By the time this gets posted it will be 'old news', but, having just watched Russia huff and puff and inevitably squander its match against an internationally mid-level Mexico, I feel the impulse to comment. After all, no matter what happens in the entertaining but distinctly lower tier Confederation tournament, the World Cup itself is just a summer away. (assuming that, unlike this year, we actually have a summer in 2018). And of course we will be so inundated with the politics surrounding it all, that for many the football itself will be an afterthought -- a niggling incidental amid what is sure to be a worldwide rant against "evil" Russia..
Excuse me, but if we are talking World Cup, for me the football is what counts. Not the gays. Not the Ukrainians. Not NATO. Not poor Westerners stuck in unhospitable, over-priced Russian hotels. Just the football. People always howl about how much money is spent on these extravganzas like the World Cup and the Olympics, and all the bleeding hearts bewail the wasted fortune that could be showered on health care and education, etc. Forget it. The government would steal the money regardless, and none of it would go to health care and education. So let's give up that pipe dream and focus on football for a moment.
The first question is: why is Russia so lousy? Unlike some of the fiascos in recent years in Europe where it soon became obvious that the players didn't care if they won or lost, today the team was really giving its best, and I have it on good authority that the same was true in another losing effort against Portugal a few days earlier. (I couldn't see that weekday match because for some absurd reason all the matches start at 18.00 when everybody with a job is still at work.)That's what made the thing with Mexico so painful to view...to realize that we (if you will pardon an American saying "we" when referring to Russia) just aren't good enough. Ok, you could say, "if it wasn't for the goal-keeper's blunder and Smolnikov's waste of a gift opportunity toward the end, the result could have been different."
Wrong. That is only wishful thinking. Bad teams always come up with new ways to lose, and just because they keep the match tantalizingly close means nothing in the end. They find a way to blow it. Every time. I have been playing and watching sports since I was eight years old, and I am now 68. I am not crazy or senile, so maybe trust me here?. Bad teams always screw it up sooner or later. Likewise,in individual sports like golf and tennis, some athletes rise to the occasion and others shrink away. I have seen it happen for six decades. Often the difference in actual level of talent is infinitesimal.
When I lived in England long ago I watched those clumsy 'lads' run up and down the pitch like maniacs without getting results on the international level. Sides like the Italians, on the other hand,, would stand around smoking cigarettes (figuratively, not really)) the whole match, and then produce a moment of magic and steal a goal -- and the victory . It got so bad during internationals that, if you compared watching England 'attack' the goal to the art of love-making, you could picture a guy sweating and grunting about the living room, knocking over coffee tables and hurling the cushions everywhere, crying out, "Where ARE you???" -- and the woman answering, "I'm in the BEDROOM, you c--t !" Nobody ever tried -- and failed -- like the English. It is true today. The Premier Divison is great because it is a blend of international flair and British bulldog. Left to themselves in international competition, the English are repeatedly exposed as being nearly as bad as the Russians. Back in the '70s, even the Scots were more creative. I sincerely have no idea why, except that, -- and with due apologies to George Best (Irish alcoholic but the finest natural talent the British Isles have ever produced), Johan Cryuff, and Franz Beckenbauer -- hot countries tend to produce football genius on a grander scale than cold countries. The South American continent, for example.
But what specific poison accounts for such ineptitude on Russia's side? Is it the weather? Lack of dedication by the players and indifference on part of the fans? It certainly doesn't help that the continuity of the season is interrupted during the long winter, and, I reiterate, North European football is generally a step (or two) below that of the Latin-type nations of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even France. Obviously, Germany is the big exception here, but then they seem to be good at everything, don't they? The Scandinavians are never a factor, the Dutch simply a bunch of talented but unreliable head-cases, etc. And then we have Russia.
Some years ago there was a surge in Russian tennis. This was because Boris Yeltsin was in power, and he liked tennis. So a big national effort was made to develop great tennis players, and Russia wound up producing a few. Of course the resources are not available now as they were during the Soviet Union -- which is why Russian hockey, while good, no longer dominates.But football remains an enigma. I mean, it matters to a lot of people here.So why, always, such stinking results?
My esteemed colleague Artem informs me that the problem of the underdevelopment of Russian football players goes all the way back to perestroika. When the government defaulted in 1993, prices shot up 10 times in one day. Private entrepreneurs were the only hope and so the staggering government announced privatisation for for all factories, stadiums, etc. Only the bandits had money, even the police were terrified of them, and of course the ruling class of criminals didn't give a f--k about football. So stadiums turned into open markets, others simply fell into ruins, and some were deconstructed for the materials. Any national desire for football went the way of the great Cathedral in Krapotkinskaya which by then had already become a swimming pool. And in 1998 the government defaulted again and prices shot up 50 times over. Say what you want about Putin but he basically saved the country at this time. And the Othodox Church has certainly made a comeback. Football is just 'out there' somewhere. Like the snow.
Today, the Russian national team is an assembly of kids who grew up fat and healthy, if not always rich. It is a pastime, not a national obession.Another friend told me yesterday that he met four Chilean guys in a bar who had just travelled 40 hours (from Chile to Brazil, to Paris to Moscow to Kazan) just to see their team play in the Confederation Cup ! Now that is what I mean by fanaticism. Moreover, In the countries that win at football, the talent comes from the poor sectors where the skinny little urchins are HUNGRY, and they see football as a way out. Same is true in the American ghettos where Black kids can combine natural speed and agility with a ruthless determination to claw their way out of Crack City.. That's another thing I have learned from my 60 years of playing and watching sports: Take a poor, hungry kid over a rich, well-fed kid every time. ALWAYS..
When Russia ignominiously bowed out of the European Champions in 2012, its captain Andrey Arshavin told the Russian nation, "I don't care what you want." Following the last fiasco in Europe 2016, Russian players were found to be boozing it up at a lavish holiday resort . I can only imagine what would have happened to these overpaid, arrogant slobs if they lived somewhere like Colombia instead of Russia. (In 1998, a Colombian player was murdered by his own fans after giving up an own goal in his team's defeat by the Americans.)
Ok, nobody wants to see a guy get killed. But the problem is that parasites like Arshavin receive huge payouts and produce nothing, What if the rest of us were as bad at our jobs as Russian footballers are at theirs? It is not without reason that very few Russians play for the big European clubs. The reason is simple: nobody wants them.
Why is this an unalterable reality in a huge nation that surely could generate major football talent if it really wanted to? It starts at the level of upper management and trickles down to the players themselves. So just as a tightly-wired and efficient infrastructure is lacking throughout the Russian nation, so it goes wanting in the development of football talent. Or maybe it is simply a reflection of the mentality of Russian businessmen in general: gouge the paying customer for as much as possible and then get the hell out of town. Produce a winner? Why bother? A new sucker is born every minute. And the fans themselves are not without guilt: the 'slave' mindset that has existed here for centuries invariably nurtures apathy and rejects a commitment to excellence.
If Russia, as the host country, is going to avoid disgrace and put together a football team that is not the laughing stock of the world, then Russia had better get busy, Fast. I have also noticed that at the club level, Russia teams such as Zenit and CSK can be competitive against the very best of Europe. For about 70 minutes. Then they fade and the match slips away. So maybe overall fitness plays a role.
Football is important to me. I do not want to see my chosen country look like fools on the world stage. Today, the will and effort was there. Sadly, the talent was not. Maybe a Russian Pele, Best, Messi or Rinaldo will emerge from the Siberian wilderness in the nick of time. Let's hope so.Otherwise we will never come close to the knockout round in 2018 and will be forced to sit and watch while comparatively small nations like Spain and Portugal (who certainly have budget problems of their own) duke it out with Germany for the World Cup Championship. For Russians that will be about as much fun as watching another guy screw your wife..
===Eric Richard Le Roy===