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 regular visitors to the blog will be aware, Russia is one of the many countries in the world in which its geography is both a blessing and a curse. In times gone by, the prestige of being comfortably the largest nation on the planet was great, and there is little doubt that the sheer size of the Soviet Union made it an intimidating foe both during and after the Second World War. Today, the focus is less on military involvement than it is on natural resources, and the vast reserves of oil and gas found in the Arctic North and the Siberian taiga is justification of the early explorers who risked their lives to claim those lands for the old Russian Empire.
Of course, along with material and manpower advantages, such a vast nation can cause problems for itself in terms of over-stretching those same resources, struggling to effectively govern what has become a patchwork quilt of different ethnicities, religions and cultural traditions, and trying to solve the age-old issue of population distribution – Siberia, a region comfortably larger than China, contains less than 10% of the population of its neighbour, and only around one fifth of Russia’s total inhabitants. Whilst this comes with a whole range of social issues for political analysts to debate over, it also has to potential to wreak havoc with the country’s sporting system.
Although not the most eastern team to have played in Russia’s top flight – that particular honour belonging to the lesser known Okean Nakhodka in the early 1990s – Luch-Energia Vladivostok have long been held up as the example when the debate over separate league systems inevitably arises. Perhaps taking inspiration from American sports and their own KHL ice hockey league, it is not difficult to find advocates of splitting the football league in half, either with the two champions then doing battle for the overall Russian crown, or simply leaving the country with two titles. The problems with this are obvious – the teams from Siberia and the Far East are simply not strong enough.
The problem then remains, with visiting teams forced to make journeys of several thousand miles – a round trip from Moscow to Vladivostok covers just over 11,000 miles – whilst teams such as Luch are forced to make their own away days longer as they progress through the leagues. In the halcyon days of the Premier League, this made for some truly bizarre scorelines, defending champions CSKA Moscow ruthlessly beaten 4-0 in Vladivostok as recently as 2007, and a humiliating 8-1 capitulation in St Petersburg just a year later. Opposing players, fans and managers remain bitter about the distances involved, but it is Luch who have to deal with them on a bi-weekly basis.
Of course, Luch have not always been required to travel the length and breadth of the Russia in order to play their football. Founded in 1958, when the city of Vladivostok remained one of the Soviet Union’s many closed cities due to its naval importance, Luch, who adopted the Energia suffix through sponsorship in 2003, spent their formative years in regional competitions in the Far East. They would win their Class B group seven years after forming, but even then the sheer quantity of teams in the USSR ensured that national level competition remained a distant dream.
Seven more years passed in the imaginatively-titled Class A leagues, again a regional competition, before the entire Soviet football system was overhauled, rebranded and restarted, with Luch’s equivalent spot in the new system the rather less glamorous sounding Second League. In actual fact the third tier of football in the vast USSR, this too was grouped geographically, and indeed the problems of geography proved impossible to summon during the Soviet era – their best position a runners-up spot in 1984, Luch were unable to escape the third level of football and expand their limited footballing horizons.
As with almost every provincial football club in Russia, the more rapid movement came with the dissolution of the USSR and the establishment of the Russian league system, a move which saw hundreds of teams promoted into their highest ever positions overnight due to the mass exodus of republican sides to their native countries. Whilst the aforementioned Okean earned a spot in the top flight, Luch took their place in the First League, a single step away from the uppermost echelon of the domestic game. Still, their competition was regional.
That all-important fact would prove crucial for Luch’s progress as, helped by the absence of the stronger central teams, Alexander Ivchenko’s men were able to pip Irtysh Omsk to the title, in the process securing the club’s first ever promotion to the top flight. Finally, Luch could take on the nation.
However, either the promotion came too early or Luch’s decades of preparation in the Far East simply hadn’t prepared them for life at the country’s top table. A poor season saw them end in 15th place and face an end of season tournament to determine their fate. 14th-16th in the Top League played off against the three regional winners of the second tier, and ultimately the Vladivostok side came up short, finishing level on points with Dinamo-Gazovik Tyumen but with a poorer goal difference and one less victory to their name. Their top flight adventure was over before it had begun.
Despite the obvious setback, the Luch story did not end in immediate failure. In itself the statement is surprising, given the club’s response to returning to the second tier – they lost more than they won in the 1994 campaign, finishing just 12th in the now nationwide First League. A brief recovery under Zenit legend Lev Burchalkin saw them finish 6th the following year, but the manager moved on and Luch moved down, earning a 15th place finish before the inevitable relegation in 1997.
Back in their regional comfort zone, that should have led to a resurgence and immediate return to the second tier, but it didn’t. A lack of finance and squad gutted by players leaving to more prestigious clubs saw Luch struggle initially, a host of midtable finishes cementing them firmly in the regional tiers. it was only the arrival of Victor Antikhovich to the managerial chair in 2004 that saw them break out of their malaise, winning their division and promotion back to the First Division.
The second tier seemed a far more reasonable home for a side hailing from such a notable city, but Luch, now with energy-based sponsorship, did not stop there. Two season was all it took for Sergei Pavlov’s side to win promotion back to the top tier, and this time they would not make the same mistakes as before, finishing a commendable 7th on their return. However, financial issues and geographical problems plagued the club once more, and in 2008 Luch-Energia departed the Premier League for the last time.
Since then those problems have failed to disappear, the club dropping immediately into the bottom half of the First Division before a catastrophic 2011-12 campaign saw them drop once more into the third tier, even the return of Pavlov to the dugout failing to inspire them to safety.
Of course, given their previous record, there is nothing to suggest that the Vladivostok phoenix will not once again rise from their localised ashes once again, but for now they have more immediate problems to deal with – a return to national competition in the First Division, and sorting out the financial mess which plagues so many clubs in the Russian leagues. One thing is almost certain – Luch-Energia will not go quietly.