Much like England and the two rugby codes, there are some Russian towns in which ice hockey is king, and there is little point in other sports competing for popularity. For every football-mad Manchester or Liverpool there is a Wigan or a Hull, and the vast Russian Federation is no different – ask any resident of Yaroslavl, Magnitogorsk or Cherepovets whether they are more concerned with football or hockey, and you’ll be laughed at just for posing the question.
Ufa, the capital of the primarily Islamic Republic of Bashkortostan and situated in a quiet corner of Russia between the transcontinental divide of the Ural mountains and mighty artery of the Volga River, is another such city. With a population of just over one million, it is the 11th largest city in the country, and yet to the Western world it is largely unknown. However, its ice hockey representatives are local heroes – Salavat Yulaev, the team named after a local hero who participated in the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-4, became champions of the Kontinental Hockey League for the first time in 2011, and have firmly established themselves as one of the strongest sides outside of the North American elite.
With their hockey heroes as a focal point, there is little room left in the hearts of the Bashkirs for a second sports team, particularly given that their footballing ventures have never reached the top flight of the Soviet or Russian game – Neftyanik Ufa reached the second tier on a handful of occasions before disappearing from the game, whilst the horribly-named Bashinformsvyaz-Dinamo failed to escape the regional leagues in their two years of existence.
Today however, there is a new team in town, and one which comes with a little more expectation than previously. Formed from the ashes of the previous side in 2010, the more sensibly-titled FC Ufa came into being to represent Bashkortostan in the nation’s other favourite sport, with the long-term ambition of one day emulating Salavat Yulaev and bringing sporting success to their republic. Of course given the huge gap in quality between the regional tiers and upper reaches of the First Division, let alone the top flight, and the huge budgets of a number of teams in their way, it is a huge if not impossible dream, but one which Ufa are determined to at least try and realise.
Ufa’s ambition cannot be doubted. With the creation of a new club comes the need for a backroom staff, and the name of the man appointed as the first manager of FC Ufa will raise more than a few eyebrows to fans of the English game – Andrei Kanchelskis. The man who made his name terrorising Premier League left backs throughout the early 90s for Manchester United and Everton is now a fully-fledged football manager, and whilst his list of achievements is small it is not to be discounted – a 2nd-place regional finish in charge of Torpedo-ZIL Moscow would have been followed by another promotion charge had the club not folded, and Kanchelskis’ success was enough to convince chairman Marat Magadeyev, formerly a key figure in Bashkir regional government, to take a chance on the 43-year old.
So far it has been a risk which is bearing reward. Before Kanchelskis’ arrival, Ufa struggled in their debut season – even the advisory presence of the Soviet Union’s 1988 Olympic-winning coach, Anatoli Byshovets, did not help as they finished the Second Division season 10th out of 14 in the Ural-Povolzhye zone, picking up just 28 points in 26 games and never threatening to push any higher than lower midtable. However, under their iconic new manager, things have changed at Dinamo Stadium – were it not for the inspired performances of Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, a name more associated with its hockey team than its football, Ufa would find themselves atop the table, losing just three of their 30 games thus far and conceding less than a goal every other game. Noted for flamboyance in his playing days, Kanchelskis has got his team working as a cohesive defensive unit, and is seeing the results.
To gain promotion this season would be a remarkable achievement, especially given the form of Neftekhimik – the leaders have opened up an eight-point gap at the top of the table and haven’t lost a game since July – but second place in only their second season in existence would provide a firm foundation to build on next year. Given the fluid nature of player movement in the Russian lower leagues there is no guarantee that the same players will be around to take on the challenge, but Ufa’s side is a little different to the usual mix found lower down the pyramid. In addition to the young hopefuls and journeyman veterans typified by striker Stanislav Dubrovin, for whom Ufa are the 18th club in a 20-year career, there are a number of players the right side of 30, their abilities not yet in decline, who have the potential to fire the fledgling club into the second tier.
Of course, with the project at such a young stage there is no way of knowing how Ufa’s latest footballing project will end. Bashinformsvyaz-Dinamo ended in stuttering failure after lack of funding, whilst Neftyanik never possessed the resources or drive to maintain a position anywhere other than on the periphery of Russian football. However, with a promising young manager and a talented squad for their level, there is hope that FC Ufa can one day be the club which finally puts Bashkortostan on the footballing map.