Russia has surprise new champions, from the Islamic region of Tatarstan. James Appell reports on Rubin Kazan's year of glory

When the Russian championship entered its mid-season break in May after 11 rounds, the unheralded Rubin Kazan sat atop the table. Rubin had taken many by surprise by winning their first seven matches, but few gave them any chance of remaining at the top once the season resumed in late July. In addition, during the break Rubin were rocked by the arrest of sporting director Rustem Saymanov, in connection with a triple murder committed in 1996. Then, straight after the restart, Rubin had five successive draws. The tide seemed to be turning.

So when they clinched the Russian league title on November 2 with a 2-1 win at Saturn Ramenskoe, many pundits were left grasping for an explanation. A largely disbelieving press alternately bemoaned the weakness of Russia’s big sides and whispered that Rubin might have bought the title in this, their 50th year. There is certainly some truth in the first point. Last season’s all-conquering Zenit side have lately looked a shadow of their former selves. Internal strife, especially the sniping of the unsettled Andrei Arshavin, clearly caused a drop in form. In Moscow, Spartak slipped out of the European places entirely during a calamitous season in which what could go wrong largely did. CSKA and Dynamo pushed hard but ultimately came up short.

However, most Russians roll their eyes when the subject of alleged match-fixing is raised. Rubin supporters’ club member Igor Denisov commented: “Rumours about bought matches have always and will always surface. But I don’t think Kazan has the kind of money to pay for all of those wins.” He has a point, though as far as money is concerned Rubin are no paupers. The club are owned and financed by the Tatarstan Republic, a federal region of Russia with large and profitable oil and natural-gas deposits, and, though suggestions of bribery may be wide of the mark, the club’s wealth may at least be considered a contributory factor in Rubin’s startling rise to prominence.

There may also be potential political factors. It may just be coincidence, but Rubin’s victory comes at a time when the Russian government is attempting to forge a more unified national identity. Islam is the majority religion in Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital, and ethnic Russians are ­outnumbered by the indigenous Tartar population. As such it is at the centre of domestic debates about how Russia can deal with its ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.

Against this backdrop, Rubin’s victory was the first since 1995 for a club from outside the major ethnic Russian centres of Moscow and St Petersburg, and it would be unsurprising for the Russian government to make political capital out of the event. Addressing the crowd in Kazan’s Tsentralny Stadium during Rubin’s victory parade last month, Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s minister for sport, rather transparently played the populist card. “This victory is a demonstration of the fact that they can play football not just in Moscow or St Petersburg, and there are also strong foundations in Tatarstan for the further development of this popular, truly national sport,” Mutko said. Rubin’s victory may have sowed the seeds of a potential political resurgence in Russia’s regions, one that could be hugely ­beneficial to Moscow.

Having said that, any attempt to link Rubin’s victory to politics is idle speculation. Most of all it has been the influence of coach Kurban Berdyev, possibly ­Turkmenistan’s most-famous footballing export, that has set Rubin apart, as he has moulded a collection of largely unsung players into a decent outfit. Sergei Semak was brought in from FC Moscow and has found a new lease of life, at club level and with Guus Hiddink’s national side. Veterans Sergei Rebrov and Savo Milosevic have formed an unlikely but effective strike partnership after joining last winter. And Turkey midfielder Gokdeniz Karadeniz has also made a key impact. As Igor Denisov said: “Berdyev has a particular magic, the result of which is that a team of average talent have begun to play like stars... He’s performed miracles.”

Berdyev himself is rather more modest about his achievement, preferring to praise his players. Then again, there may be another secret to his success – religious faith. Berdyev is renowned in Russia for pacing the touchline with prayer beads in his hand and, when asked by Russian journalists what his plans for the end of the season were, the coach replied: “I’m going on the hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca].” Whatever the reasons for Rubin’s success, we will have a new name in the Champions League next year – and at an eye-watering seven hours by plane from London, many of Europe’s top clubs will be praying to avoid Berdyev’s side.

From WSC 263 January 2009

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