By Marcus Haydon
When the Russian Football Union (RFU) published its list of 13 candidates for the post of new national team coach, its announcement was met by near-unanimous bemusement. Whilst it had been widely anticipated that the union was due to release a shortlist, it was at least expected to be, well, short.
The draft, as it turned out, was an eclectic one: Rafa Benitez, Marcelo Bielsa, Anatoly Byshovets, Valery Gazzaev, Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello, Andrey Kobelev, Yury Krasnozhan, Marcello Lippi, Valery Nepomnyashchy, Nikolay Pisarev, Harry Redknapp and Yury Semin.
The immediate feeling was just how diverse it was: pragmatists alongside purists, extroverts next to introverts. The list read like an admission from the RFU that it simply did not have a clue what type of coach to plump for.
Gazzaev, the former CSKA coach who was considered amongst the favourites for the role, was unequivocal in his view of the situation. “Imagine how they are laughing at us in Europe,” he said. “I feel very uncomfortable for myself and the well-known people mentioned on the list, which was posted only to cause unneeded controversy.”
Gazzaev’s candid attack would normally render him out of the running, but his comments were so representative of the overall zeitgeist that he remained a leading candidate.
Sovetsky Sport columnist Evgeny Lovchev was even less sympathetic. “There are two scenarios about the appearance of the list of 13,” he said. “The first version is that they lie to us once again as they traditionally do, treating the fans as fools. The second version is that the list on RFU’s website was put together by a mad [drunk] man. Respected coaches won’t go to this circus, chaos and psychiatric hospital.”
Such clumsy PR would cause controversy in most countries. But Russia’s current circumstances make the need for the correct appointment all the more pressing.
Let's shake on it | Bielsa and Pep were two of the RFU's 13 candidates
As the group-stage exit at Euro 2012 highlighted, this is a side in need of rejuvenation. Only Republic of Ireland had an older squad in Poland and Ukraine, with many of the current crop having been consistently relied upon for the last six years. A transition is required, but the question of Capello's appointment is two-fold: is he the man to lead the current generational change and also ensure that the generation after are up to the task?
Such a long-termist view has developed for two reasons. Firstly, the huge reliance on the current crop of ageing stars is widely viewed as unhealthy following the failures in 2010 and 2012. Also, the country is desperate for a strong showing on home soil in the 2018 World Cup; so much so, in fact, that there have been more discussions about the choice of coach than their prospects of reaching the finals in Brazil 2014.
Concern has surrounded the suitability of the RFU for making the decision. The organisation is currently without a president following Sergey Fursenko’s resignation off the back of the team’s showing at Euro 2012. His successor will not be appointed until the start of September, by which time the team will be preparing for 2014 World Cup qualification. This left the executive committee - an odd panel of politicians, businessmen and club owners – to take the decision on who would replace Dick Advocaat.
"In a poll, four of the top five out of the 13 candidates were Russian. Capello was sixth"
Many have cited the RFU’s recent snap decision to change the limit of foreign players per team from six to seven as evidence of its conflicted interests. The rule, aimed at protecting opportunities for local players, potentially reduces the Russian national team coach’s pool of players from 80 to 64 (assuming four Russian players from each of the Premier League’s 16 sides). The clubs, who enjoy a significant presence on the executive committee), have been calling for the move for some time, frustrated by increasing expense of recruiting good quality, but rare, Russian players.
For many, the foreign-player rule change is just another indictment to add to the long list against the RFU. The national team remain almost completely reliant on club academies, with nothing resembling a cohesive national youth football infrastructure programme in place. Similar to their English counterparts, the RFU has also consistently failed to deliver on a national football academy, with oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich instead stepping in to independent academies.
It is perhaps due to an awareness of these domestic issues that in a poll run by Sovetsky Sport last week, four of the top five out of the 13 candidates were Russian (Capello was sixth). The perception seems to be that the issues are so ingrained that they can only be dealt with by a Russian. The Advocaat experience has perhaps strengthened this desire, with the Dutchman having been heavily criticised for taking little interest in infrastructure or improving the lineage between youth and senior sides.
The fear is that the RFU, keen to show its intent, has thrown its (or more likely, someone else’s) money at the problem and appointed another expensive foreign coach who is not fully conversant with the endemic issues in the Russian game. Given the long-term vision required to ensure that Russia are competitive in 2018, another Advocaat simply won’t do.