In the Spanish lower leagues, it is far from a rare occurrence to stumble across the ‘B’ team of one of La Liga’s leading lights, and indeed lesser stars, plugging away in a desperate search for recognition against small town clubs with no ambition beyond survival. Real Madrid’s Castilla and Barcelona B have both cemented positions within the second tier of their nation’s sport, but head further down into the multiple divisions of the Segunda B and you will find the likes of Almeria, Levante and Osasuna’s reserves all battling it out for their footballing lives.
It is a system that has been mooted recently in England, but with the sheer quantity of solvent professional clubs and the depth of the footballing pyramid, it is unlikely anything will come to fruition. In Italy, inter-club partnerships are so well established that co-ownership and mass loans remove the need for such a system, whilst the German leagues incorporate a number of second teams down in the third tier Regionalliga. Often debated and occasionally implemented, the pros and cons of such a system are numerous.
To that effect, this season marks something of a watershed moment in the Russian games. Prior to this season, a number of second XIs had taken part in the professional game, but usually only for a season or two before disbanding, with the vast majority of clubs being happy to place their sides in a specialist reserves league free from the rigours of competitive football. Any Football Manager enthusiasts who regularly take to Russia will have seen Lokomotiv-2-Moscow appear from time to time, but there are few other clubs to place such an emphasis on their seconds.
That is, until now. Last season, a look at the five regional Second Divisions would have turned up five ‘II’ sides in the professional game. Sibir’s second string can almost be discounted due to the simple lack of numbers in the eastern branch, but the quartet of Rubin in the Ural/Volga zone, Lokomotiv in the West and the southern pair of Alania and Volgar-Gazprom Astrakhan hardly provided a ringing endorsement of the priority given to the extended squad – Alania’s first team were relegated from the top flight as their seconds took 7th in the third tier, Volgar’s reserves avoided relegation only because SKA Rostov collapsed, while the second strings of Premier League stalwarts Rubin and Loko took 8th and 7th respectively. Lokomotiv’s seconds are effectively run as an independent club, such is their own history, and so the call for competitive football at that level went largely unheard.
Fast forward to the present day, and much has changed. The Central division, previously void of any reserve squads, now hosts Spartak II, which given their prowess at youth level could eventually become a real contender for promotion. Alania’s reserves have been joined by counterparts from Terek and Krasnodar in the South, and with Anzhi’s de facto farm team Dagdizel also competing in the league, it is proving a popular testing ground for newcomers to the professional game. In the West, Lokomotiv are joined by Zenit, while Rubin and Sibir continue to fly the flag in the Ural/Volga and East zones respectively. There are some notable admissions from the list, particularly with the likes of CSKA and Dinamo opting not to enter clubs into the third tier, but the overnight expansion brings with it a new outlook on how reserve football should be played.
Not all of the reasoning is sporting. After all, one of the major problems facing football at such a regional level in a country with low ticket prices and poor attendances is financial stability – each year a raft of clubs disappear into economic oblivion or are passed into the hands of regional government. By giving league spots to established, well-funded Premier League sides, local administrations no longer have to shell out, and the division remains at a reasonable size. It is worth noting that the more financially troubled top flight sides – Amkar, Volga, Tom – have all decided against entering their reserves into the professional ranks.
For the teams taking part however, there has been a distinct change of attitude in the way their second squads are approached. Whereas the majority of Russian clubs give blow-by-blow accounts of the youth teams’ games via Twitter – Spartak even have a dedicated account – reserves were rarely given a mention. That is all changing – Zenit, one of Russia’s frontrunners in the social media stakes, have been tweeting minute-by-minute reports of their reserves’ Second Division season, both in their native Russian and on their English language account. Without such a presence, only the truly devout Zenit fan would have received news of a 3-3 opening day draw with FC Tosno.
Whether the move to grant the reserves professional playing time goes beyond that remains to be seen. The Dutch approach adopted at the country’s pioneering academy in Togliatti advocates throwing the most senior youth squad in with the professionals, and it could be that a nation so closely married to the Dutch throughout history is once more taking a leaf out of the Netherlands’ book – Dutch reserve squads are entitled to enter the national cup competition. Equally, it could be that the perceived Spanish approach to football – players rarely being moved up age groups and allowed to progress naturally through the ranks – is taking shape in Russia, a nation keen to sample the dominance recently enjoyed by their Iberian counterparts.
Of course, exposure to competitive football with something at stake may be counteracted by the disappointment of performing in front of no more than a handful of fans on pitches that resembles ploughed fields due to Russia’s harsh winters. It may be that the clubs have taken part in the experiment unwillingly, pressured into participation by a Russian Football Union eager to see the Second Division retain a respectable number of clubs. However, by introducing competitive reserve football, by making an effort to expose these sides and by granting the players involved a taste of the professional game, it seems unlikely that their development will be hindered more than by merely playing other reserves. It acts as a spur to other teams at that level to improve their own standards, gives fans the chance to see promising young talent in a competitive field, and maintains a balance within the lower leagues. For a footballing system so often criticised, reserve teams in the lower leagues looks to be a promising step forward for the Russian game.