Rouble makers

Russian influence on football is not just about buying clubs, as Garry O’Connor’s move to Moscow proves. He will be the first of many from these shores, predicts Dan Brennan

The transfer of Hibernian striker Garry O’Connor to Lokomotiv Moscow has caused quite a stir. In signing a five-year deal that will make him a multimillionaire, the Scottish international has become the first Briton to play in Russia’s Premier League. Now, instead of meandering off for a midweek trip to Motherwell, he finds himself negotiating tricky away fixtures 8,000 miles down the road in Vladivostok.

Had Loko got their way, they would have signed his Hibs strike partner, Derek Riordan, too. But Riordan’s response was more typically parochial, as he proclaimed Moscow “a wee bit too far away”. Many have been shocked that a British player should decide to go to Russia. But the real surprise is that it has taken this long. Despite a new Premier League quota on “legionnaires” – teams are now limited to eight foreigners on the pitch – the top clubs continue to become more cosmopolitan by the season.

Of 118 new signings made by the Premier League’s 16 clubs, 51 were foreigners, and that does not include the many players hailing from the so-called “Near Abroad” – the 14 other former Soviet republics. O’Connor has stepped into boots vacated by an Italian, Francesco Ruopolo, who returned to Parma in December. His new dressing room resembles a Tower of Babel, with colleagues from Ghana, Brazil, Georgia, Costa Rica, Malawi, Belarus, Cameroon, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Egypt, Switzerland and Mali.

B-list South Americans, Africans and east Europeans have long since made a beeline to the Russian Premier League. But what catches the eye now is not just the variety of the foreign recruits, but their calibre. As well as O’Connor, Loko have just signed Egypt striker Zaki, a star of the recent African Nations Cup, and Switzerland Under-21 keeper Eldin Jakupovic, who acquitted himself so excellently in Thun’s surprise Champions League run.

As CSKA Moscow’s UEFA Cup triumph last year demonstrated, Russia’s top clubs are not just awash with cash, but are starting to make their mark in Europe. And with the omnipresent Roman Abramovich now investing heavily in the development of the country’s football infrastructure at grass-roots level, not to mention allegedly bankrolling the imminent appointment of the national team’s next coaching messiah – probably Guus Hiddink – there is a new feeling of optimism sweeping the land

“The Russian league is getting a lot more competitive,” says CSKA coach Valery Gazzayev. “There are five clubs now who are developing at a high level: Spartak, Zenit, Dynamo, Lokomotiv and ourselves. And Rubin Kazan are also making good progress.

“There’s an old perception – and an old self-perception – of Russians as second-rate,” continues Gazzayev. “Our UEFA Cup win was a big psychological blow against that. The fact is that Russia is now flourishing across the board. The inferiority complex is fading fast. Players who might have gone to France, Holland or even Germany before will come here instead. We know we won’t always get the finished article, but we can get talented young players, ones who are not far away.”

It helps if you can dangle a big bag of tax-free cash under their noses. As transfer fees and wages ebb in the West, the Russian gravy train gathers pace. O’Connor is understood to be on a cool £16,000 a week – probably not far short of ten times his basic wage in Scotland. And with the added benefit that he will not be troubled by the local taxman.

Lokomotiv are not even one of Moscow’s richest three clubs. Though handsomely backed by the Russian state railway and their subsidiaries, they lag some way behind Dynamo, CSKA and Spartak Moscow in the cash stakes. O’Connor’s mooted £1.6 million transfer fee pales in comparison to the $14m (£8m) that Spartak splashed out on Argentine starlet Fernando Cavenaghi last year.

Dynamo – Russia’s new financial kingpins – no longer have to rely on the KGB for funding, but instead have a billionaire fertiliser magnate, Alexei Fedorychev, whose company Fedcominvest also sponsor AS Monaco. With his backing they purchased four of the Porto team that won the Champions League in 2004 – Derlei, Costinha, Seitaridis and Maniche (who has since rejoined José Mourinho at Chelsea) – for a combined whack of more than £30m. They were recently joined by Alexei Smertin, who left Chelsea and his loan deal at Charlton to become, reputedly, the Russian Premier League’s top earner.

O’Connor and Smertin were not the only ones to abandon the UK for Moscow in the recent transfer window. Arsenal’s highly regarded young Dutch forward, Quincy Owusu Abeyie, joined Spartak Moscow, acknowledging he would earn more there than he could ever hope to at Highbury. CSKA, meanwhile, now have three of Brazil’s brightest young talents, in Daniel Carvalho, Wagner Love and Jo. The last scored the decisive goal against Spartak Moscow in the Super Cup, Russia’s traditional curtain-raiser, in front of a 50,000 crowd in March.

Anyone who has visited the Russian capital in recent years will know that the old images of proletarian drudgery are long gone. These days Moscow – a city with more millionaires per capita than just about any other metropolis on the planet – has become a byword for showy extravagance and material excess. It’s not to everyone’s taste and certainly not to everyone’s advantage, but it does mean that it is more than adequately equipped with all of the trappings on the average footballer’s checklist. To go with his multimillion-pound contract, O’Connor will certainly be supplied with all the trimmings: plush apartment, chauffeur-driven car and regular flights home.

The Scot, who has moved his young family out to Moscow, is reportedly thriving in his new life. It will surely not be long before others join him. If he keeps sending home positive reports from the Eastern Front, even his old mucker Riordan might reconsider.

From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month