Football in Russia is collapsing and isolation can only hasten its decline | Russia
ILast Saturday, Zenit Saint Petersburg beat Arsenal Tula 3-0 to extend their lead at the top of the Russian Premier League over Dynamo Moscow to five points. Dynamo, led by Germany’s Sandro Schwarz, needed a last-minute penalty to salvage a home draw against Rostov, while at Nizhny Novgorod Italian coach Paolo Vanoli kicked Victor Moses to the halftime as his Spartak Moscow side drew 1-1.
But it’s another world now. The alien involvement persists, but these are games that feel like they’re set in a different reality. There will almost certainly be no European football for Russian clubs next season. Spartak were expelled from the Europa League this season. Russia did not play in the World Cup qualifier against Poland on Thursday.
The Russian Football Union can take whatever action it wishes before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, asking to hold any tournament, but that is largely academic given that it seems unlikely that at With the exception of a handful of UEFA members, they would accept matches against Russian opponents even if the ban on them was lifted.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, there was an immediate exodus of foreign players and coaches. German Markus Gisdol has left Lokomotiv Moscow after six months at the helm. Daniel Farke hadn’t even supervised a game with Krasnodar before he felt compelled to quit. “We formed a big community with different nationalities in a very short time, who wanted to pursue sporting goals together – with joy and fun,” he said. “Unfortunately, the serious side of life has now caught up with us.”
While others remain – Zenit’s goals were scored by Brazilians Malcom (two) and Yuri Alberto – little by little the serious side of life is catching up with everyone. A handful of players made difficult trips for international duty – Zenit’s Colombian midfielder Wilmar Barrios, for example, traveled via Turkey and Panama for Thursday’s 3-0 win over Bolivia – but some could not come back. Krasnodar has found its local airport closed to civilian traffic and therefore must make at least part of the journey for away games by train – an important consideration in a country as large as Russia.
Ukrainian players were forced to leave, which Fifa facilitated with an amendment to the contract regulations. Defender Yaroslav Rakitskyi, released by Zenit after posting a pro-Ukraine message on Instagram, quickly terminated his contract by mutual agreement. Ex-Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin has quit as Dynamo assistant coach, but Ukraine’s most capped player Anatoliy Tymoshchuk remains an assistant at Zenit despite the withdrawal of his coaching license by the club. Ukrainian Football Association.
Russians playing abroad were largely unaffected: Aleksei Miranchuk is still at Atalanta, despite playing alongside Ukrainian Ruslan Malinovskyi; Aleksandr Golovin started Monaco’s 3-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain last week; Nikita Khaykin remains Bodø/Glimt’s first-choice goalkeeper. But who now would sign for a Russian club? And which club would sign, or could sign, a Russian player?
Although the four FA Cup quarter-finals, the Clásico and the Superclásico were all able to be watched last weekend, the Premier League and Ligue 1 are no longer shown in Russia. It’s largely symbolic, but it only reinforces a sense of isolation – and isolation in football, even before globalisation, has only ever led to regression. Argentina emerged from a decade of Peronist isolation to lose 6–1 to Czechoslovakia in the 1958 World Cup; even six years out of European competition after Heysel has set English football back considerably.
The trajectory of Russian football has been down for quite some time now. In 2005, CSKA Moscow, supported by Sibneft, became the first Russian team to win a major European trophy by winning the UEFA Cup. Sibneft became Gazprom and turned to Zenit, who won the competition in 2008. A month later, this team formed the nucleus of a Russian national team which, playing exciting football, beat the Netherlands- Down to reach the Euro semi-finals. Russia, it seemed, was emerging as a major footballing nation.
There were other waves of investment, notably in 2011 when billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, a close ally of Vladimir Putin who had borrowed billions of dollars from state banks to invest in Gazprom and the fertilizer producer Uralkali, bought Anzhi Makhachkala. He signed Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos and Christopher Samba and appointed Guus Hiddink as coach, only forced to cut the budget after Uralkali’s attempt to break away from a corporate cartel led to a collapse of the potash price.
But Russia has never had a better tournament than in 2008 and its clubs have never relied on the successes of CSKA and Zenit. Financial fair play regulations put in place in 2011 – at least partly as a reaction by traditional elites to what Roman Abramovich had done at Chelsea – limited what even the wealthiest oligarchs could achieve. But there may still be a ceiling to what you can do with money alone, at least in the short term. The best players and the best coaches still preferred, on the whole, to live in Western Europe and play for Western European clubs.
In terms of UEFA coefficient, the Russian league’s best season came in 2017-18, just before the World Cup – but that was basically a technicality based on Europa League results. Interest had already started to wane, while investment had been hit even by the limited sanctions that followed Russian incursions into Crimea and Donbass in 2014.
This was particularly the case at CSKA, whose longtime president, Evgeny Giner, had significant business interests in Ukraine. Maybe Gazprom, its UEFA sponsorship ended, will invest in the domestic market, but with the ruble falling in value and biting sanctions, who in Russia now has money to spend on football?
In Russia, there is a curious sense of suspension. There are no matches for the national team this week, but the league continues. The crash, however, is coming. Compared to what’s happening in Ukraine, of course, that’s irrelevant, but football, as the most global sport, perhaps serves as a case study for other aspects of Russian life. And the reality is that for now, and in the immediate future, Russian football is over.