Ever since the old Tsarist empire pushed eastwards, one of, if not Russia’s most striking feature is its sheer size. Stretching from the coast of the Baltic to the Bering Strait, the present-day Russian Federation is comfortably the largest country in the world in terms of landmass, spans nine time zones and several thousand miles, and yet somehow gets by with a population less than three times that of the UK. It is a problem which has baffled successive governments for decades without solution, and one which the country’s footballing system is a reluctant victim thereof.
A map of the Russian Premier League clubs today however, is much more manageable than an equivalent map in 2007. This is largely down to the relegation in 2008 of Luch-Energia Vladivostok, the eastern-most team ever to play in the top flight following their promotion in 2005, and a team often subject to attacks in the media from other sides, particularly after particularly embarrassing defeats.
Luch’s presence in the Premier League again raised a number of questions about the geographical issues in Russian sport. Of course, this is by no means a new problem – in 1980 for example, another Far Eastern side, SKA Khabarovsk, played in the same second tier as Zalgiris Vilnius, a fixture which demands the equivalent of a transatlantic flight before kickoff. Nor was this an isolated incident – in the same season Khabarovsk travelled to and played host to sides as geographically diverse as Spartak Nalchik, Georgian side Torpedo Kutaisi and Moldovans Nistru Kishinev. In a second tier league also containing clubs far closer to the traditional Soviet centre, only government subsidies allowed teams to survive with such high travel costs.
In late 2007, a 4-0 home win over CSKA Moscow prompted an angry response from the defending champions, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev telling them to play in the Japanese league before returning home with his tail between his legs. However, whilst the Moscow teams may complain about their annual visit to the eastern borderlands, they would do well to remember that the players in both Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are forced to make equally long trips for every away game, something which understandably affects both their away from and their ability to attract players to the Far East.
One solution which has been mooted in the past, perhaps as a response to the American conference system in major sports, is to split the Russian league in half, with two separate championships – East and West. However, this is where Russia’s demographic crisis once again rears its ugly head – beyond the Urals in Siberia live roughly 30 million people, compared to over one billion in neighbouring China, a country with roughly the same area as the Russian East. Of course, this has a direct impact on the region’s footballing prowess – in addition to Luch and SKA, who both ply their trade in the First Division, Tom Tomsk, Sibir Novosibirsk andYenisey Krasnoyarsk would probably qualify for an Eastern championship, but the nearest rivals to this quintet would have be plucked from the Second Division, the Eastern division of which consists of Sibir’s reserve side alongside twelve teams who would likely struggle in the country’s second tier, let alone provide competition in a separate league.
Simple regionalisation also fails to address the problems of the Southern teams – Terek Grozny and Anzhi Makhachkala, for example, would not fit neatly into neither proposed league, are closer geographically to the West but would be more urgently needed in the East for their strength. Wherever you decide to arbitrarily place the divide, the West is able to carry on unaffected, whereas the loss of strength and interest in the East would ultimately see the teams on the wrong side of the line fade in obscurity, insolvency or both.
For the footballing authorities then, the simplest solution to the problem would be to do nothing, and hope that a solution emerges organically. Unfortunately, this appears to be on the cusp of reality – since their relegation in late 2008, Luch have failed to challenge for a promotion back into top flight, and now sit perilously close to a drop into the Second Division, which would see them play in a regional league far from the concern of the corridors of power in Moscow. SKA-Energia Khabarovsk are unlikely to threaten the Premier League any time soon, and indeed also find themselves struggling to survive in the second tier.
Given the amount of support given to teams such as Tom Tomsk in the past, there have been a few voices wondering why the government is not doing more to help the Eastern teams, in an effort to keep the Russian football system wholly representative. However, the truth of the matter is that there is precisely no incentive for them to do so. Letting Khabarovsk and Vladivostok fall off the footballing map would cut the longest away day down by at least 2,000 miles per club, and help silence the voices calling for a league split. Despite the symbolic significance of Vladivostok as the Eastern frontier of the Russian Federation, it just isn’t important enough to be saved, or even helped.