Russia is surprisingly mediocre at the beautiful game.
What makes this at first sight all the more surprising is that Russia is hardly a slouch when it comes to many other sports. It is consistently in the top three at the Summer Olympics, beaten out only by the US and China with their much larger populations and financing. It came a resounding first in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In ice hockey, it is currently a close second to Canada and practically never falls out of the top five.
But when it comes to football, Russia is now, on the eve of UEFA Euro 2016, a miserly 29th in the world, with an Elo rating of 1736. For context this translates to an 86% chance of losing to France, the host country with a home advantage at +100 Elo points, and which is considered to have the highest odds (24%) of winning the tournament.
This is not for lack of interest and enthusiasm. As in almost all of Europe, football is the most popular spectator sport in Russia, even ahead of ice hockey. Even so, even the United States with its essentially dilettante attitude towards football (yes football, not soccer) is ahead in 21st place.
Nor is it for want of financing. Although Russian footballing had a tough time in the depressed 1990s, investment strongly picked up from the 2000s – a development reflected in the hiring of ever more prominent (and expensive) foreign names as coaches of the national football team: Guus Hiddink in 2006, Dick Advocaat in 2010, and Fabio Capello from 2012 to 2015. The two Dutchmen were fairly successful, with Russia seeing its higher ever Elo football rating during this period and advancing to the semifinals in Euro 2008. But under Fabio Capello, the Russian team collapsed so drastically that his contract was ended three years earlier than originally planned. For all the considerable money Russia has spent on its national football team in the past decade, it remains way behind in the Elo ratings relative to both the major European national teams and even some decidedly financially lacking countries such as Peru and Bosnia.
It can’t have much to do with cultural traditions or the specific physiology of Slavs either. Croatia with its mere four million people is 18th and has always punched well above its weight in football. Slovakia, which Russia will face in the group stages of this tournament, is marginally ahead in 25th place globally. Even Japan is now marginally ahead of Russia in the global football Elo ratings, despite the fact that in the case of East Asians, a case can actually be made that cultural and physiological factors might play significant negative roles.
No, the explanation for Russian footballing mediocrity is much more banal, and can be summed up in this one map of January isotherms.
Needless to say, footballing requires a lot of skill.
To develop skill, you have to play a lot. Preferably year round. This is very hard to do when temperatures are substantially below freezing (correlating to the blue parts of the map). You can play in smaller spaces indoors, but it’s just not the same thing. You can theoretically have heated stadiums, but its very expensive and AFAIK nobody actually consistently bothers with it. Furthermore, even if you train your best players in heated stadiums (or abroad) during the winter, national football teams are drawn from (and discarded back into) a huge talent pool. Providing everyone in this category with elite climate controlled facilities is impossible.
The Soviet Union, which was consistently much more successful at football than Russia ever was, proves the rule: A large percentage of its star players were drawn from Georgia and southern Ukraine – that is, the parts of the USSR with the least hostile winter climate. Even today a highly disproportional share of elite Russian footballers come from the Kuban, the only parts of Russia with a winter climate that is at least somewhat comparable to that of Germany. Nowadays Georgia is considerably lower than Russia, but that is on account of a very low population of less than 3.7 million and virtually no money. Meanwhile, Ukraine, with three times fewer people and about ten times less money, is ahead at 16th globally.
Croatia, one of the most successful footballing nations in per capita terms, also happens to be smack dab in some of the most football friendly territory in all Slavdom. That almost certainly explains its impressive per capita performance.
Ultimately, mastery in football requires a combination of physical fitness, discipline, and artistry. The Germanics tend to max out the first two while not slacking on the third either. The Latins max out on the third, and while far more variable than Germanics, their best teams in any one year have the first two well down as well. My impression is that the Russian team at its best tends to be adequate at all three – it can be energetic, and artistic, and even well disciplined (the latter especially when coached by a Germanic).
But not outstanding. All three elements to some extent lack a degree of what I can only describe for lack of a better word as polish: Discipline but losing possession due to blunders just that more frequently than the Germans or the Dutch; Enthusiastic and active when they have the tempo, but that much more prone to sink into despondency when the tide turns against them; Creative but without quite the out-of-this-world flair and finesse of the very best Latin teams.
We shall soon see if Leonid Slutsky has made any progress in restoring the Russian football team to at least the level it was pre-Capello. But for Russia to get a truly worldbeating time it will probably have to wait for methane clathrate collapse plus thirty years for the post-runaway global warming generation of footballers to come into their prime. /sarcasm