Russian football, a world awash with money, so where does that leave the amateur game?
To many disillusioned fans of wealthy, internationally recognised clubs, amateur football is perhaps the purest form of the game. Worlds away from the millionaires on display at Manchester City, Fiorentino Perez's star-studded Real Madrid and even the products of Barcelona's multi-million pound youth academy, the amateur game epitomises the romantic view of sport – two teams, a mixture of enthusiastic teenagers and grizzled ex-professionals coming together in all conditions to live out their dreams one more time, the lack of money and spectators doing nothing to dampen their love of their sport.
In many countries, this rose-tinted view of the lower leagues rears its head once a year, in the opening round of national cup games. Even then, the amateur sides must share the limelight with semi-professional clubs, and even second tier teams who do not enter the thoughts of the casual supporter for 364 days of the year. Giant-killings in recent years fall almost exclusively into the latter camp – Leeds shocking Manchester United in 2010, Alcorcon beating Real Madrid 4-0 a year earlier, and a little less obviously, Volgar-Gazprom Astrakhan's last-minute win over CSKA Moscow in this year's Russian Cup.
As if to prove a point, CSKA's defeat seen as a huge upset in Russia despite the fact that Volgar had already made it to the last 32 of the competition by winning away at Alania Vladikavkaz, the 2011 runners-up and a side with a formidable home record. In the previous year's competition, Volgar's 1-0 win over Rubin Kazan was not even the biggest shock of the round on a weekend which saw Lokomotiv Moscow crash out at Gornyak Uchaly, a Second Division club from Bashkortostan which most Russians had not heard of until their famous win. For a Champions League side and title challenger such as CSKA to exit the competition against lower league opposition is simply unthinkable for fans of the Army Men, and that disbelief spread quickly around the entire footballing community.
Yet to imagine the likes of Volgar as the lowest of Russia's low would be terribly misleading. As their name suggests, Volgar-Gazprom Astrakhan are the beneficiaries of substantial funding from the world's largest gas company, and the club from the Caspian coast are slowly building a platform form which to push to promotion into the top flight. A nondescript season so far sees them in the bottom half of the First Division, but whilst they may not be on the radar of many CSKA fans, they are far from footballing unknowns.
Even in the regionally-divided Second Division, there are teams which may be known to the more adventurous Football Manager player. Rotor Volgograd, once UEFA Cup conquerors of Manchester United, head a list of sides fighting to reach the national leagues which includes the likes of Dinamo Barnaul, Textilschik Ivanovo and Salyut Belgorod – not household names, but nor are they are meaningless names to those with a passing knowledge of Russian football.
It may seem strange then, that in a country which just over two decades ago still advocated amateur status in a number of sports, and whose literature searches for beauty in suffering perhaps more than any other nation, the romantic nation of the enthusiastic amateur practically non-existent. Such is the all-consuming legacy of the Soviet society system ,that not even the most football-obsessed CSKA fan would consider an evening at the local amateur club a worthwhile pursuit during an international break. Even in the First Division, the second tier of football in a country of over 140 million people, the average attendance sits at less than 5,000, such is the indifference shown towards sides other than the traditional powers.
So it is no surprise that amateur football in Russia is something of a mess, ten regional leagues assembled with geography rather than skill level in mind providing some footballing anomalies which would not look out of place in English pub leagues – Vympel Korlev with 171 goals conceded in 34 games, FK Podolye going 30 games unbeaten and three teams in a single league exceeding a century of goals scored. In some respects the notion of a league is worthless, as the over-powered champions often decline promotion for financial reasons and continue to dominate leagues for years until the youngsters move on to a professional career.
But there are also signs that the system works, and is a valuable step for teams as well as players. A brief look at recent league winners finds a number of sides who have won their amateur division before consolidating their position in a higher league – the previously-mentioned Gornyak accompany FK Tyumen, Chernomorets Novorossiysk, Vityaz Podolsk and the reborn Torpedo Moscow to name but four. As the first step on the long road to footballing success, it is imperative that there is an amateur system in place for these teams to establish themselves before pushing into the professional ranks.
However, that still leaves a gaping hole for romantic, principled amateurism, teams created on sporting principle and joy of play rather than a desire for a healthy wage packet. Thankfully, for all those who still see Queen's Park as the only real team in Scotland, there are a number of sides in Russia who continue to uphold those gentlemanly traditions.
Perhaps the team currently embodying this mindset is Kooperator, a team from Vichuga in the traditional Golden Ring area of Russia. Playing in the amateur league of the same name, the team of the local consumer co-operative has won four of the previous five titles and are 11 points clear this campaign, and yet have shown no signs of wanting to test themselves at a higher level. Although financial reasons no doubt play a part in this decision, it is not due to a lack of ability – in 2010, Kooperator entered the Russian Cup only to lose on penalties to local rivals Textilschik Ivanovo, and there is little to suggest that they would be outclassed in the Second Division. They are a team that simply wants to play football – something which in Russia at least; a country whose football is dominated by huge corporate deal, government sponsorship and wealthy backers, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
To read more from Rob you can read his excellent blog here