Monday, 24 May 2010

Photoblog: On the Road with CSKA Moscow

These photos are a series taken for The Cynical Challenge whilst I was in Kazan, Russia. I travelled to Kazan to watch home side Rubin take on CSKA Moscow in a top-of-the-table Russian Premier League match. The game ended 1-0 to CSKA, the only goal of the game coming after some lovely build-up and finished off by Liverpool cast-off Mark Gonzalez, but it was action off the pitch which really captured my attention.

An  hour before kick-off, Kazan's police ready themselves outside the city's Tsentralny Stadium. The police (militsiya) and security services (OMON) are a highly visible presence at Russian Premier League matches - I would estimate about 750 members of the militsiya were at the game in Kazan, policing a crowd of 17,000. Moreover, fans have to undergo several security checks, including searches of bags and pockets, prior to entering the stadium. I was told that a pen in my bag, a souvenir from Kazan, could be used as an offensive weapon, and was therefore confiscated. Bastards.

Written on the back of this CSKA fan's t-shirt: "God is with us".

Kazan's lovely Kremlin, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, reflected in the glass of the Tsentralny Stadium. It's also worth pointing out that the young lady in the blue skirt at the front of the shot was giving away free packets of cigarettes to everyone - including minors.

In the background - the Qol Sharif Mosque, one of Europe's largest mosques. Kazan's population is around 48% Tatar, a Turkic-Muslim ethnic group, and 44% ethnic Russian, and the city is regarded as a true melting pot of Eurasia's cultures. In the foreground - a CSKA fan brandishes the tricolour flag of the Romanov dynasty, Russia's Imperial royal family. In recent times the flag has become popular among ultra-nationalist groups, and waving it in a Muslim-majority city such as as Kazan brings its own, rather overt, political connotations.

A view from the away end at the Tsentralny Stadium. Note the fences surrounding the away fans on all sides. Also, regular readers of The Cynical Challenge will know of my soft spot for Eastern Europe's lovely floodlight pylons, and here's yet another fine example.

2,000 CSKA fans travelled to Kazan, many making the 1,600 mile round trip by sleeper train. By comparison with some away trips in the Russian Premier League, Kazan is relatively local. Still, you have to take your hat off to supporters for making the journey - and it's worth adding that, as the match took place on a Friday evening, the visiting fans would have had to take a day off work to do so.

The practices of Russian football supporters differ from that of their British counterparts in one particularly noticeable way. Fans in Britain tend to behave spontaneously, with chants and songs begun from within the stands. In Russia, by contrast, fans tend to look to supporter representatives, posted at the front of the stand and armed with loudspeakers, for a lead on which songs to sing. This is rather more reminiscent of the Ultra groups in, say, the Bundesliga, who orchestrate continuous (and impressive) vocal support throughout matches. You have to be pretty fit to lead the chanting - the man standing at the front of the shot stood on a narrow metal beam, shouting through his loudspeaker, for the full 90 minutes, in 30 degree heat. Rather him than me.

Once the cry of "shirts off" went up there were plenty of volunteers.

Leaving the stadium under the watchful eye of the Russian special services. It's rather like having the SAS police a Premier League game. Still, this is Russia...

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...

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Russian football fans - more English than the English?

The Cynical Challenge is back on tour. After January's weekend in Zagreb to take in an ice hockey match, this time Russian football is on the agenda. I'm in Moscow, where the streets are paved with either gold or discarded beer bottles, depending on your viewpoint.

Though The Cynical Challenge is here in a professional capacity, to research various aspects of Russia's football league system, it's been difficult to avoid being sucked into the country's seductively heady mix of cultural heritage and, ahem, cheap booze. That's even more the case at the moment, as Russia has just marked the 9th May holiday, Victory Day, celebrating Russia's victory over Fascism in Europe in 1945.

 Just one of the many Victory Day banners around central Moscow

Over the weekend Muscovites pulled out all the stops to mark the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. There were all the usual festivities - patriotic songs, parading of veterans, street parties, fireworks and the like - alongside a very public demonstration of Russia’s array of tanks, military aircraft, armoured vehicles and weaponry. Imagine it as a village fete where first prize in the tombola was an atom bomb.

Still, it was an enjoyable day, and moreover a perfect example of the pride large numbers of modern Russians take in their country’s heritage.

Which is interesting, considering that their football fans tend to doff their caps to England. For them, English football is the lead to follow.

This doesn’t only comprise the action on the pitch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the high profile of the English Premier League compared to Russia’s domestic league, many Russian football followers prefer to watch televised matches from England to watching their own local teams.

No, more than that, Russian football fans revere English football’s traditions – and particularly the hooligan element which, many of them assume, continues to play a decisive role in English footballing culture.

Having attended a Russian Premier League match between Spartak Moscow and Anzhi Makhachkala in my first few days in Russia, I got into conversation with some fans after the game. One of them, knowing I was English, asked me what I thought about Dougie Brimson. His face was a picture of disappointment when I told him I had no idea who Dougie Brimson was. Indeed, having mentioned the anecdote to a number of football fans in Russia, all of them have heard of the exploits of the man – a former hooligan turned writer who has chronicled the ultra-violent exploits of British fans in a number of books. His works are bestsellers in Russia.

Tales such as those told by Dougie Brimson, along with films such as Green Street (which Brimson also wrote) and Football Factory, have helped to raise the profile of English football’s hooligan traditions in Russia – even as these tendencies have rather fallen away amongst supporters in England. Indeed, many Russian fans I have spoken to during my time here continue to believe that at many clubs the gang violence of the 1970s and 1980s is alive and kicking (pun very much intended). Ask young Russian fans – one I spoke to was as young as 13 – who their favourite English club is and, apart from the usual suspects (Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea in particular), Millwall and West Ham tend to figure unusually prominently.

The reverence on the terraces for England occasionally becomes outright mimickry. CSKA Moscow fans, for example, chant their club’s name in English. Banners around Russian stadiums are often written in English. Even terrace fashions are consciously and scrupulously copied, from Burberry caps to Sergio Tacchini tracksuits. And, inevitably, football-related gang violence is not uncommon.

The ubiquitous "Burberry" cap, sported by a CSKA Moscow fan
Ironically, in following what they perceive to be the English model of football fandom, Russians have in fact created a more exciting and atmospheric football environment than the rather sanitised experience to be found at many English Premier League matches. This is not to draw a rather twisted connection between football’s power to entertain and fan violence – more an observation that high ticket prices, a clampdown on anti-social behaviour and all-seater stadiums in England have robbed many Premier League football matches of an edginess which is prevalent in Russian football.
Indeed, it's probably not unreasonable to suggest that, as far as terrace behaviour these days is concerned, Russians are more English than the English.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Extra Time

Just a quick note to point you in the direction of this week's edition of the twofootedtackle podcast. Listen in, it's good for your ears