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Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game by Marc Bennetts

Release date: 03rd July, 2008
Publisher: Virgin Books

List Price: £11.99
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In his famous 1939 radio broadcast, Churchill referred to Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", a line which, despite unfathomable economic and social change within the former Soviet state over the past two decades, continues to have a resonance almost seventy years later.

During the recent Euro 2008 tournament, Russian footballers were described as 'world beaters who don't perform too well when they need to use their passports', a line which perhaps sums up the country's insular attitude towards the round ball game. To outsiders, it's as though they play a different form of football and are happy to be parochial - winning inside Russia appears to carry considerably greater weight than performing at Europe's highest level, although perhaps Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup success last season will usher in a change in attitude. No-one reading Marc Bennetts' excellent account of Russian football will be holding their breath though.

'Modern Russia and the People's game' is the book's sub-heading and Bennetts, who has lived in Russia for many years, combines history with literature and politics to describe how the game has been transformed from the old Soviet days to Guus Hiddink's modern overhaul of the national team. Nevertheless, match-fixing and threats directed towards players and officials remains rife as one former Spartak Moscow player reveals despite, or perhaps because of, the astronomic salaries paid to those performing on the pitch.

That Russian football can offer Premier League-level salaries is indicative of the radical changes that have taken place. Since Boris Yeltsin's Presidency, the game has experienced the most comprehensive change: while the nation's stadia remain, for the most part, uninspired lumps of crumbling concrete, gone are the days when fans needed to be admitted for free. A new breed of oligarchs, most of whom have become extremely rich by rather unconventional means, now own the nation's top sides; letting fans in for nothing goes against their fierce capitalistic streak.

If there is a certain irony in that, then Bennetts' examination of the status of Russian hooligans provides further evidence of the extent to which the nation has changed. Considering the state's previously all-consuming, all-seeing role (a bit like modern Britain, only with lots of snow), now the shackles have been released, so a violent reaction has followed. Surprisingly, Russia's hooligans are not of the archetypal skinhead variety: organised violence (and there is much of it) tends to be perpetrated by long-haired hippy types. What was that about mysteries and enigmas?

Since the days of Peter the Great, politicians, dictators and economic commentators have underestimated Russia at their peril. Its propensity to survive is legion, yet as it begins to flex its muscles on the world's economic stage - as one of a select group (known as the BRIC economies) of developing countries, so too we should expect its footballers to become as well-known as Spaniards, Italians and French stars plying their trade in the UK.

Beforehand, as Bennetts makes clear in this fascinating account, the Russian game must clean its internal act up: there is no shortage of resources with which to do this, although whether the will exists is another matter.


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