Turmoil in Russian football as government limits foreigners

July 2, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — With just 10 days until the start of the new season, Russian football clubs’ transfer plans risk being upended as the government threatens to cut the number of foreign players they can field.

Russia is due to host the 2018 World Cup, but the national football team is performing poorly, with just two wins from its last 10 competitive games, making the fate of Russian football a hot-button issue. President Vladimir Putin has complained foreigners are squeezing out promising Russian players and signed a law Wednesday giving the government the right to regulate their numbers.

However, the Sports Ministry has not decided on a foreign player limit for the new season, leaving Russian clubs unsure whether they will need to sell star players — or even whether the season can start at all.

“We’ll try to do it next week,” Deputy Sports Minister Natalia Parshikova told Russian media on Thursday. “Without this order, not a single one of the team sports leagues can start.”

Limiting competition from foreign players at club level will defend Russians’ “right to play for the Russian national teams,” she added.

The current system, administered by football bosses rather than the government, allows Russian Premier League clubs an unlimited number of foreigners in their squad, although only seven can be on the pitch at one time.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has hinted that this figure could be cut to six for the new season, reversing a liberalization from 2012, and limits on the numbers of foreigners in a squad have also been mooted. However, more dialogue is needed before a decision is taken, meaning a tight schedule before the season-opening Super Cup on July 12 and the start of Premier League play five days later.

A late reduction in the limit could force some clubs into a quick sale of excess foreign players.

“We have the World Cup coming and we must take the decision with the agreement of the league and its leading clubs,” Mutko told the R-Sport agency on Wednesday. “The president has signed a law giving the authority to the Sports Ministry. The state’s position on this issue is very tough.”

It is not clear whether the number of foreign players could be cut further in future seasons.

Critics warn that toughening the limit is likely to drive up wages for Russian players and deter them from gaining experience in top European leagues. At last year’s World Cup, Russia was the only one of the 32 teams without a single player who played club football abroad.

The foreign player limit law also affects hockey. Putin first raised the idea of state restrictions on foreign players in sports after the Russian national hockey team suffered a disappointing exit at its home Winter Olympics in Sochi last year.

Current Kontinental Hockey League rules allow Russian teams to include five non-Russian players on the roster, but the Russian Hockey Federation has long demanded this allowance be reduced. The new KHL season starts August 24.