Slutsky: It was natural to answer Russia's call
As Russia continues to prepare to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, its national team is starting life under a new coach: current CSKA Moscow boss Leonid Slutsky. And for the first time since 2006, the Russian Football Union (RFU) has entrusted the job to a Russian national, following the appointments of Dutchmen Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat, and the Italian Fabio Capello.
What made the selection even more unusual is that Slutsky has agreed to take charge of the national team until the end of the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifiers while still fulfilling his coaching duties at CSKA Moscow, where he has been in charge for six years, winning the Russian Premier League twice and the Russian Cup twice. Speaking exclusively toFIFA.com, the new incumbent explained how he felt about the challenge.
“I know that having a part-time coach is unusual in modern football, but it’s not the first time this has happened in Russian or world football,” he said. “When I spoke to the RFU, we talked about a short period of time, four to six EURO 2016 qualifiers. It’s an exceptional measure. Russia’s got into difficulties in its group, so when the offer was put to me, I said yes. For any coach in my position, I think it would have been entirely natural to answer the call and help the national team, even if it’s only for a few matches.”
As a result, Slutsky’s autumn schedule now looks particularly daunting. It includes the domestic title race, which CSKA are currently leading, the UEFA Champions League group phase, where the club will be facing Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven and Wolfsburg, and key EURO 2016 qualifiers. Yet this packed programme holds no fear for the 44-year-old.
“I don’t see a problem here. In modern football, what a coach needs to think about above all is the next game. I’ve already been operating that way for a number of years and it’s nothing new for me,” he said. "I know virtually all the players in the national team – they’re all playing in the Russian Premier League. The only exception is Denis Cheryshev at Real Madrid, but we’ve spoken on a few occasions.”
It’s definitely the case that, for any coach, it would be very prestigious, and also very emotional, to prepare your national team for a World Cup at home.
If Slutsky sounds confident, it is not without good reason. Domestically, he has been one of the most successful coaches in recent years, helping CSKA to hold their own against a star-studded Zenit St Petersburg side. In 2009, he was the first coach to lead a Russian club into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League, and before that he enjoyed more local success with Krylya Sovetov from Samara and FC Moscow. But as far as the strategist is concerned, his finest achievement to date was his work with the Olimpia youth team in Volgograd at the very outset of his career.
“At Olimpia I was working with boys who were born around 1982, and 17 of them ended up playing professionally. That’s just an unbelievably high percentage, pretty much impossible. I’m proud of that,” he remarked.
Slutsky himself, unlike the overwhelming majority of Russian coaches, has virtually no experience of playing professional football – a fact that led the local press to dub him as “the Russian Mourinho”, a moniker he promptly rejects. His bourgeoning career ended when he was 19, after he was injured falling out of a tree while trying to rescue a neighbour’s cat.
“The woman next door came round and asked me to help retrieve her cat from a tree,” the Volgograd native explained. “I climbed up the tree but then I fell. The result was an open compound fracture of my left kneecap. It’s the sort of injury that not only rules you out of football, but also affects every part of your life. In all I spent a year in hospital and, while I was able to work on my leg and later tried to get back into football, it didn’t happen. But now, as a coach, when I look back at what happened, it was no great loss to Russian football to be deprived of Slutsky the player.”
Although Slutsky has done most of his coaching in Moscow, he has strong links with other parts of Russia. He was born in Volgograd, and spent a year coaching in Samara – two cities that will be hosting matches at Russia 2018, and, according to the CSKA boss, are very excited about the prospect.
“People in Russia, and the provinces in particular, are really looking forward to the World Cup. For these cities, it’s the chance of a lifetime to see the best stadiums, the best footballers, to bring about real improvements in infrastructure and to be part of the international community. Not everyone living in these cities has the opportunity to travel abroad. They’re already looking forward to the World Cup. So I want to tell all football fans planning to come to Russia that they’ll quite simply be charmed by the people they meet, especially in the regions, and they’ll be charmed by the feel-good atmosphere the tournament will bring to these cities.”
So would Slutsky himself like to be national team coach when Russia hosts the World Cup? “I don’t really think in those terms. I just go from one match to the next without looking that far ahead,” he said. “But it’s definitely the case that, for any coach, it would be very prestigious, and also very emotional, to prepare your national team for a World Cup at home.”
Slutsky's reign got off to a dream start with wins over Sweden (1-0) and Liechtenstein (7-0), lifting them up to second place in their qualifying group with a good chance to qualify for next year's finals in France.
However, critics of the national team still claim the current line-up lacks stars, but that is not quite the way the coach sees it, as he explained at the end of our interview.
“If ‘stars’ means players from the top clubs in the best leagues, then that’s true, we don’t have any,” he acknowledged. “That said, Cheryshev’s at Madrid, and we would really like to see him get more playing time there. But the way I see it, the Russian championship doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. I think the national team’s got really good players, and they’re absolutely up to the challenge facing them at the moment – which is to qualify for EURO 2016.”