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.
Although there are plenty of fans of English teams – particularly those in the northern reaches of the country, who would complain of media bias towards their London rivals – who would deny such a statement, on the whole it is very rare for politics and football to mix. Whilst the FA attract criticism for their inconsistent handling of disciplinary hearing, and local councils are lambasted for failing to support their local sides’ bid for new stadia, that is about the extent to which the two spheres interact in the English game.
Such a system would be entirely foreign to your average Russian sports fan, who is more than used to seeing clubs start up and disappear, change names and move cities at the decision of a national or local politician, sports team and their fans often used as political tools by those seeking to either acquire or cling onto power. Much of this is a hangover from the days of the Soviet Union, in which almost every club was affiliated to a particular aspect of the regime, and although these clubs have found themselves in private hands since the 1990s, there is still a form of tribalism capable of linking Dinamo Moscow and Dinamo Stavropol, which ensuring that two clubs are necessary in the provincial city of Kostroma.
Football fans in the Baskhir capital of Ufa, of which admittedly there may be fewer than in other parts of the vast Russian nation – Ufa is home to one of the country’s strongest ice hockey teams, who were crowned KHL champions in 2010, and the sport dominates local interest – are no strangers to political intervention in the affairs of their local sides. The first professional side to ply their trade in the city changed their name no fewer than 11 times over the course of their 60 year history, eventually folded under the Neftyanik name which they had first used in the 1950s. In their place came Basinformsvyaz-Dinamo in 2009, but the new club were to last just a single year, collapsing in 2010 after a spectacularly average Second Division campaign. Once again Ufa lacked a professional football team, and Bashkir representation was held instead by Gornyak Uchaly, another third tier side who achieved brief fame by knocking Lokomotiv Moscow out of the Russian Cup in July 2010.
However, it is almost unthinkable in the Russian game to imagine a regional capital without some form of footballing representation, and so it came as little surprise to anyone when, two days before Christmas 2010, it was announced that new club would be formed on the basis of the old Bashimformsvyaz-Dinamo, using the larger Neftyanik stadium and plying their trade in the same regional division as their predecessors, competing against the not-so-great and good of the Ural and Volga regions. Thankfully for all concerned, the new club would go by the much more sensible name of FC Ufa.
What set the new club apart from the old was without a doubt the ambition contained within the project. At a local level, FC Ufa would be headed up by two of the more powerful men in local sport – former head of Bashkortostan’s security ministry Marat Magadeev, and chairman of the Bashkir Football Federation, Shamil Gazizov. With such a high-powered board, it was evident that the new team had not been established just to tick a political box, but to place the autonomous republic on Russia’s footballing map. When Andrei Kanchelskis was appointed manager, the legendary Russian winger having begun his managerial career with another young club, Torpedo-ZiL Moscow, the stage was set for a rapid rise through the leagues.
Of course, there are limitations – Ufa does not have any form of footballing representation, and so the task of attracting players to the club was not easy in the first season. Even with the temporary advisory help of former USSR boss Anatoly Byshovets, a midtable finish was all that Kanchelskis and his men could achieve. However, again the project was accelerated – for the 2011-12 season, Ufa’s budget would be one of the biggest in the entire third tier, with First Division football the only acceptable outcome. In the end they would fall just short, runners-up on goal difference in their region, a result which saw Kanchelskis leave his position as manager.
However, in an off-season packed full of financial difficulties and licensing controversy in the First Division, just weeks before the start of the seaosn it became apparent that a number of second tier would be unable to fulfill their obligations over the course of the season. Rising debts, unpaid wages and unmanageable costs were all cited as reasons for withdrawal, and no fewer than four clubs dropped out of the competition – Dinamo Bryansk, Torpedo Vladimir, KamAZ Naberezhnye Chelny and FC Niznhy Novogorod, the latter of which at least managed to merge with Premier League side Volga.
Rumours of an agreement made during the previous season were quick to arise, some observers accusing Ufa of buying their place in the First Division. However, with KamAZ agreeing to drop into their region of the Second Division, the new club were given the go-ahead to participate the second tier and claim the promotion which Kanchelskis had failed to achieve. Continuing their appointment of ambitious managers, Igor Kolyvanov, who has spent almost a decade working with the various national youth teams, stepped into the managerial breach.
Not content with mere survival, the recruitment process over that off-season was as ambitious as the club itself, Shinnik Yaroslavl captain Roman Voidel permanently and Dinamo Moscow’s under-21 international Yuri Kirillov, an Ufa native, arrived on loan. Again, the declared budget placed Ufa in the upper echelons of wealth in a league which is developing a reputation as something of a graveyard for provincial football clubs such is the lack of money and high cost of participating in the competition. In a weakened league, they are genuine contenders for the top spots.
Seeing an Ufa club in the Premier League may be a vision which even Magadeev and Gazizov dare not dream of, such is the testing nature of the First Division. However, if FC Ufa can maintain its current levels of ambition and finance, they will certainly give the city the best chance it has ever had, bringing with it a chance to compete with hockey side Salavat Yulaev in the popularity stakes and the elite of the Russian football world. Given the success enjoyed by similarly young clubs as FC Krasnodar in recent years, they already have a model to follow. Only the application remains.