Football, as all encompassing at it may sometimes appear, is just a game. The wider national, cultural and social contexts that many excellent commentators and books have put the game in can often detach us from the fact that it is, essentially, 22 men kicking a ball around a field. There are, though, always instances that offer us biting reminders. In England last season we had the Fabrice Muamba incident, in Spain there was the less happy ending of Antonio Puerta and in Russia, slightly differently, we had the case of Vyacheslav Malafeev’s wife.
Malafeev, Zenit’s goalkeeper for the past twelve years and a one-club man, suffered terrible personal tragedy on the 17th of March 2011 as his wife died in a car crash in the city they call home, St Petersburg. Marina Malafeev, who was head of the family’s business, Malafeev Productions, had two children with Vyacheslav, daughter Xenia (born in 2003) and son Max (born in 2006). It is here that the story brings us to today’s (27th of August’s) news that Malafeev has chosen to ‘temporarily suspend’ his involvement with the Russian national team.
Making his debut in the 1-0 victory over Wales in 2003, Malafeev has gone on to make twenty-nine appearances for the national side, gaining a bronze medal as Igor Akinfeev’s understudy at Euro 2008 and starting all three games at Euro 2012 in Akinfeev’s absence. This is why, with Malafeev still dominating the Zenit number one shirt, the decision came as quite a surprise on Monday the 27th with the Leningrader posting on his personal website, ‘my decision not to play for Russia was a hard one both humanly and professionally. But currently I think it’s best for my family’. The thinking, therefore, is clear: Malafeev wants to spend more time with Xenia and Max in the absence of Maria, something even the most disappointed of Russia fans will no doubt accept.
Malafeev’s last appearance for Russia was as a substitute in Fabio Capello’s first match in charge of the national team, against the Ivory Coast, and was included in the Italians first named squad for 2014 World Cup qualifying rounds. However, despite the terminology of ‘temporarily suspend’ used, questions have been raised as to whether the 33-year-old will actually ever represent Russia again. This point has been raised by former Russia ‘keeper Ruslan Nigmatullin who commented, ‘I am disappointed that, most likely, we will not see him in the team [again]. At quite a mature age, ‘temporarily’ should be taken with a grain of salt’, he said.
Alas, it would appear, that the three time Russian Premier League winner’s goalkeeping exploits shall now be confined to the light blue of Zenit, unless, that is, he should make a comeback if and when Russia qualify for the 2014 World Cup, with the laborious qualifying stages freshly out of the way. There is some sadness, though, with Anzor Kavazashvili suggesting that ‘the Russian national team will be twice as weak without Malafeev’, and Sergei Ovchinnikov admitting that losing Malafeev ‘will affect the team’.
The always acrobatic and assured Zenit goalkeeper, however, will be focussing on taking Xenia and Max to the park, with the game of football put to the back of his mind on those international weekends.