There are few English language football books that pour light onto the Russian game. Jonathan Wilson’s Behind The Curtain covers some general aspects of the culture and experiences of an Englishman in Russia but, with Wilson’s focus being Eastern Europe as a whole, Marc Bennetts’ Football Dynamo stands out as the single authoritative account of Russian football from an English viewpoint.
Having lived in Moscow for approaching twenty years, Bennetts is well placed to offer his views on the development of Russian football and – as he does in the book – the more negative aspects of the sport. Racism and corruption are two by-words that many people in England and Western Europe attach to football in the land of the Tsars but Bennetts, whilst not shying away from some more unsavoury issues, offers an enthusiastic account of how an Englishman can fall in love with the Russian game.
I’ve interviewed Bennetts in parts over the past few weeks, asking his views on the current issues surrounding Suleyman Kerimov’s ownership of Anzhi Makhachkala as well as his experiences of racism in Russia and the state of the national team.
The first question posed in our brief exchange centred around the changes in the Russian football schedule and the calendar, which is due to change at the end of this season to correspond with the regular schedule in Western Europe. He remained balanced on the impact that such changes will have on local football fans: “for local fans, the change isn’t actually that great. After all, they still won’t be playing right through the winter, and the season already finished in November anyway. Which is kind of chilly, usually,” Bennetts said, whilst also pointing to the effect on Anglo-Russian football fans and the Russian sides’ Champions League hopes: “it’s bad for fans of English and Russian football though, as they will no longer have the pleasure of being able to follow one of the two leagues all year round! Although it might prove a boost for European tournaments, as the side should be in better form by the time the later stages come along.”
The Englishman, though, believes that the calendar won’t impact on the quality of player that Russian teams will attract, pointing to cash and Russia’s global perception as the main driving force in player’s decisions to stay or go, something that links in with his views on Anzhi Makhachkala and the recent Samuel Eto’o transfer that has alerted the world press to this little club from the Republic of Dagestan. He points – as many members of the Russian press have done – to the disparity in wages between Eto’o and the region’s local residents: ”it’s a touch insensitive to pay such massive wages to a player in a republic where the average wage is some $300 a month. But in purely football terms, I think Eto’o – if he stays – could do a lot to prove to other world stars that Russia is a viable option.”
This train of thought also makes up Moscow resident Bennetts’ opinions on the work that the extremely wealthy Suleyman Kerimov is doing with the Makhachkala club: ”Anzhi’s owner [Suleyman Kerimov] has said the club is about more than football and that he wants to use the team to attract investment to Dagestan and give the youth something better to do than join militant groups. I wish him luck, but perhaps a massive reconstruction project in what is, after all, one of Russia’s very poorest republics might have been better.”
As mentioned previously, the Football Dynamo author, and a weekly columnist at Russian news service RIA Novosti, has never sought to deny that racism is a problem in his adoptive nation but he does imply a slight annoyance at the willingness of the Western Press to report racism incidents in Russia as if they are incredibly regular: “[Western reporting of Russian racism is] perhaps not overplayed, but rather gleefully highlighted. But I’ve been at games where there has been racist abuse, and no one has ever said anything to try to stop it.”
Crowd trouble and racism – as highlighted by the incident where a banana was thrown onto the pitch in the direction of Anzhi captain Roberto Carlos – continues to rear it’s head in Russia but recently fans have caused unrest at national team games, directing their anger at Yuri Zhirkov who has moved from Chelsea to Anzhi.
This incident offers another chapter in the history of the Russian national team, one of which, “Nochnoi Pozor” – as the crushing defeat to Portugal in 2004 was later termed – is covered in detail in Football Dynamo. Bennetts, meanwhile, draw parallel’s between his adoptive home’s national team and his home nation’s: “Russia seems to be in the position England were at the last World Cup in that there are lots of players who seem to be automatic selections without really doing much to justify their places. As for Euro 2012, I’m not sure how Russia will do but they won’t win it though, that’s for sure!”
But despite the rising stock of the Russian national team after the breakthrough at Euro 2008, the money-driven arrivals of players such as Kevin Kuranyi and Samuel Eto’o, the success of Zenit and CSKA in the UEFA Cup and the wider coverage that Russian football is getting across the globe Bennetts ends on a sombre note: “the actual standard of the league isn’t that high yet.” Hopefully for us at the SFU, the key word in that statement is “yet.”
Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based author (Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game, Virgin Books) and journalist, published in the Guardian and the New Statesman among others. He is currently writing a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.