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.
It is a point made often, but one worth making – Russia is by far and away the largest country on the planet, stretching thousands of east to west and north to south, almost double the size of China, even closer to twice the USA, and yet with a population which is dwarfed by that of both nations just listed. China, as is well-known, is home to more than one billion people, whilst the official population of the United States is just less than one third of that amount. By way of comparison, the Russian Federation acknowledges just 143 million inhabitants, only one place above island nation Japan in the world rankings.
That relatively small population goes some way to explaining some of Russia’s apparent sporting anomalies. Whilst four top flight football teams might not be unusual for a huge metropolitan city such as Moscow, it still takes a moment to come to terms with the fact that Krasnoyarsk Krai, a federal subject which covers an area larger than countries such as Mexico, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, has never managed to get a football team into the top flight of either the Soviet or Russian footballing hierarchies.
Russia’s vast size and low population density have a great deal to do with it – the vast area holds under 3,000,000 people – the region’s location is also a critical factor. Stretching from the Arctic Ocean at its most northerly point down to within 100 miles of the Mongolian border in the south, Krasnoyarsk Krai covers some of Siberia’s least hospitable land, especially in the region’s northern territory – some parts of the area experience less than 10 degrees Celsius some 90% of the time.
It would be no surprise to hear that ice hockey, rather than football, is the dominant sport in the area, but even that is debatable once the lack of success is made apparent – despite in many ways possessing the perfect climate for the game, Krasnoyarsk do not field a side in the top-level KHL, making do with local team Sokol’s participation in the second tier VHL. Although there is no direct promotion between the KHL and VHL, Sokol remain a well-supported club, attracting an impressive 16,000 spectators for an outdoor game with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in February 2012.
Back to football, and the city of Krasnoyarsk is one of a number of teams trying desperately to increase Siberian participation at the highest level of the Russian game. For the club now known as Yenisei, it is certainly a long term project – formed as Lokomotiv in 1930, six years before the inaugural Soviet championship, they have yet to reach the top flight under either Soviet or Russian rule, and remain unlikely to do so in the near future.
To credit Yenisei with 80 years of non-achievement would be harsh however – after their debut season in the national set-up in 1937, the club disappeared for official competition for some 20 years before being reinstated into the notoriously difficult Far East zone, a league filled with teams used to fighting for survival in their day-to-day lives, let alone on the football field. Little came in the way of glory, the team being shunted from one regional league to another as per Soviet methods, and the top flight remained a distant dream.
In 1970, the club’s identity changed – another Soviet fixation – becoming associated with the city’s dominant vehicle industry instead of the railways as Avtomobilist replaced Lokomotiv on the club badge. However, the change off the field changed little on it, the Krasnoyarsk side failing to ever lift a regional title in the USSR. Krasnoyarsk, it appeared, would have to wait until the reconfiguration of their very country if they were ever to get close to the top of the footballing pyramid.
The 1992 season gave them that chance, placing them in the second tier of the new Russian system and just a single step away from the top flight. However, even with a new Metallurg moniker, it became apparent that the demands of competition on a national and not regional scale was too much for the Krasnoyarsk side, eventually dropped out into the regional tiers once again.
This time however, the new system afforded them a far greater chance of making it back into the First Division, and in 1996 they made a return to the second tier after escaping their region – now one of the weakest in the country despite the harsh living and playing conditions – without the need for the play-off tournament which so often thwarted them in the Soviet Union. Relegation again followed, but Metallurg continued to bounce between the leagues, returning to the second tier for an extended spell in 1999-2002 as well as single sojourns in 96 and 02. Slowly but surely, the momentum was building.
Then, in 2010, a decision was made which could have saved the club a great deal of time had the same conclusion been reached years earlier. Alexander Alfyorov joined the club as a player in 1998, retiring three years later and immediately taking a position on the team’s coaching staff after a career split between the Russian Far East and the Chinese league across the border. There he was remained ever since, taking the managerial reins on a caretaker basis on no less than three occasions, and retaining a sense of continuity by fulfilling the assistant’s role to a whole wealth of managers.
At the turn of the decade, with the side now known as Metallurg-Yenisei, a nod to the famous river which flows through Krasnoyarsk Krai, Alfyorov was finally appointed to the manager’s seat on a permanent basis, charged with leading the team out of the mire that is the Second Division East. In the penultimate game of the season, as title rivals Radian Baikal Irkutsk crashed to defeat at Smena Komsomolsk, Alfyorov’s men thrashed already-relegated Okean Nakhodka 3-0 at home to seal promotion, the title and a return to the First Division. Clearly he had learned from his predecessors’ mistakes.
Now simply Yenisei, Krasnoyarsk’s footballing representatives have established themselves in the First Division, finishing seven points and six places above the drop zone in their return to the second tier. With Alfyorov remaining at the helm after finally picking up the necessary coaching badges, there is a hope that they can slowly build on the momentum he has built, one day maybe even pushing for another promotion. There is some way to go yet, but for a city which a certain Anton Chekhov described as the most beautiful in Siberia, surely a Premier League football team is not too much to ask? After the failures of Tom Tomsk and Sibir Novosibirsk to establish themselves in the promised, Yenisei can only continue to dream.