Russian revolution could lead to footballing domination
There is a revolution going on in Russian
football at present with clubs brimming over with young talent and billionaires
such as Roman Abramovich pouring money into the sport.
The Chelsea owner Abramovich, who has an estimated personal fortune of 23.1 billion dollars, is also bankrolling the Russian national team.
He was present in Salzburg on Saturday night as Guud Hiddink's free-flowing side eliminated defending European champions Greece thanks to a 1-0 win at Euro 2008.
Victory against Sweden in their final Group D game on Wednesday will guarantee Russia a place in the quarter-finals, the furthest a team involving Russian players will have progressed at a Euro since the former Soviet Union reached the final in 1988.
The Soviet Union also won the inaugural European Championships in 1960, and reached the final on two other occasions (1964 and 1972).
But the collapse of the USSR in 1991 signalled the end of the availability of huge resources for sporting infrastructure and the break-up of Soviet football.
A barren decade followed as funding dried up, attendances at club games plummeted and Russia's best players were forced to ply their trades in foreign leagues.
But oil dollars have changed everything and in 2008 the Russian Premier League is now the fifth richest in Europe in terms of turnover.
Crowds are returning, domestic players are staying and the numbers of foreigners playing for Russian clubs has risen dramatically. Out of Hiddink's 23-man squad in Austria and Switzerland, only Nuremberg midfielder Ivan Saenko is playing abroad.
Russian clubs are now competing for the top honours in European football. CSKA Moscow lifted the UEFA Cup in 2005 while Zenit St Petersburg, backed by oil giant Gazprom, repeated the feat this year, demolishing German champions Bayern Munich en route.
"These are good times for Russian football," admitted Zenit coach Dick Advocaat after seeing his side beat Glasgow Rangers in the final last month.
But his Dutch compatriot Hiddink believes this could only be the start of something much bigger for Russian football, given such emerging stars as Andrey Arshavin (back from a suspension for the Sweden game), Roman Pavlyuchenko or Sergey Semak.
"This is a huge country with 140 million people and if things such as scouting and youth development can be well organized then step by step this country can be a powerhouse," he said in Salzburg after the victory over the Greeks.
Hiddink believes his side's performances at Euro 2008 could prove the catalyst for this eventuality happening sooner rather than later.
"Russian football is developing. It's important that the team performs well because then it has its influence on what I think is very needed in Russia, which is the improvement of the infrastructure."
The 61-year-old is also critical of the strict, almost military, training methods still employed in Russia, some of which date back to the Soviet era.
Russian players are still forced to attend sbori, or training camps, during the close season. These camps are usually held abroad where the players are separated from their families, subjected to strict diets and heavy training sessions.
"In my opinion it is very important that there is not only a renewal of the training methods but also how young talent is treated because young people, especially, are changing," said Hiddink.
"But we have to do the basic things first."
Even if Russia fail to get the necessary victory against Sweden, Hiddink - like Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger who thinks a Russian club will win the Champions League in the coming years - believes Russian football is on the road to becoming a permanent guest at the top table.
"It helps that the national team is playing so committed," he said.
"But it also helps that there is a fire there to become, maybe not tomorrow but as soon as possible, a powerhouse.", according to dpa.