Cup football may have been pronounced dead in many countries – in England the FA Cup risks going the same way as its less prestigious League cousin, in Spain the Copa del Rey is dominated by the usual suspects, while many domestic knockout tournaments are treated as the same fixture-congesting disdain as in the UK – but in Russia, which never held the cup to quite the same standard, this season has reminded people of the stories contained within.
In the last round – the round of 32 – sportswriters across Russia were given more ammunition than they knew what to do with. Seemingly invincible Zenit were humbled by lowly Tyumen, Rotor rolled back the years to knock out title challenging Lokomotiv, while city rivals Dinamo slunk out to Salyut Belgorod. Anzhi’s crisis continued with a defeat to troubled Alania, and Sokol Saratov gave their fans a trip down memory lane with a victory over Krylya Sovetov, the establishment club down the road. As the draw opened up before the likes of Rostov and Spartak, Premier League teams the nation over suffered, a total of 10 biting the dust in their first game of the tournament.
Unfortunately, the drama of that day was more than matched by the comic farce which followed. Owing much to the chaos of the previous round, the scheduling of the round of 16 made little sense to anyone but the organisers. Traditionally taking part after the lengthy winter break, the Russian Football Union instead chose to on the European non-involvement of four of the sides – Krasnodar, Zvezda Ryazan, Luch-Energia Vladivostok and SKA-Energia Khabarovsk – to host two of the eight ties before the break. Krasnodar came through an epic with Zvezda 3-2 on 16th November, and more than two weeks later, in the early hours of a Thursday morning, Luch overcame SKA by the same score in a Far Eastern derby.
The remaining six matches would take their traditional place as the opening fixture of the post-winter period – except they wouldn’t. Terek ensured their shocking league form would be forgotten for a little while longer with another 3-2 win, this time over First division leaders Mordovia Saransk, while Leonid Slutsky took no risks with his selection in a comfortable 2-0 over Sokol at Arena Khimki. For reasons unexplained, the Spartak vs Tosno and Tom vs Tyumen ties would not be held until almost a fortnight later, Tosno hammering one more nail into Valeri Karpin’s managerial coffin with an extra time win that brought a touch of magic back to the tournament.
Yet the real tragedy in here lies in the two ties unaccounted of that round of 16. Premier League Rostov would have been rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a reasonably clear run to the final, but promotion-chasing Alania should have provided them with a stern test. Equally, fans of Rotor would have been dreaming of past glories, but not before having to do battle with a determined Salyut Belgorod side joining them at the wrong end of the second tier table. The clash promised much, and yet the results will go down as 3-0 walkovers for the home sides without a single ball being kicked.
For such a turn of events to take place mid-tournament is unthinkable yet increasingly possible in English football, but worryingly unsurprising in the Russian game. Alania’s own run to the final in 2011 was famously achieved without scoring a goal, their three penalty wins added to by the collapse of Saturn Ramenskoye, and this time they are the side to face the indignity of financial doom. Having been living on bank loans since relegation, with players unpaid and expensive Premier League signings trying desperately to leave the club, the Gazzaev dynasty finally crumbled, their official resignation from the professional leagues taking place in mid-February. They will undoubtedly be back next season in the Second Division South, but for such a storied club to disappear yet again is of major concern to fans in North Ossetia.
While Alania’s plight has been well-documented, Salyut’s struggles have gone largely unnoticed. Along with the likes of Dinamo Bryansk and KamAZ Naberezhnye Chelny before them, their low profile did nothing to alleviate growing debts and an inability to pay their creditors, let alone their playing staff. Their withdrawal came on the same fateful day – 14th February – as Alania’s, and their future is less clear. The club currently retains just seven players on the books, and once they are gone it remains to be seen whether there is any appetite for the professional game in the border town.
For the cup and its organisers, it is a crying shame that some of the spectacle afforded by a round full of shocks has been denied them by the collapse of two of underdogs battling for glory. Their scheduling has not helped matters, but unless one of Tosno or Terek can upset the odds again, it looks increasingly like one of either CSKA or Krasnodar to determine who becomes favourites for the title against the side emerging from the other half of the draw.
Whether this year produces much-needed changes to the rules: fixed dates for each round, and the end to a seeding system which almost places First Division giantkillers at a disadvantage in the following round – in the round of 32 the lower league sides play at home, and subsequently home advantage is given to the team having played the fewest games on familiar soil – remains to be seen, but if the Russian Cup is retain some sense of drama, the balance must be redressed.
Perhaps the only positive to come out of the debacle is in the First Division, where Alania’s withdrawal now places six teams within three points of a chance at the Premier League, but it is difficult to see the collapse of a division’s leading club as a positive outcome. Whether the First Division is regionalised, whether clubs are granted subsidies, whether sponsors are given more incentives to back their sides – there is no easy solution to the growing financial problem in the Russian game, but if things are allowed to remain in their current state of affairs, it is not too difficult to imagine a top league of 12 teams with little but a semi-professional system beneath them. Not only would the picture remain bleak for football fans across Russia, but those looking for romance and drama in the cup would struggle for satisfaction.