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.