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The Rise of the Russian front


When Axel Witsel and Hulk were signed towards the fag end of the Russian League’s transfer season, collective gasps were drawn from ardent followers of Western Europe’s Big Five leagues (England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy).

Yes, the Russian League had been on Europe’s sporting map for some time now, but for Zenit Saint Petersburg to splash ninety million Euros on two players from the Portuguese League was unheralded, despite vast sums of money being invested into several Russian sides in the past.

What might dampen this gasp to some extent, however, is that this has been witnessed for the past couple of years now. It all started when Samuel Eto’o moved from Inter Milan, one of Italy’s most prestigious clubs, to join Anzhi Makhachkala in southern Russia, a club who’s name we hadn’t even heard of, let alone pronounce successfully.

The national team had done fairly well at Euro 2008, and Russia narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup before making it to Poland-Ukraine in 2012. The expected followed, with Roman Pavlyuchenko moving to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of ’08 before Andrei Arshavin joined cross-town rivals Arsenal in January 2009.

To some, the rapid rise of the Russian League and the ever-increasing influx of foreign players might be surprising, given that the only time many of us had heard of Lokomotiv Moscow was when Chelsea and Manchester United faced off at their home, the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008.

Or when Zenit St. Petersburg became the first Russian club to win the UEFA Cup the same year.

But the rise of the league was inevitable. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and reconstruction and reorganisation of the entire nation meant rebuilding obviously took preference over anything else. The generation that Roman Abramovich and Suleyman Kerimov are part of were in their early twenties, and had decided to plough the fields of capitalism.

Over time as Russia’s vast reserves of mineral wealth, oil and natural gas made them billionaires, it was time to spend this money. Kerimov was born in Dagestan, of which Makhachkala is the capital. Mother Russia had been good to him, and it was time therefore, to reinvest.

If there was to be an intimation of how much money he actually had, him financing the construction of a brand new stadium in the city was proof enough. To underline this, Anzhi players train and live in Moscow, and are flown in to Dagestan to play their games.

PFC CSKA Moscow v FC Anzhi Makhachkala - Premier League

KHIMKI, RUSSIA – AUGUST 12: Mario Fernandes (R) and Keisuke Honda of PFC CSKA Moscow battle for the ball with Yuri Zhirkov (C) of FC Anzhi Makhachkala during the Russian Premier League match between PFC CSKA Moscow and FC Anzhi Makhachkala at the Arena Khimki Stadium on August 12, 2012 in Khimki, Russia.

Roberto Carlos was the first to join the Club since Kerimov’s takeover in 2011, where he is now Sporting Director. High-profile signings such as Samuel Eto’o, Yuri Zhirkov, Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, Mbark Boussoufa and Balasz Dszudszak in 2011 and Christopher Samba in January 2012. Hungary winger Dszudszak has since moved to Dynamo Moscow.

This summer saw the arrivals of Lassanna Diarra and Lacina Traore.

Moving away from Dagestan and further up north, Zenit St. Petersburg have always been one of Russia’s most known clubs. Like Bayer Leverkeusen in Germany, Zenit are owned by an industrial giant. Russian fossil fuel corporation GazProm own and sponsor the club.

Like Anzhi, Zenit also have access to significant funds. GazProm accounted for 17% of the world’s natural gas production and 10% of Russia’s Gross Domestic Product in 2008, exporting 549.7 Billion Cubic Metres of natural gas, 32 million tonnes of crude oil and 10.9 million tonnes of gas condensate.

Malaga CF v FC Zenit St Petersburg - UEFA Champions League

MALAGA, SPAIN – SEPTEMBER 18: Javier Saviola (C) of Malaga CF reacts beside Bruno Alves (L) of FC Zenit St Petersburg after missing a scoring opportunity during the UEFA Champions League group C match between Malaga CF and FC Zenit St Petersburg at the Rosaleda stadium on September 18, 2012 in Malaga, Spain.

Moscow boasts of four clubs, all of whom have an intense rivalry with each other. Spartak Moscow, who are owned by Leonid Fedun, vice-president of oil giant Lukoil, Lokomotiv Moscow, who are owned by the Russian railways, CSKA Moskva, who were once owned the chairman of liquor company S.P.I. Group and Dynamo Moscow, who are bankrolled by VTB Bank, one of Russia’s largest and most well-known banks.

Spartak are the most successful of all Russian clubs, winning 12 Soviet Championships, nine Russian League titles, ten Soviet Cups and three Russian Cups. They’ve also been to the semi-finals of all of Europe’s established competitions at least once.

Dynamo have to their name ten Soviet Championships, while Lokomotiv have two Soviet Cups, two Russian Leagues, five Russian Cups and – most interestingly – two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups in their trophy case.

Rubin Kazan are most known for winning two Russian League titles, and are owned by Valery Sorkin of the rather difficult-sounding Svyazinvestneftekhim (Svi-az-invest-neft-ekhim), a company responsible for the management of Government shares, headquartered in the capital of Tatarstan.

Lokomotiv Moskva v FC Rubin Kazan - Russian Premier League

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – SEPTEMBER 15: Dame Ndoye of Lokomotiv Moscow vies with a Rubin Kazan player for the ball in their Russian League match

With the 2018 FIFA World Cup being held in Russia, most club stadia in host cities are getting makeovers in time for the showpiece event, which will be held across western Russia, with games planned in several cities including the capital Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi and Kazan among others.

But like with most leagues throughout the world, there are problems in Russia. The size of the country makes it nigh impossible to govern. According to some who work within the Kremlin, the border of the nation is so porous it’s easy to smuggle in an elephant without anybody actually noticing. Not for nothing are the opium routes from Afghanistan and Central Asia the most plied in the world. A pan-Russian league, ergo, with matches being played from Volgograd in the West to Vladivostok in the East sounds unviable.

The higher someone’s millions are, the deeper people’s eyebrows sink into their foreheads when they try to come to grips with the source of these millions. Yevgeni Giner, the Chairman of CSKA Moscow, has alleged ties to the Russian mafia. The Luzhniki Stadium outfit also have ownership connections to the Russian State Duma (Assembly) through Deputy Chairman Alexander Babakov.

The biggest problem that the league must find itself to work around, though, is UEFA’s Financial Fair Play, which may begin as early as 2014, for which monitoring has already begun. UEFA also show they mean business, with 23 clubs all across Europe, including Malaga, Atletico Madrid, Sporting Lisbon and Fenerbahce SK.

Will the Russian bear comply?

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