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 country with a deep and rich history, a national chronicle dating back more than a millennia which has seen some of the world’s biggest political, social and economic upheavals played out before its very highs. From the defeat of the Golden Horde to the market crash of the 1990s, there has rarely been a point in history in which Russia has stood still and watched from the sidelines.
Whilst the legacies of the past can be scrutinised and analysed from any number of angles, such a chaotic and turbulent landscape also means that new history is being created all the time. Of course in a literal sense this is true of anywhere, but in Russia it is never clear whether a demonstration, utterance or accident will be the catalyst for the next great change.
This is a fact reflected in its footballing composition as well as its academic history. Whilst a proud heritage can be boasted by a number of its well-known clubs – Dinamo touring the British Isles victoriously in the aftermath of the Second World War and CSKA celebrating more than a century of existence – the footballing map of Russia is constantly affected y clubs disappearing and being reborn, ancient relics crumbling to dust and new names appearing in the tables. The recent rise to prominence of Anzhi – founded as recently as 1992 – is testament to the fluidity of the Russian game.
FC Khimki are another side to emerge in recent years, their own foundation taking place half a decade after the Dagestan side in 1997. Unlike Anzhi, Khimki do not claim to represent an entire region, nor is it their intention to improve the infrastructure of a city and provide hope for the future. They are simply a football team, designed to gain fans, attract players and win football matches.
Their arrival on the scene came to pass as the result of two amateur clubs merging together, Rodina and Novator agreeing to join forces and attempt to take their suburban Moscow side to the very top of the Russian game. Given their previous lowly status, it would be a monumental task, but with the right backers and sufficient investment, it was a dream with the very Russian possibility of becoming a reality.
In their first season of existence, Khimki took on the Russian amateur game and won – the national tournament saw the new club win their regional league and progress through the play-off phase to a final with Energia Ulyanovsk, another unheralded club based in the city of Lenin’s birth. A nervous game played out in front of a small group of spectators, and in the end it was Khimki who prevailed, winning the penalty shoot-out and taking a place in the third tier of the Russian game.
Three years was all it took for promotion to the First Division, the new club still unable to decide on or tie down a long-term manager, but able to attract enough talent with its higher-than-average wages to propel the team up the league. Their Moscow region location made Khimki an attractive proposition for fringe players of the capital’s bigger clubs to try their luck on loan, and a number of older stars began to have their heads turned by the club. Although it would take a few years for the biggest names to arrive, arrive they did.
Khimki survived that 2001 season in 12th place, three points yet four places above the relegation zone, from then on the path continued upwards, a slight dip in 2003 convincingly recovered from as an on-loan Pavel Pogrebnyak fired Khimki to the fringes of promotion the following year. However, it was the arrival of the ambitious Vladimir Strelyenko as the club’s president that truly set the wheels in motion, providing a rapidly developing football team for a rapidly developing city, Khimki itself benefiting from the upturn in oil prices and small but constant trickle of money from the capital.
In came a number of Spartak Moscow veterans, many of them looking for one last payday before retiring into coaching, management or their dachas. The two biggest by far were Andrei Tikhonov, an eight-time Premier League winner with his former club, and Vladimir Beschastnykh, the forward who scored more than a goal every other game for Spartak and still tops the Russian national team’s all-time scoring charts. Although neither player arrived in the prime of their career, it was a serious statement of intent.
Promotion to the Premier League finally came in 2006, suspicions of match-fixing rendered redundant by their utter domination of the league, their Spartak veterans combining with the younger players to earn 99 points and record just three losses in the 42-game season. Less than a decade after turning professional, Khimki would play in the top flight, a remarkable achievement even considering the club’s luxurious investment.
Serbian manager Slavoljub Muslin took the helm and survived in 9th place, joining midway through the season with relegation a distinct possibility. However, four games into the following campaign he was dismissed with Khimki floundering at the wrong end of the table, and whilst they earned a stay of execution, they were relegated in 2009, a torrid season seeing them scrape into double figures in terms of points, and provide an easy three points for almost every side in the league.
Since then, the Khimki project has been scaled back somewhat, the gap between an up-and-coming, well-backed club and the established elite of the Russian game too much for the young upstarts to bridge. The appeal of the Moscow satellite has been diminished by a combination of relegation, the ambition of others and the cost-cutting measures put in place by a new administration, and with the star power missing from the playing squad, the fans too have begun to desert the once-exciting side.
Since their relegation, Khimki have twice finished 13th in the First Division, a thoroughly average position for an unspectacular team. A return to the top flight looks unlikely in the near future, and if anything they could well run the risk of suffering the same fate of many a provincial club in Russia – relegation to the regional leagues, and ultimately ceasing to exist. More established teams have fallen through the trapdoor, and in today’s uncertain financial climate, the hole is gaping.
Should the worst come to pass, little will change for the city’s residents – life will go on, and those needing to satisfy their footballing cravings will journey just a few miles south into the capital. The Khimki experiment, like many others before it, was worth doing, but its overall failure should come as no surprise to anyone. Compared to the amateur outfits previously representing the city, the First Division remains a huge improvement.