In the world of Russian football, it is the two capital cities that dominate. Moscow, the administrative and financial centre of the vast nation, has traditionally dominated through the multi-pronged attack of Spartak, Dinamo, CSKA, Lokomotiv and Torpedo. St Petersburg, a relative newcomer to the sporting elite despite its status as the cultural capital of a country, currently reigns through Zenit.
Whilst this has produced Soviet and Russian sides able to compete with the best in Europe – clubs from Moscow, Kyiv and Tbilisi all reached European finals under the Dinamo guise – this has also served to breed resent away from the bright lights. Particularly on the Russian Federation’s substantial fringes, popular sentiment would suggest that funding, support and priority is not being given to anything or anybody who dares to challenge the all-powerful ‘Centre.’
As a result, it is in the provinces that some of the country’s strongest identities can be found, with these often translating seamlessly into the sporting arena. When Rubin and Ak Bars held the nation’s football and hockey titles simultaneously, there was undoubtedly a strengthening of the two clubs’ Tatar identities, the symbolic significance of local players, sponsorship and success presenting a welcome alternative to imposition from afar.
Even with success fresh in the memory – Rubin lifted the title as recently as 2009 – the Kazan side have failed to maintain the levels of support which they reached at the height of their powers. Their stadium filled for the visits of Barcelona and Inter in the Champions League, but even in their title-winning campaigns, the local focus on Ak Bars meant that attendances rarely came close to capacity.
For a clearer example of how a regional identity has helped to sustain a local football team, look no further than Alania Vladikavkaz. For a long time a bit-part player in the Soviet Union’s second tier, the USSR’s dramatic collapse saw the North Ossetian side emerge as one of the main contender to Spartak Moscow’s crown. In 1995, under the mustachioed guidance of Valeri Gazzaev, Spartak-Alania, as they were then known, clinched the title as Oleg Romantsev’s Moscow giants slipped into third place.
Vladikavkaz celebrated far more than the incredible achievements of a football team. North Ossetia-Alania, the region from which the club takes its name, has been at the forefront of many social, political and military problems over the years. A stone’s throw away from the disputed territory of South Ossetia, now an unrecognised independent state after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and home to Mozdok, a crucial military base used in the two Chechen Wars, it is a city and a region which has suffered more than many as post-Soviet Russia has struggled to find its feet.
On the football field, Alania have also had their problems. Failing to live up to fresh expectations after the miraculous title win in 1995, the following years saw a slide down the table which could only end badly. Ten years after they lifted the coveted trophy, Alania found themselves relegated from the Premier League after managing just five wins all years.
Licensing issues then saw them drop out of the national leagues and into regional competition, only to be granted an unlikely reprieve shortly before the 2010 season – Saturn Ramenskoye’s sudden withdrawal from the league creating an opening which the Russian Football Union was all too happy to gift to Alania, their rich history and strong support apparently combining with all the ingredients necessary to sustain a top flight club, but they could not. Under Vladimir Shevchuk, Alania crashed out of the top flight despite a run to the final of the Russian Cup. Again the second tier beckoned, and Alania’s huge potential seemed to be going to waste.
However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, as it was announced that none other than Valeri Gazzaev himself would return to the side. This time he would not be taking a seat in the dugout but in the director’s box, accepting a role as club president which would see his become the official face of the side. From his position in the corridors of power there were many who doubted his ability to influence goings-on on the field, but these thoughts were quickly erased with the appointment of the new manager – Vladimir Gazzaev.
Valeri’s son walked into one of the biggest teams in Russia having never before managed a club team, with muffled cries of nepotism unheard beneath a wave of support for Gazzaev’s return. It seemed to everybody that Valeri’s return would signal the start of a dynasty in North Ossetia, and the supporters agreed – the 12,000 average attendance in the First Division for the 2011-12 season was higher than half of the top flight teams, and at the end of a marathon campaign, Alania were once again promoted.
With new additions over the off-season, hopes were high. As a newly-promoted side, survival would always be a challenge, but omens were good – Mordovia had failed to strengthen substantially, whilst Volga and Rostov had both relied on play-offs to survive and looked no stronger than the Vladikavkaz club. When Dinamo Moscow opened the season with five straight defeats, holding on to their top flight status seemed inevitable.
Midway through the season, however, the tables have turned. Mordovia, the side which finished ahead of Alania as First Division champions, are the only side between Gazzaev’s men and the foot of the table. A 2-0 home defeat to struggling Volga saw them slip into the relegation zone, but the signs have been visible for some time.
Gazzaev’s tactical naivety and lack of experience have been all too clear as, despite having what appears to be a reasonable midtable side, Alania have dropped successions of points from strong positions. Volga’s win was Alania’s third straight defeat, and having also been knocked out of the cup by third tier FC Tyumen, the Vladikavkaz side are without win since a 2-1 win over Kuban on 20th August.
With the exception of this weekend’s game at a resurgent Dinamo, Alania must wait until 12th December and the final game before the winter break to play a side in the bottom half of the table. Gazzaev the elder has dismissed talks of his son’s imminent sacking as nonsense, but if his beloved club remain cut adrift by Christmas, it could be too late to rescue the season.
Despite all this, Alania continue to pull in crowds of 15,000, behind only the Spartak, Zenit, and two equally representative clubs in Terek and Kuban. Whistles from the terraces suggest that faith in the younger Gazzaev is on the wane, and initial enthusiasm for the family’s personal rule is finally being eroded by performances on the pitch – even in the First Division, the strongest squad only took the runners-up spot. In theory, the Gazzaev masterplan could yet bring results. However, those results must come quickly – if they fail to do so, the dynasty could fall before it ever truly stood.