Monday, 17 May 2010

Russian Football - Good for Collecting Air Miles

As a country that spans nine time zones, you sometimes have to wonder how Russia functions as a coherent, unified state. The short answer, as many discussions on Russia's enormous territorial size conclude, is that it often doesn't

But having said that, Russia does have a fully-functioning, truly national, football league pyramid. Although the Russian Premier League has five representatives from the Moscow region - Spartak, CSKA, Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Saturn - the league can fairly claim to represent most of Russia's major population centres. Likewise in the country's second tier, the First Division, teams from across the entire expanse of the Russian Federation compete against one another. 

Indeed, last week saw two First Division teams play what is probably the single furthest domestic league away trip in the world. Baltika, based in the Baltic seaport city of Kaliningrad, nestled between Poland and Lithuania, hosted Luch-Energiya, from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, just a short hop away from Russia's border with North Korea.

The teams are effectively located in Russia's westernmost and easternmost extremities. Ordinarily, this would mean that Luch-Energiya would have to undertake a 4,500 mile journey, taking some nine hours by plane, just to play 90 minutes of football. However, after an incident at a previous home game in which the match officials were attacked and threatened inside the team's Baltika stadium, the match was moved from Kaliningrad to Moscow's Rodina Stadium.

Whilst that shaved a couple of hours off the away team's journey time, no doubt the time cooped up in a plane, combined with a touch of jet-lag (Moscow is still seven hours ahead of Vladivostok), played havoc with Luch-Energiya goalkeeper Mikhail Komarov's concentration span, as he allowed a long ball to comically bounce over him for Yury Lebedev to score the only goal in a 1-0 Baltika victory.

I was interested to know how a football league is administered over such an enormous territory, so I dropped in to Russia's "Dom Futbola", a building in central Moscow, to chat with Andrei Sokolov, the General Director of the Professional Football League (PFL), which administers Russia's First and Second Divisions.

Territorial considerations shape the make-up of the Second Division, which is split into five regional leagues and means teams only have to travel to away games within their region. Having said that, there are still some pretty hefty away days to be had even at this level - in the Second Division East, a game between Radian-Baikal Irkutsk and Okean Nakhodka involves a 3,000 mile round trip for the away side. 

But, as Mr Sokolov explained, the real challenge comes with the First Division, which is a nationally-integrated league of 20 teams.

A map showing Russia's First Division teams by location. Sorry to English speakers, could only get one with Cyrillic lettering (courtesy of Wikipedia), but Luch-Energiya are at the bottom right of the map, Baltika the top left.

"Our biggest challenge is to organise the calendar around the two Far Eastern teams, Luch-Energiya from Vladivostok and SKA-Energiya from Khabarovsk," he told me.

"What we have done this season is to organise the calendar into pairs of matches. Luch-Energiya and SKA-Energiya are paired up with two teams from similar areas of the Russian Federation. They travel away to play their respective matches, and then a few days later the teams swap over for another fixture. 

"So, for example, there are two teams in the First Division this year from Krasnodar, FK Krasnodar and Kuban. Luch-Energiya and SKA-Energiya will both travel to Krasnodar one week, with one playing FK Krasnodar and the other playing Kuban. Then a few days later, they'll reverse the fixtures. 

"The same applies when teams from Western Russia travel East to play."

An ingenious solution, no? Still, there's no doubting Russian football teams rack up some serious air miles throughout a season. And as for carbon emissions...


Anonymous said...

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"Siberian League - Russian clubs in the Asian Champions League"
russian topic
asian topic

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