If the strength of a football league was measured by its money, then right now the Russian Premier League would be one of the best in Europe. But despite PFC CSKA Moskva becoming the first Russian side to appear in the UEFA Super Cup tonight, the country's footballing firmament still has some way to go before scaling the heights of sporting achievement on a regular basis.
When Roman Abramovich became Chelsea FC's main shareholder in July 2003 it caused deep division in Russia. Some were happy to see their country involved in any way with top-level European football again; but others sympathised with UEFA Executive Committee member Viacheslav Koloskov, then president of the Russian Football Union. "It would be better if Abramovich invested his money in Russian football," he said.
It seems Koloskov's words were heeded as eight months later Abramovich's oil company, Sibneft, became the main sponsor of CSKA and other tycoons and firms soon followed suit. Lukoil vice-president Leonid Fedun became chairman of FC Spartak Moskva, while Aleksei Fedorychev - whose Fedcom company sponsored AS Monaco FC to the UEFA Champions League final in 2003/04 - took FC Dinamo Moskva under his wing.
Not only did this investment lure exiled Russian players home, but a slew of foreigners followed them. Spartak splashed out €11m for Fernando Cavenaghi, CSKA took Croatian international striker Ivica Olic as well as three promising young Brazilians - Daniel Carvalho, Dudu Cearense and Vágner Love - while Lokomotiv beat off competition from AS Roma to sign midfield anchor-man Francisco Lima.
Dinamo, meanwhile, have rivalled even Chelsea of late with their ambitious spending, reported to have reached around €80m this year alone. José Mourinho's former FC Porto players Derlei, Costinha, Maniche and Thiago, as well as Giourkas Seitaridis, have all joined the Moscow club.
As a consequence, Russian television is keen to give domestic football unprecedented coverage and fans from Siberia to Vladikavkaz have grown accustomed to seeing European champions such as Seitaridis in the flesh. Furthermore, one of the side-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the dissolution of a previously thriving youth football infrastructure; but thanks to the new investment, another crop of talent has emerged and new stadiums have been built.
Not all in the Russian garden is rosy, however, and results are not yet being achieved on a regular basis on the pitch. Dinamo may boast much of the team that played in the 2004 UEFA Champions League final, and several players from the European Championship final of the same year, but they still play at an old stadium and their academy has not supplied any significant talent in recent years. They currently languish ninth in the league, a massive 19 points behind leaders Lokomotiv.
Spartak, meanwhile, have an established squad but the Russian champions six seasons running until 2002 still play at the borrowed Luzhniki arena, and are trying to counter the devastating effects of finishing eighth and tenth in the past two seasons. However, the 'people's club' do at least have a promising academy system.
Where the money has born fruit has been at clubs with a strong infrastructure, and the fact that Lokomotiv and CSKA lead the way in the league again is no coincidence. They do have generous sponsors, but neither club neglects all-round development. Lokomotiv possess arguably the best stadium in eastern Europe, and they boast a raft of young Russian talent in Dmitri Sychev, Marat Izmailov, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Aleksandr Samedov.
UEFA Cup heroes CSKA have young Russian brothers Alexei and Vasili Berezutski in defence, plus midfielder Yuri Zhirkov, plucked from FC Spartak Tambov for just €300,000 - a fraction of his current value, proving that scrupulous scouting and coaching can still be as effective as an open wallet.
Of course not every club in Russia is able to afford Champions League finalists or Brazil Under-21 internationals, and without stable financing teams are losing touch with the leaders. FC Krylya Sovetov Samara finished third in 2004 thanks to the investment of Leonid Tkachenko, but he sold the squad and bailed out after their UEFA Cup debut failed to attract sponsors. They are now battling relegation.
Money in Russian football, as elsewhere, will only buy success if spent wisely and there is now concern that the influx of foreign players could block the passage of trainees into the league, and thereby weaken the national team. If Yuri Semin's squad fail to win a place in next year's FIFA World Cup finals, it will be taken as a clear sign by most fans that, despite the improving status of their top clubs, money is not the answer to everything.
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