A little bit of sports writing

Back to basics for Russian Football (15.02.2015)



The threat of US armed support for Ukraine’s government was probably the greatest assist to the just completed peace talks in Minsk.

The Moscow Times newspaper (who are traditionally arch critics of the Kremlin and all things corrupted in Russia) published a list of five “interventions” by the USA, the latest being Syria. We can guess that Messrs Putin, Poroshenko, Hollande and Mrs. Merkel were all very aware of US “help”, even though it would never materialise.

So with the latest round of rabid anti-Russian exortations complete, the media roll onto the EU “threats” regarding sanctions should Russia not comply, oddly Ukranian non-compliance merits not a word. But this is the world we live in, with a much needed boogey man in VVP and his cronies to prop up media outlets across the world.

Personally I want the ridiculous sanctions lifted (from all sides). Since Vlad and his buddies blocked Kerrygold Cheese from being the only edible cheese-type food product in Russia, my pleasant Saturday afternoon cheese roll, with a cup of Lyons tea while listening to sports radio from Ireland (or when the BBC don’t block 5live) has been soulless.

Yes, weekends without local football can be THAT interesting!

So once quality meat (you cannot get decent beef for love nor money – don’t ask), Irish dairy products and proper vegetables are let back into Russia, life will return to normal.

The build up to 2018 will resume and with spring fast approaching, football will be back with us. Yet one man is not happy.

Vitali Mutko, our white knight in Gazprom armour, tells us that preparation for 2018 is for nought when our players are sitting on the bench week in, week out. He blames, though understands, Club Presidents (owners) for allowing this develop.

In his interview with Sports Express newspaper he says (rightly) the blame lies in the youth system and academies.

Of course the derision greeting his latest “come and get me” plea to Russian football was deafening. Who can believe a man who turned Zenit into the gluttonous beast that it is (currently acquiring the always unhappy Artem “Big Daddy” Dzuba from Spartak) and who ensured that forward thinking academies and centres like the Konopylov in Togliatti were gutted and destroyed by government and professional clubs?

However, he is correct the our youth development system has failed and everybody acknowledges this. For sure he is not able to right the situation, though at least he is speaking about it, as have the RFS on many occasions. But we need actions, not words.

Credit to Mutko for his fortright statements on doping in sports schools, credit to him for inviting WADA into the country to test 3,000 athletes, and three cheers for forcing the doyen of Russian and World Athletics Valentin Balakhnichev out of office.

He has let loose the dogs of war on Russian sports to combat drug cheating, with long distance swimmer Vladimir Dyatchin the latest to get hit.

He also made an aside to reporters after Russia’s recent Fed Cup win in regard to tennis players doping up (for once no Little Miss “Panic Room” Serena Williams involved in this one). Which was an unveiled shot at embattled tennis chiefs in Russia for their own lax regime.

But what about football? What is going to be done to prepare the team for 2018? The “Gazprom Globetrotters” idea was worryingly nodded at by some in football and the sports media.

Entering an All-Star team in the Premier League does seem like the least intelligent option, which means it could happen with the egos involved. Getting the academy structures and youth football in Russia right will have no effect on 2018 whatsoever, though it will for 2020, 2022, 2024, 2026 and for UEFA club competitions from 2020 onwards.

Establishing, enforcing and monitoring (and tweaking) proper guidelines for on and off the field youth development would maximise the effect of the system and provide clubs with abundant talent.

Add to this the simple business facts that a proper youth development system would bring – connecting and marketing in the community = more interest from locals = more people at matches = more opportunities for merchandising and concession sales = more revenue = social lift and growth.

The structures are in place to make this happen, the knowledge is still floating around the system and the financial support is there. However the will is lacking. Anything beyond one season is too long for the vast majority of clubs and their backers, and indeed fans.

So long as basic diet and nutrition are not taught and monitored in Russian academies. So long as education is not a central hub of academies. So long as ambition to improve is not bred into coaches by their Directors. So long as things remain the same, nothing will change.

All the visits to foreign academies, the visits of foreign experts to local academies, result in more of the same, photo opp’s and back slapping. Yet a slap on the back, as the saying goes, is only a few inches from a kick up the backside.

Despite the fine words of our Sports Minister, Football Union and well meaning others, the future of Russian football relies on going back to basics now.

Not fit for purpose – do Russian clubs serve the greater good?



What is the purpose of a football club? What is the use of paying players to play football? What do we get for our investment? Generally it’s agreed that football clubs are there to act as a central gathering point for the community, to generate community spirit, creating a oneness lost from sitting in caves or yurts listening to tales around a blazing fire. Other “ideals” have been tacked on along the way. To increase the uptake of sports activity, to bring media coverage and visitors to the area, get kids interested in sports and fitness. Give local businesses an outlet to promote their services/products to a wider audience. Never is there the point of a need for profit, it’s all for the greater good. Though this idea of the greater good is closer to the Hot Fuzz version than some utopian Marxist goal. At least in the professional game.

In Canada over a decade ago the need for a social purpose, a communal greater good as the base of a football club, was drummed into me. The club I rejoined had suffered serious financial injury and the whole place was being rebuilt from bottom up. I carried it with me from that point forward and appreciated it most of all during two years work in Germany, where very often professional clubs do have the greater good at heart, offering a complete sports and culture lifestyle to their community, while also driving forward at the highest level. Almost without exception I have yet to see the greater good appear in any sports club, let alone football club, in Russia or the former USSR. Community and the greater good are obstacles to be overcome.

Over the last number of years I’ve had the pleasure of conversations with one of Ireland’s most respected football commentators and experts, and am delighted to call Damien Richardson a colleague and friend. His practicality and idealism melded well with the Russian football system, his opinions on best practice even more so. A couple of months back I related a “pitch” meeting with a potential client club. I worked with them before though now it was a new crew manning the lifeboat. In 2008 I’d secured a high annual five figure (dollars), multi-year sponsorship deal that was the highest in their history. It ran out December last and they tracked me down for more. At the first meeting I saw there was more at stake. The club, playing in the Second Division, had to put together a budget for the new season or lose their pro licence. With time running out we sat down and looked at cold hard figures. I wanted to get everything from this meeting to bring back to my partner Jonathan, an Aussie financial genius, enough raw material so that he could work the numbers and make the club attractive to a sponsor. Of all the people I’ve worked with, Jonathan is the first who can bring together finance and sports in a way that I understand – if I can understand it then anyone we deal with can too.

Two hours into the meeting I went outside the office for a think. Absolutely nothing made sense. The begging bowl was rattled to the local government, factory and even a wealthy individual who had paid for a special needs centre close to the club premises. The club were in control of two professional teams (playing in the second and third divisions) and more than 15 youth sides which formed their Youth Football School. The youth section was largely funded by subscriptions, team specific sponsors (usually the parent of a player) and the local Department of Education and Science. Some scraps were thrown down from the senior sides, though this was in the form of hiring speciality coaches whose first loyalty would be to the professional sides. Between running costs and wage budget, the professional section needed just more than US$800,000. They reckoned their marketing value was more than half of this, even producing a “bought” report from a marketing agency who, curiously, hadn’t been able to produce a sponsor.

In Canada, the Club President (a Northern Ireland born man with a genius for details) used to add up our income from scratch to see what budget he’d give me. I’ve always done the same since. So now, even filling the stadium, with all tickets at maximum price, with double the merchandise sold from the best year on record, with all concessions doubled and paid to the club, with winning the leagues and getting one match (somehow) on tv, short of selling players, we barely came to a quarter of the budget. On real figures, we were under $100,000. Yet they had already signed players and staff, knowing they’d run out of funds before the first snow of Autumn. Every other year they were in the same situation and knew that their budget would eventually be filled out by the local government and government run agencies, as well as a politically linked company who’d “look after them” for future considerations. They’d even cut salaries for players, or not pay a few of them. Anything to survive the season. And yet, and yet, what comes yet (to paraphrase the famous commentary from Eintracht Frankfurt’s Miracle of 1999).

The earnest faces around the table signalled a genuine interest in their efforts to get a proper sponsorship deal and keep the club afloat. We boiled down the initial amount to something far more palatable and were coming to an arrangement when the Marketing Director started up again about respect and their brand. So I asked her why would a sponsor get involved with them? What does the club do to serve its community? The 5-600 who turned up for home matches only contained a handful of visiting fans. The club played in the third tier and were unknown with only local media and those looking for a gambling fix interested in them. They’d virtually no feed up from their youth section, no female teams, no rapport with the community and ultimately not fit for purpose. They had no keep fit initiatives for the locals, no outreach programs, no foreign links and were not value for money. Heads nodded in agreement, the Marketing Director looked at her phone and left to take a call, she didn’t come back.

The chronic underdevelopment of club structures in Russia and former USSR countries can be attributed to entities which have sprouted from a self-entitled, hand out culture where personal responsibility ended when shoulders shrugged. The endemic corruption in society finds a hothouse home in football where recently two Premier League employees were sacked for reporting to the General Director that funds paid out for player agent services were far more than those they’d personally been party to and signed off on. Instead of rooting out the source of corruption, the GD axed the whistleblowers, the same GD who had previously suffered for stamping down on corruption within his former club. He’d never taken a wrong penny, though he was afraid to find out who was.

So back to the meat of the story, the little club who could not find a sponsor. I gave them a proposal and offer of help, that we’d get a sponsor and also help with getting something started for the club to bring to the table. Start small, local and grow. Make a club for the town to be proud of. Hands were shaken, hugs given and I walked to the train station knowing I’d never hear from them again. The club are still struggling from hand out to hand out and will play in the Second Division again. They never got a sponsor and the (ex-) Marketing Director sent me an sms last week to tell me that she wanted to meet for a chat when I’d time, it appears she was a victim of one of my suggestions – valuing staff and optimising work. Her (ex-) boyfriend, the Club President, didn’t seem to feel that her work or performance were worth persevering with. Until Russian clubs realise what a well run club can contribute to and receive from the community, Russia and the former USSR countries will continue to lurch from boom to bust and year to year, all the while the sport grows more distant from the people.


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