Do you know anything about the unique Russian Football Academy, based in Togliatti, where Euro 2012 star Dzagoev was brought up? Evgeny Klyopov pays a visit to a place where dreams are realised...
It seemed easy enough to get to the Football Academy, named after its founder Yuri Konoplyov, from my home town of Samara. But although my target was close to the city of Togliatti (known all over the world for its Lada cars), I had to make one more short trip after reaching the auto-city to finally reach the romantic village of Primorskiy. Roughly translated as 'lying on the seashore,' even its winter landscapes are magical, rare and mystic forests bordering the road and yet not quite hiding the magnificent bay of the Zhiguli Sea – not a real sea, but one of the wider points of the vast Volga River.
Reaching for the stars
The streets I have to pass through set a patriotic tone – 40th Anniversary of Victory Street, Marshal Zhukov Street. The impressive open square is occupied by the Football Academy complex, where new victories are forged daily. Here around 800 boys of various ages from all over the country try to begin their adventure in professional football.
Inside, 4 synthetic fields (one heated) and 5 high-quality natural fields form the mosaic. It is a footballing Baikonur, the home of Russian space travel. Here, it is football stars which are born.
Press secretary Natalya Mayevskaya quickly supplies me with the Academy's weekly schedule. All 11 teams, from FC Akademia of the Russian Second Division, to the team of 9-year old children, have their own schedule. Three keeper’s coaches are highlighted in bold – perhaps a sign, as shortly after my visit, former Russian national team goalkeeper Sergey Ovchinnikov became the Academy’s sporting director.
The core of the program is clear at first glance. Work on the training ground and gym activities on one day are followed by plyometrics and positioning work on the other. Only the youngest players stay in the Academy permanently, others have training camps in Turkey and other countries, just like the professionals.
Mayevskaya wants me to understand that it is difficult for a boy to get into the Academy, but that genuine talent is always spotted: ‘It’s not an easy task, but a boy will certainly get a chance if he’s talented enough. We organize “Talent Days” twice a year (in spring and autumn), inviting all who wish to test themselves. Parents never stop calling us.’
These words are backed up by a big copybook with piles of written pages. 'Talent Days' are free for participants, but do not guarantee anything. Selection criteria are severe.
‘At first, children come to play against each other. Our selection department watches them attentively, and the rough diamonds are uncovered. Then, potential newcomers play against our boys. Only then is the decision made. Sometimes only a few boys stay at the Academy from the whole group. The last “Talent Day” attracted 150 children and all of them returned home – nobody was impressive enough.’
Despite the fact that the press secretary’s table is in a busy area, with people constantly going by (some of them in sports gear, others in casual clothes), there is little urgency in our conversation.
I'm going to examine the whole Academy, but the head of the selection department, Oleg Lukonin, arrives at this moment. His charm is bewitching, and his grey-flecked bristles only add to it – Lukonin cannot afford time to shave in his hectic working day – and his glasses bolster a clam, high-brow appearance.
He looks busy, but answers questions about academy selection work with enthusiasm. ‘We differ from other schools, because we are civilized in our work. A young boy’s transfer is a complicated case. If anybody: the boy, his parents, or the academy where he trains, has any problems with it, we stop discussing the transfer.’
According to Lukonin, the main problem with Russian football is the absence of regular rules for interaction between young players and football schools or academies. There are no contracts at this age, so anything can and does happen.
‘We don’t corrupt players with money as others do. We wanted to invite one talented boy, but then we found out he had a contract with Zenit. He had a great chance to become a professional player in our Academy. But what awaits him there? No one knows. He doesn’t play, just sits on the bench for money. When his contract expires, he'll be too old, and will disappear from football entirely.’
I am also interested by how often players leave the Academy for other football schools. The question is unusual, but Lukonin answers sagely and calmly.
‘Such transfers are rare, but they happen. Most of them move to Moscow. What is Moscow? Temptations. Besides, there are lots of strange situations. One boy left us and his story ended badly. He became a drug addict, and now he doesn’t play football.
Parents can relax if their child is studying in our Academy. We have everything they need here, and the guys don’t need to leave the complex. All classes are in one place, and they live here too. All the coaches and employees care about them. It might even be too comfortable.’
Lukonin says something at the end of the conversation which underlines his pride. ‘Many schools aim to win cups and tournaments, but we win most of them. For example, in 2007, we won every official children's tournament held by the Russian Football Council and the Professional Football League.’
More than just football
Cozy corridors, decorated in brightly-coloured paint, lead us to the coaching room. The Academy's head coach, Roland Vromans, is waiting for me as expected, but there was a slight problem. The Dutch coach hadn't been warned, and so asks with the help of translator if I would wait for a couple of hours. Vromas stays near the desk with tactics chips, holding some papers. Skillful spinning of these chips is one of his favorite hobbies, or so they say. Vromas is evidently not in a hurry, but there is no cause for frustration – I get a chance to look around a bit more.
The training takes place at the ground. The boys are happy with the ball. A separate group of keepers congregate near the goal, as expected. Voices can be heard here and there, as coaches teach players and players discuss things, but nobody shouts. This is the working process.
I head to the library. The 'enlightenment' corner is in disorder, as the education department prepares for repairs. But the shelves are full of books. Literary and academic books are neighbours here. ‘All children – young and old – read’. The librarian takes out one of cards and says: ‘Look here: Bradbury, Dickens, Russian fantasy.’ It seems the young Togliatti players prefer fantasy.
The library walls are decorated with drawings – artwork of the Academy children, who participate in competitions regularly. People who work here do not hide their pride in doing so.
We move on, and Mayevskaya tells me about the players' relaxation. ‘There’s a computer class, and we have picnics when it’s warm. They enjoy all kinds of sporting activities, so we take them paintballing occasionally. Some of the older guys are let out into the city sometimes. I often see them in the cinema in the evening.’
Passing several corridors, we reach the gym. There’s no queue, but some players are working out. The pool is also used by children, so they have a variety of activities. The usual educational school is also here.
As I open the director’s office door, a pair of young boys run by. One of them hits the other on the shoulder, but there is no reaction, and no pain. Mayevskaya wears a guilty smile: ‘That’s harmless.’ The playground cruelty seen in other schools is absent here, and they release their energy in other ways.
Knowledge can be different
Andrei Filippov, the school's director, seems happy to see me, as do all the Academy employees. He looks like CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutskiy, and begins to sift through the facts. ‘If we talk legally, the school and the Football Academy are different organizations. But that’s simply because there are no such complex organizations in Russian law. In reality we work together and can not be separated from each other.’
Filippov's speech is logical, mentioning that their approach is more effective, as the young player doesn’t have to go to football school, home and then to traditional school. The last rarely holds his attention. At Togliatti, the sporting and the academic are balanced perfectly.
The wonderfully positive outlook, held by everybody here, is a part of Filippov’s image too. ‘What’s our ultimate task? Our player should be in demand in the European market. So we teach him English. We don’t need to find an excuse – our guys go to probation to London regularly. The knowledge can be shown, when it’s needed. Once we lost one of the boys in the hotel. He was shy during classes, but when we found him, he was chatting with a girl in English.’
With girls, it’s isn't as bad with them as you may think. Boys from the Academy are especially acquainted with girls from dance schools, cheerleading groups and the like. ‘We understand that our boys are in that phase of life… We don’t want them to look at each other!’ Filippov smiles, raising laughter from the room.
‘We don’t experiment too much with the educational syllabus, as we have to work together with other schools. Each team is formed of 22-24 players, and we divide them into two classes. This way, teachers can use the individual approach for each pupil.’
There are some differences because of the football. The course is not as demanding, as time is limited – one group of players goes to training camps or tournaments, then the other goes. Teachers are not happy at first, but when they see how selfless are their pupils on the field, they respect them.
However, there are some surprises. ‘One high school pupil came to us from a Moscow school and we found out that he couldn’t read. It was a shock for us.’ But all problems are solved by the pupils together with their teachers. Many of those who have graduated from the Academy, have gone on to enter the Sport faculty of Togliatti State University.
Where fame is built
I turned off another corridor and a desk caught my attention. A paper with English text sat as a diary, a record of a young player not from the Academy, but from its London partner.
Roman Abramovich has invested money in the Academy, but there are still no graduates at Chelsea. People in the Academy instead talk about the star who was brought up here – Alan Dzagoev. ‘Alan was successful thanks to his conscientious approach. When everybody left, he continued to work with the ball on the empty ground. The same with his studying. He did all his work immediately after returning from training camp’ - Mayevskaya knows everything about everybody in the Academy.
Of course, talent is not the only thing. Luck is also of great importance. After getting a good footballing education in the Academy, you have to find a balanced team and a coach who’ll trust in you. Such fortune befell young Dzagoev.
But Alan, who became the leader of CSKA Moscow and provided the Russian national team with a brilliant start in Euro 2012, is not the only former Akademia player to have made a good career in the game. Roman Emelyanov signed a contract with Shakhtar Donetsk and now plays for FC Rostov with such team-mates as Stipe Pletikosa, Denis Kolodin and Dmitriy Kirichenko. Roman Eremeyev went to Dinamo Moscow.
One of the 15-year old stars, Danila Popov, could be the next to join a big club. He has been at the Academy for 7 years. I found him among the other boys, who scurried busily along corridors.
Danila is chatty, and is not embarrassed by my questions about his Academy selection. ‘Coaches came to me after one of tournaments and asked if I wanted to play here. I agreed, and my parents were happy as well.’ Danila's statement that ‘I like everything here’ are spoken in such a way, that I understand them as the voice of his soul. Equally, he speaks with disregard about his former football school in Samara: ‘There they just threw the ball to us and left us to play amongst ourselves.’
Academic study is not easy for Danila, but it’s better than in the Samara school where he studied previously. He lends weight to Fillipov’s words about healthy rewards for those who avoid bad marks. The boys are given iPods and even laptops. ‘Of course, all strive to study well’ - the boy’s eyes light up as he dreams.
Vromans should be free in a moment, but I still have time to talk to Oleg Skorobogatiy, Danila’s team coach. He is rather young himself.
‘Our boys are friendly, and don’t fight. It’s a pleasure to work with them. Everybody is disciplined, so we don’t have any problems. We move to professional football step by step’ - Skorobogatiy is also a good partner for conversation, though he is more serious and calm than some of his colleagues. As he explains, the tactic used in Togliatti is 4-3-3 – the mainstay of Russian football's 'Hollandization' – and it is used by all teams at the Academy. ‘Soviet-minded coaches are not used to this scheme, but young guys understand it quickly. The only potential issue is the high pressure on central midfielders, as they have to run from box to box.’
I move to the coaching room again, hoping at last to talk with Vromans and mention Dmitry Godunok, the Russian football campaigner who is famous for playing for FC Moscow, the club that was bankrupted after the capital's authorities decided to stop financing it. ‘He plays for FC Akademia now, and helps young guys to gain from his experience,’ Mayevkaya tells me helpfully.
Roland Vromans gives me his business card, as if he wanted me to be sure of his identity. The white piece of paper, emblazoned with the Academy's blue emblem, looks modest. The Dutchman himself seems to be open, as many Europeans are. This time we decide to deal without the translator. Vromans gives me full answers, flavoring his phrases with a coughing accent.
‘I thought long and hard about Guus Hiddink’s offer to help this Academy. I have 5 children and a beautiful wife in Eindhoven. I didn’t know what to expect here, so it was a big challenge. Everything I’ve seen, has surprised me: perfect pitches, a high level of infrastructure, and trophies in the cabinet.’
Vromans worked as the assistant coach at PSV, but he is the most important man in Togliatti. Roland determines the tactical line of all Academy teams, and teaches Russian coaches. Seminars and masterclasses have become the norm here.
It appears that the Russian mentality is the main hurdle for Vromans. ‘If you look at a Dutch boy, his mouth never closes on the pitch. Your children are calmer. It’s bad for the coach, because he needs to know what is in his player’s head.’ Discussions with all students are held three times a year for an emotional outpouring. Each boy has two hours to talk with coaches and to ‘think about what he wants from football’, according to Vromans.
‘They should not just think on the field, but talk as well. Coaches have to be more active in dealing with players too. Russian coaches were focused only on the result. Now they understand the role of the individual approach.’
In Vromans’ opinion, the main issue with Russian football is that players get to the big leagues by the age of 17. Roland gets worked up about this. ‘It’s too early! In Holland, the guys have two more years of youth football. Here the 17-year old player of the youth national team thinks he is the star! He needs to be brought back to earth.’ Vromans’ lips transform into a smile, but he quickly returns to his serious tone.
‘They say much about 4-3-3. But Holland's youth teams get superb results thank to this tactic! It allows the team to cover all areas with balance. But…’ Vromans squints and starts to plot on the nearby paper. A pyramid appears on it – different age groups. Roland points to the top. ‘…but the last two years are spent on 4-4-2. So if the opponent plays this tactic, we have a special plan.’
Vromans also reveals that Academy teams play friendly matches against colleagues from Rubin regularly. ‘We’d win all the matches 9:0 if we’ll play against Samara youth teams. It’s boring. But we have more interesting opponents in Kazan.’
I couldn’t leave without asking about World Cup 2018. ‘I wasn’t surprised when Russia was awarded the tournament,’ Vromans says with a genuine tone. ‘I hope your government will invest money in youth football. In terms of size, the Samara region is similar to Holland. But there are several academies like this in my homeland. The general infrastructure of the nation also needs to improve – we shouldn't be forced to travel by train for 15 hours to get to Moscow.
As for Academy graduates? I think several of them will be in the Russian national team in 2018’. ‘Is that a prediction?’ ‘Most certainly.’ Vromans answers in Russian without any accent, and an almost Hollywood smile beams from his face.
Evgeny Klyopov is the head of the InStatFootball football analysis department and a regular columnist for Total Football (in Russian).
You can read more from Rob Dillon at his excellent blog here.