sports blog by andy shenk

Arsenal Dreaming of Glory

In At The Game, Russian Football on August 25, 2013 at 7:20 AM

Originally published at Russian Football News. Click here or at the end of this excerpt for the full article.

One October evening two years ago in Tula, a city of 500,000 two hours south of Moscow, 15,000 fans headed to Arsenal Stadium for a star-studded veteran’s match. The local club, Arsenal, had a rich history, but very few achievements since its founding in 1946. Banished to the amateur leagues since 2006 due to lack of funding, few in the stands that night could have guessed that 15,000-strong crowds would be a common occurrence at Arsenal Stadium just a couple of years later…

When you live in Moscow, it’s easy to forget about the rest of the country. But half an hour after jumping in a taxi van on Moscow’s south side, my wife and I are rolling through the dusty Moscow Region countryside, headed for Tula, an ancient city 180 km south of Moscow, famed for its weapons industry, samovars and “pryaniki” (honey-cakes).

Most of the weapons factories have closed, but for Tula natives, their legacy lives on in the local football team, FC Arsenal. Abandoned financially and sputtering along in the amateur leagues from 2006-2011, Arsenal have burst back into life over the past two years. The fans come in droves, drawn by a team that hasn’t lost an official match since July 16, 2012 and sits first in Russia’s second tier of football, the Football National League, 10 matches into the 2013/2014 season. It doesn’t hurt that legendary Spartak, Porto and Roma midfielder Dmitri Alenichev mans the sidelines.

Unsure of where our taxi van will end up in Tula, Nikki and I look out on the city from the front seat. Tram tracks litter downtown, clogging car traffic. The buildings are haphazard, the usual mix of czarist Russia, Soviet and modern Russian architecture. After half an hour of meandering through town, I pick out the main gates to the stadium in the distance and we jump out of the van. The pitch and bleachers are obscured behind the entrance to the complex, but once inside the gates, we see the low-slung arena a few hundred yards away. The seats are bright colors, the field even and bright green. And almost every fan in attendance will be covered by the overhanging roof. Not your typical small-town football arena in Russia.

In fact, Arsenal experienced a small boom in the 1990s. Local businessman and club president Viktor Sokolovsky financed a major stadium renovation, which, when completed in 1996, made it one of the best facilities in Russia. At the time, Arsenal were still stuck in Russia’s third tier, but they would gain promotion to the second tier in 1998 and regularly draw crowds of 10-15,000 over the next few years. Though Arsenal never advanced to the top flight during that time, the stadium was rated highly enough for Russia to host Belarus here in a 1999 international friendly.

Tonight, three away fans are in the stands to cheer on Arsenal’s opponent, Neftekhimik, second-last in the league, hailing from Nizhnekamsk, located 1,300 kilometers east of Tula by car. Nothing’s easy in the Football National League – the schedule, travel, and antiquated conditions can wear everyone out quickly. Teams in the FNL play 36 matches per season, six more than the Premier League, and the schedule is made even worse due to Russia’s lengthy winters. Forced to go on break in November, several weeks before the Premier League does, and resuming in early March, the FNL holds its matches every five days, 38 matchdays, with two bye weeks for each of the 19 clubs.

After the match, seated at the front of Arsenal’s long, spacious press center, head coach Dmitri Alenichev admitted to the club’s fatigue: “The team doesn’t look fit. We need time to prepare the team for physical fitness. But it’s normal, nothing too terrible.”

He has some valid excuses for the team’s current condition. Arsenal finished Second Division play on June 5, then kicked off the new season a meager 32 days later. A major roster overhaul to prepare the club for the bigger budgets and stiffer competition in the FNL further complicated matters in the preseason. And in the weeks to come, Arsenal face back-to-back trips to Vladikavkaz and Kaliningrad, both of whom boast competitive clubs, Alania and Baltika, respectively, and are raring for a place in the Premier League next season.

But for the Tula fans, it all must feel like a dream… Coming into Friday night, they led the league by five points, unbeaten, with an even more impressive +16 goal differential. 22 goals in 9 matches or twice more than other club in the league, outside of 18-goal Mordovia.

Continue reading at Russian Football News.


Why I Love The Russian Premier League

In Anzhi, Russian Football, Spartak on August 20, 2013 at 7:44 AM

Originally published at Russian Football News. Click here or at the end of this excerpt for the full article.

I made the mistake a few years back of falling in love with a foreign sports league. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the Russian Premier League, but rather that I now belong to that weird, vaguely-defined “hipster” crowd. I spend my time on Twitter talking about Shirokov, Ozbiliz, Tagirbekov, and Sapogov, Kuban’s Europa League chances and Volga’s campaign to avoid relegation. Oh, and I bought skinny jeans to look like everyone else in Moscow.

It’s bad. I’ve detached from baseball games in the summer and hoops in the winter to embrace a league that probably no more than half a dozen people from my home state of Indiana could discuss intelligibly. What’s worse, almost every Russian I’ve shared my obsession with thinks I’m either crazy or cute…anything but serious.

But those are the types of problems a kid faces, when he grows up in Ohio for eight years, splits the next eight between Dagestan, Indiana and Moscow, and then bounces around Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Moscow for nine more. You don’t generally share many experiences with others and you sure don’t end up with the same interests.

With all that upheaval, it took a little while for the seeds planted watching Spartak battle Oliver Kahn’s mighty Bayern Munich in the 2001 Champions League and suffering through Russia’s calamitous 2002 World Cup campaign to take root. Having left Russia in 2004, I returned to Moscow in 2009, a fan of the national team and Spartak and a close observer of Anzhi’s fortunes in the 2nd division, but with very little actual knowledge. I’d never even watched a full league match.

Between classes that spring and research work that summer, I packed in as much live Russian football as I could. A few days after arriving in late March, I watched Russia scrape by Azerbaijan, 2-0, in front of 62,000 fans at Luzhniki Stadium (ironically, the next Russian national team match I would see was nearly an exact copy – 1-0 to Russia over Azerbaijan in Luzhniki last fall). Then it was a steady diet of league competition: Lokomotiv – Krylia Sovetov and lots of Spartak, highlighted by Spartak’s 2-1 triumph over CSKA in front of 75,000.

Russia’s biggest sports daily, Sport-Express, though, was most responsible for my Russian football obsession. It packed all the info and history on Russian football that I could handle and I read it voraciously, cover to cover, riding the metro to class, in between class periods, at train stations, stadiums and airports. Russian sports journalists had a corner on the blog market long before the Internet dreamed up the term, and the tidbits on Spartak fans’ mass outings to Rostov in the summer and Krylia Sovetov striker Jan Koller’s adjustment to Russia, sandwiched in between match reports, were fascinating.

And as Anzhi battled for promotion that summer, even the 2nd division came to life, most memorably thanks to a club named MVD (acronym for Russian Interior Ministry). Founded in 2007, the Moscow Region outfit reached Russia’s second tier in a flash before folding that July, under suspicion the club had been financed in part by extorted money.

When I returned to America in August, I even looked into subscribing to Sport-Express, which had a small press in New York City, but chickened out because of the cost. Then, for a few more years, my interest went into hibernation, limited to checking scores and catching the occasional illegal stream. I graduated from college, did a year of service in Madison, Wisconsin, and got married.

The summer of my wedding, a friend asked if I’d like to contribute to a sports blog he was thinking of starting. He never did get the site going, but his question couldn’t have come at a better time. I decided I did want to be a writer, as ridiculous as it felt to say out loud.

I was watching Anzhi matches religiously by this time, having cooled off to Spartak after a notorious pogrom in downtown Moscow, incited by Spartak fans, against natives of the North Caucasus region where I had lived.

It didn’t hurt that Anzhi were flush with cash. My new-found passion coincided nicely with the club’s “New History”, the slogan on display everywhere in Dagestan. The narrative gets a bit fuzzy for a while, as my commitment to Anzhi, Russian football and writing conflicted with work and a series of exhausting moves for my wife and I between Minnesota, Moscow and Indiana, but this winter the journey finally began in earnest, first in writing for The False Nine, then more comprehensively when I helped to found Russian Football News.

As I thought about how to put this article together, I realized the best I could do was simply share why my personal calendar revolves around Russian football and not other more glamorous leagues. You may not have any more interest in Russian football after reading this, but I hope I can convince you of my own passion.

Continue reading at Russian Football News.

Guus Hiddink Steps Down at Anzhi Makhachkala

In Anzhi, Russian Football on July 23, 2013 at 7:56 AM

Originally published at Russian Football News. Click here to read the entire article or at the end of this excerpt.

I got the news last night from Ashraff Hasnan, another RFN contributor, who also happened to be at the CSKA – Krylia Sovetov match in Khimki. On the trip home from the arena, overhearing several more conversations about Hiddink’s departure, I had the sense everyone else, like me, was trying to process what had happened. Had Hiddink truly resigned? Was he diplomatically asked to leave by Suleyman Kerimov after a draw at home to Lokomotiv and loss to Dynamo? Or had Anzhi planned this transition months in advance, buying up key players with Hiddink as figurehead, then using his sudden departure to give the team a much-needed jolt?

It seems clear now that former Manchester United pitch coach Rene Meulensteen was, at the least, brought in as insurance. I remember watching him feed balls to Willian, Ionov and Eto’o in warm-ups before Friday’s loss to Dynamo, while Hiddink sat by himself on the bench pre-match. Now we’ll see if the Dutchman has the savvy and presence to gain the players’ confidence and help them compete for silverware.

But it’s far too early to say much about Meulensteen, at least with regards to Anzhi. It’s Hiddink we’re still thinking about – the brilliant psychologist, venerable journeyman, and, perhaps, over-the-hill tactician.

When he returned to Russia in February 2012 to replace Yuri Krasnozhan, the excitement in Makhachkala was sky-high. At the first meeting with the team, the players and staff even applauded his appearance – the perception of Hiddink as a rock star in Russia will probably never fade. But Hiddink, clearly aware of Anzhi’s long road ahead, had words of caution: “Let’s hold the applause until our joint success.

Hiddink joined Anzhi after a tumultuous stretch 4-month period in which Dagestani coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev was shown the door, Krasnozhan was hired, then fired a month and a half later, and several Anzhi executives were removed or slotted into new positions. The club was actually on the verge of signing Guus back in December 2011, before the Krasnozhan camp won out in the boardroom. But when Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o reportedly told owner Suleyman Kerimov that he had to decide between them or Krasnozhan, Hiddink once again became target #1 and was convinced a few days later to join the club.

In practice reports, player interviews and commentary from the press, Hiddink was portrayed from the start as a master psychologist, able to connect with and command the respect of everyone on the team, from Eto’o to the end of the bench. He had some early success, a 3-0 thrashing of Spartak in Moscow the highlight from spring 2012, but it would be the coming summer and autumn when Hiddink’s stock rose highest.

Continue reading at Russian Football News.