Russian Sports Achievements
Text Andy Potts
It’s been an A to Z of Russian sporting success this summer, from the Ak Bars Kazan attacking trio leading the national hockey team to World Championship glory to Zenit St. Petersburg lifting the UEFA Cup. With an impressive Euro 2008 campaign from the national football team and another Euroleague basketball victory for CSKA, it’s no wonder that sports lovers from Vyborg to Vladivostok have been eagerly anticipating more glory at the Beijing Olympics. Even pop singer Dima Bilan’s Eurovision success had a sporting flavor, thanks to top figure skater Yevgeny Plushchenko’s turn on the ice in Belgrade.
But while Soviet-era sporting success was charged with a not-so-subtle political subplot, the new generation of Russian champions tells a slightly diff erent story. Far from triumphing through confrontation with the international community, the new era is more about cooperation with the outside world.
Not convinced? Look at the speed with which Dutch coach Hiddink has gone from Guus to Rus, taking the lion’s share of the credit for transforming a talented bunch of underachievers into serious contenders. Many in the Russian game criticized his appointment back in 2006, with former head coach Valery Gazzayev insisting that a “Russian patriot” was needed for the job. But now Russian football fans are uniting in praise of the influence of foreign ideas, in between naming their children after the experienced international boss.
“He isn’t so close to the system here,” said Nikolai Kuznetzov reflecting on Russia’s performances in the Alps. “He can make an objective assessment of the players, without being influenced by others. That makes a real difference. He also has a foreign view of management, which helps him get more out of players. He isn’t worried about making enemies.” Fellow fan Alex Delis was still more fulsome: “We are lucky to have our coach. He did what Russian coaches can’t and made a team.”
And it’s not just the fans: President Dmitri Medvedev has spoken of awarding Hiddink honorary citizenship, while the pundits at newspaper Sovietski Sport hailed the Dutchman’s achievement with a week-long series of articles entitled “The Lessons of Hiddink.”
Ironically, it was Gazzayev’s 2005 UEFA Cup win with CSKA that blazed a trail for “legionaries” in Russian football. Six of the starting 11 — plus two subs — in the 3-1 final win over Porto were from outside Russia, with Brazilians Vagner Love and Daniel Carvalho providing the heartbeat of the team. But the template proved unsustainable: CSKA’s form has dipped since, and copycat efforts at clubs like Dinamo — which ended up fielding an entire team of foreigners during their relegation struggle in 2006 — have been unsuccessful. By contrast, last year’s champions Zenit retained a Russian core, dominated by Euro 2008 hero Andrei Arshavin and UEFA Cup leading scorer Pavel Pogrebniak, under the guidance of another Dutchman, Dick Advocaat. As Zenit prepares for its first assault on the Champions League, this template of carefully selecting topnotch foreign expertise and blending it with Russia’s best is set for another stern test.
But whatever the outcome next season, the wheels have turned dramatically since the days when Russian football was exporting talent overseas: By the time the Soviet 1988 European Championship finalists reconvened as the CIS at the 1992 championships, almost the entire squad was playing in Western Europe and the domestic game was stagnating.
In hockey, things are slightly different, of course. Having dominated the sport in Soviet times, winning 22 world titles under the hammer and sickle, the 1993 triumph of newly independent Russia seemed to indicate normal service would continue. Few could have imagined that it would be 15 years before the trophy returned to Moscow. But once again, the stats tell a tale of transformed international relations underpinning Russian success.
This time there is no foreign coach, no flying Dutchman or even Canadian transforming a team. National trainer and CSKA manager Vyacheslav Bykov is a man steeped in the Soviet traditions of ruthlessly efficient offense and rugged defense. The change has come in the relative status of the Russian Superleague and the megabucks NHL. Back in 1993, few of the Russian players had much experience outside of their own country. They played as a unit, for the shirt, and reaped the rewards.
Market forces shattered this, like so much else in 1990s Russia, leading to an exodus of talent. By the time St. Petersburg hosted the 2000 hockey championships, where Russia won just two games in a truly miserable showing before their own fans, most of the national squad was based in North America. Meanwhile, Russian clubs lacked the financial clout to lure leading players from Europe, nevermind across the ocean. With local competition moribund and overseas-based stars isolated from their teammates for long periods, the national side slumped. The Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans, long used to seeing the brightest stars leave their national leagues, left the big red machine looking rusty.
But as in football, economic wheels turn and the petro-dollar explosion of the noughties is levelling the trans-Atlantic playing field. By the time of the NHL wage strike in 2004, the Siberian oil-boom meant that Omsk’s Avangard could lure New York Rangers’ Czech star Jaromir Jagr into the depths of Siberia, kickstarting new growth in the quality of the domestic game. Steadily the national side reaped the rewards: an improved Winter Olympic showing in 2006, bronze medals as World Championship hosts in 2007, and May’s dramatic triumph in Canada followed, with the side led by Kazan’s former Penguin Alexei Morozov, and supported by Tatarstan clubmates Denis Zaripov and Sergei Zinoviev.
Not only has the make-up of the squad changed, the lure of the NHL has declined. Between 2000 and 2003, the NHL draft regularly involved 30 or more Russians. This year it was just nine. The majority of the World Championship squad plays in Russia, and the wealth of the revamped Continental Hockey League has forced NHL bosses to issue statements playing down the risk of their top stars joining an Eastern exodus. Moreover, Russian players now face a multinational challenge in their home country — Finnish coach Kari Heikkila and Czech forward Zbynek Irgl drove Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to the silver medal last season, while play-off semi-fi nalists SKA St. Petersburg are bossed by American Barry Smith.
Not only has the make-up of the squad changed, the lure of the NHL has declined. Between 2000 and 2003, the NHL draft regularly involved 30 or more Russians. This year it was just nine. The majority of the World Championship squad plays in Russia, and the wealth of the revamped Continental Hockey League has forced NHL bosses to issue statements playing down the risk of their top stars joining an Eastern exodus. Moreover, Russian players now face a multinational challenge in their home country — Finnish coach Kari Heikkila and Czech forward Zbynek Irgl drove Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to the silver medal last season, while play-off semi-finalists SKA St. Petersburg are bossed by American Barry Smith.
For some outside observers, the sight of Russia on the sporting march is another manifestation of a nation bent on nationalistic domination. The reality is more complex and somewhat different. In sport, as in business and politics, it is more a result of a recovering power steadily reclaiming its place in the world. And doing so with a greater willingness to form partnerships, in contrast to the Soviet model, It may lack the symbolism of France’s multicultural World Cup winners in 1998 but the underlying impact of Russia’s athletic renaissance may well prove greater.