What happens when a nouveau-riche football club starts throwing money around in a Russian city with a communist legacy?
The answer is being played out at Zenit St. Petersburg, and it involves Russian President Vladimir Putin, global energy giant Gazprom, the local communist party and two footballers bought for a combined $100 million—Hulk and Axel Witsel.
Gazprom are the Russian natural gas company who have bankrolled Zenit since 2005. It was their money that lured former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti to the club in 2009 and has since helped the Italian win two straight Russian Premier League titles.
But when Zenit bought Hulk and Witsel this summer—two of the most sought-after talents in European football—it soon became clear the club's naked ambition was at odds with certain philosophies, both internally at Zenit and woven into the political fabric of the city it calls home.
Club captain Igor Denisov has voiced his opposition to how much Hulk and Witsel are earning in comparison to Zenit's Russian players—with the former said to be bringing home an annual salary of $8 million.
Said Denisov to Sport Express Daily, as per Eurosport Asia:
I'm not against foreign players but there must be a balance in the team. Yes, the club has bought good players but do you think they are so much better than us that they should make three times as much?
Zenit already have great players who have won as many titles as the new guys. I would understand if we got Messi or Iniesta. They would deserve any price.
The principles of how the club is run are the most important as well as the respect of the Russian players, especially us—the St. Petersburg natives who have always made up the core of a team like Zenit.
Zenit were not pleased. In reaction to his comments and reported contract demands, Denisov was "indefinitely transferred to the club's youth team." For a 28-year-old international who's been at the club for a decade, the punishment is akin to being exiled to Siberia.
This, as per Zenit's official website:
This measure is related to the fact that Denisov made an ultimatum to the club and refused to take the pitch against Krylya Sovetov, demanding that his personal contract be reviewed.
...FC Zenit believes that by breaking his agreement with the club, Denisov is behaving unprofessionally, thereby discrediting himself as a player of FC Zenit and the Russian national team, and causing serious harm to his reputation.
Denisov is clearly not the only Zenit player to be at odds with the club's transfer policy. Striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov was also sent down to train with the youth team, though both he and Denisov may return to first-team duties as soon as Sunday.
Responding to a question on his players' mental state, Spalletti said, "They need to understand that the way they're thinking isn't fair."
We can only assume they're thinking Hulk and Witsel are taking up too much of the wage budget.
Whatever the truth behind the training-ground doors, speculation surrounding the inner turmoil at Zenit has only been encouraged by the club's recent results. Home defeats to Terek Grozny and Rubin Kazan were compounded by a 3-0 loss to Malaga in the Champions League.
Things have gotten so bad that the local branch of the Communists of Russia party decided to send an open letter to President Putin, pleading he intervene to put things right.
Here's an amended extract, as per their official website (translation from Google):
There is a loss of control over the team—and a loss of mutual understanding within team sports creates a heavy moral atmosphere. A series of very painful lesions has been replaced by open squabble between the leading players in the team to see who of them will get any more (money).
In this conflict, the public cannot decide who is right or wrong—all are equally ugly, selfish and greedy.
The letter goes on to reference the 1984 Zenit team, which won the league under Soviet communist rule, but with no "abnormal fees"—the suggestion being that success is just as achievable through hard work and organization as it is through free spending in the transfer market.
Most shocking was their attack on Spalletti and the claim that western coaches are purely money-motivated. In his place, they'd like "a stern coach from North Korea, where sport is part of the daily struggle for the independence and dignity of the country."
Who said sport and politics don't mix?
Here's what Putin had to say in response, as per insideworldfootball.biz:
I also complain sometimes. I would like to note that it's the companies that buy the players and not the Government. But fans also want to see world stars, not those who are on the wane but those who are at their peak.
Putin's position is a precarious one, because he also has to be mindful of Russia's role as hosts of the 2018 World Cup and the need for the country to be sending out the right message. The President wading into a crisis at one of the country's major clubs just doesn't look good.
Spalletti is in a difficult spot. He must find a way to placate the likes of Denisov and Kerzhakov, while also making sure his big-money signings feel welcome enough to produce the kind of performances Zenit paid $100 million for.
Only success will suffice. And even then, there will still be those in St. Petersburg who undermine his progress as the natural result of gratuitous spending.
You get a sense Hulk and Witsel may come to regret their moves to Russia.