The summer of 2008 was Andrey Arshavin’s summer of ’69. The fabulously gifted midfielder was approaching his peak age as a professional footballer, his club side Zenit Saint Petersburg had battled their way to a UEFA cup victory against Glasgow Rangers in Manchester, while the Russian national team dazzled the world at the European Championships in Holland and Belgium before falling to eventual winners Spain 3-0 in the semi-final. His stock had never been higher as Barcelona pursued him all summer, before he settled on North London a year later as the launch pad for his career outside his native country.
The mid-noughties saw a boom in Russian football. Seemingly out of nowhere, CSKA Moscow won the UEFA Cup in 2005, followed by Zenit’s success three years later, which was itself followed by a stunning European Super Cup win over Manchester United in Monaco. Euro 2008 brought players such as Yuriy Zhirkov, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Igor Akinfeev to the attention of fans across the continent a year after all but ending England’s hopes of qualifying for the finals in the Luzhniki.
Fast-forward six years, and while Arshavin is feeding off scraps from the bench back in St Petersburg and Russian fans contemplate the abysmal, lacklustre performances in Brazil, you’d be forgiven for wondering: how could this have happened?
When one of Roman Abramovich’s companies, Milhouse, announced last year that his funding of Russian football “was winding down following the accomplishment of its goal to rebuild the infrastructure for grassroots football development in Russia,” the picture initially looked bleak. He had pumped a reported £125 million via his National Football Academy into the development of the game in his home country over the previous decade. This included footing the bill for foreign managers Guus Hiddink, Dick Advocaat and Fabio Capello, sending youth coaches abroad to develop their knowledge, including to England with his club Chelsea, and installing at least 130 new training pitches.
Potentially the greatest legacy of this ambitious project was the complete renovation of a remote football academy near the car-manufacturing city of Togliatti in the Samara region, less than 1,000 kilometres south-east of Moscow. Like many cities in the post-war Soviet Union, the city, named after the Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, exploded in size due to the introduction of major industrial factories, in this case the main manufacturing plant of carmakers Lada.
The Yuriy Khonoplyov Football Academy has also expanded into a world-class complex with 10 pitches of varying sizes, four of which are artificial surfaces, a medical rehabilitation centre, accommodation and education facilities for the young players, a swimming pool complete with hydro-massage facilities, two saunas, a huge gym, and a dining room for 180 where photos of famous graduates adorn the walls.
The academy is now funded by the Samara regional government, so when Abramovich stopped his financial support, perhaps he was actually being extremely astute in his vision for the sustainability of Russian football. Sugar daddies looking for instant gratification have rarely seen their lust for success and glory matched by their patience over a period of time.
Billionaire Suleyman Kerimov’s tempestuous reign at Anzhi Makhachkala saw the club rise to challenge for European places with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos and Willian on their books, and then crash out of the top flight after failing to win a single game until the last two months of the season when he pulled out last year. What Abramovich realised was that a reliance on his enormous wealth was unhealthy; by overseeing a transition from private to state funding, he ensured that the vision of the academy was long term.
The concept of youth development at the academy is light years ahead of the substandard setups that were left in many regions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before then, the best youth players from across the vast continent were pooled into concentrated training camps during their formative years where they were drilled in the collective concept of teams from the era. The philosophy of training was one of total immersion. Back when the Olympic football tournament held some considerable prestige, the gold medals in Melbourne and Seoul in 1958 and 1988, as well as three bronze medals in between, pointed to tangible results from this system, not forgetting the inaugural European Championships victory in 1960, or the strength of Soviet club sides in the 1980s.
In the 90s, continued state sponsorship meant that some of the major clubs in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and Tblisi swept up the majority of young talent, and later as private investment grew, other clubs such as Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk built up massive scouting systems and centres of excellence, but for the most part national development lost the collective direction that had served Soviet nations so well for most of the second half of the 20th century.
National centres such as Clairefontaine in France,and Barcelona’s La Masia academy have become famous for their extraordinary success at producing a high turnover of world-class players who have gone on to represent the national or club side that they are run by, and they have the same basic principle that is now being replicated in Togliatti: eat, sleep, breathe, live and train together with the best.
So what of those star pupils that adorn the dining room walls of the Yuriy Khonoplyov Academy? The poster boy is undoubtedly Alan Dzagoev, who was bought by CSKA Moscow for around $700,000 (to put the figure in context, this is equivalent to the entire annual budget of a Second Division club) and has gone on to star for the Army Men and the full Russian side. He is by no means the only success story from the complex, however; Dynamo Moscow’s central midfielder Artur Yusupov, Braga goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk and former Russian Universiade captain Evgeny Pesegov are just three who have gone on to make names for themselves.
The most impressive statistic though is that around 75 percent of graduates have gone on to become full professionals. Sergey Danilov spent four and a half years at the academy at the same time as Kritsyuk and is now the fulcrum of FC Tyumen’s midfield in the FNL, Russia’s second tier. He believes that the success of the Academy lies in the comfort of surroundings: “We had everything we needed,” he told me last week. “The facilities were the best. We woke up in the morning, we had breakfast together, trained together, studied together and then had time free together.”
Danilov was born in a small town not far from the academy, so perhaps it was easier for him to deal with life away from home, but he maintains the strength of the players’ development was the atmosphere between the young men. “It wasn’t difficult to adapt to the lifestyle because we were all friends together.”
A key element of the fostering of a strong bond between the members of the academy is the number of age-specific levels. In Russian youth football, it is common to label teams by the year of birth, as opposed to under-18, for example, which technically doesn’t preclude promising younger players from skipping age groups. Those going through the system play together for years, instead of jumping up to play with players three or four years older as they tend to do in England. By the time they reach 20 years of age, they have matured at the same rate as their peers, so are not overawed by their surroundings.
One might say this doesn’t prepare the youngsters for the step-up to professional competitive football. “It depends on the player,” Danilov said. “Of course it is hard to step up from the youth team to play with men; physically it is one thing to play with your peers, and another ball game to play with grown men.”
One major issue with youth football in England is the lack of serious match experience players receive, hence the frenzied excitement when a youth team product is promoted to the first team as soon as they show glimpses of brilliance. This can lead to a case of too much too soon for teenage prodigies – the prime example in world football being Freddy Adu earning a professional contract at the age of 14 with the MLS franchise DC United, and since falling into a depressing downwards spiral via a whole host of European teams.
Here is the trump card that the Yuriy Khonoplyov Academy can play: its senior members actually compete in the full Russian league system in what is effectively an under-21 team called Akademia Togliatti in the second division Ural Povolzhe League. Or at least they did until last year when they withdrew from the league system.
Like in Spain, where B teams can compete in the league system below their senior counterparts, Russian clubs all have a ‘double’ team, however far down the pyramid they may have to be placed. So a team competing in the lowest professional tier, the second division, will have a youth team playing in the regional amateur third division. These teams, however, are not reserve sides: they are still age-exclusive.
The big question is, does the system work? Based on the results of similar structures around the world, the steady development rate is an undoubted formula for sustained success. Manchester United’s Class of ’92 grew up together, and apart from Ryan Giggs bursting into the first team squad when he was only seventeen, the 1995-96 season saw them graduate more or less as a group, prompting Alan Hansen’s infamous line about not winning anything with kids.
Gary Neville and David Beckham are as different as personalities come, with one exception – their indefatigable work ethic, harnessed by the structured youth system that legendary youth coach Eric Harrison oversaw. However, Rubin Kazan II played in the same league as Akademia Togliatti, but their boys have suffered some humiliating heavy defeats before annually limping clear of the relegation zone, so it is not immediately apparent whether the competitive environment has helped with their development.
There is a flaw in the Russian youth system. Whereas the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were not thrown in at the deep end and were blooded gradually throughout the season, for clubs below the Premier League there is a strange restriction on the movement of youth players. A league squad has to be registered just like in England – in the FNL and the second division the maximum squad size is 40 – but once the registration period has closed at the end of the transfer window at the end of August, youth players are not allowed to play for the first team until the next registration window that opens in February. Consequently the expectation is that youth players are either ready or not – no middle ground – before they have had any time in the first team environment.
Danilov’s club FC Tyumen have just been promoted to the FNL and have had to rebuild the squad to be able to compete at the higher level. Thanks to the chilling winter and Russian Football Union’s decision three years ago to realign the domestic season with Europe, there is an enforced four-month winter break. The knock-on effect was that the FNL had to start a week before the World Cup final; given that the ridiculous pre-season period lasted for only four weeks, they have only managed to construct a meagre squad of 23, the smallest in the league.
Ideally, they would be able to use the youth system to supplement the new arrivals, but at present there are only two youth team products registered in the squad, third choice keeper Vyacheslav Grab, and defender Denis Baryshnikov, neither of whom has had a minute of playing time so far this season.
Academies such as the H are shining lights of youth development in Russia, but it can’t carry the burden of the expectation that comes from a nation of 143 million people by itself. Unfortunately, a few pieces of pointless red tape are holding back the league system playing its part in the nurturing of future stars. Time is running out for the next Alan Dzagoev to break into the national squad in time for the 2018 World Cup – but he might just be looking up from his breakfast at his predecessors on the wall right now.ow a
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint