sports blog by andy shenk

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.

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