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.
As many of you will be aware, Russia is a country with a rich history, and one which continues to change at every turn in the historical road. Whilst there are certain aspects of the Soviet Union which people are keen to banish to the back of their minds, there are plenty who share a nostalgia for the good old days, when the state told them what to do and they got on with it. On the contrary, there are very few you believe a complete return to the Soviet system would be a good thing, even in today’s uncertain world.
It is because of these changes that Russia in particular must keep one eye on the future, preparing itself for the latest twist in the never-ending tale and trying to anticipate what might be next. Whether in terms of social change, political upheaval or economic downturn, preparation is key. In football, the situation is no different – if a country is to be ready to face the next generation, it must have undergone sufficient preparation and be familiar with the present.
That is precisely the reason that Akademia Tolyatti exist in the form that they do, perhaps the final step in a young Russian’s transition from promising schoolboy to fully-fledged professional footballer. Formed originally in 2003 with a view to replacing the chaotic system of Olympic reserve schools left across the country in the wake of the Soviet Union, the Konoplyov Football Academy selects only the most promising of the many young talents who apply for a position there, honing their skills but also teaching them the self-discipline and motivation required to make it at the top level.
However, as academy head coach Roland Vromans would be the first to admit, there is only so much to be gained from theory in the classroom and playing against your friends in what is undoubtedly a fierce internal competition. In order to fully realise their potential, these youngsters require minutes in a competitive league, one in which there is no overwhelming pressure to succeed, but where they can develop against players with perhaps less skill but greater physicality, putting into practice what has been learned on the training field. This is the reason so many countries offer competitive reserve and youth leagues – there is no substitute for experience.
That is where Akademia step in, taking part in the unknown and under-supported competition that is the Ural/Volga zone of the Russian Second Division, a regional league won in 2012-13 by the footballing powerhouse that is Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, and counts Rubin Kazan’s reserves among its participants. Out of the spotlight, Akademia can field their teenage team with no risk of overexposure and little chance of humiliation – in many ways, it is the ideal level for developing footballers to advance their careers and earn valuable match experience.
However, the academy has not always been able to showcase its talents in this way, nor has the city of Tolyatti, famous the world over for the production of Lada vehicles – laughed at across Europe and loved in the USSR – only ever been represented by a group of inexperienced youngsters. Indeed, for a city with a population comparable to Sheffield, its sports teams have performed well over the years. Essentially built from the ground up with the formation of the Lada factory, the city boasts impressive facilities and a wealth of teams, not least the former Russian ice hockey champions – like many sides, bearing the Lada name and sponsorship – who continued to play at the highest level until withdrawing from the KHL in 2010.
Formed in the Soviet Union in 1970, the footballing version of Lada Tolyatti achieved the same as many a provincial side in the USSR – to little or no fanfare, the club was a permanent fixture in the Second League regional leagues, never making upwards progress or regressing far enough to contemplate relegation and likely reformation. When the Russian system was instigated, Lada were placed in the second tier, and even reached the top flight on two separate occasions, finishing bottom of the pile both times.
By this time however, a new team was taking shape, the side which the current Akademia crop can claim as their ancestors. Lada-Simbirsk Dimitrovgrad were established some 60 miles away, and would go through a number of name changes before becoming affiliated with both the Football Academy and Premier League side Krylya Sovetov – their Samara home the nearest major city to Dimitrovgrad.
By the middle of the last decade, Lada, having gone through numerous name changes, were already in effect the team of the Konoplyov Academy, and as the team in Tolyatti began to struggle financially, dropping down into the Second Division having failed to earn their license to play higher up the league, negotiations with the Dimitrovgrad side began to take place – with Tolyatti’s facilities closer to the academy itself and of a higher standard, the move seemed perfectly logical.
It finally took place in 2010, Akademia Dimitrovgrad becoming Akademia Tolyatti and moving into the 18,500 seater Torpedo stadium of the city whose name they continue to bear. An impressive transitional season saw them finish 4th in their region, their highest position since the academy connection was made, and there is every chance that Akademia could one day take their place in the nationwide First Division.
However, for those associated with the club, promotion and team accolades are secondary to the main goal – Akademia do, after all, operate with a completely different set of priorities to every other team in the league. Here the aim is not to win championships and progress to the latter stages of the Russian Cup, but to develop young talents into something more rounded, mentally strong as well as technically gifted, in the hope of one day providing professionals who will represent their country and give Russia a national team to be proud of it.
The academy at Tolyatti may not be a Clairefontaine, nor is it a one-club production line cut from the same cloth as La Masia or De Toekomst, but it is a hugely important landmark on the Russian footballing map. Having already produced national team star Alan Dzagoev, Dinamo midfielder Artur Yusupov and no fewer than six member of the 2006 under-17 European Championship winning side, the Abramovich-funded football school is already doing its part to brighten the future of Russian football. Whilst it is the only academy of its kind in the country its ability to change the face of youth development is limited – however, with the vision in place and a team on the field, the future looks very promising indeed.