Ever since football took off in the Soviet Union, the game has been dominated by the Moscow clubs. This is a pattern far from unique across the world; even if capital clubs are not always the dominant force in a nation, their teams are well known and rarely out of contention – Real and Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and Arsenal, Roma and Lazio, River Plate and Boca Juniors, PSG. The list goes on.
In Russia however, this has been taken to the extreme until very recently. In the Soviet era, the Top Division was controlled by a combination of Spartak, Lokomotiv, Dinamo and CSKA from Moscow, whilst Dynamo Kyiv and even Dinamo Tblisi on occasion took the title back to the main city in their own republics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian top flight has never contained less than four sides from the capital, with as many as seven taking part at once if satellite teams Khimki and Saturn can be included. For a league of just 16 teams, the numbers speak for themselves.
Even in an era in which Zenit St Petersburg look like the league’s strongest team, the big four Moscow sides are all regular fixtures in the top half of the league, along with sides from places you would expect to contribute – St Petersburg is the ‘northern capital,’ Kazan is the centre of a powerful and autonomous Tatar Republic, and Anzhi Makhachkala are one of the richest clubs teams in the world following January’s takeover.
However, that only accounts for seven of the eight places in the top half, and the other is a little more surprising. Kuban Krasnodar are almost the definition of a yo-yo club, having been either promoted into or relegated out of the top fight in seven of the last eight seasons. Nevertheless, this season Dan Petrescu’s side have defied the odds with some shrewd signings and defensive solidarity, and find themselves in the hunt for European qualification, ahead of Eto’o-powered Anzhi by virtue of goal difference. For a club seemingly too good for one division and too weak for another, it is an impressive feat.
What’s more, they are not alone. At the end of the 2010 season there was much controversy in the Russian game as the withdrawal and liquidation of Saturn Ramenskoye, just weeks before the start of the new campaign, forced the authorities into a decision on who would take their place in the top flight. At first there were suggestions that Alania Vladikavkaz would be spared relegation, in order to save one of the country’s most well-supported regional sides from dropping into the second tier, but the idea was rejected on sporting grounds. The logical step would then have been to promote third-placed FK Nizhniy Novgorod along with the top two finishers, Kuban and local rivals Volga.
Despite this, and for reasons still uncertain today, the decision was made to hand promotion instead to FK Krasnodar, the side finishing the season in fifth place in the First Division. Official reasoning was that both FK Nizhniy Novgorod and fourth-place KAMAZ withdrew their applications for financial reasons, however it is more likely that Krasnodar’s wealthy backers were judged to have a better chance of keeping a team competitive in the top flight. Still, after only being founded in 2008 and promoted into the First Division in a similarly indirect manner – finishing third in their regional league only to go up as other clubs refused promotion – they were seem by many as sitting ducks and certainties for relegation.
Still, under Serbian manager Slavoljub Muslin, Krasnodar have answered their critics emphatically. A goalless draw at Anzhi on the opening day signalled their intentions, and since then the likes of Armenian international Yura Mosisvyan, a £2.5m signing from Danish club Randers, have fired the unlikely promotees to the top of the bottom half. After winning the opening game of the split 3-2 against struggling Nalchik, they sit a full 13 points clear of the relegation playoff positions, and look like comfortably surviving their debut season in the top flight.
The significance of the two sides’ success has not been lost on the Russian footballing community. On 18th June, Kuban Stadium hosted the first ever top flight derby outside of Moscow. Nikola Drincic’s goal sealed a 1-0 win for unfancied FK after Kuban had earlier missed a penalty, but the result was irrelevant in the historical context. Whilst the Moscow sides still hold weight in the Premier League, there are now a number of regions pushing for footballing recognition – Krasnodar have made it, and Nizhny Novgorod may not be far behind if both Volga and FK hold up their ends of a potential playoff bargain. Ural could potentially form a more tenuous double-act with Kazan, whilst Alania are looking to reestablish a permanent North Caucasian presence alongside Anzhi, Terek and Nalchik.
Whether the Krasnodar clubs are able to repeat their success on a regular basis is still questionable, and the fact remains that the top five positions in the Premier League are still occupied by Zenit and the Moscow quartet. However, with traditional sides such as Rostov and Krylya Sovetov beginning to struggle, the opportunities are certainly there for regional sides to come forward and stake their claim. A more diverse Premier League can only mean a more interesting Premier League, and Krasnodar appears to be leading the way in that respect.