Exit Russia

Gennady Fyodorov explains how Russia's Euro 2000 campaign stalled at the starting gate

The 1998 season can hardly be called a memorable one for Russian football. It was a season of dashed hopes, broken promises, failures on and off the pitch and the worst financial crisis in recent memory.

After seeing Russia miss the World Cup finals for the first time in 20 years in the summer, the country’s football fans had to endure the worst indig­­nation in the history of their national team in the following few months. Under new coach Anatoly Byshovets, who took over Russia’s squad after the sudden resignation of his predecessor Boris Ignatiev in July, the team lost six straight internationals, including all three of their Euro 2000 qualifiers. The humiliation reached a new low on November 18th when a makeshift Russian team was thrashed 5-1 by Brazil, fielding only three of their World Cup players.

The state of the national team has even been debated within the Kremlin. Earlier this year President Boris Yeltsin requested radical changes in the national side as well as in the football federation. “The leadership of Russian football has to be urgently strengthened, a high-class chief coach has to be found and the nat­ion­al squad has to be formed anew,” said the Russian leader after seeing how the French were engulfed by national pride after winning the World Cup.

But the road to recovery for Russian football may get a lot longer and much more difficult following the economic crisis that hit the country in the autumn. ⌦The sudden rouble collapse in August left dozens of the country’s professional clubs, many of whom rely purely on subsidies from local governments for survival, virtually bankrupt. Several teams in the top two divisions had to abandon their long term plans to modernise stands and other facilities. One side, First Division Lada-VAZ Togliatti, who last year played in the top echelon of Russian football, were deducted six points for failing to install undersoil heating by the League’s deadline of October 1st and as a result were relegated.

Fellow First Division teams Druzhba Maikop and Dinamo Stavropol, in Russia’s southern region, did not have enough cash to pay the airfares for their away games to eastern Siberia and the far east. The situation became absurd when both clubs chose to take a 3-0 forfeit and face a stiff fine from the league but still came out better financially than if they had shelled out £6,000 for the round trips to cities as far away as Tomsk and Chita.

But it is not only the lesser known clubs that are frantically looking for money to pay their travel costs. Russian champions Spartak Moscow struggled to raise hard currency to fund their trip to Austria in September for the Champions League match against Sturm Graz.

“The situation isn’t totally disastrous but it’s gett­ing close,” Spartak general manager Yuri Zavardin told a Russian newspaper before the trip. “We have to fly to Austria… but it’s impossible to buy currency at a decent rate to pay for the hotel and meals. The only good news for us at the moment is that we’ve made the Champions League where we get a share of hard currency from UEFA not just for participation but for wins,” he said. “It’s the only way we can survive and we need the points now more than ever before.”

While hopes that the country’s financial situation will get better in the near future appear no more than wishful thinking, many talented players in Russia inevitably prefer to look for greener pastures to continue their professional careers. The exodus of young Russians to the West is not as frantic as five or six years ago, with the only noticeable move of the past six months being that of Spartak Moscow’s captain Dmitri Alenichev to Roma, but the trend is surely irreversible.

The country’s football fans can at least take comfort in good performances by several of their clubs in this year’s European competitions. Spartak, who reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals last season, have held their own against Real Madrid and Internazionale in the Champions League, while Lokomotiv Moscow are trying to match their successful run of last season in the Cup-Winners Cup. And with the Champions League being expanded to 32 teams by next season, Russia are hoping their league runners-up, CSKA Moscow, will also be given a place.

But the crisis in the national team has become a symbol of the chaotic state of the country as a whole. The most humiliating episode occurred when the squad were held up in Moscow in a row over money before they could fly to Kiev for their Euro 2000 qualifier against Ukraine. Only after the arrival of an armoured car laden with hard cash from the state gas monopoly Gazprom, the national team’s main sponsor, did officials at Vnukovo airport to let the squad fly to the Ukrainian capital aboard a charter plane owned by Gazprom. It took the Russian team four hours instead of the usual one hour to reach Kiev, where they then lost to the former Soviet republic 3-2. Further defeats by Iceland and France have made qualification for Euro 2000 all but impossible and Yeltsin’s chances of living to see a wave of football-inspired euphoria sweep the country must be rated zero.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month