This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
The Republic of Kalmykia, as any resident or visitor will tell you, does not feel like the rest of Russia. This is unsurprising – the Kalmyk peple retain a strong local identity, forged through a combination of religion, an agrarian lifestyle and communal suffering, and throughout the poverty-stricken region there is a sense that you have stepped out of Russia and into something unique, a strange place in which the normal rules do not seem to apply.
Some of this can be attributed to Kalmykia’s status as the only Buddhist region in Europe, the area having adopted a Tibetan form of the religion and continued to practise to the present day. In the capital of Elista, portraits and images of the Dalai Lama are everywhere, his serene smile reminding the locals of their journey to enlightenment and providing a source of solace in what can be a difficult life for the average resident – more than two-thirds of Kalmyks live in poverty, their ancestors returning to Kalmykia after the huge wave of forced deportations in the Second World War.
For a region so distinct from the rest of Russia, so unknown to the rest of the world and yet twice visited by the Dalai Lama himself, it is perhaps little surprise to hear that the chosen sport of Kalmykia is one which, whilst undeniably popular in the rest of the country, does not quite hold the same force over the population as it does in the Buddhist republic. The sport at the heart of Kalmykia, an essential part of the local school curriculum and a game which has its international tournaments at a purpose-built venue in Elista, is not football or ice hockey but chess.
Much of this is to do with the region’s eccentric former President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. He achieved global notoriety after claiming to have been contacted by aliens, but won presidency of the World Chess Federation during his time in Kalmyk office. Combining the two roles seemed to make perfect sense for Ilyumzhinov, who constructed a sprawling Chess City on the outskirts of Elista as an international venue, bringing the game’s great and good to the south of Russia. Tournaments there have been pronounced a success, but allegations of Kalmyk funds being used for world chess purposes eventually saw Ilyumzhinov removed from power after 17 years in power.
However, whilst chess dominated the sporting world during Ilyumzhinov’s time in office, football was not entirely neglected. Uralan formed in typical Soviet style, originally a recreational team for the local construction industry. As the club of the capital, they quickly began to assert their dominance on a local scale, monopolising the regional league and cup competition for almost a decade after their foundation. That success was interrupted by the giant step of acceptance into the Soviet league system, with Uralan taking their place alongside other unheralded clubs in the third tier of the USSR’s footballing pyramid.
There they would stay for three whole decades, Uralan still functioning more as an outlet for local energies rather than seriously competing on a national level. At this point, the teams in their zone were from towns and cities which even your average Muscovite would struggle to pick out on a map of their country, and the Elista side rarely troubled the promotion-chasing sides seeking to widen their horizons.
When Uralan did eventually begin to make waves at the right end of their mini-league, they could not have timed it any better. With the last vestiges of Soviet power crumbling around them, Uralan finished the 1991 season in 2nd place of Second Division Zone 4, seven points adrift of Zhemchuzhina Sochi but crucially three clear of Asmaral Kislovodsk in 3rd. As the other Soviet republics seceded and formed their own football leagues, taking their teams with them, so Uralan found themselves promoted into the second tier of the new Russian system, further than they had ever made it in the Soviet Union.
They almost continued their rapid rise by again finishing as runners-up to the Sochi side, but only the champions of each group made it into the top flight. However, Uralan slipped down the table, and finishes of 8th, 11th and 15th in the next three seasons drew them closer to relegation than promotion. The 1996 campaign saw them recover to 7th, and then under the guidance of Ukrainian manager Pavel Yakovenko, Uralan shocked the league by romping to the title, picking up 92 points on the way to the Top Division.
In their first season, Uralan impressed the nation, ending the year in a very respectable 7th place and finishing above established sides such as Dinamo Moscow. The following year brought further consolidation with 9th place, but disaster struck in 2000, Uralan picking up just two wins all season and facing relegation to the First Division. An immediate return was achieved after seeing off the challenge of Kuban Krasnodar, but two years later they managed just 15th place, a single point from safety, and this time it was a step too far. Financial worries led to wages going unpaid for months – Uralan fielded ten and nine players for games in the following season, and ceased to operate soon after.
In 2005, FC Elista emerged from the ashes, using the same Uralan Stadium as their predecessors and fielding a side made largely of former Uralan youths. A strong amateur showing convinced the authorities to give them a spot in the Second Division, but midway through their first season up the same problems struck – with no money to run a club, Uralan again withdrew midway through the year, and their story came to an end.
With players such as legendary Rotor Volgograd striker Oleg Veretennikov, Russian international goalkeeper Alexander Filimonov and Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin all marking their careers with spells in Elista, it seems strange to think this once proud club, remarkable participants in the top flight from a city of just 100,000, is not longer a part of the professional game. Football continues to be played in Elista at amateur level, but the days of professional football in Kalmykia are over. A shame, but nothing to worry the hardened Kalmyk people.