Russia 2018. Day one

Dust settled but no time to spare, even if there are more than seven years to get this right.  Domm Norris looks at a transitional 2011.

As the dust settles on the night before and the ensuing hangover begins to subside, thoughts can begin to turn towards the coming year and the impact it could have on the future of the game. 2011 promises to be the beginning of a hugely important period in the development of Russian football for a variety of different reasons - some of which will completely change the face of the game in the nation.

2011 will see the Russian Premier League begin its transition from a sport played during the summer months - March through to November - to a European based August to May calendar. The decision to bring Russian football more in line with the majority of Europe was taken in September and it is hoped that such a move will help progression on the European stage. While clubs have enjoyed successes in European competition over the past decade, it is still felt that there is a great deal of potential in Russian football that has yet to be utilised due to the manner in which the football season is structured.

The coming season will see some 44 league games played between kick off in March and closure in the summer of 2012, with a break over the winter months in order to avoid the arduous nature of the Arctic wind. The format of the league is therefore witnessing a makeover for the transitional period. The March - November season will run as it has done previously with all 16 teams playing one another home and away.  After a short stoppage over the winter months, the  league will be split in two - with the top half competing for the title and European places, while the bottom half will fight against relegation. After a further 14 matches - where each team has played the other 7 teams in their mini league home and away - the season will be complete and thus in line with the rest of Europe.

The transformation of the Russian Premier League has come in for some heavy criticism from many quarters - including the players themselves. The player's union expressed disappointment that the motion was passed despite limited consultation with those who will experience the changes first hand - the players.  However, the changes are a necessary evil if Russian football is to truly build up a head of steam before the World Cup hits its shores in 2018. Yes, changes and new strategies will have to be put into place by clubs through the winter months in order to preserve the state of the pitches and stadia and ensure that the safety of fans remains paramount through the adverse conditions. However, as the new calendar becomes embedded in the nation's psyche, it could well provide Russia with a platform to see true progress on football's grandest stages.

On the subject of 'football's grandest stages', it seems appropriate to discuss the possibilities that face Zenit St Petersburg in next season's Champions League. The development Zenit have witnessed under the guidance of Luciano Spalletti has been hugely impressive - as the team's effectiveness and winning mentality saw them become champions with relative ease. In a season of vast success, one blemish has remained however - that of their defeat to Auxerre which saw Zenit dumped out of the Champions League before the initial group stages had even begun. Spalletti will have been tasked with leading Zenit to a successful campaign next time round with a quarterfinals berth a realistic possibility. The transfer windows between now and the beginning of the tournament will see the club invest heavily on players who can make Zenit into a force on the European stage. 2011 will be a significant test for Spalletti and his men, but now the rumours of the Italian moving to Internazionale have subsided, the Russian champions can look to a very bright, promising future - which will see the club's infrastructure transformed as their new stadium looms large on the horizon.

The initial steps to a successful World Cup in 2018 are certain to be made in the coming 12 months - building upon the foundations that have been laid as a result of Russia's bidding process. The World Cup promises to transform not only Russian football but also the nation's infrastructure and sociological structure. The process of construction - which will see 13 new stadiums erected, while a further 3 renovated - has already begun to take shape as Zenit St Petersburg, Rubin Kazan and Spartak Moscow's new homes are building sites awash with cranes. Each are due to open in the next couple of years but their gradual development during the course of 2011 will give a tangible sense that the World Cup is indeed coming to Eastern Europe.

The construction and development of roads, railways and tourist infrastructure are far more pressing issues for the Russian government who - along with the investment of some of the nation's richest businessmen - will need to make immediate inroads into the required infrastructural demands. The thousands upon thousands of miles of roads and railways that are required to provide the public with seamless links up and down the western portion of the nation will require time and vast financial input. 2011 should be the year that the Russian people begin to witness such extensive development. The manner in which Sochi is in the process of being transformed into the upcoming winter sports resort from the ground up shows that the Russian government does have the will to force change on the grandest of scales.

2011 is truly the year that the nation begins to take steps towards hosting football's biggest prize - the World Cup. The year will provide football with the impetus to truly recapture the imagination of a public who are yet to fully embrace the game since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each year leading up to 2018 will see developments grow steadily throughout the nation however 2011 promises to be the building block upon which the world will truly embrace Russia.

Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent  football ramblings.