This feature is part of The Tsars of Football
WHEN YOU HAVE a 341-foot yacht moored in Monaco, are the founding majority owner of the largest and most profitable retailer in Russia, and are worth in excess of $6 billion, one could be forgiven for thinking you’d be content with life, but not Sergey Galitskiy.
“When you are constantly under stress, you sometimes think that a horrible end is better than a horror without end,” he commented earlier this year at Moscow region’s Skolkovo Business School.
His retail empire employs over a quarter of a million people and sends 6,000 trucks with 20,000 drivers to over 12,000 stores across the largest nation on earth, so when he hears of an accident on the roads, he shudders. “When you have a company in which 260,000 people work, you sleep with sleeping pills, you are constantly in the heat of passion. Most people do not need that kind of life. They will not be happy.”
The period through which Galitskiy emerged as one of the foremost businessmen in modern Russia was filled with its fair share of horrors, so perhaps one can forgive him for his darkly pessimistic overview of life. While the vast majority of new Russian wealth was forged through the country’s bountiful natural resources of oil and gas, he built his own path, one which was typically resolute and individual, but was not without its obstacles.
Entering an aggressive emerging retail market, he was forced to avoid direct competition by opening his first convenience stores in smaller towns and bide his time as he patiently built up his network of stores.
Aside from merely running a multi-billion dollar enterprise, he has built up FC Krasnodar from nothing to three consecutive Europa League qualifications in the space of eight years, a quite astonishing achievement that has required his compromising touch. Such is his consummate skill at engineering situations to his advantage that he has navigated the choppy waters of commerce and sport with a quiet determination that sets him apart.
When the presidents of Russian clubs met to discuss the highly controversial matter of the governance of Crimean clubs after the peninsula’s annexation 2014, he realised that it was critical to be diplomatic with their response. Lambast UEFA’s stance of not allowing them to compete in the Russian league system, and clubs like his might run the risk of repercussions when attempting to compete in Europe. Although he was accused by some in that meeting of ‘crawling on his belly to the West’, he was astute enough to realise when to pick his battles. Two years later, he has seen his side go toe to toe with the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Lille and Everton.
Still only 48, the self-made magnate is a quiet phenomenon in the world of Russian football. He has forged a form of release from the intense pressures of business by building up a professional club in his own philosophy. A reserved character, he only gives two or three media interviews a year, but when he does he is a focused and confident exponent of a style that has brought him enormous rewards.
As one might expect from a man who has built his success at such a remarkable rate, he rarely has the time or patience for the media circus and its various trimmings. At the Skolkovo Business School talk, faced with a wall of expectant people examining his every word, he was fidgety and irritable.
Fyodor Smolov is one of the club’s finest talents, now starring for Russia too
During the maddening chaos of post-perestroika Russian football, he had been busy constructing his fledgling empire without searching for the mass appeal that many of his fellow entrepreneurs craved. As far as he was concerned, it was a game to be planned carefully and executed ruthlessly, not overwhelmingly blitzed by a flurry of financial muscle.
This guiding vision was moulded by his earlier life experiences as a teenager in the 1980s. At school he had played football enthusiastically, but never reached a level where a professional career was likely to take off. When this realisation sank in, he turned his attention to other pursuits and discovered the cerebral platform of chess. Just two years after first encountering the game for he first time, he became a candidate for Master of Sport, which is one of the highest level of recognition within games and sport in Russia.
This level of efficiency and dedication characterised the young Galitskiy in his business life. He would later admit to being an admirer of the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson and the savvy of Steve Jobs – whose autobiography was the only book he claimed to have re-read in 30 years – using elements of he life of both men to form his own. His interest in chess, particularly the intricacy and thought involved, is a shared passion of his and Ferguson’s.
“Concentration has always been an important message for me,” the legendary Manchester United manager told France Football in 2009. “It’s always the last thing I talk about to the players before they leave the dressing room. Football is more and more like a game of chess, and in chess if you lose concentration for a second you’re dead.”
This is not to say Galitskiy moulded his whole outlook on the phenomenal success of others. He certainly receives – or searches for – far less attention than Ferguson or Jobs did in their careers, and lacks the aggressive intensity of the former. His ability to pick out the elements of others that suit him best and combine them to fit his needs is what makes him such an individual character in the world of modern Russian football.
FC Krasnodar’s foundation and guiding principles suggest that it is not only the pace at which they have grown which will set them apart. Galitskiy set out to establish the finest academy system in Russia with the most state of the art facilities for all ages groups, in marked contrast to other wealthy benefactors.
Suleyman Kerimov blew vast sums of money at Anzhi Makhachkala a few years ago, making Samuel Eto’o the world’s highest paid footballer and offering Roberto Carlos a Bugatti Veyron on his 38th birthday. He turned off the tap less the three years later after his monied stars failed to qualify for the Champions League, and in the three seasons since then they have been relegated in between struggling seasons at the foot of the Premier League table.
The academy is presided over by the urbane and multilingual Aram Fundukyan, who oversees an entire educational program that is virtually unrivalled in Russia. The pristine lawns and modern minimalistic building design decorate facilities that include a residential complex with a full school campus with dining halls, dormitories, lecture halls and open plan halls, while the training provisions spoil the youngsters and first teamers alike. Steam rooms, a state of the art on-site medical centre, an Olympic size swimming pool, fully-equipped gym, all-weather and natural grass surfaces; the academy members even have official club uniforms. No expense has been spared by Galitskiy in his bid to lay the firmest foundations for the development of youth at Krasnodar.
As is common in Russia, the club runs a vast range of age-specific groups so that the overwhelming majority of players only perform with peers from their own school year. The concept centres around developing the potential players as people together without rushing them through to the first team before they are ready, but as of yet has not produced a regular first team member. Galitskiy has remained sanguine about the progress, though, and is utterly convinced he is ploughing the right path.
Read | A Tale of One City: Krasnodar
“We are to some extent taking a risk, filling almost half the [youth] team with our pupils,” Galitskiy said five years ago. “The risk has paid off. The boys out on the pitch are more confident facing opponents a few years older. Now, we are optimistic for the future. We hope our youth team will consist only of pupils of our academy. At least we will make the effort.”
His use of the word ‘pupil’ is telling. When he implemented the strategy five years ago, the hope that academy graduates would completely fill the full youth team – equivalent to the under-21 teams in England – was not actively reciprocated elsewhere in the league, at least not to the same extent. Many youth teams in Russia are at least partly made up of pupils from separate dedicated academies, such as the Yehven Konoplyanko Academy in Togliatti, and the result is often a collection of highly talented individuals who haven’t grown up together under the same framework and philosophy.
CSKA Moscow were recently crowned Russian champions, but one of their previously bright hopes, Russia’s 2013 Young Player of the Year striker Konstantin Bazelyuk, has been forced to spend time on loan near the Chinese border at struggling second tier side SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk. At 23, he has probably already missed his chance to make it at his parent club. His example demonstrates the inefficiency that Galitskiy refuses to tolerate and the lethargy in the development of youth in Russia as a whole.
The regeneration of the Russia national team is a major cause for concern at the moment, and is an issue that requires both Galitskiy’s way of thinking and his financial input to resolve. Russia’s defensive line-up in the warm up match against France in March had an average age of 33, while the midfield duo most likely to start in the European Championships this summer, Igor Denisov and Roman Shirokov, are 32 and 34 respectively.
Admittedly there are some promising maturing players such as Alan Dzagoev, Oleg Shatov and Alexander Kokorin, but they are all in their mid-20s already. For every Alexander Golovin and Alexey Miranchuk from the emerging age groups, there is a Bazelyuk or Dmitry Demidov, who failed to deliver on their early promise, and the depth of talent for Europe’s most populous nation is frighteningly shallow.
Developing young talent is not something Galitskiy has set out to do for the benefit of the national team specifically, however. “I’m not a patriot,” he told Russian GQ after being named Businessman of the Year in 2014. “I’m just a person who lives in this country. I don’t like that word ‘patriot’, it’s just a label. Physiologically it is impossible not to love, to be tied to the place where you were born.” When his interviewer suggested he might like to repeat his sentiments on a state-run TV channel, he brushed aside the hypothetical challenge by claiming “propaganda [wasn’t his] business.”
This is not the sort of rhetoric that weaker men would survive saying publicly. His experience in handling the country’s power brokers is such that he has been able to balance keeping them content while also pursuing his own aims. In a unique move, he has set up a vast number of satellite centres around the Krasnodar Krai region where local youngsters are housed with ‘aunts’ who feed them and put them up while they attend training sessions run by coaches affiliated with the club. Those that show particular promise are then invited to join the main academy in the city of Krasnodar itself.
Gareth Bale was spotted at a similar satellite training centre in Bath at the age of eight by Southampton’s Head of Youth Recruitment Rod Ruddick, and has gone on to become a Champions League winner and the most expensive player of all time. In fact, the holistic approach that was borne out of Markus Liebherr’s visionary period in charge of Southampton is mirrored remarkably in the set up that Galitskiy has personally driven at FC Krasnodar.
In the Soviet Union, youth development was much more centralised and overseen by huge sport societies, but following their demise in the 1990s in the face of sudden open competition from private investors, the landscape of youth football changed irrevocably.
Of the new Russian wealth that erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Roman Abramovich is by far the best known to English football followers. He may have focused his attentions on Chelsea Football Club in London for over a decade now, but he has also ploughed millions into domestic development projects in his native Russia.
Sergey Galitskiy visiting the FC Krasnodar academy
The prime example is the Yehven Konoplyanko Academy, and he contributed to the construction of over 100 artificial football pitches across the country as well as funding the salary of Guus Hiddink while the Dutchman was in charge of he national team.
While his financial generosity towards football in Russia is clear, Galitskiy has taken a different path with his benefaction. His mentality towards achieving success is intriguing, and wholly contrasted to that of Abramovich. “When I was a child in the yard, I always went to play with the weaker team. I didn’t like to ‘sleep’ with power and money. I’m only interested in this way; not because it is right or moral, but because I’m so interested in fun. If I liked to play with M&A [mergers & acquisitions] in business and big, expensive figures in football, I would have done.”
Given his comments about the ‘horror’ of the life he has chosen, it seems he has intentionally trapped himself in the cycle of committing to his project but denying himself the temptation of splashing enormous sums of money at a quick solution.
It is hard to paint a complete picture of Galitskiy’s uniquely personal approach without including his club’s city rivals Kuban Krasnodar, who have tried a bizarre combination of both ends of the spectrum. Last summer they brought in the hugely experienced duo Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko on exorbitant salaries, while in the winter Borussia Dortmund’s former Brazilian centre-back Felipe Santana arrived to great fanfare.
The contrast in policy is stark; Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko were clearly past their prime, with the former now winding down his career in Kazakhstan and the latter battling through a series of recurring injuries. Santana – who three years ago was sitting on the bench at Wembley in the Champions League final, but was recently on the losing side of a relegation playoff in Siberia – only started 11 matches and will leave having claimed a sizeable salary, despite the club having had a transfer ban placed upon them after they had failed to pay salaries on time.
On the other hand, Kuban have managed to bring through more players from their youth system, in part due to the sale and poor fitness of many of their senior players.
Rather than reel in big name players on inflated salaries, Galitskiy has sought subtler measures to win over fans. When Spartak Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg – whose support are the most notorious and plentiful in Russia – visited Krasnodar two seasons ago, their fans were offered free tickets on the provision that they behaved respectably. Even when he attracted Pelé to visit the newly-opened academy a few years ago, instead of inviting the world’s media, he made sure every pupil in the academy itself was present and was able to witness the most celebrated player in the history of the game.
Perhaps more valuably, being proficient at appeasing the Sports Minister and President of the Russian Football Union has strengthened his position. Alan Moore is a former sports manager based in Moscow, and he explains the value of Galitskiy’s diplomacy: “Nobody does business at the top-level without knowing which side of their bread is buttered, so he has been able to speak out, yet not really rock the boat. He is relatively close to Mutko, and thus within the Kremlin in circle. At the end of the meeting [regarding the Crimean clubs’ proposed incorporation into the Russian system] he said he wouldn’t be the bad guy and go against Putin. He obviously knows how the game works, and even though he loves his football club, he is not going to going against Putin.”
If Russian football is to recover to a position of strength, both domestically and internationally, more men like Galitskiy will be needed. The model of state ownership – which has prevailed for decades in Russia – is outdated if the next generation of players are to fulfil their potential, and without the instigation of world-class academies established in a healthy, stable manner the future could indeed be full of horror.
Thankfully for Krasnodar, and Russian football in general, Galitskiy subscribes to a more evolutionary theory. In the natural selection of football, his project is the fittest; perhaps the outlook is not so bleak after all.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint
This feature has been published in association with Russian Football News, the premier English-language Russian football website online. View more of their work here.