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POLITICS JUNE 25, 2008

Unfree Kicks

Among the four teams that advanced to this week's semifinal round of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament, three aren't particularly portentous. No one is surprised to see pre-tournament favorite Germany still alive. Nor is it particularly shocking that talent-rich Spain has survived, although most expected the team to uphold the time-honored Spanish tradition of flaming out in the quarterfinals. It is a surprise to see Turkey in the semis, but the Turks are a talented group that made it to a World Cup semifinal just six years ago, and in any case they have advanced thanks only to a string of freakishly lucky breaks.

And then there's Russia, which has caught the attention of fans around the globe by playing a decidedly un-Russian brand of creative, attacking soccer. It's the furthest the Russians have advanced in a major tournament since the Soviet Union reached the finals of Euro 1988. Since then, Russian soccer has been in a two-decade slump--failing to qualify for some tournaments and quickly being eliminated from others--that's mirrored the country's geopolitical funk. So it's not surprising that geopolitics helps explain the team's success this year. This is Vladimir Putin's team through and through.

There's much to be said for healthy sports nationalism, and it's certainly not unheard of, particularly in Russia, to use sport as a means for promoting love of country. But Russian politicians are now doing it so overtly that the team seems irretrievably infused with the animating spirit of Putinism--one part inferiority complex, two parts rising superpower. Said then-prime minister Viktor Zubkov before Russia's critical October qualification match against England: "They have 11 players, and we have 11 players. They have two arms and two hands and one head each, and we have the same. But do you know what the most important thing is? We, Russians, won World War II. And we were the first in space." After Russia came from behind to win, pro-Putin parliamentarian Alexander Babakov exulted, "This victory will only boost Russia's rebirth."

The first place to look in order to explain Russia's success is to its Dutch-born coach, Guus Hiddink. Hiddink is one of the most highly regarded minds in international soccer, having led the Netherlands, South Korea, and Australia to impressive finishes in the past three World Cups. When Hiddink's contract with Australia expired in 2006, nations lined up at his doorstep to hire him--including powerhouses like England, not accustomed to being turned down. Russia outbid them all, because only Russia boasts a stable of exceedingly wealthy men who are all but compelled to fund the country's athletic–industrial complex. Hiddink's $4 million annual salary is paid by gazillionaire oil magnate Roman Abramovich, who spends a total of $55 million each year--more than the annual budget of the national soccer federation--paying players and coaches and building soccer facilities in Russia.

It's not out of the goodness of his heart that Abramovich shells out that kind of cash. It's part of a tacit bargain with the Kremlin that keeps Abramovich and others of his ilk from meeting the kind of fate that befell imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who grew too rich and independent for Putin's taste. When the 2014 Winter Olympics were awarded to the Black Sea port of Sochi, it was largely thanks to the efforts of aluminum baron Oleg Deripaska, who is financing the construction of most of the facilities for the event. "Putin has been clawing back the country's assets from the oligarchs and forcing them to invest their enormous riches in Russia, including Russian football," Jim Riordan, formerly a professor at the University of Bradford in England and an expert on Russian sport, told The Observer. "If they refuse, they know they will lose not only their assets. They could end up down the Volga."

That also may explain why Abramovich hasn't tried to hire Hiddink away to lead his other pride and joy, storied London club team Chelsea FC, which was in the market for a new coach this summer. The only thing Abramovich wants more than to bring a Champions League title to Chelsea is to stay out of Putin's doghouse.

The Kremlin's influence extends to the players on the team, too. Andrei Arshavin, the team's musically gifted striker who tore up the Dutch defense in Russia's quarterfinal victory, sits on the St. Petersburg city council as a member of Putin's United Russia party. Athletes (broadly defined) who have spent time in the West have occasionally been a force for liberalism in the former Soviet bloc: former chess champion Garry Kasparov leads Russia's democratic opposition, and in 2004 former NBA standout Vlade Divac, wildly popular in his native Serbia, gave pro-Western presidential candidate Boris Tadic a major boost by endorsing him during a fiercely contested election campaign. By contrast, it's hard to imagine anyone on the young Russian team--only one of whom plays professionally outside of Russia--taking a stand against Putinism.

Nor is that state of affairs likely to change anytime soon. Ordinarily, a player who's been as impressive in a major international tournament as Arshavin has would bolt his current club team for a lucrative contract in Spain, England, or Italy. Arshavin may well do that, but it won't be for financial reasons: He makes upwards of $100,000 a week with his current team, Zenit St. Petersburg, and since the team is bankrolled by the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom, it won't have trouble upping that if needed. "He wants to play for Barcelona, but I don't think they can pay him more than he earns now," boasted sports minister Vitaly Mutko. Before too long, even the stature of Western European leagues may not seem like much of a draw: Not only have Russian clubs claimed two of the past four UEFA Cup finals (the second most prestigious championship in Europe), but in just four years the Russian league has improved from 15th best in Europe to sixth, and is still rising. (The phenomenon extends to other sports, too: A new Russian hockey league, backed by Gazprom, has offered Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin a record $15 million to ply his trade back home.)

Of course, it's easy to see Russia's athletic renaissance as something far darker than it is. There are worse things an authoritarian petro-state could spend its money on, and any country with 140 million people can be expected to have its glory days. And we can be glad that athletic talent, unlike global power, isn't zero-sum. But when the Russians take the field against Spain in Vienna tomorrow, you may want to think about cheering for the Iberians.

Josh Patashnik is a reporter–researcher at The New Republic.

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