Friday, 12 March 2010

A Crash Course in Russian Football: Part 1

It's a chilly -8 degrees C in Moscow, with heavy snowfall forecast for Sunday - so what better than to kick off the new Russian Premier League football season?

Yes it's that time again. No sooner have Russian sports fans witnessed their country's dismal performance at the Winter Olympics (they finished just sixth in the overall medal table, having won only three golds, leading to President Dmitry Medvedev effectively sacking Olympic Committee chief Leonid Tyagachev) than they can pick themselves back up again with an icy dose of springtime football.

This weekend sees the first round of matches in the 2010 Russian Premier League, starting with today's match between CSKA Moscow and Amkar Perm, kicking off at 4pm GMT.

Rather than looking forward, though, The Cynical Challenge is going to start by looking back. After all, to most people at least, knowledge of Russian football is a luxury (and a dubious one at that), rather than a necessity. So, like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or the fat one out of Pie in the Sky in The History Boys, I'm naively going to attempt to take you on a journey of discovery through what I regard as one of Europe's most interesting football leagues. Besides, I'll be returning to Russian football periodically throughout the season, as it's personal hobby horse, so pay attention.

This blog began with observations about the weather in Moscow, and that's a theme we should return to. The Russian Premier League begins in March and ends in November - sensible, you might think, given Russia's well-known meteorological extremes during the wintertime. Well, 2010 may actually be the last full season in which we see football in Russia being played in sunshine. 

As I have written more extensively elsewhere, the Russian Premier League is seriously considering playing games throughout the winter, in conditions which can plummet below -30 degrees C, accompanied by huge snowfall. For now the plans are embryonic, but watch this space on that story.

From plummeting temperatures to plummeting budgets - the winter of 2009/10 will go down in Russia's footballing annals as one in which financial conditions got a little out of control. Obviously the high-profile cases of Portsmouth and Chester City in England, and the travails of many clubs in the Netherlands (starkly described this week by Ernst Bouwes) have made stories of financial mismanagement rather de rigeur in the footballing press.

Having said that, Russia's example is an interesting one. Over the winter one club, FK Moskva, have had to fold after their corporate backer pulled the plug, and another, Krylya Sovetov Samara, have been bailed out by a combination of regional and national government, and big business.

You might ask why Samara were saved and not Moskva. The answer largely depends on how much of a cynic you are, and this being The Cynical Challenge I'll give you my frank appraisal. Pure economics played its part, but there were important political reasons for sacrificing Moskva and sparing Samara.

Firstly, the numbers game: Moskva were a Moscow-based club, and in a city already groaning under the collective weight of four other clubs (Spartak, Dynamo, CSKA and Lokomotiv) there simply wasn't a market for a fifth in a league of 16. In fact, if you look back as recently as 2005, the Russian Premier League actually contained seven sides based in the Moscow region, so clearly a tipping point was reached. FK Moskva were regularly playing to crowds of less than 10,000 last year (this in a city of 12 million inhabitants), despite having qualified for the UEFA Cup the year before, which tells you all you need to know about the club's fan base.

But the political side is more intriguing. It's certainly seen as being in the Russian government's interests to develop cultural or leisure institutions outside the Russian capital. Samara, home to Krylya Sovetov, is a city on the Volga some 900km south-east of Moscow. With so much power, wealth and opportunity concentrated in both Moscow and St Petersburg, the risk is that the millions of Russians living outside these centres, including those in Samara, may become disaffected.

To that end money has been poured into Krylya Sovetov to save them, ensuring one of the few national beacons emanating from the city of Samara, its football club, remains an ongoing concern. This is not a trend confined to Samara. In recent years sides such as Rubin Kazan (Tatarstan), Terek Grozny (Chechnya), Spartak Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), Luch-Energiya Vladivostok and Tom Tomsk (Siberia) have all experienced promotion - and in Rubin's case title success - in the Russian Premier League, thus expanding the geographical reach of the championship. It also helps keep those who live in Russia's poorer regions happy.

And continuing in that vein, replacing the now defunct FK Moskva in the Russian Premier League are Alania Vladikavkaz, from the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia - a region you may remember as instrumental in the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. 

Spare a thought for Alania, by the way, who were informed of their promotion less than two months before the start of the season. The have since gone on the kind of spree to make even Victoria Beckham blush, picking up 14 players, but look worryingly unprepared for the season ahead.

And that moves me nicely on to the part where I talk about the coming Russian Premier League season. But I won't be doing that until Part 2 of this series, coming up on Monday. For now, class dismissed.

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If you would like to read more about the ideas in this blog, especially the point that politics looms large over the Russian Premier League, you may also want to take a read of Marc Bennetts' excellent Football Dynamo.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James