Hulk and Witsel propel Zenit to European contenders

The transfer window may have closed for much of Western Europe, however the tremors that have been felt across the continent over the past day or so have stemmed firmly from the East, as Russian football became placed firmly in the eye of the storm. However, alluding to Zenit St Petersburg’s latest forays in the transfer market as having the devastating power of an earthquake is perhaps a disservice, as they have placed themselves at the fore of European football at such a pivotal moment.

This was the flexing of monetary muscle, on a scale that Eastern European football has never before seen. People can rightfully point to the spending of Anzhi Makhachkala in conveying a lack of surprise that Russian football has brought forth the transfer story of the summer. However this is on an entirely different scale altogether.

Samuel Eto’o’s transfer to the North Caucasus, via Moscow, was a deal that brought a player in the tail end of his career to a club looking for wider recognition, while scouring the continent for one final bumper pay cheque. In the case of Zenit’s new signings, Brazilian forward Hulk and former Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel, the Russian game is welcoming two players in the peak of their careers. It’s proof that Russian football is not merely a stomping ground for aging stars on overly inflated wages – it is now a viable alternative for the world’s best players.

It seems as though many individuals have taken to social media websites and forums lambasting the ambition of both Hulk and Witsel. The general consensus seems to revolve around the perception that the move hindered solely upon the vastly improved wages that both players would acquire. To proclaim such sentiments are, however, expressions of pure ignorance. The Russian Premier League may not yet garner the same level of prestige as the competition’s counterparts in Spain, England or Germany however it is undoubtedly one of the most competitive top flights in Europe.

The likes of CSKA, Spartak, Lokomotiv and Dinamo – all, of course, heralding from Moscow – are joined by Rubin Kazan and Anzhi in holding genuine hopes of competing for a Champions League berth. This does not even include the nouveau riche clubs in the mould of FK Krasnodar and Terek Grozny who harbour ambitions of eventually gate crashing the European places. It is true that toward the rear of the table sit the weak and the poor of Russian football however such a situation is the norm in many top divisions across the wider reaches of Europe.

It is worth noting that had it been Anzhi Makhachkala who were involved in these monumental moves in the transfer market, then there would perhaps be valid grounds for arguing that financial reasons – as opposed to sporting ones – were key to the transfer. However this is Zenit St Petersburg whom we are discussing. Zenit have become perennial league title contenders, they have established themselves as a strong outfit in Europe and already possess outstanding footballing talent. Let’s not forget that the club are guided by one of European football’s finest coaches, in Luciano Spalletti. This is not merely a club who have sprouted from the depths of nowhere. Zenit have, in recent years, won the UEFA Cup, Super Cup, Russian Cup and Premier League and thus the prospect of moving to Zenit St Petersburg is potentially an enticing one for any individual who plies their trade away from the established elite.

One of the defining, and most interesting, aspects of the transfer of Hulk and Witsel to Zenit lies in the role of the club’s key benefactor, Gazprom. This has been a summer whereby the major oil company have attempted to impact themselves upon the wider reaches of European football. Gazprom are already seen on the strips of Schalke and Red Star Belgrade, however their deals with Chelsea and UEFA have served to further promote the Gazprom brand to regions where exposure would have previously been limited.

Gazprom’s sponsorship of UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League tournaments has seen the company ‘cement their involvement with Europe’s most prestigious club football competition through exclusive services and products’. Such a deal has seen the company aligned with UEFA’s fellow exclusive partners – including the likes of Heineken, Ford and Mastercard – in a deal that brings forth a new realm of possibilities for Gazprom.

There can be little denying the potential exposure that partnering with the Champions League, in particular, can gain and as such you would imagine that such a level of prominence will only serve to aid Gazprom’s desire to become a key player in European business and football. Meanwhile, many will have recently noticed Chelsea’s advertising hoardings prominently carrying the name ‘Gazprom’ during the club’s early league fixtures at Stamford Bridge. Such is the nature of the sponsorship between the European champions and Gazprom that this will likely be the case for the duration of the 3 year deal.

It was widely thought that Gazprom had previously been attempting to ensure that Zenit could become a somewhat more self sufficient football club over the past 18 months or so. Luciano Spalletti had cut a frustrated figure for much of the summer as the club seemingly refused to be tempted into the transfer market, despite possessing a squad somewhat lacking in numbers. However the purchase of Hulk and Witsel will undoubtedly appease a hugely popular coach who has been persistently linked with a return to Italy since arriving in Russia.

Both Hulk and Witsel will provide further power and ability to a team already brimming with talent. The prospect of seeing a midfield of Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov and Axel Witsel is practically mouth watering, while the attacking partnership of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Danny and Hulk is hugely intimidating. There are few sides in European football who can now match the attacking capabilities of the Russian champions, and you would expect that the club’s potential to impact upon this year’s Champions League has significantly risen.

This summer’s transfer window, in Russia, had long been considered to be a major disappointment however Zenit’s forays have served to provide a fresh perspective on proceedings. There can be little doubt that Zenit’s ambition stems from the desire of Gazprom to achieve sporting prominence, however the transfer of Hulk and Witsel also serves to benefit Russia’s top flight on the whole. The Premier League can now rightfully be considered as a respectable home for exciting football talent, and not merely over rated mercenaries looking for a sizable pay cheque.


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