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.
For a Russophile such as myself, it is always frustrating when a Russian football team decides to produce merchandise in Latin script, let alone use the alphabet in their club badge. However, in the case of Rubin Kazan, it is also vaguely understandable – once a provincial side happy to take their place alongside equally unambitious teams in the regional leagues, they are now a fully fledged member of their nation’s footballing elite, and ready to take their name to the wider world.
They did just that for a brief moment in 2009, the Russian club in their first ever UEFA Champions League campaign travelling to Barcelona and stunning the football world, Gokdeniz Karageniz’s goal in the 73rd minute condemning their hosts to a 2-1 defeat on home soil. The return fixture in Kazan ended goalless, securing Rubin’s passage to the Europa League, whilst Barcelona would go on to be upset by Jose Mourinho’s Inter in the semi-finals – with Barcelona beating Inter in the group stage, Rubin were the only team the Catalans faced not to suffer defeat.
Victory on the hallowed camp of the Camp Nou can easily be seen as symbolic of Rubin’s meteoric rise, although in many ways a shooting star is perhaps more appropriate. Decades of mediocrity and non-achievement followed the club’s official foundation in 1958 – there are those who advocate an unofficial date some 22 years earlier – with Rubin, or Iskra (Spark) as they were known before 1960, never making it to the top flight of Soviet football despite the size and importance of its location.
Kazan is the capital of the autonomous Republic of Tatarstan, the spiritual centre of Russia’s Islamic population and a region with a strong sense of independence. Whilst the Islam practiced in Tatarstan generally forms part of a secular Tatar identity, as opposed to the often fundamental separatism which rears its head in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, it still plays a key role in the culture of Kazan – the Kol Sharif mosque within the kremlin walls, for example, is the largest in Russia and one of the biggest in Europe.
Kazan is also noted for its multi-ethnic and multi-religious approach to life, and has often been praised for its tolerance and pioneering approach to cultural co-existence. Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Tatars and ethnic Russians all live alongside each other largely free from the violence which blights some areas – even street signs display Tatar and Russia languages side by side. For a city which houses the bizarre architectural experiment known as the Temple of All Religions, it is little surprise that tolerance is counted as a virtue.
Perhaps that ingrained tolerance was a key part of the reason for Rubin’s continual non-achievement in the Soviet era, the fans watching on simply accepting their mediocrity and the string of managerial changes so often a feature of the Russian lower leagues. Their time divided fairly equally between second and third tiers of the Soviet league system, they dropped down to the fourth level in 1989, just in time to watch the Communist system crash down around their ears.
A lower league title in the final Soviet season placed Rubin in the new Russian First League, but again they were found wanting, punching below their weight and dropping into the regionally-organised Second Division after just two seasons. Igor Volchok finally dragged them out of that mire in 1997, losing just two of their 40 games and collecting a century of points in the league, and once again Kazan settled down in the second tier, historically their natural level and one which few people complained about.
It happens occasionally that one man can shape a football club – English fans will think immediately of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Herbert Chapman and then Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, and even the likes of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. In 2001, Rubin’s man arrived on the scene in the form of Kurban Berdyev.
Prior to his appointment, the introverted Berdyev’s managerial career had taken an unusual route. Three years in the Soviet Second League earned him a chance with FC Taraz in the Kazakh top flight, before Turkish side Genclerbirligi came calling. His one season in Turkey would be his most high profile appointment, however a league and cup double with Nisa Asgabat in his native Turkmenistan gave his a chance to lead his country in 1999. His tenure lasted less than a year, and it was after a year with Kristall Smolensk than Berdyev arrived in Kazan.
Promotion in his first full season was followed by an incredible 3rd place in Rubin’s first ever season of top flight football, the Kazan club taking the Premier League by storm. A less spectacular season followed, but campaigns of 4th and 5th proved to everyone that Rubin were planning on staying around. A disappointing 10th place in 2007 was a minor setback, and then they truly announced their arrival.
Many high-profile names left as a result of the disappointing 2007 season, but under new president Alexander Gushev, Rubin were in a position to replace their stars. With the likes of Argentine full back Cristian Ansaldi, Ecuador midfielder Christian Noboa and former CSKA stalwart Sergei Semak on board, Rubin claimed their first ever title, finishing four points ahead of the army club despite netting just 44 goals over the course of the campaign. Berdyev built his side on a strong defensive base, and Rubin became notoriously hard to break down.
A second title followed as the Tatar government continued to back regional sports – ice hockey and basketball sides in the area also found success as a result of increased expenditure. In came Cesar Navas, Alan Kasaev and Petr Bystrov, whilst influential attacker Alejandro Dominguez returned from Zenit after spending 2004-6 in Kazan – he found the net 16 times as Rubin defended their title. This time, Rubin conceded just 21 goals and scored three times as many, beating Spartak by eight points as well as claiming the Champions League of Barcelona.
Since the glory days of 2008-9, Rubin have suffered from a combination of bad luck and circumstance. As the Tatar authorities scaled back their investment, Dominguez left for Valencia and his replacement, record signing Carlos Eduardo, has played just a handful of games since his £16m move, injury and homesickness the cause of his woes. The signing of Obafemi Martins was also a failure, and In the meantime, the likes of Zenit, CSKA and Anzhi have invested heavily in their squads to pass the Kazan club.
The 2012 Russian Cup was some consolation for a 6th place finish, their defensive style tempered by an inability to score the goals required to shut out games. As Berdyev moves into his 12th season at the helm, the signings of Gokhan Tore and Salomon Rondon have generated a new hope in the club’s attacking potential, and with the likes of Salvatore Bocchetti and Ansaldi staying in Kazan, the challenge is for Rubin to remain at the top end of the Premier League table. The odds may be against them, but with Berdyev and his prayer beads in the dugout, they will forever be one of Russia’s dark horses.