"Israel's Xavi" one of best free agents on market
Teams looking to strengthen their squad during the January transfer window are often forced to overpay -- the names of Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll spring to mind. And while there is a significant selection of free agents available during the summer, clubs are unlikely to find such opportunities in the winter. If they are looking in the wrong place, that is.
In leagues where the season runs from March to November, as in Scandinavia, most players sign contracts that expire when a calendar year ends. This was also the case in Russia until its rather ill-advised switch to an autumn-spring system in 2012, but contracts signed before the change still generally adhere to the old dates.
A few weeks ago, we discussed the curious case of Keisuke Honda at CSKA Moscow. Now that the Japanese has finally joined AC Milan, it's time to look at another quality midfielder whose contract is expiring: Rubin Kazan's Bibars Natcho.
His name might not be easy to pronounce (in fact, it is usually misspelled even in his home country), but Tottenham, Everton and Schalke -- among others -- are taking a keen interest in the Israeli schemer. They have good reason to do so, and not just because Natcho was named in UEFA's Team of the Europa League group stage last week.
Natcho leads the tournament with five assists and has found the net three times, meaning he has played a part in more than half of Kazan's 14 goals in the group round. But Natcho's major contribution isn't measured by statistics, since he is a player who brings balance and stability to the side.
The Israeli was an unknown 22-year-old when he arrived at Rubin from Hapoel Tel Aviv in February 2010, cherry-picked by coach Kurban Berdyev from Kazan's famous scouting network, which aspires to sign players of high potential at low cost ... but has produced varying results.
Some, like Portuguese midfielder Fabio Felicio, failed miserably, and there were doubts about Natcho's ability to adjust to his surroundings in Russia. In fact, one of his final matches for Hapoel was a Europa League clash at Kazan in terrifyingly cold conditions of about -20°C, and he didn't fare too well in a 3-0 defeat.
Rubin were Russian champions back then, fresh from their famous win against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, and the youngster's task of proving himself on the first team was definitely not easy.
It did take Natcho half a season to settle in, and an unfortunate injury didn't help, but once he was given a run in the starting lineup, he didn't disappointed Berdyev, and soon it was simply impossible to imagine Rubin's midfield without him. While every other position was subject to rotation, the coach never left Natcho out.
During the record long 2011-12 season, the Israeli started 41 and completed 40 games out of 44, missing one game due to suspension, which he spent in the stands, supporting the team together with Rubin fans. In 2012-13, he completed all but six minutes of play.
Rubin are not always spectacular, but they are the most tactically astute outfit in Russia, and thus Berdyev's faith in Natcho is a huge compliment -- he is a kind of coach's assistant on the field, dictating the tempo and connecting the lines. Although not the fastest player, Natcho uses speed of thought rather than speed of running, and is regarded as one of the best midfielders in the league.
Natcho's best position is as an attack-minded player in a pair of holding midfielders, which made his talents most effective when assisted by Spanish destroyer Pablo Orbaiz last term, or by Frenchman Yann M'Vila this season. Tenacious in defence, he is a cultured distributor of the ball, possesses a good shot from distance and specialises in dead-ball situations, usually taking all Rubin's free kicks, corners and penalties.
His scoring abilities are impressive, even when penalties are not taken into account. He was Rubin's top scorer in the league in the past two seasons, scoring nine goals in each campaign -- a remarkable record for a central midfielder. In the autumn of 2011, Natcho scored against each of the five teams Kazan faced in Europe, including strikes in each of the games against Chelsea in the Europa League quarterfinals. His scoring streak in Europe continued this season as well.
Equally importantly, he is a very positive-minded person, humble and always looking to learn and progress. During his four years in Kazan, he didn't have a word of criticism for anyone, always putting the team's ambitions and interests ahead of his own. A bit shy by nature, he is nevertheless influential in the dressing room and liked by all his teammates. The fans also adore him, and it was no surprise when they voted him player of the season in 2012-13.
As Ildar Gubaydullin, a former marketing manager at Rubin, recently said: "Natcho is a very kind young man who made such great progress because he only thinks about his job and his family. You can build teams around such players."
Natcho's background offers one of the reasons behind his character. A Circassian raised in a small town of Kfar Kama in northern Israel, he is a Muslim. At age 10, he moved to the Jewish town of Modi'in and soon afterward joined Hapoel Tel Aviv's youth team. As a youngster, Natcho was forced to overcome family tragedies. His cousin Nili, a promising basketball player, was killed in a road accident in 2004, and Natcho's father, the most influential figure in his life, suddenly died after suffering a cardiac arrest in 2008. The player proved to be mentally strong to deal with grief, and football helped him to do so.
Fate wasn't always kind to him, but as far as coaches go, Natcho was extremely lucky. A few months after Natcho was promoted to the Hapoel first team, Eli Guttman was appointed as a new coach. Recognising Natcho's talent, he took him under his wing, telling him: "You are going to be my Xavi." Guttman, appointed as Israel coach two years ago, continued to frequently call Natcho "Israel's Xavi" and tried to build the national team around his protégé.
However, Natcho eventually swapped Guttman for Berdyev, and his choice proved to be good. While the feeling during the past two seasons was that the midfielder was beginning to outgrow his Kazan team, Natcho always preferred stability and believed, with good reason, that the partnership with his mentor helped him take his game to a new level.
That is the reason Natcho was more than willing to extend his original contract back in the summer of 2012, but the club took too long to get the paperwork in order. Then Rubin went through a very turbulent period and even Berdyev's position became notably unstable, with his own contract not extended until the very final days of 2012. Seeing this, Natcho eventually put his contract talks on hold.
Once the coach's future was finally assured, Natcho was ready to do business again, but the club mismanaged the whole issue, mainly because Berdyev is barely on speaking terms with general manager Andrey Gromov, whom he tried to force out of the club a year ago.
As time went by, and as Rubin's fortunes in this season's Russian league became quite bleak, Natcho began to understand it might be the right time to move on. He always wanted to leave on a high note, and succeeded in doing so, scoring in his final appearances in Kazan before the winter break, both in the league and in Europe, and netting in Belgium against Zulte Waregem this past Thursday in what could prove to be his last game for the team.
As the Russian media begin to come to terms with losing one of the league's best players, so does Berdyev, who said: "If Natcho leaves, we will still remain friends."
His close relationships with the only two coaches he has worked under during his career, Guttman and Berdyev, raises the only significant question as to whether Natcho has the ability to continue flourishing elsewhere. He is used to having the full confidence of his mentor, and it will be wise for him to sign with a team that is stable as far as the coach is concerned.
However, given the professionalism and self-belief of the 25-year-old, he will probably succeed even in more difficult situations. And, due to Rubin's mishandling of his new contract, Natcho is available for free. It will be difficult to find a better bargain in Europe this January.