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.
Siberia. The very word conjures up images of impenetrable ice and snow, barren wastelands of tundra and taiga left to nature, a by-word of desolation, wilderness and despair. To those who grew up in the Soviet era, Siberia is not only synonymous with natural beauty and sheer scale, but also with suffering and torture – Stalin’s Gulag touched every corner of the vast USSR, but Siberia was its heart, and untold number passed away in its freezing climate and intolerable conditions.
Yet today, Siberia is in the middle of a image overhaul. The vastness and sheer quantity of space remains, but the Russian government are highlighting not the huge population deficiency – just 30 million people in an area roughly the same size as China – but the region’s potential as the energy heartland of not just Russia, but the world, is undoubted. Oil, gas, gold, minerals – all are to be found within the huge expanses of the Russian wilderness, and the investment from overseas being poured in as a result has had dramatic consequences.
Life in Siberia for those outside the cities remains incredibly difficult, of that there is no doubt. Those attempting to live self-sufficiently, sometimes hundreds of miles form the nearest major settlement, are at the mercy of nature, and even those in the smaller towns face a constant battle for supplies and survival. Yet elsewhere, dotted along the route of the mighty Trans-Siberian Railway, lie a handful of cities in which life is gradually becoming more cosmopolitan and further removed from the harsh realities of life in its natural surrounding. The benefits and costs are up for debate, but the impact of Muscovite and European lifestyles on the cities are indisputable.
Novosibirsk is one such city, and a sign of the power of Russia’s energy economy. Founded on the Ob River as a crossing point and trading hub, it has developed into the third largest city in Russia, boasting an impressive 1.5 million residents and establishing itself as the political and economic heart of Siberia. Krasnoyarsk may put forth an impressive claim, but it is Novosibirsk that takes the title on points.
The success is also a sporting one, although neither city can claim to have a rich footballing pedigree. In the field of ice hockey, the tables are turned – Novosibirsk have KHL side Sibir, while Krasnoyarsk have only second tier Sokol to their credit. On the pitch however, only one of the two clubs can boast Premier League experience, and Yenisei are yet to make it.
SIbir’s path to their brief Premier League appearance – a one-season wonder in 2010 – has its roots in the 1930s, when Burevestnik sprung up in 1936. By 1938, after a single season in Soviet Group E – a million miles from the glamour and glory of the Moscow clubs in the top flight – they renamed to Krylya Sovetov, playing on the city’s rich history of aviation.
They would remain Wings of the Soviets until 1956, shortly before their third attempt at progression through the myriad leagues of the former USSR. Constant reforms of the league system, the sparsity of football clubs in Siberia, and an apparent lack of talent contributing to their sporadic appearances in the all-Union pyramid. Despite a multitude of name changes – Sibselmash, Dzerzhinets and Chkalovets to name but three before Sibir was agreed on as late as 2006 – the furthest the side ever managed to reach was the Second League, two steps down from the internationally-renowned sides competing for the Soviet title.
When the wall came down and the new Russian leagues were formed, it was a surprise to many within the club that Chkalovets-FoKuMiS, as they were then known, were thrown into the second tier of the Federation’s game. A 4th place debut in the Eastern branch under Valeri Yerkovich was solid enough, just eight points behind promoted champions Luch Vladivostok, but the following year the side slipped to 14th and relegation as the second tier found itself streamlined. The blow would not last long however – with the acronym dropped, Chkalovets romped to the Second League Siberian title ahead of Tom Tomsk, earning promotion back to the truly national First League for 1995.
Leonid Shevchenko kept his side there for one season before being relegated in the second, and the Premier League once again seemed unreachable for the Siberian side. Three long years in the regional wilderness were followed by a merger with local club Olimpik, and the move saw new club Chkalovets-1936 claim the history. They would, however, have to begin life in the amateur ranks, even further from their ultimate goal.
Sergei Iromashvili was retained despite the demotion, and the board’s faith was justified as the new club returned to the professional ranks at the first opportunity, and four years later under the guidance of Valeri Puzanov, promotion back into the First Division was finally achieved. It had taken eight long years, but once again Novosibirsk had a club competing on the national stage.
They would stay there too, thanks largely to the goals of striker Dmitri Akimov. The Zenit youth product, who starred for the St Peterbsurg side’s reserve side but never got a chance at the highest level, joined Sibir in their promotion season, and over his five years in Novosibrisk would rattle in no less than 111 league goals, including 34 in a 2007 campaign which saw Vladimir Faizulin’s side just miss out on promotion to the promised land. In 2008 he left for Premier League side Rostov after a less prolific campaign, and without his goals Sibir managed just 14th place. However, the best was yet to come – in 2009, Sibir’s stingy defence allowed just 21 goals in 38 matches, and the side stormed to 2nd place and promotion. Finally, after decades of trying, Siberia had a side in the top flight.
The season in the sun would end in failure, with Sibir acquiring just four wins and finishing rock bottom of the Premier League pile – they have yet to return or even come close to a repeat promotion. While their subsequent midtable exploits in the First Division, not to mention managerial instability – Scotsman Alex Miller was one of four managers in the 2011-12 campaign – have given fans little cause to celebrate, a run to the cup final in 2010 presented those same fans with a European adventure so cherished by fans of sides outside the traditional elite.
Europa League qualification assured by cup final conqueror Zenit’s Champions League spot, the third qualifying round threw up a tricky tie with Apollon Limassol of Cyprus. Playing in front of 10,000 at the city’s Spartak stadium, Alexei Medvedev’s 74th minute strike gave the Eagles the slimmest of advantages heading into the away leg, and it was to prove crucial as Igor Shevchenko’s away goal sent the Russian side through on away goals after a 2-1 defeat.
What happened next would go down in Sibir folklore. Drawn against the mighty PSV Eindhoven in the next round, this time 11,500 spectators packed in to watch what would surely be a ritual slaughter by the Dutch giants. Instead, they witnessed a miracle – after soaking up pressure and defending for their lives for 90 minutes, a deep cross was missed at the far post by a PSV defender, collected and rolled back into the path of Alexei Degtyarev, who hit a deflect shot into the back of the net.
PSV would win the return game in Eindhoven 5-0 – Sibir’s advantage disappearing by the 38th minute – but for all the gloom that was to follow, for the fact that relegation to the Second DIvision seems more likely than a return to the top flight in the near future, the 11,500 there for the 1-0 victory have memories of ecstacy the likes of which SIbir are unlikely ever to repeat. As an underdog story, it is one of Russian football’s finest.