Don't expect great things at World Cup '94 from the Russian national soccer team. Just be thankful there is one. For months, the controversy surrounding the team has been as crazy, contradictory and chaotic as Russia itself. There has been open rebellion, allegations of greed and nasty jousting in the media. All this from the first Russian team to play in World Cup competition (in previous Cups, the Soviets fielded the team).
The Russian players and their coaches seem to be taking their cues from Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament -- everyone is struggling to figure out who is in charge. The trouble started last November after the Russians lost a non-crucial qualifying match to Greece, 1-0. That night, 14 players, including several stars who command big salaries playing most of the year for top Western European teams, signed a letter to Shamil Tarpischev, Yeltsin's adviser for sports. Complaining of shoddy training conditions, substandard facilities and meager paychecks, the players also protested that the Russian Soccer Union, the sport's governing body, had signed a bad sponsorship contract with Reebok. Under the Reebok deal, players on the national team would have to wear Reebok gear, even if they already had signed separate, individual agreements with other sponsors. The "14," as they were soon known, didn't stop there. They denounced Coach Pavel Sadyrin and demanded that Anatoly Byshovits, a former Russian soccer star and national team coach, be reinstated. Byshovits himself had a less-than-stellar record in his two-year turn as coach of the Russian national team in 1990-92. At the European championships in Sweden in 1992, his players registered a so-so performance that led to his replacement. Nonetheless, he saw to it that the players were handsomely paid. They liked him. The unspoken but clear threat from the 14 was that if they didn't get satisfaction, they'd be no-shows at the World Cup. Predictably, the mutiny erupted in full public view on the Russian sports pages. A few of the 14 recanted, saying they didn't realize what they were signing at the time. But most stuck to their demands and returned to their teams in Europe to await an answer. It might have been easy to ignore the whole affair if the 14 hadn't happened to include a fair number of Russia's top stars. One was Sergei Kiryakov, star forward for the German team Karlsruhe. Igor Shalimov, a superstar halfback for Inter Milan, reportedly makes about $ 1 million a year. Andrei Kanchelskis of Manchester United is one of the best halfbacks playing in England and is regarded as one of Russia's most reliably outstanding performers. The deadline for the final 22-man roster is June 3, and it's possible some of the holdouts will return in time. But without such players, or with them and their low morale, how can Russia (which isn't favored to begin with) avoid getting blown away in tough World Cup competition? "The only thing we can do is just to wait and hope that reason prevails over ambition," said the sober-minded weekly Argumenty i Fakty. But some first-rate players said they had no problem with Sadyrin, no sponsor conflicts and no qualms about playing in the World Cup. They included Vladimir Beschastnik, a talented young forward for the Russian team Spartak; Viktor Onopko, a star Spartak halfback; and Viktor Panchenko, a big-scoring forward for the Russian team Kamaz. The struggle over who would lead the team in the Cup was waged behind the scenes as national soccer officials debated what to do. Bringing back Byshovits, the popular former coach, seemed out of the question: For one thing, it would mean the Russian soccer hierarchy losing face. For another, Byshovits was off to South Korea as a technical adviser. He wasn't even available. For a time this spring there was talk of a compromise solution involving the naming of Oleg Romantsyev, skipper of Moscow's Spartak team, the club powerhouse of the moment in Russia. Romantsyev, while denying he wanted the job, seemed to promote this scenario, dropping hints that he didn't think much of Sadyrin's coaching abilities and suggesting it was more crucial that Russia field the very best team possible than send a particular coach. "Some think we should send to the World Cup only those players who have said they want to go and simply do without the rest, but I disagree with this," he said last month. "Of course we've already lost time. We should have been getting ready not today but five months ago when the letter (from the 14) appeared." In the end, soccer union officials stuck with Sadyrin, thereby forfeiting the superstars who signed the letter. In a recent interview, Sadyrin, formerly a successful coach of the Soviet army team, defended himself against charges that he doesn't spend much time nurturing his players. "An athlete is obliged to train, to practice and to do everything in his power to win," he said, shrugging off the players who have refused to play in the World Cup. "It's high time we observed these basic rules." "Many people say we're going to be defeated in America without those players who have refused to take part on the team. But what guarantee is there that we'd win if these players did take part?" he said. "A recent example is the game against Greece. All 14 signers of the letter took part, and you know the result. True, they once played for the national team, and true, they are quite strong players. ... But we're talking about a national team. Everyone must share the burden."