Midfield General

Russian Soccer's Russian Problem

Are its players getting fat on too much home cooking?

Once upon a time, soccer in Russia was a mysterious black box. Every couple of years, players with mostly unfamiliar names would slip out from behind the Iron Curtain to pit their talents against the best teams in Europe and the world. But after the early burst of outward expansion that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian soccer has puzzlingly turned inward again.

Two decades ago, in the heady Yeltsin years, the United States hosted a World Cup that included four squads made up entirely of players who plied their trade professionally in their home countries. Spain and Italy were among them, and half a dozen other nations had just a sprinkling of foreign-based players. But Russia was more typical, especially among second-tier soccer nations; the majority of its squad played overseas.

Today the contrast is dramatic. At the 2014 World Cup, Russia is the only country to have every member of its squad playing soccer domestically. (England's third-choice goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, plays in Scotland.) Curiously, it seems that Russia is choosing to look inward just as the rest of the world -- almost all of it, at least -- is opening up.

There is no suggestion Russia's experienced coach Fabio Capello is under pressure from the top, but that doesn't mean there aren't economic pressures from elsewhere that are forcing his hand. Russian oligarchs are encouraged to invest their fortunes domestically; it's a high-profile means of returning wealth to the country and entertaining the masses in the process. At its best, a soccer team can be a prestigious and entertaining investment.

Not all of these ventures have been successful, with billionaire Suleiman Kerimov recently withdrawing funding from Anzhi Makhachkala. But whether it's Gazprom-fueled Zenit St. Petersburg or Spartak Moscow with Leonid Fedun's Lukoil billions, investment continues to flow into the Russian Premier League. With big salaries and home cooking on offer, stars such as Yury Zhirkov and Andrey Arshavin have happily returned to the breasts of Mother Russia.

The question to be answered at the World Cup is whether these changes have been good for Russian soccer. The lucrative league has helped to satisfy a demand for local heroes, but it has also created much the same problem that discourages English stars from leaving their own Premier League. When the money's good at home, why leave? The English Premier League remains one of the strongest in the world, but the 0-0-2 English team is hardly setting Brazil on fire.

This is the problem Capello faces, now for the second time. The artificially inflated salaries of Russian players discourage progression. (Arguably, English players also commanded a premium unrelated to their talents -- some would say they still do -- when Capello was in charge of the England squad.) It's not such a pressing issue for his older Russian players, of whom there are many, but talented individuals such as Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin are at an age where they must kick on. That's far from guaranteed while they continue to play in Moscow.

Encouragingly, Kokorin insists he remains a man of ambition. "I don't really think it's a question of money," he says. "I believe a lot of Russia players have a dream to play in Europe for the big clubs. I think it's a question of timing. Everybody is just waiting for offers to come and when a good offer comes I'm sure most of the players will try and take their chance in Europe."

That time will need to come soon. With the World Cup coming to Russia in 2018, there is a huge onus on the likes of Dzagoev and Kokorin to ensure a fiercely proud nation performs creditably when the eyes of the world focus upon them. No one wants a repeat of Russia's abject performance in ice hockey at the Sochi Olympics; Russian nationalism demands better. And yet, the irony remains -- if their country is to enjoy a good World Cup, Russia's stars would be better off leaving.

Sergei Chirikov / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Does Anyone Remember the AMIA?

Iran may have been behind a deadly bombing in Argentina two decades ago. Now the two countries meet on the pitch.

BELO HORIZONTE -- England versus Germany. United States versus Russia. China versus Japan. Whenever two countries with a history face off in international sports, fans and media alike are quick to seize on the subtext. But the World Cup match between Argentina and Iran has a particularly tragic precedent, one that no one seems to be mentioning.

It's not the first time Argentina has been involved in a match freighted with politics on football's biggest stage. Twenty-eight years ago this week, Argentina faced England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The game was framed and anticipated, in the days leading to it, as a rematch/sublimation of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, with the Argentines looking to kick their victorious enemy out of the tournament -- the closest thing to military revenge. Fans and pundits feasted on the parallels between shooting a ball and shooting machine guns, apparently unmindful of how trivial the game might seem next to the hundreds of soldiers who died during the two-month conflict.

That match between Argentina and England turned out to be one of the most memorable in the history of the World Cup, but not for the reasons anticipated before kickoff. It featured two of the most famous goals ever, both scored by Diego Maradona: his "Hand of God" in the 51st minute and his unbelievable slalom from midfield, four minutes later, to score one of the best goals in the history of the sport. Was there any talk about the Falklands/Malvinas War in the aftermath of the match? Maybe there was, but hardly anyone remembers.

Argentina's match against Iran here may also stir painful memories. The Argentines should win comfortably; the difference in quality between the squads is huge. But their opposition will represent a country that many claim planned or financed two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, which killed 29 people, and the car bomb-suicide in 1994 at the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in downtown Buenos Aires, where another 85 were killed.

In 2006, after a long investigation, an impeached judge, and a caught-on-video money-for-evidence offer to a witness, two prosecutors formally charged Iran as the brains and Hezbollah as the muscle of the attack at the AMIA. The prosecutors and Interpol demanded the arrest or extradition of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran, and seven other members of his government. Iran, which has always denied involvement, paid no attention to the prosecutors and Interpol. Nothing happened.

Last year, the Argentine Congress approved a "memorandum of understanding" that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government had sought to create a truth commission with the Iranian government to investigate the bombings. Not much came of it, either. The Iranians stalled with vague promises of cooperation. A few months ago, the agreement, which had been harshly criticized by the political opposition and Jewish organizations in Buenos Aires, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

So, is Argentina approaching the game as an opportunity to take some sort of revenge -- or at least to make a show of strength -- against the Iranians by eliminating them from the tournament, as it did England?

It doesn't look like it. Mentions of the attacks have been almost nonexistent in the press, and no one in the team's press conferences has referred to it either. In Argentina there's wall-to-wall coverage of the World Cup and an absolute obsession about the fortunes of La Selección. And yet, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the AMIA will come less than a week after the end of the tournament.

Why the disconnect? There are probably dozens of reasons, but three come to the fore. The first is that, unlike with England, Argentina doesn't have a sporting rivalry with Iran, whose players are completely unknown in the football hotbeds of Buenos Aires and Rosario. They don't consider their Iranian counterparts as worthy rivals, and nothing less than a drubbing will be perceived as a surprise.

The second is that after two decades of botched investigations and diplomatic mishaps, a sizable portion of the public has grown frustrated with the search for truth. Despite the activism of Jewish organizations (nearly 200,000 Jews live in Argentina, more than in any other Latin American country), a certain ennui seems to have taken over the public mood about the terrorist attacks.

A third reason could be that, despite being formally accused of the bombings, Iran has enjoyed a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the governments of Fernández de Kirchner and her predecessor and husband, Nestor Kirchner. In some ways, it was a friendship at one remove. Even when the two countries were not talking to each other (they are now), the former Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a close friend of some of Argentina's best friends: the late Hugo Chávez and the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva. In a narrative that pitted a few "rebel" countries against the hegemony of traditional powers, Argentina under the Kirchners wanted to belong to the small club of feisty nations that defied the United States and its global alliances. One of those nations had to be, inevitably, Ahmadinejad's Iran.

But you can never know. Before the 1986 game against England, Maradona said that it had nothing to do with politics and insisted on a "just a game" narrative. Decades later, he wrote the opposite in his autobiography. "Of course it was much more than a just a game!" he wrote. "It was revenge, an effort to recover a bit of the islands."

And so it may be, even if only in the shadows. Yesterday my friend and I were approached at the airport here by a chubby fellow with a beard and a Brazilian accent. He told us that this time he was rooting for Argentina. "I'm Jewish, you know," he said. "I still remember."

AFP / Getty Images