As we all know by now, the Russian football calendar made an historical shift in the 2011-12 season, becoming the first season to span across two years in order to abandon the tradition Spring/Winter season in favour of the Autumn/Spring schedule favoured by nations across the European continent. With the World Cup arriving in Russia and neighbours Ukraine already adopting the same system, it made sense to those in power – after all, by bringing the league into line with its continental rivals, surely they would increase the chances of the top clubs in European competitions?
This principle sounds good in theory, but in practice there has been little change. The obvious problem is that Russian clubs have, on the whole, not been brilliant at reaching the latter stages of the Champions League, which is the competition now used to judge the success of a nation’s football league. last season both Zenit and CSKA found themselves in the last 16 in the spring for the first time, this year there was no Russian representative.
Instead the nation has had to make do with the Europa League, a fascinating competition made up of a patchwork group of teams spanning the length and breadth of the continent. Zenit, Anzhi and Rubin all made the knockout rounds, the former via their Champions League failure, but as the sides make their way into the last eight it is only Rubin, their more illustrious countrymen dumped out of the competition by Basel and Newcastle respectively. Kurban Berdyev’s defensive football, whilst winning few points for style from bored spectators, is certainly effectively in the two-legged European format.
However, part of the reason given for the Russian clubs’ European failures – the sometimes horrific quality of their homes pitches at the end of winter – is one of the principle reasons that many opposed the change of calendar. Anzhi were not helped by being forbidden to host their ‘home’ games in Dagestan, a decision which concluded with the somewhat farcical spectacle of a goalless draw being played out in front on 5,000 fans being drowned out by the silence of the Luzhniki stadium. Nevertheless, that Anzhi’s performance improved markedly on the pristine surface at St James’ Park highlights a point worth making – that a player’s technique is severly limited by the pitch they play on.
This is, of course, a limited excuse. Barcelona’s complaints about the San Siro in recent years and other teams’ lamentation regarding the absence or abundance of sprinklers is somewhat excessive. However, in a Russian league in which technique and passing ability (gained, admittedly, due to a vast gulf in resources) is often the difference between the top European sides and their rivals lower down the league.
At the very least, it is a leveller. At the weekend, Rubin were forced to play their home game against Zenit in Grozny, such was the poor state of the pitch in their own stadium. CSKA were the only one of the top three teams to win, beating Krylya Sovetov on a ploughed field in Samara. Anzhi came undone in the shock of the season at lowly Mordovia, with a pitch that far from suited their key players. As the teams suffer, so do the fans – not only are their sides not scoring points, they themselves are unable to travel thousands of miles, are in some cases sit through the still freezing temperatures, to watch them lose.
it is not just the big teams who suffer. The laughable conditions in some First Division cities led to games lacking any flow or rhythm, and the first round back in the second tier proved to be one of the lowest scoring of the season so far. SKA-Energia Khabarovsk, who currently sit in 3rd place and the promotion play-off position, have had their home game against Torpedo postponed until April thanks to the youth international commitments of three Moscow players. The reason for the delay may not be pitch-related, but it might as well be – temperatures for the original game day on Sunday are well below freezing.
The future may well have been on display in Ekaterinburg, where Ural ground out a 1-0 win against Volgar Astrakhan despite playing the first half with ten men. The game drew just 3,000 spectators, but Konstantin Skrlynikov’s goal literally raised the roof – the match was the first competitive fixture to be played in the new indoor Ural Arena.
As football academies across Russia, including the famous Konoplyov Academy in Togliatti and the club training bases of Krasnodar and Anzhi, continue to develop indoor arenas, the Russian game may find itself hosting an increasing number of domestic games in November, December and March in these covered venues. Both Spartak and Dinamo have included such arenas in the plans for their new stadiums, and whilst European approval may be a way off, the ability to accommodate spectators without ruining the spectacle is a huge step forward for a Russian game which has had to deal with far more of a transition than it initially thought.
In the immediate future, the suggestion of the indoor arena will not provide a solution to surreal nights at the Luzhniki, nor will it prevent the Petrovsky pitch becoming unplayable – UEFA are unlikely to give the go-ahead for top level ties to be played indoors until more advances have been made, and even then the top clubs would have to incorporate them into the system. For lower league clubs without the funding to build them, the solution seems two-tiered, forcing them out of the scheme unless they are able to find a local ice hockey team to share facilities and hopefully sponsorship with. However, for the fans of clubs as varied as Rubin and SKA-Energia, the very fact that solutions are being dreamed up can only be a positive thing.