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.
For football fans the world over, there is something of a stigma attached to the notion of being a ‘yo-yo team.’ The very term implies consistent inconsistency, the inability to find one’s place in the sprawling mass of teams that often constitutes a footballing pyramid, and the knowledge that fans of struggling but more stable clubs look down on yours as an example not to be followed, years of inadequacy rendering any apparent progress irrelevant.
Conversely, how sweet it can be for a fan of such a club to witness a successful rebound, a show of mental fortitude which casts aside self-doubt and imagined weaknesses to once again rise to the challenge and achieve promotion. Whilst life in the higher division may be the holy grail to which all aspire, there is doubtlessly a certain satisfaction to be found in watching your heroes dismantle substandard opponents, all of whom offer jealous glances at your ambitious, talented squad and impressive facilities.
For the Russian football fan, in recent years the club which has come to embody the yo-yo team is none other than Krasnodar’s Kuban, the older brother of Sergei Galitsky’s FC Krasnodar with whom they share the Kuban stadium. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a side which has, in the last 20 years, almost always entered the final weeks of the season with something to play for, Kuban boast one of the league’s highest average attendances, pulling in an approximate 18,000 each home game. In the 2012-13 season game against Spartak Moscow drew the highest attendance of any fixture not played at the national Luzhniki stadium.
However, it has not always been the case that Kuban were a team followed by a mass of supporters anxious to see their club break out of the promotion/relegation cycle in the right direction. Formed in 1928, it took the Dinamo name which was so famously tied to the secret police, acquiring facilities in the heart of the southern city – those facilities today double up as a budget hotel – and competing at a local and Russian level for the best part of three decades.
It was in the 1950s that the club, known as Neftyanik from 1954-57 and Kuban thereafter (two brief years as Spartak notwithstanding), began to take shape and transform into something like the club that Russian sports fans now recognise. Participating in the Soviet Union’s ‘B’ Class at a regional level, a strong Neftyanik was denied promotion on more than one occasion only by virtue of sporting politics. The societal system, often the reason behind sudden changes of time in the Soviet era, allowed clubs to both benefit and suffer from the changing influences at governmental, and the one group almost always guaranteed to come out on top was the army. Despite their traditional Cossack routes, the Krasnodar side had the apparent misfortune of belonging to first Neftyanik and then Trud, two of the ‘weaker’ societies with less influence. Accordingly, when the club looked like succeeding in its promotion charge, key players were called into the military, only to emerge weeks later in the colours of regional rivals SKA Rostov.
A similar fate was to befall the newly-renamed Spartak shortly afterwards, the great league reshuffle in the arly 1960s robbing Krasnodar of top flight status which no opponent had managed to deny them. The psychological effects proved significant, and rather than make a renewed attempt to claim what was rightfully theirs, Kuban slumped to a midtable finish in 1963 and by 1971 found themselves one step further down the ladder, having been relegated out of the second tier. Almost a decade later, after a complete change of ownership and restructuring of the club, did Kuban finally reach the coveted Top League.
They clung on to their top flight status for two seasons before relinquishing it in the third, and again it would appear that political considerations rather than footballing ability contributed to their demise. Sergei Medunov, the head of the local Communist Party in Krasnodar Krai and a key ally of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was ousted from his post, and without his support the football club plummeted down the Top League table. How much influence Medunov had on their rise in unclear, but the fact that Kuban did not immediately return to the top table suggests it may indeed have been significant.
Kuban’s fall and subsequent rise can also be mapped out in political terms through the rest of the 1980s. Before the collapse of the USSR the club again dropped briefly into the third tier before returning at the first attempt from the regionalised championships, but failed to assert themselves on their return, a run of three years in 19th place broken by dropping to 21st, dangerously close to the bottom of the pile. Yet, as chaos reigned in the political sphere, so it did on the football field – as the Soviet Union broke up and newly independent republics took their teams with them, Kuban found themselves unexpectedly elevated to the top of the Russian game.
The unexpected promotion would prove disastrous for Kuban, the club clearly not prepared to take on the giants of the Russian game, and immediate relegation followed not once, but twice, dropping like a stone into the regional third tier once more. Vladimir Brazhnikov guided them back to national competition in 1995, but three years later his successor took them back down. It took a managerial cameo from Mordovia icon Fedor Shcherbachenko to recover their second tier status at the turn of the millenium, and even since then things have been less than simple – four promotions from the First Division and three relegations from the Premier League since 2003 creating a club with a strong fanbase and no sense of belonging in the national system.
Things do, however, seem to be changing. In 2001 the administration of Krasnodar Krai took over the running of the club, ensuring a minimum level of funding and a degree of independence from the societal networks established in the USSR. By investing in the club and being willing to coax the likes of Oleg Domatov and Dan Petrescu to the second tier, the local government has ensured that the side has finally emerged from their ordeal for the better. Petrescu’s debut top flight season saw Kuban reach the top half, boosted by the goals of subsequent Anzhi signing Lacina Traore and the form of players such as former Zenit winger Alexei Ionov and star goalkeeper Alexander Belenov, reportedly a target for the nation’s biggest clubs.
Although the city of Krasnodar was inexplicably passed over for the 2018 World Cup, football in the city continues to grow with both Krasnodar and Kuban improving at an impressive rate. For Kuban, now that the political considerations which thwarted them so often in the Soviet Union have been removed, there appears little reason that one of the biggest supports in the country cannot boast one of its biggest teams. Multiple setbacks aside – Petrescu leaving for Dinamo, the bizarre sacking of Yuri Krasnozhan, the sale of Traore – Kuban have shown themselves capable of progress in the face of adversity. For a brief time, their apparent status as the underdog will remain only to be used to their advantage, and with something resembling stability and a stronger squad than at any point in their history, Kuban have transformed from political collateral to European challengers. Their achievement should not be underestimated.