which could get worse as more sanctions loom, since Putin won’t stop sawing holes into his neighbor’s fence and dancing into his yard as a mere show of hairy-chested Soviet man force. Inflation is a calamitous 11 percent – food prices are up 15 percent – and capital is abandoning the country. More relevant to the purposes of this story — and indeed this entire misbegotten website — the Russian ruble has taken a nosedive, losing half its value in relation to most major currencies.
Capello’s contract is written in Euros, which means he’s now about twice as expensive as the already-insane contract the Russians inked him to. So he’s still not being paid. Apparently, FIFA gave the Russian Federation some cash – since it has a vested interest in its reputation as the host of the 2018 World Cup – to settle the bill and it still isn’t enough.
With a little more than three years to go before the World Cup comes to town, the Russia national team looks rather meek. It didn’t win a single game at the World Cup – although it did somehow come within a goal of reaching the round of 16 – and aren’t even a lock to reach an expanded Euro 2016, so limp has been its performance. Its only competitive win in 2014 came against speck-state Liechtenstein. Capello actually had to come out and say that the lack of payment hasn’t been the cause of the poor form, as he faces a storm of criticism from Russian coaches who accused him of being, well, not a Russian.
This whole affair has been terribly embarrassing to the Russians. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said he was “ashamed” to have to acknowledge Capello’s non-payment while sitting next to FIFA president Sepp Blatter. It is widely believed that Russia bulldozed its way to landing the World Cup on the strength of its sheer financial might. And now the money is gone.
The Russian Premier League will suffer, as no sports enterprise’s fate is evidently so closely tied to the state of its country’s economy. RPL clubs have, in unison, had to ask all their players to agree to a 20 percent pay cut. Foreign stars, whose contracts are also set in foreign denominations, have become unaffordable. They are expected to leave in droves when the market opens on January 31. Russian clubs will try to rebuild with domestic players, who are paid in rubles and won’t bankrupt the club every time the currency markets hiccup.
Oh, and Anzhi isn’t even in the Premier League anymore. Kerimov pulled the drain out of the tub of money the club had been submerged in before the 2013-14 season, forcing it to hold a garage sale for its pricey players before it was unsurprisingly relegated.
Russian soccer going to hell – UEFA president Michel Platini has called the Capello saga a “very bad advertisement for Russian football” – and the whole situation could leave a stain on the rest of soccer, with Russia slated to host the next World Cup. The number of stadiums to be built (13) or renovated (three) has already been reduced from the 16 promised in Russia’s bid to 10. Blatter is apparently suddenly conscious of building white elephants. It also seems, simply, that Russia can’t afford to build white elephants – or really anything.
It wasn’t so long ago that the country had the resources to construct an entire town from scratch, just to stage the Olympics for two weeks and sort of impress the world. Now, those resources have crumbled away, taking Russian soccer along for the fall.