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Russia soccer success an example

(China Daily)    08:47, July 06, 2018

Russian players celebrate after beating Spain on penalties in Moscow to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, where the team will face Croatia. YANG LEI/XINHUA

World Cup progress comes as the international sport tackles host of problems

Aleksandr Golovin was born in the small Siberian town of Kaltan, where most of the 22,000 residents work in the mining industry.

His first soccer coach lost his hand in a mining accident and the only full-size soccer field is in terrible condition during the summer and freezing winters.

Slightly built and a little shy, but determined and dedicated, the midfielder was spotted by CSKA Moscow scouts when he was 16.

Nurtured carefully by coach Leonid Slutsky, he was promoted to CSKA's first-team squad in 2015, made exceptional progress and played for the national team at Euro 2016. By the time the Confederations Cup was staged last year, Golovin was integral to the side and frequently linked with a move to English Premier League clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea. This year, he is viewed as Russia's main source of creativity-at the age of 22.

Sport analysts said if Russia had a few more stories like Golovin's, it would have been a major force at previous World Cups. Even so, host Russia beat Spain at this year's tournament to reach the quarterfinals, where it faces Croatia on Saturday.

In the vast country of nearly 145 million people, soccer is the most popular sport, despite fierce competition from ice hockey.

This can be seen in any Russian city, whatever the weather conditions.

Soccer gained popularity among Russian youngsters in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union broke up.

At the time, the sport in Russia was in a disastrous state economically, and many elite players moved to Western Europe, according to soccer columnist Michael Yokhin.

The most talented found themselves in the top leagues, such as Igor Shalimov and Igor Kolyvanov in Serie A, Andrei Kanchelskis in the English Premier League, Valery Karpin, Aleksandr Mostovoi and Viktor Onopko in La Liga, and Sergei Kiryakov in the Bundesliga, Yokhin said.

The success of these players inspired Russian youngsters to join youth clubs. In 1993, the Children's Football League of Russia was founded and became an associate member of the Russian Football Union.

Victor Gorlov, president of the Children's Football League, said the league is playing a significant role in the development of soccer in Russia, and now acts as a springboard for many of the country's professional players as it organizes more than 20 tournaments each year for players ages 8 to 15.

"The tournaments stretch beyond Russia to countries such as Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan," Gorlov said.

"The main aim is to grow and develop in the future," added Gorlov. "We will do our best to get more young people involved in football through our tournaments. We hope to find more sponsors to get new opportunities. "

However, Russian fans still complain that youth soccer is progressing too slowly, and a lack of planning is evident in every area of the national team.

Take central defense for example. Sergei Ignashevich celebrates his 39th birthday during the World Cup, while the Berezutsky twins, Aleksei and Vasili, turn 36. Yokhin said the limit imposed on foreign players did not help. Apart from CSKA, all the top clubs still play foreign center-backs and Russia was left without decent successors when the trio of veterans retired from the international game in 2016.

"It is ironic that there must be thousands of potentially top-class, physically strong center-backs in Siberian towns such as Kaltan. The Russian game is just unable to find them, teach them, give them opportunities at the required level and send them out to get some experience in the top leagues," Yokhin said.

Anatoly Vorobyov, former general secretary of the Russian Football Union, said one of the reasons that that has led to this situation is the system used in the Russian league.

With two notable exceptions, private investors have snubbed Russian soccer, so most top-tier clubs are bankrolled by regional authorities and state-owned companies.

The uncertainty has seen many state backers shun investment in grassroots player development, instead bringing in expensive foreign stars in a race for results when times are good, and cutting back when budgets are tight.

"Everyone wants to be a sprinter. No one wants to invest in the long term," Vorobyov said.

Leonid Fedun is one of the few private owners of a top-tier Russian soccer club. The billionaire deputy head of oil giant Lukoil bought Spartak Moscow in 2004 when it was in serious financial difficulties.

Fedun created a youth academy and built a 45,000-capacity stadium that is one of the 12 World Cup venues. Russian Premier League runners-up five times since Fedun took over, Spartak finally became champions last year after a 16-year drought.

Despite difficulties and still awaiting changes, Russia has broken new ground in making it to the last eight at this year's World Cup.

At the start of the tournament, prospects for the national side did not look good, as the team had dropped to a record-low ranking of 70th in the latest FIFA table, the team with the lowest rating in the tournament.

Bora Milutinovic, former head coach of the Chinese national team, said, "The situation of the Russian national team this year is quite familiar to China."

The legendary coach, who led China to the World Cup Finals in 2002, said he was sad the country did not make it to Russia this year.

But he said Russia's success this summer should serve to inspire the Chinese team.

"If the team can seize rare opportunities and not be afraid of facing some strong teams in key matches, it may qualify for the 2022 Qatar World Cup," Milutinovic said.

"After all, as I have always said, your attitude will determine your altitude."

He said the success of the soccer industry involves training and investing in young players. With the help of the Children's Football League, more talented Russians have been found. Meanwhile, the sport's popularity has been regained among children in Russia. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Liang Jun, Bianji)

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