It is rumored in Russian football circles that Andrei Arshavin refused to entertain a possible move to Barcelona because it meant the Zenit St. Petersburg and national team star would have to take a pay cut.
In all probability, some creative license has been used in the telling and re-telling of that apocryphal tale, but it still shows the incredible strides made in the Russian game in recent years and the reason for its rapid progress.
Money talks loudest in football and the noises emanating from the east are of some concern to clubs in England, Spain and Italy. Gone are the days when those leagues could snap up a player from that part of Eastern Europe, give him a respectable salary and a car and earn his undying gratitude.
Arshavin's stock is soaring now after his latest display of talent in Wednesday's decisive 2-0 victory over Sweden, a win that booked Russia's place in the last eight of Euro 2008. A series of outstanding performances for club and country has made him one of the most sought-after players in Europe this summer, but it would be no surprise at all if he went nowhere and remained with Zenit, a club which barely registered a blip on the European landscape until last season.
If he does go, it will not be for the money. Arshavin is rewarded handsomely at Zenit, with a gigantic salary of around $100,000 per week plus a mind-blowing bonus structure. Given that Arshavin ran the show in the UEFA Cup final, as Zenit tore apart Glasgow Rangers at the City of Manchester Stadium, it is fair to suggest that another avalanche of roubles came tumbling into his bank balance.
Those roubles, like most of the wealth in Russian football, is drenched in oil. President Vladimir Putin encourages, gently or otherwise, the oligarchs who have made incredible fortunes from selling the natural resource to invest in sports, particularly football. As a result, the national team benefits from having a coach with the pedigree of Guus Hiddink, whose salary is paid by none other than billionaire Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
Hiddink can also pick his squad almost exclusively from home-based players, now that the Russian league, ranked 15th in Europe by UEFA just a few years ago, is pressing Holland for the fifth spot and rising fast.
The upshot is that players like Arshavin – who, at 27, was born in an era when St. Petersburg was still called Leningrad and the Communists still controlled the Soviet Union – need not head overseas in search of financial reward.
"Arshavin is a player who can decide very, very fast where he can create danger … he can turn left, right, he knows where an opponent is so he is a very smart player," Hiddink said. "You can see he can make the difference, not for himself by the goal but for the other guys on the field."
Suspended for Russia's first two games at Euro 2008, he showed how much he had been missed against Sweden. He scored Russia's second goal and was his team's driving force in a performance that surely grabbed the attention of quarterfinal opponents and tournament favorites Holland.
If Arshavin can mastermind a shock victory over the rampant Dutch, his value will soar even further. But even if salary offers of $150,000, $200,000 or even more per week come flooding in, the oil company that pays his salary would not even need to scratch the surface of its coffers to match it.