The stifling of domestic talent is a concern that many countries with a strong league face. While Spain and Germany just about get the balance right, England stutters. Domm Norris looks at the issue in Russia.
The obstacles young footballers face in the modern game are such that they often leave their nation wondering where the next 'golden generation' are going to appear. In a world where money is the most significant factor in sporting success it seems that there is little patience in sport to wait for the progression of young, domestic talent to come to fruition when a lump of hard cash can purchase players closer to maximising their potential. English football has, for some time, contemplated the future of their game amidst a steady stream of failures in major international tournaments, which transpired in spite of the exceptional growth of the nation's domestic league.
Russia is also often criticised as having a footballing culture that offers few places for the emerging stars of tomorrow. It is simple to assess the reasons for such concerns, which are thrown at the major clubs in the Russian Premier League. The sheer financial clout of many of the Russia's top clubs has meant that players from more exotic climes can be enticed to the rigours of a Muscovite winter. The competitive nature of the Russian top flight has also resulted in clubs preferring to seek a quick solution to a problem position, as opposed to nurturing native talent. However, it is far more difficult to ascertain how deep the problems lie, and whether the issues are deeply entrenched within the footballing culture of the nation.
The sheer size of Russia, with a population of around 141 million inhabitants, inevitably means that there is a significant depth of pool from which to develop young talent. Russia has a rich sporting heritage, which can boast prowess in fields ranging from gymnastics to ice hockey. The role of sport within the nation holds a strong sociological value, which ultimately means that a profession within the sporting realm can command the respect of the Russian public. This is an important factor in the nation's ability to maintain a strong sporting identity through success. Football, however, has had a somewhat turbulent relationship with the Russian public. During the Soviet era there was initially much scepticism shown towards the game as it was viewed as being an expression of the Western bourgeois that was so deeply frowned upon by the communist government of the time. The gradual acceptance of the game and increasing prominence of the Soviet Top League saw a steady level of player development. This aided a national team which would go on to be crowned European champions in 1960 and finish fourth in the 1966 World Cup.
The attempts of replicating the success of the Soviet era stem from the growing sense that Russia needs to place a greater focus on the development of young talent. Igor Kolyvanov is the man currently tasked with blooding promising Russian players into the international set up as he looks to establish the under-21's side as a prominent force in the European game. For Kolyvanov, youth football has become a hugely important aspect of his coaching career so far, as the former USSR and Russian international has been in charge at under-17 and under-19 level. 2006 was the year that Kolyvanov led his under-17's side to glory in the European Championships, with a squad of players that included no real standout players. It was, therefore, testament to the coach's ability to understand the mentality of a developing footballer that brought the team together and formed a cohesive unit that proved very difficult to overcome. Of the side which was victorious, none of the players have gone on to make the progression through to the Russian first team and, while there is still time for such an event to occur, it is this issue that remains the crux of the problem.
Investment has been pumped into the development of young footballers within Russia thanks to the financial clout of Roman Abramovich. The Chelsea owner has organised the introduction of the National Academy of Football, which aims to provide youngsters with an impressive array of facilities which, it is hoped, will become a progressive force in the future of Russian football. As the organisation's website states, its work is going some way to helping develop football in a manner that has previously been neglected.
"The National Academy Foundation", created and funded by Roman Abramovich, has developed and is implementing a strategic program aimed at the comprehensive improvement of Russian football and its popularization. While just over three years old, the results of its work are already evident to anyone who follows the development of domestic football. During that time a host of football-minded partners, in most regions of Russia, community organizations and private companies selflessly invest in the revival and development of football.
Abramovich's wealth has provided many Russian cities with football pitches, coaching development programmes and renovated sporting facilities, which have supplied many people with access to the sport, which would not have been previously possible. Roman Abramovich has also maintained the development of the Konoplyov football academy that has become one of the leading lights of Russian youth development with CSKA Moscow's Alan Dzagoev graduating from its ranks, along with a number of the successful under-17 squad. Seeing as The National Academy of Football remains in its infancy it is difficult to assess the implication of such investments on the progression of the game in Russia, in terms of the numbers of youngsters playing the game and those who simply watch it. However, the fact that attempts are being made to make football accessible to a wider range of the population means that the game will ultimately benefit.
The harsh climate that many of Russia's numerous regions experience also has an impact on the development of young talent. It is hugely difficult to maintain a playable grass pitch during the often freezing autumn and winter months, which has created a dependency on artificial pitches. There have been attempts to assist these needs through private investment, like that from Abramovich, and from the state government. During Vladimir Putin's presidency, emphasis was placed upon attempting to bring sport to school children across the country, in an effort to boost the nation's flagging health statistics but also to aid the development of Russian sport, particularly football.
With the Russian national team presently considered as being one of the most competitive sides in Europe, it will be interesting to witness the development of the team in the future. Hard work and investment is being placed into enabling a platform to be provided for the nation's most promising talent. The initial signs are positive, but there are still significant steps to be undertaken if Russian football is going to become a leader in the development of young talent.
Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent football ramblings.