Going out in the group stage to a 3-0 defeat to Wales capped a disastrous European Championship for 2018 World Cup host Russia, which has been better known in France for its hooligans than its footballers.
When it won the right to host the World Cup in December 2010, Russia seemed to be a rising power in world football, having reached the semifinals of the European Championship two years before.
Three major tournaments and three early exits later, Russia is in crisis with an elderly squad, little young talent and a coach who has signalled he wants out.
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Since those Euro semifinals in 2008, which now seem like Russia’s high-water mark, it has posted one win from 12 tournament games, having failed to beat the likes of Greece, South Korea and Algeria.
Coach Leonid Slutsky said after Monday’s humbling by Wales – the defeat could easily have been heavier – that "after a type of tournament like this, you need someone else to take charge of the national side for major competitions," but it’s not clear who could replace him.
Slutsky’s achievements at CSKA Moscow, where he’s won three titles and beaten teams like Manchester City in the Champions League, mean he’s widely considered the top Russian coach available. Among contenders named in Russian media Tuesday were Stanislav Cherchesov, who won the Polish title this year but whose overall record is mixed, and FC Rostov’s Kurban Berdyev, whose teams tend to punch above their weight but are ultra-defensive.
Hiring a costly foreign star is possible, but may not help. Russia made veteran Italian Fabio Capello the best-paid coach at the 2014 World Cup, but his cautious team went out with two draws.
Capello eventually departed when two losses to Austria put Euro 2016 qualification in jeopardy. Slutsky rescued the qualifying campaign at the cost of replacing younger players with veterans, delaying the already-overdue rebuild for the 2018 World Cup.
Russia had one of the oldest teams at the 2014 World Cup and still relies heavily on ageing players. If it somehow reaches the final of the 2018 tournamentl, centre-backs Sergei Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutsky will be 39 and 36 respectively. Neither shows signs of retiring and replacements are so few that Slutsky’s backup central defenders in France were Berezutsky’s twin Alexei, who started only 16 league games last season, and midfielder Roman Neustaedter.
Last year, Capello grew so desperate for new options in defence that he gave two caps to 19-year-old Nikita Chernov of CSKA’s youth team, who had never played a minute in the Russian Premier League — and still hasn’t.
After years of disputes about coaching, Russian officials are acknowledging the team’s fundamental weaknesses.
"We have to admit that we don’t have any top-class players right now. That’s the objective situation," Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is under pressure over the team’s poor performance, told Tass after the loss to Wales.
Russia’s team are children of the 1990s, when the birthrate plummeted, economic turmoil reigned and the old Soviet system of government-run football clubs crumbled, destroying the infrastructure that had allowed the USSR to reach the Euro 1988 final.
Clubs were stripped of assets and their youth academies run down, making it much harder to develop talent, a situation that has only recently — and partially — been reversed with injections of funding. The result is a lack of quality players in their mid-20s, the age group that should be at its peak for the 2018 World Cup, but some younger talent is coming through.
The legacy of years of underfunding of youth systems has created a dearth of quality players in their mid-20s, the age group that should be at its peak for the 2018 World Cup, but some younger talent is coming through reformed academies. CSKA’s 20-year-old midfielder Alexander Golovin is a promising talent, though he was overwhelmed when he started against England. Even the much-maligned Chernov could develop into a solid defender with game time at club level.
Other Russian prodigies of recent years, like midfielder Alan Dzagoev or striker Alexander Kokorin, have seen their careers stagnate in a Russian league which offers few top-level opponents but high wages for Russian players, creating little incentive to seek experience abroad. Mutko hinted at this problem, saying "perhaps many have a lack of desire to grow, to move, to perfect themselves."
Russia’s automatic place as host of the World Cup means the next coach can experiment with his team in friendlies, but the clock is ticking.