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.
Russia is a nation vast in terms of geography, but its cultural diversity is often something which goes unappreciated due to the centralised system of power which sees regions outside of Moscow and St Petersburg only reach our television screens in the event of disaster – the Krymsk floods in Krasnodar Krai during the summer of 2012 – or stereotype – the brutal depiction of life on the Siberian taiga. However, despite some of the best efforts of the Soviet authorities over the best part of a century in power, the country remains one of the world’s most culturally varied.
The south of Russia is particularly noticeable for this, and again this is an area which does occasionally reach the Western media, most regularly due to ethnic and religious tensions playing out in military-political form in the likes of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Although the number of these incidents has decreased in recent years, to dismiss this as a problem solved would be to deny the complexities of a situation centuries in the making.
One city which has almost come to typify the positive aspects of Russia’s diversity is the Volga city of Astrakhan. Claimed by Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century, it became an important political and strategic base of operations around 100 years later, as Peter the Great’s far-reaching reforms and campaigns saw the city used as a base against the might of the Persians. Since then the city has thrived as the principle Russian port on the Caspian Sea, again gaining in importance with the collapse of the USSR and subsequent loss of Baku to newly-independent Azerbaijan.
As a result both of its geography and its historic significance as a major trading post on the Volga, modern day Astrakhan is a cultural melting pot, combining its distinctly Russian past with strong influences from Iran and the Caucasian states. Hidden between the Orthodox churches which were based on designs from Yaroslavl at the other end of the mighty river, a visitor to Astrakhan tonight will find themselves face to face with the Iranian Consulate-General, and a statue of Geidar Aliev, the Azeri leader who held power for 13 years of the Soviet era and the first 10 years of independence, but not without a decade separating the two.
In addition to its human diversity, Astrakhan is also becoming something of a byword for biodiversity within the Russian nation. The Volga Delta is the largest in Europe, and Astrakhan is the nearest major city – the Astrakhan Nature Reserve today contains a significance proportion of Russia’s endangered species, and is the only place in the country where the likes of pelicans and flamingos can be seen in the wild. With famous local sturgeon and idyllic lotus flowers also making the reserve home, there is little surprise that Astrakhan proudly bears the conservationist flag in a country not known for its harmony with the natural world.
In many ways, the local football team has failed to grasp the same notion of diversity that their home city prides itself on. Within the current squad of Volgar – previously Volgar-Gazprom courtesy of a lucrative sponsorship deal which saw the team assisted by the giant in return for a significant presence in the second tier of the Russian game – there exist just three non-Russians, with the two Ukrainians and a Slovene a far cry from the Caucasian neighbours whose influence is so clear in Astrakhan itself.
That said, the names of the current crop of talent are perhaps a more accurate representation of the huge cultural variation present within Russian itself. Contained within the squad are the usual, stereotypical names – Antipenko, Kaleshin, Nesterenko – combined with a handful of those which evoke the mountain tribesmen of old – Aslan Mashukov and Azamat Gonezhukov the clearest of examples.
Regardless of the squad’s make-up however, and indeed the presence or absence of the world’s most profitable company in the background, Volgar are not a side expecting to be competing at the top end of the First Division table any time soon. Since their foundation in 1960, they are one of the many Russian clubs who have never reached the top flight of either the Soviet or Russian league systems, with a single season at the second level in 1970 the pinnacle of their footballing achievements. For the majority of their history, Volgar, who have previously gone by Pishchevik and Trud as well as Volgar-Gazprom, have remained a typical provincial club, bouncing around the regional divisions without ever threatening to progress beyond their immediate surroundings.
it was only in 1998, helped by an impressive 28 goal season from striker Alexander Krotov – a man who finished as the club’s top scorer on no fewer than six occasions from 1995-2001 – that they finally escaped the regional system imposed on them by the new Russian league set-up, ending years of being moved from one zone to another with a dominant season in their native south. Volgar established themselves as a middling second tier side also immediately, a single relegation and subsequent re-promotion the only incidents of note until 2006.
That year saw a comfortable 11th place finish in the First Division, but behind the scenes things were less than satisfactory. For a multitude of reasons both financial and otherwise, Volgar were denied the mandatory professional license required for participation above the amateur level. With no alternative but to drop down, they did so, earning immediate promotion to the Second Division but with plenty of rebuilding work to be done in the meantime.
Compared to other clubs, the Gazprom connection may appear to place Volgar in an advantageous position, but the extent of Gazprom’s involvement something of a curiosity. Previously, the head of the Gazprom local subsidiary which is directly associated with Volgar has announced grand plans to take the team to the top of the Russian game, but that is yet to be substantially backed up in budgetary terms. Indeed, since their forced rise from the ashes in 2007, the Astrakhan side’s highest finish in the First Division remains 9th in 2010, with the following season seeing the club avoid relegation only on the tiebreaker of games won. Had the matter gone to goal difference, both Gazovik Orenburg and Baltika Kaliningrad would have finished above Volgar, condemning them to the third tier once more.
Thus Volgar remain as the very Russian representative of a city renowned for its diversity, languishing in the foothills of the First Division with their only real hope of progress held in a sponsor whose commitment to the cause remains in doubt. It is a conundrum which players, managers and fans alike will want to see solved as soon as possible, but sharing the mentality of the tourists who cruise the Volga throughout the summer months, there appears to be little rush to do anything about it.