This is part 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 anyone with any knowledge of Russia in the 1990s can testify to, life in the world’s largest country is nothing if not changeable. Whether in reference to the economy, the strength of which is likely to fluctuate widely as a result of a change in oil prices, the political system which sees a new ‘threat’ emerge on a regular basis, or the prowess of the country’s numerous sports team, there are few things which can be counted as constant in the Russian Federation. Enigmatic is one way of putting it, erratic and inexplicable the other.
For football fans living in Rostov during the Soviet Union, the sporting situation in the city was generally a positive one. SKA, the local army club, were founded in 1957, and helped by their military connections, took just two seasons to make their way into the Soviet Top League, competing with the Dinamos and Spartaks of the world and doing battle in the USSR’s most important cities. A 4th place finish in their top flight debut, ahead of not only a host of republican representatives but also sides from Moscow and St Petersburg, and SKA had already put themselves on the footballing map.
That isn’t to say that Rostov is a city defined by its football – far from it. One of the top ten most populous cities in Russia, it has long been a crucial hub of business, communication and transport, taking advantage of its position on the Azov Sea to develop its infrastructure and become a key strategic base for the Russian military. In Soviet times the same was true, the city home to one of the vital Black Sea garrisons, but even before the October Revolution, Rostov had shown its importance.
The Don Cossacks, who settled in the city centuries ago, were one of Imperial Russia’s key military units as they advanced eastwards in Siberia and defended the motherland against invading forces. As their military usage slowly declined, Cossack culture continued to stay strong, Mikhail Sholokhov’s famous epic And Quiet Flows The Don detailing life in the region on the eve of the conflict. The Soviet government built a canal connecting the Don to the mighty Volga, creating a connection between the White and Black seas, but the unique culture of the Don region has survived.
The military aspect of the that culture was no doubt a key factor in the decision to turn Rostov into a military outpost, and that in turn led to the birth of the city’s second football club. FC Rostov, founded almost three decades earlier before the launch of the national championship, were still contending with the second tier of Soviet football in 1957. New boys SKA made short work of that.
Today, those roles are reversed. It is the original club who hold the much higher league position, a regular fixture in the Premier League even if they did require a play-off in 2012-13 to secure their top flight status. In contrast, SKA have all but disappeared from the Russian footballing map, sitting at the wrong end of the Second Division South, competing against and losing to teams from resort towns and regional cities of less than half the size of Rostov.
The reason is simple, and a oft-cited one in the turbulent world of Russian football – money. SKA’s plight began at the back end of the Soviet era, being relegated at the just the wrong time and then re-organised into the regional Second Division. Unable to rely on their history to attract talent to the club, they dropped into the amateur tiers in 1994 and 1998, bouncing back on each occasion. A brief foray into the First Division took place in 2002, and five years later SKA found themselves there again, taking advantage of other clubs’ own financial misfortune to seal an unexpected promotion.
Survival came easily, but the demons were never far away, and despite finishing safely in the middle of the pack the following year, there was little option but to volunteer for demotion. Away trips over thousands of miles were no longer economically viable, players’ wages regularly arrived late, and the club could not arrive the rent of its own stadium. With players and coaches sleeping on the team bus as the club failed to pay for away day hotels, the Second Division beckoned once more, and they have stayed there ever since, the threat of further relegation greater than the chance of promotion back to the second tier.
In the present day, SKA are almost irrelevant beyond their hardcore fans, the average attendance less than 1,000 at their 27,000 seater stadium. In days gone by this would have been much busier – in 1966, less than a decade after their foundation, SKA finished 2nd behind Dinamo Kyiv in the Soviet Top League, their highest ever finish in domestic competition. In 1981 they secured their sole piece of highest-level silverware, the Soviet Cup.
Thrown into a nominally ‘regional’ group with five other clubs from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, SKA battled their way through behind Tajik side Pamir Dushanbe to reach the knockout rounds. Iskra Smolensk and Ararat Yerevan left Rostov in defeat, before SKA travelled to Moscow and won, defeating heavily-favoured Dinamo 1-0 on their opponent’s soil. The final would again be played in the capital, and at Luzhniki – the home of opponents Spartak. Despite the odds being stacked against them, SKA kept their illustrious opponents at bay before striking in the 84th minute through club legend Sergei Andreev to claim an historic win.
That was as good as it got for the army club – the same season they were relegated from the top flight, and although they bounced back after two years in the First League, 1985 would be the last year they appeared at the highest level of the domestic game. Five years later the Second League beckoned, and a further relegation condemned SKA to the lowest position in their history, just in time for the Cold War to end and the Soviet Union to crumble.
SKA will always have their history – two decades spent in the top flight of Soviet football, 15 of those years consecutively, with the 1981 Cup win, 1966 runners-up spot and four 4th place finishes logged in the club’s history books. Since then however, the Russian Federation and its capitalist concerns have not treated them well, and much like the Don Cossacks of the regiomn, they face a battle to preserve themselves in an rapidly changing world. The past may have been SKA’s, but the present is FC Rostov’s, and the situation looks unlikely to change any time soon.