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Russia - A developing football nation

Russia is widely accepted as one of the fastest developing nations in world football.

With the 2018 World Cup now on the agenda and a vastly improved domestic league complete with superrich tycoons, Russian football is in rapid transition.

From her home in Moscow, Russia Today presenter and avid West Brom fan Kate Partridge (pictured) has a unique perspective on the Russian and English games.

She suggested to Total Football that Samuel Eto’o may not be alone in believing that “the future of football is in Russia.”

First and foremost, how does a West Brom fan end up working in Moscow?

I was freelancing in the UK and, with the recession tightening its grip across the media industry, I thought I would take the opportunity to work abroad.

I’ve always been fascinated by Russia – I even did GCSE Russian at night school – so I applied to RT, they offered me a job, and I’ve now been here for two years!

What do you make of the place and how have you taken to Russian culture?

Moscow is a fascinating place, full of extremes. It’s the only place I’ve been where I’ve witnessed a 75-degree temperature swing. It has a 24 hour work hard, play hard culture that is broad minded and Moscow is, in many ways, the city of opportunity.

It also caters for every taste, from a lavish, non-stop nightlife of clubs, bars and restaurants, to museums, galleries, ballet and classical music. It has an addictive quality and a pulse unlike any other city.

Have you mastered the language yet?

No – someone once told me it takes about 10 years, which I actually find encouraging! I have weekly lessons to get by. There’s enough English spoken, and bi-lingual signs in the city centre, to make it possible to live in Moscow without knowing any Russian.

However, to get the most out of any ex-pat experience, learning the language is key, so I shall plough on with my homework.

What drew you to sports journalism?

Two things: a love of sport inherited from my parents, and a belief in doing a job that makes you wake up looking forward to going to work.

I was in all the sports teams at school, did gymnastics and ice skating too, and was taken to watch West Brom by my football-obsessed father and the rest of my family. Nothing gives me an adrenaline rush like doing or watching sport, so it was a natural progression.

What do you think it takes to be a good sports journalist?

Like any form of journalism, news values make you a good journalist. You can love sport but if you can’t spot what the story is – and write it – you’re a fan, not a journalist. After that come determination, accuracy, passion and flair.

Do you keep up with West Brom’s games? What do you think of the current squad?

Russian television acquired the rights to broadcast the English Premier League last season, and numerous satellite TV providers are available, so I’ve been able to watch more West Brom games in Moscow than I did in England!

I’m pretty optimistic about the current squad, and particularly under Roy Hodgson. We’ve managed to hang on to players like Chris Brunt this campaign.

Despite having the psychological disadvantage of facing Manchester United, Chelsea and bogey team Stoke in our first three fixtures, two straight derby wins over Wolves and Aston Villa have given us back a psychological boost. Aiming to keep clean sheets is the way forward.

What is your opinion of the Russian league and how does it compare to the Premier League?

The impression I had was that Russia’s top flight used to be a league that was played at the opposite end of the calendar to western Europe, due to Russia’s extreme weather, was historically dominated by Spartak Moscow, relatively low scoring, and occasionally produced the odd world class home-grown player.

However, times are changing. To play in tandem with other countries, and help Russian teams’ efforts in European competition, this campaign is an 18-month transitional one, which will finish in May instead of November, and will start next season in line with the other European leagues (with an extended winter break to cope with the weather conditions).

Meanwhile, the Moscow domination has widened, with Rubin winning the 2008 and 2009 titles, and Zenit lifting the league trophy in 2007 and 2010.

Furthermore, results have started to produce more goal fests, for example the Anzhi 3-5 CSKA scoreline in a recent game. As a regular watcher and compiler of these goals, many are as spectacular as those in the Premier League and La Liga.

How has the Russian league and the supporters reacted to the successful World Cup bid?

The successful 2018 World Cup bid has been greeted enthusiastically throughout Russia, and proactively from the top. A vast budget has been set aside to boost the country’s infrastructure to help fans covering the huge distances between matches in the world’s biggest country.

The plan to build 11 new stadia, and improving another, is already underway. This week the sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, said that the 12 grounds and 11 host cities will be named next October – a few months earlier than had been anticipated.

Historically, the most talented Russian players have moved abroad to bigger clubs and better wages. Do Russian clubs have to start retaining their best stars if the league is to improve?

The only way to boost the quality of any league is to retain its best players. However, I don’t think those players have to be home grown. In England, only around a third of the players in the top flight are from the United Kingdom, yet the quality of the league is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s best.

Arguably, such a low percentage affects the national team’s chances of success, although with England beating World and European champions Spain, again this is up for debate.

In Russia, as in any footballing nation, development at the youth and grassroots level, as well as within the league’s youth systems, can only benefit the league.

The advent of the World Cup should encourage more young players to come through the system – along with the general push that sport is being given in the country, due to the forthcoming Winter Olympics and Formula One racing.

Moreover, the financial investment being pumped into clubs like Anzhi by billionaires such as Suleiman Kerimov can only help reverse the trend, and attract more top players to Russia.

Are we likely to see more top players follow in the footsteps of Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o and moving to Russia?

Eyebrows were raised when Dagestan native billionaire Suleiman Kerimov bought little known Anzhi Makhachkala in January, acquired Brazil legend Roberto Carlos, and subsequently stated his ambition to win the Champions League.

Since then, more big names have followed, including the headline-hitting scoop of Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan, and every week brings fresh reports of the club being linked with the world’s top players.

The deals apparently being offered, particularly at a time of global economic hardship, plus the European ambitions of the owner, could hardly fail to lure players to the Russian league.

Anzhi have had an inconsistent season so far, but have still reached the last eight, now that the league has been divided into two to decide the champions and European places, as well as relegation.

Eto’o has scored seven goals in nine appearances so far, so he seems to have made a great start for his new club.

Finally, Eto’o recently stated that one of the reasons for his lucrative move was that he believes “the future of football is in Russia”. Obviously, we’ll all have our views, but do you believe there is any merit in that statement?

I certainly understand what Eto’o means. Ever since Kerimov bought Anzhi, the tycoon has thrown untold millions at the club. After bringing in luminaries Eto'o and Carlos, Anzhi has been linked with a galaxy of stars, including Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and John Terry.

After the players sign for the club, they don't have to live in Dagestan; they live and train in Moscow, and are flown to Anzhi for home games.

So, while the world’s economy is struggling, it seems that Kerimov has emerged as one of three big financial players in European club football right now, along with the Al Mansouri family at Manchester City and the Qatari group at Paris St Germain.

All three are trying to build super clubs, and while City and PSG currently lead their respective leagues, Anzhi are in the 'Championship' half of their table.

In the meantime, Russia will host the 2018 Word Cup, and is investing hugely to guarantee the success of this endeavour and its legacy.

Charismatic former uber-referee and polyglot Roberto Rosetti has been brought in to sort out the country’s match officials.

From next season, the Russian campaign should run on a similar calendar to the rest of Europe, better integrating it into the world’s best leagues.

The future of Russian 'futbol' indeed looks bright.

By Chris Smith

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