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.
The Russian Far East is, on the one hand, a mysterious place surrounded in myth, legend and a wealth of history. From the fires of Magadan in deepest Siberia to Chekhov’s tales of suffering and strife in Sakhalin, the Pacific Coast is rife with the unknown, a venue for exploration which remains largely untapped to this day. For many travellers into Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a nomadic dream, a midnight escape from the bright lights of Moscow to the glittering mystery of Vladivostok and the Chinese border.
Conversely, the Amur River and its surroundings are also a symbol of toil, struggle and the extent of human suffering. Chekhov’s letters may have shed some light on the primitive practices taking place north of Japan, but back on the Russian mainland the region’s history has also had its fair share of dark moments. Shrouded in secrecy during the Soviet era as a zone of strategic importance, the toiling Jewish migrants to Birobidzhan, toilers building the giant dam at Bratsk, and the untold multitude who met their deaths constructing the Baikal-Amur Mainline are a sobering counterpoint to heroic Cossack tales and untold natural beauty.
Khabarovsk, the last major step on the Trans-Siberian before Vladivostok, is a strange mixture of the Far East’s two sides. Located within a marathon’s run of the Chinese border, the city was founded on the basis of one of the many Cossack explorations in the 17th century – leader Yerofei Khabarov gives the city its name – after a vicious battle with the indigenous population, but the death tolls in those campaigns, coupled with the city’s hosting of Japanese war crime trials in 1949, serve as a reminder of the conflicting aspects of the region.
In sporting terms, the city also lies at a crossroads. As with many cities lying beyond the Urals, Khabarovsk is first and foremost a hockey city, local side Amur the easternmost participants in the KHL until the 2013 addition of a club from Vladivostok. Amur are yet to pull up any trees on the ice, consistently missing out on the end of season play-off series, but with new investment, a passionate following and the natural advantage of geography, they are well-positioned to grow as a team.
However, unlike many Russian cities – the likes of Omsk and Magnitogorsk, for example – hockey does not have a monopoly in the sporting market. As a whole, the Russian Far East has allowed football to develop a hold on its inhabitants – Okean Nakhodka and Luch-Energia Vladivostok both reaching the top flight of the national league system – and in Khabarovsk there is another fanbase happy to divide their attentions. Whilst for a city of 600,000 the figures may not seem particularly impressive, average attendances of 7,000 for Amur and 4,000 for SKA-Energia place both clubs in the top five for their respective leagues for the 2012-13 season, highlighting an appreciation of sport in the city to rival any provincial rival.
Those attendance figure are made all the more impressive by the fact that, for as long as they have been competing, Khabarovsk have been overshadowing by their neighbouring – albeit only in the loose sense of the word – rivals in Vladivostok and Nakhodka. Whilst Okean’s time at the top was brief, Luch-Energia enjoyed a number of years dining at Russian football’s top table, occasionally upsetting the apple cart and regularly raising the issue of an East/West split to cut down on the ridiculous travel time accrued in reaching the Far East.
SKA-Energia, on the other hand, have taken the long, slow road to their current position. Founded in 1946 by military men presumably struggling for things to do in the aftermath of total warfare, their participation in the SOviet championships was steady and unspectacular, the odd promotion into the First League doing little to distract from four decades of unremarkable stability in the easternmost region of the third tier. Even in the cups they remained unable to make too much progress, a rare run to the quarter finals in 1963 a welcome distraction from the monotony of league play.
Nevertheless, whilst the results remained unspectacular and the league positions largely predictable, a solid base of support and a consistent investment in youth began to turn SKA into one of the better-run clubs in the region. As the likes of Okean fell away into financial crisis, they were able to balance their books sufficiently well. As the club from Nakhodka battled for survival in the new-look Russian top flight, their Khabarovsk counterparts endured relegation from the second tier after just two seasons, dropping back into the regional nightmare from which they had emerged at the fall of the Soviet Union.
Facing a juncture at which many clubs simply disappear, SKA were sufficiently well placed to endure eight long years in the wilderness, finishing runners-up for two years before finally becoming champions of the East in 2001 and securing promotion back to the First Division. Since then they have not looked back, stabilising over the first four years before recording a record 5th place finish in 2006, three places off the promotion places and remarkably close to what would have been a surprising appearance in the Premier League.
In the following years performances dropped off a little, SKA returning to the midtable positions which have so far defined their spell in the First Division. However, with the 2012-13 season drawing to a close and the club in contention for one of the highly-competitive promotion play-off spots, the dream of the promised land could yet be realised.
Whether they achieve their promotion or not, the foundations appear to be in place for strong performances over the coming years. For such a remote location, their development of the likes of Zenit and Russia midfielder Victor Faizulin and Spartak goalkeeper Andriy Dikan – the pair’s paths briefly crossed in 2004 with DIkan leaving and Faizulin arriving – they have a strong track record in both scouting and developing, providing a stable base from which to work. Ally to this their loyalty to club legends such as Vasily Karmazinenko, the striker who spent two years away but has been welcomed back with open arms after netting 75 goals in 273 games over eight seasons, and all the ingredients appear to be in place. It may only be a glimmer of hope, but for now SKA-Energia are the Far East’s principle football club, and with a decent squad and shrewd management, may yet seek to fly the flag for the entire East of Russia.