Blame the Foreigner

In soccer, as in politics, plenty of Russians think the root of all evil lies in the West.

Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty Images
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty Images

MOSCOW — Russia may be having a great year for territorial expansion, but its national teams are having a stinker. After the hockey squad flamed out at the Olympics despite playing on home ice, the soccer team crashed out of the World Cup without a win. Yet there is a silver lining to this sporting cloud: though their teams’ failures were disheartening, Russians can still find comfort in the overarching notion that Mother Russia knows best.

Russia’s two tepid draws and one loss in the group stage have led to soul-searching and finger-pointing in Russia soccer circles. Fortunately for Russian self-esteem, most of those fingers have pointed at the team’s head coach, Fabio Capello. The 68-year-old Italian, who in 2010 coached England’s World Cup team, was reportedly the highest paid coach at the World Cup, earning $11,235,210 — an annual salary 763 times greater than the average Russian’s, according to Forbes.

The foul-mouthed leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called Capello a "thief" and said he should be summoned to the Duma to explain Russia’s mediocre performance. Russian media outlets also have reported that Capello will, in fact, be called into the Duma in October to outline his plan to ensure there no is repeat in 2018, when Russia hosts the tournament for the first time. Other lawmakers have said Capello should forfeit his salary.

Such is life for imported talent in Russia. When speed skater Viktor Ahn, who used to represent South Korea, won gold for Russia in Sochi, the home crowd applauded more loudly than they had for the country’s homegrown figure skaters. Russians also hailed Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman, as a hero after he led their soccer team into the 2008 European Championships, where it reached the semifinals. And Capello, who stars in a Coke commercial on Russian television and is arguably more recognizable than any of his players, became Mother Russia’s favorite son for leading the team into the 2014 World Cup.

Indeed, Ahn, Hiddink, and Capello — who blamed his team’s elimination on a laser pointer directed into the eyes of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeyev just before Algeria scored an equalizing goal — are just a few of Russia’s many foreign commodities. Much like imported stainless steel appliances or one of Moscow’s thousands of Audis, Capello is a coveted European good considered to be better than any homegrown equivalent. Indeed, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has looked abroad for its industrial technology, high-quality consumer goods, and even soccer coaching talent at the expense of developing its own.

But Russia’s ties to its Western imports often resemble a love-hate relationship. In the wake of elimination, Russian players have received significantly less criticism than their Italian coach. Akinfeyev fumbled the ball on a benign shot during his team’s opener against South Korea that ended 1-1, but Russian media exonerated the goalkeeper after he publicly apologized to the country for the blunder. None of the other players, all of whom are based in Russia’s domestic league, has received much reproach. Yet Capello, who speaks to his players through an interpreter, has not yet been forgiven. The unspoken reason is his passport. The consensus is a Russian could have done a better job — and for less money.

This mix of chauvinism and protectionism, fomented by Kremlin-friendly state-owned media outlets, has reinforced a prejudice that has grown stronger in Russia since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine: In Russia, the Westerner is to blame.

In soccer, still regarded as somewhat foreign despite the sport’s long history in the country, this is an easily applied prejudice. Russia’s inhospitable climate clashes with the image of a lush soccer pitch, making it more acceptable, in theory, to call upon foreign expertise — and then reject it if things go badly.

But while foreigners have comprised the national soccer team’s coaching staff for nearly a decade, Russia has never had a foreign hockey coach. Even after coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was fired following the home ice embarrassment at the Sochi Olympics in February, there was no outcry for Russia to look for a Canadian replacement. Yet even in hockey, Russia’s de facto national sport, the country has still managed to make Westerners the scapegoats for its own misfortunes.

Indignant Russian parliamentarians and social media users blamed American referee Brad Meier, who officiated Russia’s game against the United States in Sochi, for the team’s failure. Because the net was off its mooring, officials disallowed a goal that would have given Russia a 3-2 lead with fewer than five minutes left in a round-robin game. The United States went on to win in an eight-round shootout. Because of the loss, Russia had to play a quarterfinal game against the gritty Finns, who eliminated the hosts under the reproachful eyes of their compatriots. Meier, who was viewed as a biased, Russophobic referee, was an easier target than a poorly constructed team of puck-hogging stars.

Amid Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing clashes in eastern Ukraine, the Sochi Games already seem like a distant memory. And Russia’s gold medal at the World Hockey Championship in Minsk in May has healed Russia’s bruised hockey ego.

The bruises may not heal so easily in soccer, as Capello is contracted through 2018. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko — a former head of the Russian Football Union (RFU) — defended his imported coach, saying Capello’s role in getting the team into the World Cup was a victory in itself. But the reality is that Capello’s contract specifies a stiff financial penalty against the RFU if he is fired before the 2018 World Cup.

Committed to its foreign coach for another four years, Russia will be looking to strengthen the development of its young players at home rather than relying on the academies and training programs of prestigious clubs abroad. If things go well in 2018, there will be plenty of Russians ready to take the credit. If they don’t, there will still be one Italian left to take the blame.

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