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Widening The Base

On 12th July, Zenit officially began the new football season with their first official friendly. Donning their familiar blue strip, they took to the field against a team from the Second Division, the third step on the Russian league ladder and a level which should not have proved a problem for a squad competing in the Champions League. Unsurprisingly the opposition crumbled, Zenit running out 6-0 winners on the back of a hat-trick from forgotten man Alexander Bukharov, who managed just six league goals in the entire previous campaign.

Whilst the result surprised nobody, the identity of the side in yellow may yet prove to be of significance for the future of the sport in St Petersburg. Lining up against the national champions were FC Rus, a club formed just two years previously which has raced through the amateur ranks to take their place in the lowest rung of the professional leagues.

Judging by their results so far, their promotion looks to have been too much too soon. Rus currently sit second from bottom of their western division, having won just a single one of their 15 games – a 1-0 win over Volga Tver last Thursday courtesy of Pavel Mochalin’s goal. The club, who are managed by former Zenit and Ukraine midfielder Olexander Gorshkov – hence the friendly between the two clubs – have found the net just nine times this season, and also boast the worst defensive record in their league.

Nevertheless, they remain off the bottom, and thus theoretically safe from the drop at the midway stage of the season. The identity of the team below them in the standings is also notable, for it is another club from St Petersburg who are propping up the table – FC Piter, who are another local side making their debut in the third tier. Indeed, Piter’s rise has been even quicker than that of Rus, having been established only last year.

Whilst the current position of both new teams may seem irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, in the years to come this may not be the case. With both cities possessing such proud histories, Moscow and St Petersburg can both legitimately lay claim to being Russia’s ‘true’ capital, and whilst many are content to acknowledge both as vitally important centres of historical, cultural, financial and administrative functions within the country, there are plenty in both camps who cannot accept the claim of their rival.

In the sporting arena, it is Moscow who undoubtedly have the advantage – whether in ice hockey or basketball, the capital rules in terms of titles, and the footballing trophy cabinets tell a similar story. Moscow dominated the Soviet era whilst Zenit claimed a solitary title, and at any one time Moscow has been able to lay claim to up to seven clubs from the city itself in the top flight, with no shortage of regional teams ready to be counted in reserve. Dinamo, Spartak, CSKA, Torpedo and Lokomotiv are all household names, whilst the ill-fated FC Moscow, Saturn Ramenskoye and in-decline Khimki are all linked with the recognised capital.

In contrast, it is St Petersburg which holds the contemporary crown, with Zenit the current champions and Moscow enduring a half-decade title drought thanks to the exploits of Rubin Kazan. Zenit matched CSKA’s achievements in reaching the knockout phases of the Champions League, their UEFA Cup win in 2008 equalled CSKA’s victory over Sporting Lisbon three years earlier, and even the transfer stories in St Petersburg are bigger – Hulk by far the biggest name to ply his name in Russia outside of Anzhi.

The problem however, lies in the fact that whilst Moscow’s success has been distributed between its iconic clubs, whilst Russia’s window on Europe has thus far been forced to place all of its eggs in the Zenit basket. Given that the champions are lavishly bankrolled by state-owned energy giant Gazprom, it is little surprise that some Muscovites label their victories as somewhat hollow.

From the city’s perspective therefore, it is understandable that a number of clubs are forming lower down the pyramid in an attempt to expand the base of talent, both in terms of what is available to Zenit – the withdrawal of academy team Smena-Zenit from the Second Division in 2009 means there is only reserve league football available to the youngsters – and in an effort to bolster the Petersburg presence at higher levels.

What sets Rus and Piter apart, even at this early stage in the clubs’ lives, is the philosophy the two sides have adopted with regards to player recruitment. Whilst most new squads either limit their activities to the amateur game or end up disappearing due to a lack of finance, interest or otherwise, the two new sides have taken a different approach. Whilst the Moscow sides fight tooth and nail for the brightest young talent, Rus and Piter, with a handful of exceptions, have gone down a different route – in the foundations of both sides is a pledge to use only students and graduates from the St Petersburg area.

On the basis of results so far, it could easily be argued that the two sides should have joined forces to improve their chances, and with a combined total of 11 points from a possible 87, it is not a difficult conclusion to draw. However, whilst the current squads struggle, the youth plan is going from strength to strength off the field – two thirds of the way through the city’s youth championship, Rus find themselves in a title shoot-out with Zenit, having lost just once all season and beaten the champions’ fledglings 3-2 away.

At a time when the Russian national team has shown both of its faces to the world – a determined 1-0 win over Portugal followed by scraping the same scoreline in a mind-numbing match against Azerbaijan – there is no shortage of observers wondering where the next batch of Russian talent is going to come from. To suggest that a member of the current Rus youth squad will one day be capped for his country is overly speculative at best, but the club’s extensive groundwork means it is not as impossible as previously thought.

The main aim of course, other than to provide young footballers with greater opportunities in their home city, is to enhance St Petersburg’s footballing pedigree by producing players, and ultimately a club, which will be rightfully respected as a professional side. The Premier League may seem a million miles away when they travel to Murmansk tomorrow, but FC Rus remain a welcome reminder that there is more to football in St Petersburg than Luciano Spalletti’s millionaires. They may inhabit different worlds, but the two teams have more in common than some would like to admit.

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