SKA-Energia Khabarovsk are a problem, as are Luch-Energia Vladivostok. The two First Division clubs are nestled in the Russian Far East, closer to Beijing than to Moscow, with several time zones between them and the vast majority of their league opponents. When the latter side found themselves in the top flight of Russian football, CSKA and national team goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev wound up in the papers, angrily claiming that the side should play in the Japanese league after his own team collapsed to a 4-0 defeat on their mammoth journey.
Whilst the prospect is an intriguing one, it could be about to get even greater. not only are the two aforementioned clubs going well in the second tier of the Russian game, a third side will join them at the end of the season. With a promoted side emerging from each of the five regional feeder leagues and neither Luch nor SKA looking to be in danger of relegation, this comes as no major surprise.
However, the identity of that team could. Irtysh Omsk are perhaps the most well-known side in the Second Division’s Eastern branch, although only by virtue of little competition. FC Chita are another club who have made sporadic forays into national competition, but the rest of the contenders – Sibiryak Bratsk, Smena Komsomolsk, Sibir’s reserves – offer little to threaten the established regional hierarchy.
This season, things are changing. Having overhauled a squad which finished third in last season’s championship, former Kazakh international and member of Alania’s 1995 title-winning campaign, Sergei Timofeev, has transformed the club that nobody in Russia’s corridors of power to do well into realistic promotion contenders.
So well are FC Sakhalin doing, that at the midpoint of the regional season, the nation’s easternmost professional club leads the lead by eight points from their nearest rivals. The island side have lost just one of their 14 games this season, and the icing on a 4-2 win over Smena in their most recent fixture saw fans celebrate their 31st goal of the campaign – 12 more than the next top scorers.
Equally impressive is their defensive record, Timofeev’s back line shipping just seven goals all season, and only one one home soil, Alexei Nekrasov’s leveller for Radian Baikal the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record at Spartak stadium. No other team has even made the scoresheet.
On a professional level, Sakhalin represents a step down for Timofeev, who at the height of his powers managed his native Kazakhstan during the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign. Whilst his spell in charge of his country did not end in glory, he impressed sufficiently to earn the assitant’s job at top flight Rostov, before a steady slide down the pyramid took him to a number of clubs that have yet to register on the radar of even the most avid Russian football fan. Under his guidance, Sakhalin may become the exception.
The problem lies in its location. Sakhalin would immediately become the easternmost team ever to compete on a national level should they earn promotion, the island lying almost immediately north of Japan – the territory was disputed through much of the 20th century – and a short flight and boat journey from the Russian mainland. The long-awaited Sakhalin Tunnel has received government backing, but a legitimate rail link remains unachieved.
Furthermore, Sakhalin is a region which has largely avoided the sleek, business-like makeover which some Russian regions have undergone since the collapse of the Communist system. Whereas some traditionally agricultural areas in the Russian South have opened themselves up to high-rise multinationals, Sakhalin’s primitive economy of oil, gas, fish and forestry is almost entirely state-controlled. In Sakhalin, Gazprom is king, and it is little surprise to see their crest emblazoned across the chests of Timofeev’s men.
The island itself is foreboding by virtue of its conditions. Wind, rain and choking fog are commonplace in a place Anton Chekhov compared to the inner circles of hell, and with poverty abounding outside of the prosperous few in the oil industry, the former penal colony remains an unlikely tourist destination for all but the masochistic.
Nor, one would assume, would the likes of Alania, Mordovia, Torpedo or Rotor look forward to the journey eastward. Of course, Sakhalin themselves would be hamstrung by making the journey for every away game, but it is inevitable that the issue of distance, transport costs and unfair home advantage would quickly be raised by the first manager to see his jet-lagged side go down in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
For the authorities, Sakhalin’s promotion would be a nightmare to deal with, both on a logistic, financial and public relations level. For Gazprom, promotion would be yet another tick in the box of their domination of the local economy. Yet for the interested observer, an appearance on a national level for an island renowned almost entirely for its torturous conditions and geographical location would make for a fascinating tale.