On the eve of the second leg of Hapoel Tel Aviv's Europa League match against Rubin Kazan in February, the sports media in Russia continued to cast doubts on reports that Bibras Natcho was headed to the Russian champion - despite leaks by Kazan officials.
One paper quipped sarcastically that it wasn't clear what Kazan needed with Natcho, who was playing for Hapoel at the time. "Will he carry files for [Cristian] Noboa or [Sergei] Semak?" a writer asked. "Rubin's defensive midfielder is the best in Russia - and where exactly will they find place for a 22-year-old kid? At the end of the bench?"
Seven month's after Natcho's transfer to the capital of Tatarstan, the situation is somewhat different. Most pundits in Russia agree Bibras is in the right place. Natcho is a small fish in a big pond, but Kazan's Turkish coach Kurban Berdyev says the Israeli's signing in March was a long-term investment.
Russian sports reporters buy into this idea, and no one seems to expect him to produce immediately.
Kazan is a team which laid out over 40 million euros this summer in acquisitions and has not lost to Barcelona in three official matches. Eleven members of Kazan's roster play for national teams, among them Cristian Ansaldi of Argentina, Carlos Eduardo of Brazil and Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins. Relative to these players, Natcho does not draw much media attention, says Andrej Anfinogenov of Russia's Sport Express newspaper.
To Natcho's credit, says Anfinogenov, the midfielder isn't messing things up for the Russian champion. "He doesn't talk much - I presume he doesn't know Russian," says Anfinogenov. "The team captain, Noboa, is an example of total adjustment - he also speaks fluent Russian."
Anfinogenov says that it doesn't matter that Natcho, who is Circassian, is a Muslim. "We don't attribute that much importance to nationality or religion," he says. "You can find an Orthodox church 50 meters from the mosque, and not far away are two synagogues."
The reporter thinks Natcho's time could come next season, earlier than expected. "Many players take two or three years to adjust, but we'll see if it will go quicker with Natcho," he says. "Command of Russian will be of great importance. Berdyev and his assistants clearly admire his professionalism and are grooming him to be one of the players of the future."
Injury sidelined Natcho for several weeks this season, but he still has managed to put up some relatively impressive numbers in his nine appearances. "A goal and two assists in nine games is already something, especially on a strong team where there's a lot of competition for the starting 11," said Russian journalist Vladimir Korotkin.
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