On 20th December 2013, the Russian football world came to a standstill. the news itself did not come as a shock – indeed, many had expected it for a couple of years – but the announcement itself still caused a stir. Effective immediately, Kurban Berdyev, a man who had sat nervously, fingering his prayer beads for more than a decade, was no longer required as manager of Rubin Kazan.
To place the decision to sack the Turkmen manager into some form of context, this was a man who had been at the club for some 12 years. he had taken over when the club was unknown to most people outside of Tatarstan, just another provincial club looking to survive in the backwaters of the Russian game. His previous appointment had been at Kristall Smolensk, a team so unheralded they no longer function as a professional outfit. His arrival was greeted with no fanfare.
Yet Berdyev left Rubin on that fateful December day having established the club both domestically and abroad, holding two Russian titles, victory over the all-conquering Barcelona side on their own soil, numerous Europa League runs, and a place in the top 40 on the entire continent according to UEFA’s own rankings. Rarely has a single man had such an impact on a football club.
Of course, it must be said that Berdyev’s greatest successes coincided with a period of unprecedented sporting investment by Tatarstan’s regional authorities – it is little coincidence that at the same time Rubin claimed back-to-back titles, KHl side Ak Bars were securing national ice hockey crowns – and a period of uncertainty amongst the leading Moscow clubs. Nevertheless, he wielded his resources well, proving himself as adept in the transfer market as on the tactics board, and the rewards were forthcoming.
So why was his departure no great surprise? Since Rubin’s second title in 2009, the club have achieved one 3rd place finish and two in 6th, while currently sitting a lowly 11th in the current Premier League season, closer to relegation than European qualification. his side were never known for their sublime attacking football – star players were often relied on for magical moments, and pragmatism has always been Berdyev’s strength – but in recent years his defensive, dour style of football has become something of a parody of itself. Goalless draws at home, a reliance on a forward more talented than his midfield support, and a determination not to concede at any cost have led to fans abandoning the team in their thousands – the new Kazan Arena, with its capacity of 45,000, will never be more than 20 per cent full if current figures are maintained.
A cup win in 2012 arguably bought Berdyev more time, but poor league form has finally seen the great man take his leave. A look at the goal difference statistics paint the perfect picture of this Rubin side in the current decade – 19 games played, 21 goals scored and just 14 conceded. Their 10 away games have seen just 10 goals. The top scorer still with the squad is 34-year-old Gokdeniz Karadeniz with just three to his name, and therein lies Rubin’s greatest problem.
As some form of mitigation, Berdyev has not been helped in recent years by having his hands tied somewhat financially. While the owners of clubs such as Zenit and Spartak have caught up in the investment stakes, the Tatar authorities have taken something of a back seat, refusing to match their earlier luxuries on their manager. As such, Berdyev has seen stars of his team – Cristian Ansaldi, Salvatore Bocchetti, Alexander Ryazantsev and Bibras Natkho – either leave for better-paying domestic rivals, and seek new contracts overseas.
Since Berdyev’s departure, the problems at the club seem to have worsened. After an extended period without a manager over the winter break, the new man in charge was announced as Rinat Bilyaletdinov, known to many only as the father of Diniyar, and whose managerial experience stretches to Lokomotiv’s reserves and a brief spell as caretaker. His only other spell in charge of a professional outfit came in 1997, where he claimed 19th place in one of the mnay zones of the short-lived Third Division with a Moscow university club. Without the suitable licence to manage in the top flight, he has been appointed as head coach with Vladimir Maminov – another with no managerial experience – technically in charge of the side. With such a farcical situation unfolding, it is unsurprising that many have accused the club of plumping for the cheap option, using Bilyaletdinov’s Tatar roots to pacify the fans.
Whatever the reason, the new has issues to solve. Shortly after his arrival, the news that everyone expected was announced. Salomon Rondon, the star Venezuelan forward with six goals in his 11 appearances so far, would be sold. Zenit swooped in to claim Rubin’s main source of goals, and the striking problem was exacerbated. Up front, Bilyaletdinov now has the option of unspectacular journeyman Alexander Prudnikov, 32-year-old Ruslan Mukhametshin, who has only ever impressed at second tier level, and the promising but unpolished Iranian teenager Sardar Azmoun. The signing of Marko Devic from Metalist Kharkiv may help support the front line, but at the age of 30, he is no long-term solution.
Something else that the new boss has to address is the defence. Once the bedrock of Rubin’s success – and indeed still effective for the most part domestically – the back line is growing decidedly older. the acquisition of Taras Burlak, a future Russian international, from Lokomotiv is a shrewd one, but the club still relies on Oleg Kuzmin at 32 and 34-year-old Cesar Navas, with Roman Sharonov, now 37, as a backup. the new men – Chris Mavinga, Solomon Kverkvelia, Inal Getigezhev – are not yet at the right level for a side of Rubin’s ambitions, and their defensive base is not as strong as it was.
The clearest example yet came in their Europa League tie against Real Betis. Last year, Berdyev’s side overcame two stronger Spanish sides in Atletico Madrid and Levante, and after a 1-1 draw in Sevilla, the odds were in favour of the Russian club. However, whereas a Berdyev side would have stolen a 1-0 win and played for the clean sheet, Bilyaletdinov’s new charges fell to a 2-0 home reverse, dumping them out at the first knockout round.
With the departures of Berdyev, Natkho and Rondon and the arrival of the Bilyaletdinov/Maminov tandem, Rubin risk a real slide down the table – not quite of Anzhi proportions, but far from the regular European football their fans have come to expect. Without further investment, it is difficult to see how they can ever climb back into the elite group of clubs battling it out for the title, while the likes of Kuban and Krasnodar appear to have stronger foundations on which to build. Unless Bilyaletdinov is proved a genius, Tatarstan could be waiting some time before celebrating more sporting success.