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Soccer’s Sleeping Giant, on the Sidelines Once Again


In the Champions League, Lokomotiv had a tough group, featuring not only Atlético but Juventus. Zenit did not, but it was still just 45 minutes from making it through. Perhaps both might reflect, a little, on nothing more than bad luck.

The Europa League exits were more striking. CSKA is mired in financial trouble, having been bailed out by VEB, a state-owned bank, and is searching for an owner. Spartak Moscow — which was eliminated even before the group stage — is recovering from internecine strife, pitting the (former) manager against both the players and the board. And Krasnodar, a team widely seen not just as Russian soccer’s feel-good story but a model of its future, basically just blew it.

The fact that there is no easy pattern to trace, though, should not be taken as proof that Russian soccer has no systemic problems.

Some are relatively new. The collapse of the ruble, in 2014, as well as the rise of the Chinese Super League, brought to an end the era of Russian teams’ recruiting world-class talent through sheer financial muscle. There are still fine imports in the Russian Premier League — Malcom, João Mário, André Schurrle as players, and coaches like Domenico Tedesco — but they have the air, now, of castoffs as much as mercenaries.

In 2015, Russia announced a limit on the number of foreign players a club could field — only six at a time — and employ. The quota has, in effect, simply served to inflate the salaries of homegrown players, entrenching a sort of lucrative mediocrity.

The fact that many clubs are wholly or partly state-owned, meanwhile, has left teams at the mercy of broader economic forces, with budgets cut and ambitions dulled for political, rather than sporting, reasons.

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