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Could the Russian Premier League soon overtake Serie A?

Chelsea and Manchester United targets Hulk and Witsel both signed for Zenit St Petersburg in midweek in a sensational double-deal. Connor Jipps asks if the money in the Russian Premier League will propel it past the glamour of Italy's Serie A, which saw Milan and Juventus both endure disappointing transfer windows, lacking the huge finances the Russian clubs have to offer.

Following the arrivals of Hulk, Axel Witsel and Lassana Diarra to the Russian Premier League, is it just another indicator that the margin of quality between the league and Serie A is becoming slimmer by the year?

Monday saw Zenit St. Petersburg splurge an astronomical €90 million on the pairing of Hulk and Axel Witsel from Porto and Benfica respectively, making Europe sit up and take notice. These were players that had been courted by Chelsea and Madrid amongst others for the majority of the summer, so it was clearly deemed a huge coup for the Russian club.

Following the announcement of these two players signings, Russia’s richest club, Anzhi Makhachkala, bought Lassana Diarra in from Real Madrid for €5 million. Whilst on the surface that figure seems low, the outlay on wages will reach a whopping €7 million a year towards the Frenchman, making his weekly salary just under £110k a week. Not a bad payday for a player who had found himself largely benchwarming for the last three years.

Hulk, Witsel and Diarra may have brought more attention to the League but it must not be forgotten that there is already a host of big name players of multiple different nationalities already plying their trade there.

Zenit appear to attained good relations with Portuguese clubs over the last few years; Hulk and Witsel join Bruno Alves in having made the journey east, whilst Portuguese attacker Danny spread his horizons to move initially to Lokomotiv Moscow from Sporting Lisbon, before finding his way to St Petersburg in 2008 for £25 million, a figure that at the time smashed to pieces the previous Russian transfer record.

Meanwhile Diarra will find himself sharing a dressing room with Samuel Eto’o, arguably the new face of the Russian Premier League following his switch from Inter Milan. For such a player to consider moving to the Russian League at the prime age of 30 is an indicator of how much the league is progressing, albeit the £250,000 a week pay packet may have also played a part.

Other recognisable faces include CSKA’s Keisuke Honda and Seydou Doumbia, Vedran Corluka of Lokomotiv Moscow and Kim Kallstrom, a player who departed Lyon this summer to join Spartak Moscow. Even an Irishman has found the move to Russia to be extremely helpful to his career, as Kallstrom’s new team-mate, Aiden McGeady, has been establishing a rising reputation amongst Russian football fans.

But it’s not only players that have been attracted to the league as top managers have signed up to the attractive proposition of building a team in a league containing so much money. Slaven Bilic decided to leave his post as Croatian National team coach to join Dynamo Moscow, whilst Guus Hiddink, Umai Emery and Dan Petrescu, all managers that have won trophies, have also settled down at Anzhi, Spartak and Dynamo Moscow respectively.

Meanwhile in Italy, Serie A has been on an alarming decline ever since the Match fixing scandal of 2006, although many would say the rot had started earlier. The departures of some of the leagues best players this year has been met with despair and anger from teams that have failed to replace adequately.

European Giants AC Milan and Inter Milan have suffered most from player departures this summer as both squads have taken significant hits. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had stated at the beginning of the summer that he did not know if he’d be at Milan come the beginning of the 2012-13 season, but even so it came as a great surprise when news broke that he was closing in on a move to Paris St Germain alongside Thiago Silva, an essential cog in their defence. Meanwhile Julio Cesar and Maicon have both left cross-City rivals Inter Milan to join QPR and Man City in England. Money made for these two sales? £1 million. Inter even paid Cesar £3 million just to leave the club.

Paris St Germain’s Serie A raid did not end with Ibrahimovic and Silva however as they also pounced to steal Ezequiel Lavezzi from Napoli. These five departures in particular indicate just how much the attraction of Italian football has been altered. In previous years, to play for the likes of AC Milan or Inter Milan was an honour. You didn’t choose to leave in the prime of your career if you were lucky enough to already have established a place in the first team of such huge clubs.

Part of this comes down to money. Sadly there simply is not enough money involved in Italian football. Yet again not a single Italian side featured in the top five spending sides of this summers transfer window. Meanwhile Russia’s Zenit lie in third place. To put into context, Italy’s clubs collectively actually made £17 million more in player sales than was dished out on purchases.

The money is not there for a number of factors. As Italian football has stayed at its stereotypical slow pace, the ante has been upped by the Premier League, Primera Liga and even the Bundesliga who all play the game at a much faster speed. This had lead to European viewing figures dropping below its counterparts and thus receiving less revenue from major broadcasters.

Alongside this the popularity has been waning inside the country with match attendance figures at an all time low as fans have struggled to witness any large form of progression in Italian football, unlike in Russia where attendances have been rising season upon season as their game moves forward.

Both nations have seen their UEFA league coefficients drop in recent seasons, but Italy’s will cause more alarm. In front of them now lie Spain, England and Germany, Leagues that possess players of great quality that often star in major tournaments. In front of Russia who are sat down in 9th lie the likes of Netherlands, Ukraine and Portugal, all attainable targets considering the greater calibre of players Russia’s league has. Despite Italy receiving an extra Champions League place than Russia through their coefficient, Udinese’s loss to Braga in the playoffs for tournament has resulted in their being the same amount of teams from both countries participating in this years Group stages, Juventus & Milan – Italy, Zenit & Spartak – Russia.

Whilst there are drastic differences between the two leagues, there are also some similarities. For a start both are able to provide players of their own nationalities with a good footballing lifestyle. These lifestyles have lead to more players from both nations choosing to stay at home rather than search abroad for success. At Euro 2012, the squads selected for both nations contained 20 players applying their talents within the country they played for.

Taking domestic form and style out of the picture and focusing purely on European competitions it could also be claimed that both have been extremely successful over the last ten years. Champions League wins for Milan (Twice) and Inter are indications that maybe it’s not quite time to give up on Serie A, whilst UEFA Cup/Europa League glory for CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg are great feats considering the quality of opposition faced.

It really does depend on how you wish to view success as to whether you think Italian football is in a good place right now. Maybe it’s harsh to be cynical of a league still attempting to rebuild it’s stature following its controversy from 2006, but the combination of key player departures and a distinct lack of monetary funds suggests that they are merely treading water near the top right now.

Italy still possesses one of the world’s greatest football leagues currently. Be that as they may, if they don’t keep up with the rest of the continent, it could be the start of a dramatic and disappointing slide to undistinguishable mediocracy as they watch Russia step into their place.

image: © superchango

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