Wednesday, June 1, 2005
The Russians are coming...
From Magnitogorsk to Vladivostok, CSKA Moscow's impressive victory in this season's Uefa Cup final, where they came from behind to defeat Sporting Lisbon
3-1 on their own turf, was celebrated as a national triumph.
At FC Rostov, 750 miles south of Moscow, the club's technical director, Paul Ashworth, the first Briton to work in Russia's Premier League, complained that he had been unable to sleep the night of the victory, due to the celebrations in the streets outside his apartment.
Backing from oil company Sibneft - in which Roman Abramovich holds a majority stake has earned CSKA the mantle of 'Chelsea reserves', but in truth their £30 million sponsorship package has provided the club with the sort of financial clout that elite clubs around Europe would envy and transformed the Muscovites into a major force in their own right.
In the last few years, a quiet revolution has been unfolding in the once parochial Russian game, as a cosmopolitan array of players, from Africa, South America, Eastern, and now even Western Europe gravitate towards the country's premier league. Until two years ago, however, the foreign contingent chiefly comprised of B-list players, not good enough to find a meal ticket at the top European establishments. This, patently, is no longer the case.
'We had three options,' said CSKA President Evgeny Giner this week, reflecting on their perusal of the international transfer market for a striker last year.
'[Fernando] Cavenaghi, [Carlos] Tevez or Wagner Love. We liked Love best and we made the right decision.'
Like his Brazilian compatriot Daniel Carvalho, Love was a key figure in CSKA's Uefa Cup campaign, and both players are widely regarded as future regulars for the Brazil national side. They may now be heading elsewhere - Love is set for a move home to Corinthians, while Carvalho could just be heading for Stamford Bridge or the Bernabau - but they will each command seven figure sums.
Cavenaghi by the way - who, bar Tevez, is rated as Argentina's best young Argentinian forward - signed instead for CSKA's neighbours Spartak Moscow for a cool £10 million.
But it is events at Dynamo Moscow that offer the most startling proof that the Russian gravy train is gathering steam. For many years regarded as the ailing giants of Russian football, forced to live off past glories, Dynamo have been galvanised by the arrival of their own Abramovich-style sugar daddy.
Alexei Fedorychev, a fertiliser magnate, who once turned out for the team's reserves, and whose company Fedcominvest already sponsors AS Monaco, has pledged an initial £150 million to the Dynamo Moscow cause. A new state-of-the-art stadium is in the pipeline, but in the meantime, the Muscovites are busily buying up the remainder of the former Porto colleagues of Sergei Alenichev, now at Spartak.
So far Derlei, Maniche and Costinha, plus Greek defender Giourkas Seiteridis, a Euro 2004 winner, have been snapped up at a collective cost of £35 million. And no less than six other players from the Portuguese Superliga have also been added to the Dynamo squad.
'Russia was once known for selling players, but that has changed. Clubs from around the world are now turning to Russia to find buyers for their players,'
says Yuri Belous, general manager of premier league club FC Moscow, who with backing from metal giants Norilsk Nickel, go on regular shopping sprees in South America, and who currently boast internationals from 11 nations on their books.
One agent who has been involved with the Russian market for many years, concurs. 'The Germans, English and Italians might spend more, but these big deals are drying up, whereas in Russia the curve is an upward one. Western clubs had their fingers burned by the TV crisis, but TV was never a major income stream for the Russians, so their clubs never had to rely on it.'
And now, in addition to oligarch money, the TV revenues are starting to pour into the Russian game. CSKA's European triumph will only intensify the surge in public interest in the domestic game. Meanwhile, with interest in Chelski making the English game the foreign viewing of choice, Roman Abramovich has bankrolled the deal to ensure that Russia has the rights to screen Premiership games.
While outmoded stereotypes may still conjure images of a greyness and proletarian drudgery, 21st century Moscow, if not the rest of Russia, offers all of the trappings of a modern metropolis; and with a disproportionate number of millionaires, it is better set up than any of its Western counterparts, as a playground for the rich. These days, top players in Russia can command wages on a par with those available in the top European leagues, without too much trouble from the taxman.
This helps explain why, as well as the influx of exotic foreign mercenaries, a steady stream of established Russian émigrés, long accustomed to earning top dollar in the big leagues of Europe, are now heading home.
After seven seasons in Spain, former national team captain Viktor Onopko rejected Everton to sign for FC Saturn, where he was joined by former Manchester United and Everton winger Andrei Kanchelskis. National team forward Dmitry Sychev abandoned Marseilles for Lokomotiv Moscow, and, fresh from winning the Champions League with Porto, Alenichev signed for Spartak. None are likely to have found themselves down on the deals.
The new Russian season is just 10 games old, but is already shaping up to be one of the most intriguing to date. It is a sign of the growing strength and competitiveness of the domestic competition that Dynamo, for all their newly acquired Continental glitz, currently lie in 8th place, while CSKA Moscow are only 10th, albeit with several games in hand due to their European exploits.
According to Paul Ashworth: 'Russia is the happening place in European football at the moment.' CSKA Moscow's Uefa Cup victory was the first by a Russian club in European club competition. It is unlikely to be the last.
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