César Navas – El Capitán, the greatest foreign defender in Russian history?

Cesar Navas celebrating the historic win at the Vicente Calderon | Marca

In February 2009, Rubin Kazan signed a former Real Madrid graduate, who had just over 100 La Liga appearances to his name. A perennial squad player, who had struggled for regular playing time in Malaga and Tarragona, eventually found his footing at Santander, at the age of 27, having seen a transfer to Ipswich fall through due to injury.

César Navas still demanded a fee of £1.8m, despite his 29 years, but the move out to Russia at this stage in his career, to the newly crowned league champions no less, was certainly a huge risk. No doubt the money would have been good. The RPL was in its golden era, as were Rubin, who were not afraid of spending millions on a player. That summer, they had also re-signed Alejandro Dominguez from Zenit, a year after he had moved to St Petersburg, for half of the £7m they had sold him for.

But who could have imagined that 10 years later, Cesar Navas would go down in history as one of the greatest foreign players, and even one of the best defenders to ever play in Russia? At least now, after announcing his retirement on 14th February 2019, almost 10 years to the day since he signed for Rubin, that is what fans and figures of Russian football are saying about him.

In his time in Russia, Navas played for two clubs and under the watchful eye of just two managers. For eight and a half of his 10 years in Russia, he played for the legendary Kurban Berdyev, the man who initially signed him for Rubin in 2009. Having played briefly under Rinat Bilyaletidinov at Rubin after Berdyev was sacked in 2013, Navas quickly signed for Berdyev when he returned to management with FC Rostov in 2015.

Having spent four good years with Berdyev in Kazan, winning a league title, a Russian Cup and two Russian Super Cups, the bond formed between Berydev and the Spaniard was strong. With the Turkmen taking most of his backroom staff with him to Rostov, including several Spanish speaking coaches, most notably Ecuadorian coach Yuri Solano.

Berdyev is very particular when it comes to signing new players, looking for only very specific traits and ensuring their personality, including work rate and commitment is up to the task of adapting to his style of play and the rough nature of Russian football.

Small Beginnings

Back in 2009, Navas adapted to Russian football very quickly. He was an ever-present feature in Kazan as Rubin successfully defended their title to win back to back RPL titles, missing just one league game, and being subbed off just one time out of the other 29 matches. He was also treated to a quick return to Spain, as Rubin were drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League group stages.

Of course, famously, Rubin put on one of the greatest performances in Champions League history that season at the Nou Camp, as Navas and co defeated Barcelona 2-1 while the Catalan side were at their peak. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Ibrahimovic and Pique et al did all they could to defeat Berdyev’s side, but thanks in part to Navas’ ever solid defensive display, the Tatar side pulled off the miracle of a lifetime.

READ MORE: Barcelona 1-2 Rubin Kazan – The Greatest Giant Killing in European History?

While domestic success slowly dwindled for Rubin, Navas ripened with age, with his performances rarely faltering and his fitness seemingly infallible despite his growing years. Several European campaigns saw Navas line-up against Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Tottenham and Chelsea – among many – with Rubin claiming wins against all four sides.

However, things did turn sour in Kazan. Berdyev became unsettled due to some poor management, particularly from the interference of General Director Andrey Gromov, who Berdyev did not get on with in the slightest. With Rubin struggling, Berdyev was pushed while walking and parted ways with the club after twelve years in charge. Navas remained on, as Rinat Bilyaletdinov led a mini-resurgence which saw Rubin back in the Europa League, but as Berdyev was announced as the new manager of Rostov, Navas quickly reunited with his mentor.

New Club, New History

At Rostov, Navas again wrote his name into the history books. Under Berdyev, a squad built-up of journeymen gelled together to put on one of the greatest title challenges in Russian history. In the same season that saw Leicester win the English Premier League, Rostov took the title chase right down the final day, only fall at the final hurdle, as eventual champions CSKA earned the three points they required. A famous 86th minute save from Igor Akinfeev the difference between CSKA and Rostov winning the title.

So second place it was, heartbreaking and stunning at the same time. A side which had staved off relegation the previous season had qualified for the Champions League (when only two places were up for grabs), and Navas was central to it, with his experience tying younger defenders Ivan Novoseltsev and Bastos together into a terrific trio.

The following season was almost better when it came to Europe. Having to juggle the league and Europe was a struggle, and their domestic results wavered as a result, but the European run was worth it. Memorable victories vs Anderlecht (2-0, away), Ajax (4-1, home), Bayern Munich (3-2, home), Sparta Prague (4-0, home) and then a draw v Manchester United in Rostov saw Rostov become a familiar name to football fans around Europe for the first time. They will forever be associated with those results, and Navas played a part in every single one.

READ MORE: FC Rostov – More Than Just the Russian Leicester

Navas facing up against Thomas Muller in Rostov’s match at the Allianz Arena | Championat

The Home Straight

For the 17/18 season, Berdyev jumped ship back to Rubin, and of course, Navas duly followed, though it was a tough decision. With his father falling ill, retirement seemed a likely option, so that Navas could return to Spain. However, with a turn of fortunes for his family, Navas decided to commit to another year in Tatarstan.

READ MORE: An Interview with Kurban Berdyev, Part One: – “I rate Maurizio Sarri higher than Guardiola”

He was appointed as captain and then aged 37, still played a huge role for Rubin in a season which saw them struggle, though not due to poor defending, but just a lack of goals. In fact, in the 17 appearances he made in the league for Rubin that season, they only conceded thirteen times, but they could only manage to score the same number.

The summer of 2018 was a another big one for Navas. After watching Spain play in Kazan during the World Cup, he had a decision to make. His father’s ongoing health problems clearly lingered in the mind, and Rubin took the opportunity to sign another Spanish centre back in Chico Flores, in an attempt to find a long term replacement for Navas, who it seemed could retire at any time. At the tender age of 38, Navas eventually again committed to Rubin, on a contract that had an option to be finished in the winter break, should he decide to retire.

With Rubin struggling to make ends meet and cutting a number of big money players from the squad, Navas agreed to several pay cuts, and stayed as first choice centre half for the entire first half of the 18/19 season, while mentoring young defenders Egor Sorokin and Filip Uremovic. Chico quickly fell out of favour with Rubin’s management over wage arrears, and so Navas’ role in the team increased, if anything. Having led the team to sixth by the winter break, Navas had the chance to travel home again.

READ MORE: Missing salaries and results: the poor state of Rubin Kazan

As Rubin regrouped for their first, second, and then third training camp without Navas participating, rumours were rife. It was not unusual for the Spaniard to miss the first two training camps in recent years, with Berdyev allowing him extra time with his family, trusting him to keep up his incredible fitness in his own environment. But to miss the third camp, something had to be afoot.

El Fin

And as it was, on February 14th 2019, the date of his 39th birthday, César Navas announced his retirement from football. Messages poured in from former team-mates and pundits alike. Match TV commentator Mikhail Mossakovskiy said: “One of the coolest foreigners in Russian football. One of those foreigners who stayed honest to his contract and fought on the field to the bitter end.”

Sport BO reported that Navas had told Rubin not to worry about the several month’s wages owed in arrears to him, not wanting to further the clubs financial worries. There were also reports that Navas could continue to work for the club in some aspect, perhaps as a scout. Even this winter, Navas had recommended CF Reus defender Alejandro Catena as a replacement for him, but the transfer did not go through.

Navas himself spoke on Rubin’s official YouTube channel as he announced his retirement. As per normal, he spoke in Spanish using one of the clubs interpreters. Navas speaks fluently in Russian but prefers only to use this in the circles of club football, and has rarely been observed speaking Russian in public. On his farewell video, Navas wished farewell to the Rubin fans, explaining his decision to retire was to be closer to his family in Spain. He outlined his intentions to work in football in the future, as a manager or coach and promised to return to Kazan in May with his family to bid his final farewells to the city he has called home for the best part of a decade.

El Capitán

César Navas was one mistimed Crawley Town tackle from joining then Championship side Ipswich Town in 2007. Instead, he won a Russian Premier League, a Russian Cup and two Russian Super Cups, participated in three Champions League campaigns, six Europa League campaigns, all the while leading victories over Barcelona, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Tottenham and Bayern Munich.

He amassed a grand total of 250 appearances in the Russian Premier League and 321 appearances for Russian clubs in all competitions in a 10-year spell. He will go down as one of the all-time Russian Premier League greats, and be remembered at Rubin Kazan and FC Rostov as a club legend.

Enjoy your retirement, César Navas, you have earned it.


Author: David Sansun

Arsenal and Rubin Kazan fan. Possibly too optimistic for Russian football which means I’m left disappointed a lot.

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