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.
Russia is a country which has not always dealt particularly well with the concept of change. A look into history shows that whether in military terms – the 1905 Russo-Japanese War in particular – or politically – the following revolutions, or the utter chaos which followed the collapse of Communism – the vast nation has not dealt well with changing tides.
In footballing terms, the same is true. Fans have struggled to shake off the shackles of hooliganism which many countries abandoned in the 1980s, whilst the tribalism dictated by affiliation to sporting societies continues to exist despite the collapse of the system. For clubs, the continued reliance of many on state subsidies and regional government funding is a stumbling block to further progress whilst simultaneously keeping the sides afloat – a quandary which ensures stagnation and survival sit hand in hand.
With the 2018 World Cup on the horizon, change is precisely what Russian football must deal with, and the results thus far have been mixed. Continued fan trouble has been offset by the attraction of world stars to the country’s elite teams, and with new regions attempting to put themselves on the footballing map, there is hope that the traditional Moscow domination will soon give way to a more diverse footballing hierarchy.
Mordovia Saransk are on of the new breed of Russian football teams, limited to a select few by a combination of previous status, geo-political importance and state of stadium. With a successful World Cup bid comes the need to build stadiums outside the big cities – with Moscow and St Petersburg limited to three venues between them, there is a serious need within the country to expand beyond the traditional centres.
The choices made by the Russian Football Union caused little controversy – the Ural capital of Ekaterinburg, Olympic venue Sochi, Volga strongholds Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, home of former champions Rubin to name but four – but there are one or two which do stand out as anomalies in the RFU’s grand plan. Kaliningrad, trapped its own enclave between Poland and Lithuania, is one particularly unlikely venue for a world class sporting spectacle.
Yet Kaliningrad’s selection pales in comparison to that of Saransk, home to local side Mordovia. Situated in the Republic of Mordovia, south of the Nizhny Novgorod region, the city boasts a non-existent sporting pedigree and contributes more to Russia’s economic and financial spheres than its cultural counterparts. As a football club, Mordovia have only existed for 50 years, a relatively short time compared to many of the sides currently occupying Russia’s top flight, and without the World Cup, the duration of their continued existence may well be brought under scrutiny.
To question the very sustainability of the football club may be a little extreme, but on the surface there is little to suggest that Saransk is too far removed from many of the other regional hubs which operate well as cities, but do little to hold their own on the football field. By population, for example, the Republic of Mordovia pales in comparison to the regions of Saratov, Smolensk and Kirov – none of which have had a team near the top flight for many a year.
Mordovia then, or Spartak (1961-71), or Svetotekhnika (1980-2002), possess something which sets them apart from these other clubs, something which has allowed to them to move above and beyond their traditional station of lower league makeweights akin to Sokol Saratov, Dnepr Smolensk and Dinamo Kirov. Their history throughout the Soviet period is unremarkable, the club missing out on an entire decade of all-Union competition in the 1970s before returning in 1980. The upper echelons of the Soviet game remained firmly out of reach for the Saransk side throughout the Communist era, and when the system collapsed in 1991, Svetotekhnika found themselves in the Russian second tier more through luck than expectation.
That much would prove off when the grand reshuffle two years later dropped them into the regional Second League, which they would fail to make their mark on for six years. However, it was at the turn of the millennium that Svetotekhnika began to stand out – without the resources requires for a stint in the First Division, they declined promotion on two occasions, only making the step after collecting an unprecedented third regional title in succession.
Success at local level did not equip them for life in the big leagues however, and in just their second season up, now renamed to Mordovia, they would finish 21st and fall silently back into their old stomping ground. On their return the title eluded them, but a second place finish behind Spartak-MZhK Ryazan was enough to see them straight back up.
However, again Mordovia found themselves struggling, and the most recent promotion heralded the start of a somewhat turbulent time for the Saransk side. From the clinching of the third straight title in 2002 to their final stint in the Second Division in 2009, the club enjoyed three promotions and endured two relegations, the cycle only being broken their ascension to the elite level after the 2011-12 season.
That the cycle stopped at all is perhaps the clearest sign that something changed in Saransk. Around the same time that the World Cup bid was announced, with Saransk as a designated host city, although technically unconfirmed at this early stage, that they began to edge out of their yo-yo pattern. In 2010, immediately after promotion to the second tier and with many expecting a rapid return to the third, Mordovia finished 6th and looked like outside contenders for promotion at times.
That the promotion dream was realised the following year, and in some style – Mordovia broke the 100 point barrier and sealed top flight football with a game to spare – is not only a sign of the club’s new-found investment however, but is also of great credit to former manager Fedor Shcherbachenko. Something of a managerial nomad before taking his place in Saransk, he took full advantage of the new situation to impose himself on the team. Assisted by the capable combination of Rustem and Ruslan Mukhametshin – the former creating in midfield for his older brother up front – along with one of the biggest budgets in the league, the former Gubkin boss soon created a title-winning machine.
Promotion looked a certainty for some time and was secured early, however Shcherbachenko’s faithfulness to the players who got to the top flight resulted in a transfer window full of squad additions rather than a clear increase in quality. Struggling at the foot of the Premier League midway through the 2012-13 campaign, the manager publicly admitted that his squad was not of top flight quality, and that long-term security was of greater importance – perhaps a sign that such generous financial support might not as forthcoming in the future.
What is certain, is that with the World Cup on the horizon Saransk, and therefore Mordovia by association, will continue to play an elevated role in the Russian game for the foreseeable future. Whether or not the political motivations will negatively impact the club’s long term plans remains to be seen, but the current club members can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of their situation. The First Division may seen a more appropriate level than the Premier League at this stage, but Mordovia have been presented with a chance to write a new chapter in relatively uneventful club history. It would be a shame for them not to take it.