Shown the red card

Observations on Russia

When Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, the influence of his birthplace of St Petersburg grew rapidly, as a series of officials moved to Moscow to join him in the Kremlin. And as this clique has consolidated its power base, the fortunes of Zenit, the city's football team, have risen accordingly, culminating in the side's sparkling performance against Manchester United in the Uefa Super Cup final.

Zenit's path to glory began when the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich sold his shares in the oil company Sibneft to state-run energy giant Gazprom in 2005. The gas monopoly then ended Sibneft's sponsorship deal with the Moscow club CSKA, and took a controlling stake in Zenit. Gazprom's chairman was a St Petersburg native who had "supported Zenit since childhood" - the Russian president-to-be Dmitry Medvedev.

Gazprom, which aims to become the world's largest corporation by 2017, has been called a "a state within a state", and its massive political and economic resources have transformed Zenit from provincial outsiders into a top European club in under three years.

Zenit's success - a Russian title, the Uefa Cup, and now the Super Cup in the space of ten months - has not been universally popular at home. On 25 August, Zenit broke the Russian transfer record, paying the equivalent of £24.4m for the midfielder Danny Alves of Dynamo Moscow. A group of Dynamo fans then called on the Audit Chamber to investigate "on what grounds Zenit can permit themselves to spend astronomical sums from the Gazprom budget, in effect the state budget".

To answer this, it is necessary to look back to 2004 to Russia's 7-1 defeat by Portugal during a European Championship qualifier in Lisbon. The result reportedly sent the then-president Valdimir Putin into a rage, the scoreline mocking his earlier promise that Russia would "soon catch up with Portugal" (in terms of GDP). Putin, as a former KGB man, shared the Soviet leaders' view that sport was vital for the image of the country, and the defeat at the hands of the Portuguese surpassed mere sporting humiliation. Putin began to look for ways to revive Russian football, and Zenit was selected - in a snub to the independent-minded mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov - as the side to be the country's torchbearer in the prestigious Uefa Cup and the Champions League.

The Russian leadership treated the beautiful game just like any other sphere of business in need of an urgent overhaul. Foreign specialists - read, the experienced Dutch coaches Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat - were hired to shake things up. While Hiddink was given a free hand to carry out a much-needed reform of the country's antiquated football infrastructure, in St Petersburg Advocaat was handed a blank cheque to buy players.

However, as Advocaat freely admits, despite the huge salaries on offer, it has not been easy to persuade global stars to make the move to Russia. The country, he said, "still has an image problem". Indeed, despite a huge fan base and a new generation of talented domestic players, the current talk of a resumption of Cold War hostilities looks likely to make his job, and the Kremlin's self-assigned task, that much harder.