Russian football has been feeling the winter chill. It started in November with the failure of Guus Hiddink’s national team to secure a place at this summer’s World Cup finals in South Africa, and continued through to last month with a new sense of financial vulnerability in the domestic game following FC Moscow’s withdrawal from the Russian Premier League. The Moscow side had their arm forced following the decision of their main sponsor to stop providing financial support, leaving the club without the necessary resources to convince the RFU (Russian Football Union) that they could fulfill their obligations. The season kicks off with the full contingent of 16 teams, but that wasn’t without the false promotion of Alania Vladikavkaz to replace FC Moscow, not to mention debt-laden Krylya Sovetov’s attempts to follow the Muscovites into the club scrapheap.
The fall of Soviet communism has seen the majority of clubs surviving thanks to the backing of large corporate sponsors – often colossal regional or national resource companies - flexing their monetary muscles after earning huge fortunes from the crazy years of capitalist reforms and the global scramble for natural resources. Many observers have rightfully highlighted the rise in investment and growing quality of the Russian Premier League, but if truth be told, its recent growth has been founded on rocky ground. Parallels have been drawn with the financial risk-taking that occurs in the English Premier League, but in reality, the situation is much riskier in Russia as clubs have neither the fan bases nor the TV revenue to fall back on should their sponsors withdraw.
The dissolution of a name as well known as FC Moscow has sent shockwaves through Russian football, with players and fans of the club imploring the owners, mining giant NorNickel, to continue to back the club. The club’s president Igor Dmitriev described the company’s decision as “illogical”, but with an annual bill of $12 million just to keep the club running, and an average attendance of around 6,500 (the second worst in the league in 2009), it’s hardly incomprehensible as to why the owners felt their money could be put to better use elsewhere.
While the majority of the country’s larger clubs appear to sit on sound financial ground, the realities of the global recession may be introducing a period of greater austerity amongst some Russian clubs. Winter transfer activity was plentiful, but a world away from the headline grabbing transfers of past years. The fact remains, as was so clearly illustrated by the case of FC Moscow, that the fates of most of the sides in Russian football lie almost entirely in the hands of the companies underpinning their operations.
For the clubs more fortunate than FC Moscow who will be competing in the Premier League this season, the championship looks fascinatingly open. The chances of the leading candidates are assessed below in no particular order.
Double champions Rubin Kazan go into this season more fancied than they were a year ago after they had just claimed their first ever league title. Many had felt that their controlled, regimented football could only carry them so far, not to mention those who accused them of using ‘financial incentives’ to help them on their way to a title success that came in the year of their half-century celebrations. Last season they were excellent though, becoming more expressive and deservedly claiming the championship for the second time. "This team is self-confident, and this is the main change that has happened with us,” said their coach Kurban Berdyev.
The biggest question for Berdyev will be whether his new recruit, Fatih Tekke, will be able to fill the boots of the influential Alejandro Dominguez – the Argentine striker who was named Russian Footballer of the Year for 2009, but now resides in Valencia. Much also rests on the brilliant, but aging, class of Sergei Semak, who has been an instrumental component of Rubin’s success over the last two seasons. The side from Tatarstan have started 2010 well, knocking Hapoel Tel-Aviv out of the Europa League and beating rivals CSKA 1-0 in the season’s curtain raiser, the Russian Super Cup.
CSKA suffered a rocky 2009 courtesy of a revolving door of managers that included the Brazilian Zico and Spaniard Juande Ramos. Now under the tutorship of a Russian, Leonid Slutsky, CSKA look a more stable outfit, advancing to the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Their attacking options are varied and exciting, with Japanese playmaker Keisuke Honda an intriguing addition to a side that already boasts Alan Dzagoev and Tomas Necid in attack, and excellent balance on the wings thanks to Milos Krasic and Mark Gonzalez.
Much will rest on the shoulders of the young Necid in attack, with the Brazilian Vagner Love returning to his homeland with Flamengo until July. The arrival of the prolific Ivorian, Seydou Doumbia, from Swiss side Young Boys has the potential to yield goals. One concern for Slutsky though, may be trying to keep hold of the much-coveted Krasic should the juggernaut winger impress with Serbia at the World Cup.
Zenit St Petersburg
Former UEFA Cup holders Zenit St Petersburg start a new era under the stewardship of the Italian, Luciano Spalletti, and probably represent the most intriguing proposition for the 2010 campaign. Spalletti, a purist in his time at Roma, has promised the fans attractive football and is being generously backed by energy giant Gazprom.
Spalletti’s side shouldn’t lack firepower, having recruited Aleksandr Kerzhakov (back at the club where he made his name) and Danko Lazovic, the tenacious Serbian striker, from PSV. In defence, Korean left-back Kim Dong-Jin has been released and replaced by the highly-rated Danish international, Michael Lumb. The side still retain a lot of residual quality left over from their golden period under Dutch coach Dick Advocaat and will be expected to challenge for the title.
Former Russian international Valery Karpin made the move from general director to coach early last season and succeeded, with the wise advice of enigmatic veteran Oleg Romantsev, to pick Spartak off the floor and lead them to a highly commendable second place. That success was primarily built off a promising set of young players who have remained largely untouched over the off-season. In attack, the lethal Brazilian duo of Alex and Welliton have been supplemented by another of their countrymen, Ari, signed for €3 million from AZ Alkmaar. "Almost everyone tried to persuade me not to move to Russia because of cold weather, but I am not afraid of it,” the vivacious attacker admitted at his unveiling.
Dynamo are a club seemingly still stuck in the Soviet era, but as determined as ever to break their 34-year wait for the championship. They appear to have invested well too, recruiting the impressive Lithuanian Edgaras Cesnauskis, as well as Russian international Igor Semshov and former Liverpool forward Andriy Voronin. Aleksandr Samedov, a talented right-sided midfielder, has also been signed following the collapse of his former club, FC Moscow. An improvement on last season’s eighth place looks likely.
‘Loko’ are an intriguing prospect for the forthcoming campaign, with coach Yuri Semin last season returning to the club that he had guided to two Russian Premier League titles in 2002 and 2004. Semin succeeded in making one of the most eye-catching captures of the winter window too, securing the precocious talents of Oleksandr Aliyev from his former employers Dynamo Kiev. Dmitri Tarasov also joined the club over the winter, leaving FC Moscow just a matter of weeks before their eventual collapse. Young Brazilian Maicon has been added to an attack that already includes Nigeria’s Peter Odemwingie and Russia’s Dmitri Sychev.
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