Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abundance and the Absence of Order

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Nearly 150 years ago, poet Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy wrote a tongue-in-cheek history of Russia, with the oft-quoted refrain: "Abundant is our land, / It lacks only order." The poem plays on the account in the Povest Vremennykh Let, known in English as the Primary Chronicle, of how, in search of order and discipline, the principalities of ancient Rus invited Varangian princes to rule their land.

It goes on to tell how centuries later Peter the Great visited the Netherlands, whereupon "he gave us all a clean shave, / And by Christmastide -- what a miracle! / Dressed us all like Dutchmen."

Very much in line with Tolstoy's refrain, Russian football exhibits a brimming purse and complete lack of order. Nor has Tsar Peter's admiration for the Dutch diminished in modern Russia. Two Dutch Varangians were hired last year to try to bring order to chaos -- one as manager of St. Petersburg club Zenit and the other to manage the national team.

Football is a microcosm of society, and Russian football displays all of the ills that dog post-communist Russia. It is a new system, featuring rich private owners and corporate sponsors, but it has been grafted onto the old one.

Back when the Soviet Union still maintained the fiction of amateur sports, football players held no-show jobs as automotive engineers. Now, international stars play for teams called the Central Army Sports Club and the Wings of the Soviets.

The market forces in football are skin-deep -- just as they are in business. President Vladimir Putin is free to "correct" contracts between the football league and private broadcasters, just as he can tell private companies where to invest.

Russia is a huge country, but greater Moscow is home to seven of the 16 Premier League teams. Torpedo was relegated last year, but it has been replaced by Khimki. The national championship is typically an incestuous Moscow affair, even though Gazprom, which increasingly looks like Putin's next employer, has been pumping gas dollars into Zenit.

All the private wealth and conspicuous consumption contrast with lousy public infrastructure. High-paid stars play on atrocious fields in rickety stadiums. Like officials in life, football referees ply their trade under a "for sale" sign. Just as Russian business is sordid and murky, so in football there are frequent allegations of thrown matches and other forms of fraud. As Russia isolates itself from the rest of the world, it too is limiting the influx of foreign players, called "legionnaires" in Russian.

Putin's rule has been characterized by the gradual takeover of power by his St. Petersburg's buddies. Accordingly, Vitaly Mutko succeeded a long-serving Soviet-era bureaucrat as the head of the Russian Football Union, extending the power vertical into football.

It will be interesting to see whether the Dutch manager he hired brings order to the national team. Surely it has nowhere to go but up. It barely made it to the 2004 European Championship, suffering defeats against such powerhouses as Georgia and Albania, and missed the 2006 World Cup entirely.

The plethora of oil money buys no more happiness in football than in real life. Or rather, money buys only the second-best option. Surely CSKA's victory in the 2005 UEFA Cup is a huge achievement for Russian football, but the UEFA Cup is a distant runner-up to the Champions League crown.

Among the many foreign players on Russian teams there are no real big names. Nor are there foreign youngsters maturing in Russian clubs with the potential to be future stars. Lack of order and discipline is a terrible thing for an athlete, which also makes it difficult to attract stars.

Billionaire Roman Abramovich did turn his Chelsea into an international powerhouse. But then again, things are no different in real life, where Russians tend to succeed best when they leave their native country.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.