If I were to walk into a bar in England, Spain or any of the ‘big’ football nations of the world, and tried to start a conversation about Russian football, the dialogue would most likely sway towards one of three topics:
1) Racist fans
2) ‘The team that Eto’o plays for’ (Anzhi Makhachkala)
3) Roman Abramovich
Perhaps past images of communism, dictatorship and war prelude the fine standard of football Russians are treated to week in, week out. Or perhaps maybe people just don’t care much for football that isn’t shown on prime time television. Whatever the reason, millions are missing out on the superb action taking place in the former USSR.
For those who pay no attention to events in the RPL, Anzhi are often thought to be the leading light of the league. Gallantly brushing off the other, less affluent teams as they stroll towards an infinite amount of success. Their billionaire owner, Suleyman Kerimov, and his mammoth investment into the Dagestan outfit have certainly helped their cause.
This could not be further from the truth. Not only are Anzhi not ‘running away with the league,’ they aren’t even competing for it. At the time of writing, with three games left of the Russian season, Anzhi lumber in third, seemingly content with a second consecutive season playing Europa League football.
Whilst Wild Devision, as they are inexplicably known, trundle along behind them, CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg are fighting tooth and nail for the title. As of this moment, CSKA hold a slender three point lead over the Sky Blues, a key factor being the defence of the Moscow club, conceding only 21 goals in 27 games, a league record.
The hoards of undiscovered players in the league also beggars belief. For instance, 27-year-old Wanderson, is the top scorer in the division with 13 goals for middling side Krasnodar. Wanderson has never been on the radars of any top European clubs, having only played for Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia and second division Swedish side GAIS before his move to Russia. It seems the Brazillian had to move behind the Iron Curtain before he could realise his full potential.
One of the crown jewels of Russian football is CSKA’s Alan Dzagoev. The 22-year-old burst onto the scene during last years European Championships in Poland & Ukraine, scoring three goals in Russia’s three group games. They were, however, shockingly sent home at the hands of ‘worst team in the tournament’ Greece.
Dzagoev was heavily touted by Europe’s finest after the tournament, but CSKA kept their resolve and managed to hold on to the midfielder, for this season at least. The decision not to cash in on the Beslan-born star looks to have paid off, as he has played a vital role in what looks to be a championship-winning campaign.
One of the most common criticisms of the Russian game is that of the racist fan culture which undoubtedly haunts sport in the nation. The most highly scrutinized team in this department is high-flying Zenit Saint Petersburg, who, as mentioned earlier, have been a delight to watch on the field this season.
In the stands, however, it is a different story completely. Earlier in the season, fans of the club constructed a hate-fuelled letter to the board of directors, demanding the removal of any black or homosexual players and coaching staff from Zenit. Thankfully, the letter was 100% ignored by the St Petersburg hierarchy, and those responsible for it represent a small minority of the club’s fans.
However, it frustrates me deeply that Russian football as a whole is persecuted for the actions of a small percentage of fans from one club, whilst in other countries, actions of a similar nature are ignored. Was there a mass media attack on Italian football when AC Milan’s Kevin Prince Boateng was subjected to racist abuse at the hands of Pro Patria supporters? Or when Tottenham Hotspur fan’s were targeted in an anti-semitic attack in Rome before their Europa League clash with Lazio?
The words, chants and actions of a small group of morons should not affect how we view an entire country from a sporting perspective. I feel this, alongside the lack of coverage it receives, is the main reason there are not more avid watchers of Russian Football. In the small glimpses that they have been in the spotlight, the ex-Soviets have not failed to impress. For example Zenit’s destruction of five-time European champions Liverpool, Anzhi’s comfortable win over Serie A’s Udinese and Rubin Kazan’s hammerings of Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Levante.
Sadly, very few watch the mesmerising football on show in the worlds largest country on a regular basis. They only witness the occasional Thursday night masterclass, which is falsely perceived by pundits, journalists and fans alike as an upset.
I can concede that the Russian Premier League has a long way to go before reaching the standards set in England, Spain and Germany. However, as a connoisseur of all major European football leagues, I can say without question that levels of entertainment and indeed quality in the Serie A, Ligue Un, Eredivisie, Liga Portuguesa and many more are often completely outclassed by that displayed in Russia.
Football in Russia is only beginning to enter a golden era. There is a flock of young, raw talent in the league. Along with Dzagoev, there is Anzhi’s giant Ivorian striker Lacina Traore, who has completely outshadowed Samuel Eto’o in the Makhachkala attack this year. Not to mention CSKA’s top scorer Ahmed Musa; the 20-year-old Nigerian has bagged ten goals this year after signing from Dutch club VVV for €5 million in 2012.
If you accompany the amount of promising young talents in the league with the millions upon millions of euros that have been invested in clubs up and down the country, do not be surprised if we start to see more and more Russian clubs progressing in Europe, as well as some of the continent’s most valuable stars being swept under the Iron Curtain.
This article was written by Dan Gilfilan. You can find him on twitter @DCDan_