sports blog by andy shenk

So Long, Premier League

In At The Game, Russian Football, Spartak on May 27, 2013 at 9:41 AM

 

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Originally published at Russian Football News, I relive Sunday’s excursion to Spartak – Alania, which I attended with the visiting fans, as well as look back briefly on the end of the Russian Premier League season. Click here or at the end of this excerpt to read the entire article. 

The Premier League fizzled out on Sunday afternoon. Three matches in Moscow barely drew 20,000 fans between them, CSKA and Zenit stumbled on the road after deciding the title race the week before. Krasnodar hosted the biggest game of the weekend, Kuban – Anzhi, with the home team needing a win to guarantee its first-ever place in the Europa League. Nearly 32,000 fans, possibly more according to eyewitnesses, celebrated a 1-0 victory over 3rd-place Anzhi.

The biggest embarrassment came from the other three clubs jockeying for two Europa League places. Fewer than 10,000 fans showed up for Dinamo and Rubin home matches, while Terek’s Akhmat Arena crowd of 14,000 sagged significantly below its season average. Many will blame the early start time, 1:30 pm, but it’s disappointing for the season to go out with a whimper, after a spring schedule packed with controversies, upsets and better-than-expected attendance.

Blame the schedule-makers, the weather, and Moscow’s dearth of quality football venues, though, for the apathy in the capital, not just the fans.

My Sunday morning started at 8:30 am, steady rain beating against the window panes. I faced a 40-minute metro trip to meet up with Alania fans by 11:30, in order to bus over together to the stadium for the Spartak match. The home team’s Luzhniki Stadium closed a few weeks before to prepare for rugby and athletics competitions this summer, forcing a move from its 80,000-seater to the outdated Eduard Streltsov Stadium on the Moscow River. Spartak couldn’t even sell any tickets, as the number of season-ticket holders roughly matched the capacity of the 13,500-seat venue. That’s one reason I joined the away support. I’m not sure I could have gotten in otherwise.

Elsewhere in Moscow, Lokomotiv fans hardly bothered to show up for a meaningless match with Mordovia. Relations between club management and organized fan clubs has degenerated to such an extent that the once-proud South stand filled to maybe 1/4 its capacity and spent much of the match reaming out Lokomotiv executives.

Dinamo fans may have it worst. Dinamo Stadium, no more than a 15-minute metro ride and 5-minute walk from Red Square, has been under reconstruction since 2009, and the club’s temporary home, shared with CSKA, takes at least an hour to reach by public transportation from downtown. Six thousand fans, a fairly typical showing in Khimki Arena, showed up to support their team in a must-win match against Volga. The rain may have stopped, but grey skies and an hour-plus commute kept the crowds. Muscovites rarely get to bed before 1 or 2 am on the weekends, anyway, making the early afternoon start time too much of a headache.

That’s the reality of Russian football. It’s packed with potential – an astounding 14 of 16 clubs had something to play in the 2nd-to-last week of the season. Up to 25% of the league can be relegated each season and six of 16 (38%) earn a place in European competition. Lokomotiv – Mordovia was truly a dud, with the visitors already relegated and Lokomotiv recently eliminated from European contention. But Dinamo needed to beat Volga to get into Europe, while the visitors needed a result to avoid the relegation playoffs. And Spartak, despite an underwhelming season from start to finish, could still finish 4th and sew up a Europa League berth with a win over last-place Alania.

Tagging along with the Alania crowd, I knew that I was in for a long day. I arrived at the meeting place at 10:45 am, about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure for the stadium. Carrying my Anzhi scarf as proof of good intentions, I waited with 30-40 other fans for the buses to arrive. In the loose North Caucasus fan alliance between Anzhi – Terek – Alania – Spartak Nalchik, Alania are the distinguished, elder statesmen. They won the league in 1995 and consistently finished near the top of the table in those years, the one club to interrupt Spartak’s 1992-2001 title fest.

Big crowds cheered on Alania in those years, too. But the North Caucasus torch has been passed to Anzhi over the last two years, after brief sparks from both Nalchik and Terek, both in terms of organized support and success on the pitch. Alania, of course, can’t compete with Suleiman Kerimov’s millions, but the Anzhi fans have also overtaken the Alanskie Barsy (nickname – Alania Panthers) supporters. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of fans show up for Anzhi matches in Moscow, joined by a smattering of Terek, Alania and Spartak Nalchik fans.

The matches mean more, with all of the Moscow clubs consistently in contention for Europe and Anzhi fighting to assert itself among Russia’s elite clubs. But it’s a sad fall for Alania Vladikavkaz, the club that kicked off a football boom across the North Caucasus. After returning to the Premier League in 2010, following a four-year absence, Alania promptly dropped down again. This year’s promotion, replete with a new sponsor and the return of championship manager and native-born Valery Gazzaev, promised much, but the players reportedly went unpaid for months and abysmal play in the fall doomed Alania to relegation once more. The Spartak match on Sunday would mean farewell to the Premier League and a step backward in the struggle to regain relevance.

In all, about 70 of us showed up to support Alania. One fellow Anzhi fan (I counted four of us in all) surmised that most Muscovite Anzhi fans stayed home to watch the Kuban match. A handful of Spartak Nalchik scarves rounded out the away section’s North Caucasus diaspora.

Alania fans mingling before kick-off

If you don’t know anything about the North Caucasus, attending a football match between one of the region’s football clubs and a Moscow side can be a decent way to start. We didn’t leave for the stadium until a little after noon, and weren’t let in until close to 1 pm. The policemen surrounding our little section behind the goal nearly outnumbered us and we looked up on both sides to mostly full Spartak stands.

Continue reading at Russian Football News.

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