As this blog has previously mentioned, the Russian Far Eats does not possess a reputation for being a hotbed of footballing talent and success. One of the largest and most problematic regions of the country, those cities closer to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo than Moscow and St Petersburg have yet to experience success at the highest level of the domestic game, with only a handful of teams even appearing in what is now the Premier League. For an area of its size and significance, it is grossly under-represented.
This in itself is not particularly strange in the world of Russian football – it has long been the case that the national sport is traditionally dominated by the Moscow clubs, with a sizable portion of the top flight being made up of sides from in and around the capital. In recent years there has been some debate over the diversification or lack thereof at the top level – whilst Torpedo, Saturn, Khimki and FC Moscow have all left the top flight, it has been predominantly teams from the Volga-Ural region which have moved into their places, doing little to spread the power around the Russian game.
Of course, the Russian Far East has not been completely ignored in footballing terms. When the Russian system was created out of the ashes of the Soviet leagues, the winners of the regional tournament, Okean Nakhodka, were given a place in the newly-formed Russian Top League. Despite the obvious disadvantage of being based thousands of miles from their nearest competitor, they did not disgrace themselves, surviving the inaugural campaign only to be relegated the following season.
More recently, Luch-Energia Vladivostok were the side to attempt to take a European league trophy as far east as possible, spending two different spells at the highest level and achieving mixed results in the process. Their mere presence in the top flight caused geographical controversy, with some bitter losers calling for their removal from the Russian system entirely. In response, the Vladivostok club calmly pointed out their own, considerably more regular travelling difficulties, and the matter was put to bed.
However, Okean disappeared from the top flight in 1993, whilst Luch were last relegated from the Premier League in 2008, dropping into the First Division from which they suffered the embarrassment of relegation after a long 2012-13 campaign. Back in the regional leagues from which they came – currently 3rd in their division behind FC Chita and Smena Konsomolsk-na-Amur – they are unlikely to cause problems for Russia’s footballing establishment in the near future.
It would seem then, that the issue of the Far East and its geographical problems had solved itself – the representatives had all but disappeared from the highest levels, and indeed the phenomenon spread westwards. With the relegation of Tom Tomsk from the Premier League, the easternmost representative in the top flight during the current season is Amkar Perm, lying on the western slope of the Urals and therefore limiting the physical spread of clubs to less than half of the vast country.
In football as in everyday life however, things do not occur simply in Russia. Tom are, following another bail-out from state-owned energy companies, flying high at the top of the First Division and looking strong for a return to the top flight. The two Nizhny Novgorod clubs were forced to merge, whilst FC Ufa are seeking to place Bashkortostan on the footballing map. Still, the biggest story of the season could yet come from the Far East, and in particular SKA-Energia Khabarovsk.
As a club, SKA are by no means extraordinary. Forever in the shadow of the Vladivostok side in terms of both prestige and achievement, their greatest post-Soviet success came with a 5th place finish in the second tier back in 2006. Under Soviet government the side spent much of its life at regional level, never reaching the Top League and spending more time changing its name than competing for honours – no fewer than seven acronyms have been emblazoned on the club’s logo since its 1946 inception.
Despite the lack of historical precedent, the current atmosphere amongst the club’s fans and observers is one of optimism. Almost half way through the First Division season – the reduced line-up cutting the season down to 32 games – SKA sit 3rd in the table, with a game in hand over Ural Ekaterinburg potentially pushing them into the coveted automatic promotion places.
The reason for their success is no secret, and indeed is stunningly obvious in its clarity. Unlike some of their divisional rivals – Tom and Ural have found the net 49 times between them so far this season – they have not been blessed with great goalscoring form, but a defence which has conceded just six times in twice as many matches has ensured that few teams have stopped the Khabarovsk side taking at least something from the game. Before today’s clash with Tom, only Metallurg Novokuznetsk have managed to claim all three points.
Further inspiration lies poetically in the very problem which has often blighted football in the Russian Far East. SKA have continued the regional tradition of a strong home record, helped by the mammoth distances visitors are forced to travel, but more importantly they seem to have discovered the art of avoided defeat on their own excursions. Belgorod, Moscow, Nizhnekamsk and Ekaterinburg have already seen the team chalk up thousands of miles, but escaping with a point has become an art form in Khabarovsk, and the rewards are made obvious by the current standings.
To imply that SKA will still be in the promotion hunt in May is pure speculation, and there is an almost infinite number of variables which could make or break their promising season. However, for the club to be challenging at all is a testament to the sheer determination of the club, city and region not to be forgotten about as the centralising mission continues, and it would be a crying shame if the European centre is allowed to strangle the life out of the provincial game. As Terek Grozny are showing in the Premier League, the outsiders will not down easily.