Rob DillonComment


Rob DillonComment

Power is a fragile thing, and in the wrong hands it can be wielded to devastating effect. There are few countries in the world that are more aware of this than Russia and the former Soviet Union, as anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of the USSR and the abundance of states which have emerged since the chaos of the 1990s.

Furthermore, power is something which some people have the almost innate ability to manage. Whether in political terms or otherwise, the former Soviet Union has seen a wealth of individuals who have the remarkable aptitude required to cling onto power irrespective of the associated circumstances, often disappearing from the struggle for lengthy periods of time only to re-emerge in a blaze of glory and return to authority.

Perhaps one of the finest exponents of this disappearing act was none other than Heydar Aliyev, the figure who came to embody the newly-independent nation of Azerbaijan both before and after its secession from the defunct Soviet Union in 1991. A former Politburo member of head of the Azeri SSR in the days of Communism, Aliyev succeeded in changing his tune to that of a legitimate free-market, pluralist democrat with a real commitment to self-determination. For an enthralling and in-depth look at the subject, Thomas Goltz's excellent Azerbaijan Diary cannot be recommended highly enough.

This was something he achieved despite a self-imposed exile from politics in Naxjivan, a part of Azerbaijan separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory. He ruled almost independently of Baku for the best part of three years, courting Turkish favour in the process and upstaging the central government on a number of occasions, before returning in his country's hour of need to prevent a coup led by the man who Aliyev would later make his Prime Minister. A master of the long game, Aliyev claimed the presidency in 1993, and ruled Azerbaijan until his death in 2003 as a national hero.

However, it is not just in the political world that power is sought after, with almost every other sphere of life designed to keep people striving upwards for promotion, money and authority, determined to leave their mark on a world keen to idolise and admire. Football, particularly in Russia, is no different.

Take Oleg Romantsev and his all-conquering Spartak Moscow time of the 1990s, for example. As their time in the spotlight came to an end, many of the multiple title-winning players left the sinking ship, seeing out their careers on foreign soil or with young, wealthy clubs elsewhere in Russia. Whilst Romantsev club on to the reigns, his reputation diminished by each alcohol-fuelled press conference and bizarre tactical decision, the likes of Andrei Tikhonov, Yegor Titov and Vladimir Beschastnykh managed to distance themselves from the backstage politics to emerge as club legends – even today their views are sought out on the most banal of questions surrounding all things Spartak.

Whilst nine-time league winner Romantsev may still be called upon to revitalise Spartak, or even the Russian national team, but those who view the anarchic 90s through red-and-white-tinted spectacles, in general the disciplinarian has all but disappeared from the Russian footballing landscape, his once vice-like grip reduced to a passing mention in Spartak news and references in historical blog posts by foreign enthusiasts. In the meantime, one of his greatest rivals is back at the scene of his greatest triumph.

The man in question is one Valeri Gazzaev, proud owner of one of the finest moustaches in world football despite a bet with a journalist that the famous facial accessory would disappear if his CSKA Moscow side progressed through various UEFA Cup rounds. Gazzaev refused to yield, and CSKA went on to win the trophy.

There is little public animosity between Gazzaev and Romantsev, but on the pitch there was plenty of evidence to suggest something of an unofficial battle. Throughout the 90s, Gazzaev's Alania Vladikavkaz were the only team to relinquish Spartak's grasp on the title, pushing Romantsev's side into 3rd place as they lifted the 1995 trophy. With two more runners-up finishes to their name, there can be no doubt that the North Caucasians posed a significant threat to Spartak's domination over the course of the decade.

Where the two managers differ, however, can be easily observed in their subsequent managerial histories. Since finally leaving Spartak in 2003, two years after his final league title and with the club in freefall – slipping to 3rd in 2002 and finishing a shocking 10th the year of the departure – Romantsev's career has been one of anonymity. Two jobs, both lasting less than a year, with now-defunct Saturn Ramenskoye and old rivals Dinamo Moscow, saw his reputation slide further, and whilst he has not formally retired from football management, he has not taken a post since.

Gazzaev, on the other hand, appears to have played the long game. His Alania side never did reach the giddy heights of their 1995 title win again, and after a few years of toil their manager was tempted away by Dinamo Moscow before jumping ship to army club CSKA the same time as Romantsev left Spartak. As his old rival sunk into obscurity, Gazzaev lifted the title with the Army Men. His new club went on to enjoy substantial investment over the following years and the rest, as they say, is history.

From 2003 to 2008, Gazzaev's CSKA became the new dominant force in Russian football. In addition to a title in his first season, he picked up two more championships with the old army side. Three Russian Cups also found their way into the trophy cabinet, along with a trio of Super Cups to complete a remarkable hat-trick. Even so, his finest Moscow moment came in the 2004-05 UEFA Cup, his side dropping out of the Champions League and into a run which would make history. Benfica, Partizan Belgrade, Auxerre and Parma all fell on the way to a final which saw the odds stacked against them – a one-off game against Sporting, in Lisbon. Rogerio put the hosts ahead at the break, but three second half goals completed an incredible comeback as CSKA became the first Russian team to win a European trophy since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Much like Aliyev's successes in Naxjivan, Gazzaev's achievements in Moscow were impressive, but not his true calling. A truer season in the wilderness followed with a failed spell at Dinamo Kyiv, but already the wheels were being set in motion. In the 2010 season, the last Russian campaign to be held under the old March-November season, his beloved Alania found themselves relegated from the Premier League. It came as little surprise to anybody, the club having only being promoted due to Saturn’s withdrawal at the last minute, but for the former champions and drawers of huge crowds by Russian standards, it was tragic.

A failed striker, Gazzaev's son Vladimir was already on the coaching staff, having been appointed to the team at just 29 years of age despite his complete absence of previous experience. As Vladikavkaz called for a hero to take them into the promised land, the elder Gazzaev answered their pleas all too eagerly – but not from the bench. News filtered through of his return to Alania, but the signals were mixed – Valeri Gazzaev was back, this time as club president.

It is a position that Romantsev combined so successfully at Spartak, and one which Aliyev held for so long in the politics of his beloved Azerbaijan. Whilst Romantsev eventually caved in, his ultimate authority eroded by the lure of money and the pressures of success, Aliyev used his own powers of manipulative to crush his rivals, spending a year in partnership with putschist Surat Husseynov before labelling his prime minister a national traitor. Even then, as his own powers waned he saw fit to name a successor – his own son, Ilham.

It is a step which Romantsev never took, and one which has preserved Aliyev's legacy. As former head of the KGB and Communist Party in Azerbaijan, there is little question that the senior Aliyev took part in a variety of underhand dealings which could potentially expose his status as a hero of independence and embodiment of a nation. Heydar Aliyev passed away in 2003 after a political career spanning five decades, having ruled the nation for at least three of them. Every town in Baku has a street bearing his name, and monuments to the 'father of the Azeri nation' are not rare in the former Soviet states. Nine years later, bearing the highest order of the country in his father's name, Ilham Aliyev still rules in Azerbaijan, preserving Heydar's legacy for the future.

To the Alania faithful, Gazzaev's return to the club meant a new beginning, a fresh hope and the promise of a bright future. Before the start of the new First Division season, he appointed his fresh-faced son Vladimir to the managerial role, now 31 years old and still without management experience. From the president's own point of view, he found himself in the perfect situation – the fans loved him enough to credit him with any success, whilst any failings would be blamed on the inexperience of the new manager. As Alania claimed promotion and made a surprise run to the Russian Cup final, admittedly without scoring a goal, the cameras paid constant attention to the elder statesman of the club, pictured as an old-school Russian mafia don, battle-hardened and moustachioed face adorned with an oversized cigar. His very appearance made it clear who was pulling the strings.

Fast forward to November 2012, and Alania are again in crisis, relegation looming midway through the season after a poor start. In a press conference it is the older Gazzaev who takes to the stage, stating that although his son had worked well through a difficult financial situation – Alania could not find a sponsor until the end of the transfer window – he would be stepping down after meeting with the leadership of the club. To provide the experience and knowledge to save Alania from the drop, Valeri himself would be combining the roles of president and manager for an indefinite period.

Had Heydar Aliyev been alive, he would have recognised the move. Although the grave denied him the opportunity to replace his own son, his own glorious return to Baku in 1993 came at the desperate request of incumbent Abulfaz Elchibey, the national leader forced to beg the 'Grand Old Man' of Azerbaijan to return from his Naxjivan exile and save his nation. In both cases the former leader, reputation untarnished having avoided the chaotic infighting in the meantime, was only too happy to oblige.

Heydar Aliyev remains the man credited for bringing Azerbaijan into the modern world, becoming the first ex-Soviet state to establish formal relations with many Western powers and capitalising on the vast wealth of the Caspian oil reserves. Even so, there is little doubt that a more thorough reading of his record would reveal some shocking abuses of power, blatant disregard for the democracy he preached, and nepotism of the highest order. Strict disciplinarians, Gazzaev and Romantsev are both men known to be as big as the club they manage, with favouritism and stubbornness characteristics of each. Whether or not Gazzaev's triumphant return to Alania is a success on the pitch, his story paints a vivid image of Russian football as a whole – play the political game well, and your legacy is guaranteed.

Further reading from Rob can be found at More Than Arshavin.