Russia, a great and unknown land. Especially for many European people. A country so wide – it is indeed the largest area on the world – that we mainly know its European side. Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Rostov; even Sochi and Kazan – which are both on the western side of Russia – look to us far, far away. Partially, this perception is confirmed by stadiums’ choices for 2018 FIFA World Cup: the 11 cities picked to host matches from World Cup will be almost entirely in the European part of the country.
Yet, the next Russian Premier League will face a surprise. Maybe even a problem.
Khabarovsk region, which is also homonymous with the capital city, is the origin of this newness. This land is so distant from European Russia that actually is only 15 miles from… China border.
The city – which was named after local explorer Erofej Pavlovič Khabarov, the man who discovered the area for Russia – will host some top-flight games next season: credit goes to Football Club SKA-Khabarovsk.
It’s not the first time that Russian Premier League hosts a team from Far East. Other two clubs from that zone came to play in the top-flight: from one side FC Okean Nakhodka, which was one of the founding clubs of Russia Top League in 1992; on the other side FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, which played in RPL from 2005 to 2008, leaving more than a simple mark in players and boards. Like Khabarovsk, Vladivostok locates in the Eastern side of Russia: Igor Akinfeev, regular starter goalkeeper of CSKA Moscow, suggested them to join Japanese J. League rather than featuring in RPL. Trips are endless for clubs and also for their fans: in 2006, some Zenit fans drove their car to join the club in a game in Vladivostok, but the car broke once they arrived in the Eastern city. Therefore, they had to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to come back and Zenit rewarded them with a new car for their efforts.
Anyway, the debate about teams from Russian Far East will keep going and it will not be different with FC SKA, ready to play and fight to maintain their status during their debut-season in Russian Premier League.
Born in old 1946, Football Club SKA-Khabarovsk have waited this moment for a long time. Actually, a first shot at promotion to Russian Premier League came in 2012-13, when the 4th place in regular season gifted FC SKA a place in the relegation-promotion play-offs against FC Rostov. It’s strange to notice that it’s the same club which featured in last year’s UEFA Champions League beating also Bayern Munich. The 3-0 on aggregate in favour of Muzhiki prevent FC SKA from climbing towards the top, but the club remained in second division, guaranteeing itself a mid-table position.
Last year, something has changed, starting from denomination and logo: not anymore SKA-Energia, but FC SKA-Kharabovsk and a stronger link (or homage) to sport in a military key (the logo is an immediate and visually reminder of Red Army). Furthermore, the club opted for this rebranding thanks to SportMed’s work (a sport-consulting firm) and they obtained some prestigious partnerships (as KnAAPO and RusHydro, respectively arms producer and electricity company, both government owned).
Despite this strong support, the dream of joining RPL could have gone up in smoke.
Aleksandr Grigoryan, already the club’s manager in 2011-12 and again on FC SKA’s bench for 2016-17, left mid-season to join Anzhi, giving the guidance of the club to Aleksei Poddubskiy, a homemade product of Khabarovsk. Born, raised and professionally initiated with FC SKA, Poddubskiy has worn the club’s shirt for 15 seasons, before becoming assistant coach in 2013 and first-team head coach in April 2017, after a short spell by interim boss Andrei Gordeyev (then called to coach Russia U-18).
With Dynamo Moscow and Tosno too far away to be reached, FC SKA-Khabarovsk granted a spot in the play-off on the last match-day, drawing against direct rivals Tambov. FC SKA had to face FC Orenburg, which were at their debut season in RPL: they were the right hurdle to overcome. After 180 minutes without a goal, penalties awarded Kharabovsk team with promotion. The hero of the day was Ruslan Koryan, an Armenian striker born in Sochi, who had several experiences in Eastern Europe before finding his prime in Khabarovsk and after a first enshrining with Vladivostok and FC Luch-Energiya.
If at Lenin Stadium – actually under observation for some restructuring plans – they can celebrate (promotion is still a historical result), there’s no doubt that some RPL executives are worried: how can they plan long-flights to Kharabovsk? Will Moscow and Saint Petersburg teams accept this situation? Or will they fight back?
While we’re pondering these questions, FC SKA-Khabarovsk made their debut against Roberto Mancini’s Zenit Saint-Petersburg (who prepared the season in Austria: we’ve talked about it here) and played two matches away losing both. While RFS (Russia Football Union) works to guarantee the natural flow of 2017-18 season, FC SKA-Khabarovsk thought about the squad for the upcoming season. Several players left, like Pavel Karasyov and Igor Udaly (who joined Grigoryan at Anzhi), but new signings seem a little fragile to target their goal.
Avoiding relegation, for a newcomer like this, would be even more miraculous than actually joining RPL.
Cover photo ©FootballLineups
Aleksei Poddubskiy photo ©todaykhv.ru
Lenin Stadium photo ©nstrukt0r.livejournal.com