Football Is Becoming Big Business in Russia

As coach Dick Advocaat celebrated with his Zenit St. Petersburg team after they won the club's first European trophy, his mobile phone buzzed. It was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"He said he was very proud of what we had done and invited us to come to the Kremlin," Advocaat said by telephone from St. Petersburg, reflecting on the May 14 victory. Zenit, the hometown club of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, was only the second Russian team to win the UEFA Cup.

On Friday night, Zenit lines up against three-time European champion Manchester United in the Super Cup, the annual match between the winners of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. Win or lose, Zenit's very appearance underscores the emergence of Russia as a force in European football.

Gazprom has funded Zenit since December 2005, raising its annual payroll to more than $120 million from $25 million. This week, Zenit broke the Russian transfer record when it paid Dynamo Moscow $44 million for Portugal's Daniel Miguel Alves Gomes.

Money has flowed into other teams too. Moscow's Spartak is run by billionaire Leonid Fedun, vice president of LUKoil, while Lokomotiv is funded by TransCreditBank, an arm of Russian Railways. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said this week that he wanted to buy a stake in FC Moskva from Norilsk Nickel.

"This is not something that's going to disappear," said Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports business at London's Cass business school. "Russians care about football, and given the great wealth there, I would expect this to become permanent."

Still, no Russian club has won the Champions League, and its only UEFA Cup win was by CSKA in 2005.

In Monaco on Friday, Zenit is the 9-2 outsider with British bookmaker William Hill, meaning a $2 bet would win $9 plus the original stake. Manchester United is the 4-7 favorite.

While Zenit is competitive in the transfer market, it lacks the ability to attract the kind of names that appear on its opponent's roster, said Andrei Kanchelskis, a former member of the Russian national team who won two English league titles with United in the 1990s.

"In the future we can compete against other top teams but we need some time," Kanchelskis said. "This is the first time we are having success for 20 years."

Advocaat already is resigned to losing 27-year-old striker Andrei Arshavin, who was named one of the top forwards in this year's European Championship, to London club Tottenham Hotspur, he said. Last year Zenit sold Martin Skrtel to Liverpool for ?10 million ($18.5 million).

Zenit brushed aside Scotland's Rangers 2-0 at the City of Manchester stadium. Arshavin was the architect of both the team's goals. Two days later, when the team visited the Kremlin, Medvedev told players he hoped their victory would be a "turning point in the development of Russian soccer."

"From the moment we beat Rangers, a lot has happened at this club," Advocaat said. "Now we are playing at another level with the whole world watching."