When the technical director of a Premier League club revealed he was searching for a player to fill a particular position, Slutsky immediately remembered a former charge from his long, impressive career in Russia’s top league. The player fit the bill perfectly and, in Slutsky’s mind, would be a definite upgrade. An open, gregarious sort, he advised his new friend that the player might be worth considering.
“He said he was aware of him,” Slutsky said. “But that it was too much of a risk to bring someone direct from Russia. It is not a league they scout. They say the standard in the league is too different, so they find it too hard to judge the level of quality.”
Slutsky faced precisely the same problem. He had arrived in England hoping to turn his sabbatical from coaching into something more permanent. His résumé included three Russian league titles at CSKA Moscow and his recent, 11-month spell in charge of the Russian national team.
That work record made him an object of considerable desire in his homeland — he has received a steady stream of offers in the last few months — but when Hull City, recently relegated, confirmed his appointment as its new manager this month, it was seen as something of a risk. There had never been a Russian manager in England. Slutsky, despite an extensive Champions League pedigree, was seen as untried, untested, all but unknown.
After all, even as soccer’s horizons have drawn nearer in recent years, as globalization has made the far-off familiar and the once exotic seem local, Russia’s air of mystery has endured. To many, the host of the FIFA Confederations Cup over the next two weeks and the World Cup itself next summer remains largely terra incognita.
Russian Premier League games do not attract vast television audiences in the countries where they are shown and are often consigned to backwater cable channels. Russian clubs tend to make only the most fleeting impressions on European competitions, and the country’s national team has made it beyond the group stages of a major tournament only once since the breakup of the Soviet Union, at the 2008 European Championship.
Its best players tend not to travel, to test themselves abroad. Slutsky does not believe it is a lack of talent — he believes Russia’s goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, would be “one of the top five in the Premier League,” for example — so much as a lack of incentive.
“The money is good in Russia,” he said. It is made better by measures guaranteeing a certain number of Russian players must feature in every game, placing a premium on retaining Russia’s best and brightest. And then there are the cultural factors. “They are at home. They know the language; they are with their family,” he said.
What awaits them abroad is, in many cases, not exactly tempting: a second-tier team and probably a large cut in salary.
It is no surprise, then, that the names of the overwhelming majority of those players selected for this summer’s Confederations Cup by Stanislav Cherchesov, Slutsky’s successor in charge of the Russian national team, will be unfamiliar to most fans outside Russia.
Only Roman Neustadter — a defender born to a Russian mother and a Kazakh father, and who grew up in Germany — currently plays outside Russia. Of the rest, only the vastly experienced Yuri Zhirkov and the striker Fyodor Smolov have any experience at all playing in the West. Russia is a world unto itself, a place that players and managers go to, but rarely come from.
Slutsky has set out, in his own small way, to challenge that stereotype, to make his way off Russian soccer’s self-sustaining island. In January, with Abramovich’s support, he moved to London. He had always harbored an ambition to sample English soccer. At 45, and although it meant leaving his wife and son in Moscow, he decided this represented his best chance.
Since then, he has thrown all his energies into coming to grips with England. He is studious, thorough. A few weeks ago, he arrived at a Championship playoff game between Reading and Fulham with a pocket full of notes he had made on both teams. He was sufficiently well versed in each to describe, in detail, the virtues of Reading’s American midfielder, Danny Williams.
He is the sort of man, too, who “likes to have a target,” an objective to meet. “My teacher at Riversdown House and I drew up a list of foreign Premier League managers and their standard of English,” he said. “In terms of accent, vocabulary, all these things. We had Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho at the top, then Jurgen Klopp. I was fifth or so.”
Slutsky’s aim, for now, is to catch the Liverpool manager. Occasionally, he will pause, midsentence, determined to make sure he conjugates a conditional verb correctly (he does).
Most of all, though, Slutsky has immersed himself in a soccer culture he had previously seen only from afar.
It would be easy, as a friend of Abramovich — “the best agent in the world,” he calls him — to spend his weekends in the refined surroundings of the owner’s suite at Stamford Bridge, then wait for one of the most influential men in English soccer to call in a favor. Slutsky has done quite the opposite.
“I have been to many games, all over the country,” he said. He has seen a lot of Fulham — a pleasant stroll down the King’s Road from his hotel — but he has been out of London, too, to Wolverhampton and Huddersfield and myriad points in between. It has been good practice for life in Hull, far from the capital’s Russian enclaves.
He watched all of those games as he would from the bench. “I only watch the ball when it reaches the box,” he said. “In between, I am watching the spaces, seeing where the danger might be, what problems there are, thinking what I would do if I was the manager.”
That was always his target: to be managing in one of these games, rather than merely observing. He is under no illusions. “Local experience is the most important thing,” he said. “It does not matter in England that I have won this many Russian titles, or managed this many Champions League games.”
Now, after all that preparation, he has the chance to see if all of his experience, all of his success, can be transferred to Hull City, to the Championship, to England, the West. Over these next two weeks — and again next summer — Russia’s soccer culture will present itself to a waiting, watching world. Slutsky is its pioneer on another front, a man from the uncharted territory, leaping into the unknown.
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