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