The Slow Decay of Russian Football

I agree with no one’s opinion. I have some of my own. Ivan Turgenev (Russian novelist from the 19th century)

In 1992, when the melody of a western kind of democracy was still echoing through the streets of Moscow, the provisional team of the Football Federation of the Soviet Union, the CIS national football team, represented the Commonwealth of Independent States at the UEFA Euro 92. Judging by the final numbers, CIS participation was, one might claim, fairly modest. Although, if we take a closer look, we can easily understand that a 1-1 draw against Germany and a goalless draw with the Netherlands was not as bad as it might have seemed, and if it wasn’t for the heavy and even shameful 3-0 defeat against Scotland in the last group match, CIS participation in the tournament could have certainly been memorable.

Igor Dobrovolki’s penalty almost granted CIS the two points in the opening match against Germany, but Thomas Hässler’s late goal allowed the Germans to claw a last minute draw that, by any means, obscured CIS’ overall good performance. On the next match against the Netherlands, Anatoliy Byshovets’ men were not brilliant but managed to hold a star-packed Dutch team (Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard, to name a few) to a goalless draw, thus keeping the possibility of walking through to the next round of the tournament very much alive. When everything seemed to be in place to pull off a good participation in the European Championship, a miserable first-half performance against the Scots cost CIS a place in the knockout stage. Anatoliy Byshovets, the man who conducted the Soviet Union Olympic football team to gold back in 1988 at Seoul, was the target of all criticism after such premature elimination and some players even accused him of having old fashioned methodologies and “ruling” the locker room with an iron fist.

Almost a quarter of a century after CIS’ only stint in a major international football tournament and after those echoes of democracy have completely faded away during two decades of savage capitalism, a Russian National Team fueled by the money of the country’s fat cats pulled off one of the most shameful performances ever at a European Championship. Leonid Slutsky and his band of men pranced about the “glens” of France with their minds already thinking of their holidays, relaxing in a sunny beach elsewhere.

Apart from that last minute draw against England, there aren’t any positive memories for the Russians to take from this tournament. After being slammed by a well organized Slovakia, the Sbornaya succumbed to a mighty Welsh team that exposed the painful misery of a team without a field leader, without ideas, without a proper tactical system and deprived of a quality skipper, capable of overcoming the egos of highly paid footballers that, deep inside, seemed like they couldn’t care less about their national team.

Contrary to what happened back in 1992, when Byshovets’ men had to measure forces with two of the most powerful teams (Germany and the Netherlands) of the Old Continent, Slutsky’s Russia would, in theory, only have to deal with the English team in order to make a strong stand at their group. Such didn’t happen and Russia were outclassed by hardworking sides such as Wales and Slovakia, who were far better and more committed than the Sbornaya, which ended up finishing the group in last place.

Russia need to turn the page, to drain the Mutkos and Slutkys out of their system and to build their football from scratch if they want to strive not only in the upcoming World Cup that they will be hosting in 2018, but also in any future major tournaments. The new train of thought out there believes that the limits on foreign players at the RPL (Russian Premier League) is hurting the future of Russian football and the numerous heads of this evil hydra that today is the Russian Football Union will certainly capitalise on this emergent idea to deviate our focus from the real problems that have been affecting and hindering football in the country over the last decade.

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Joel Amorim
From Porto, I started enjoying Soviet football at a very young age when I would watch Rinat Dasaev on TV, but it was probably Radchenko's brace and Shmarov's goal at the Santiago Bernabéu a quarter of a century ago that transformed me into an avid consumer of what was going on with the game throughout Eastern Europe. Punk rock fan and English teacher by day, football writer after the sun goes down. You can follow my work @Vostok1981.