Russia – Provincial challenge to Spartak’s title

Spartak Moscow have not reacted well to a provincial challenge for this year's championship, back by a dodgy aluminium company. Kevin O'Flynn reports

The Russian premier league hasn’t been a foregone conclusion this year as four teams, two from Mos­cow, two not, have remained in contention for much of the season. The big surprise has been Krylia Sov­ietov Samara, until now perpetual mid-table fodder, who stayed at the top for most of the first half of the season. Backed by a mighty corporation, they seemed for a long time to have a chance to become only the second team from outside Moscow to win the Russian title. Krylia have been joined by their neighbours across the Volga river, Sokol Saratov, who, newly pro­moted, raced up to the top of the table and still harbour vague hopes of a UEFA Cup spot.

Since the demise of the old Soviet league, the odd provincial contender has been thrown up to compete with perennial winners Spartak, usually fattened by a generous local government and sus­pected of buy­ing their way to the top by dubious methods. Alania Vladi­kavkaz are the only club to have pulled it off completely, breaking Spar­tak’s streak of titles in 1995 on the back of what were said to be illegal funds from massive sales of home-brewed alcohol.

Samara is as sleepy as a town with 1.5 million people and a large industrial base can be. Lying on the Volga river, 15 hours by train from Moscow, it was closed to foreigners during Soviet times. The club has made few notable marks in its 60-year history except for reaching two Russian Cup semi-finals – including this year – and setting the record for bouncing up and down the most times from the Soviet premier league (five).

Named the Red Wings after a local aviation plant, they were funded by the local government until two years ago, then taken over by the world’s second largest aluminium pro­ducer, Sibal. Crippled by the 1998 rou­ble crash, the club saw its budget lose three quar­ters of its value and its squad disappear as pay was cut or withheld. Only 12 players were left when Sibal’s Ger­man Tkachenko became president and turned the club upside down. Krylia have bought well, often from abroad, and have a calm and clever manager in Alexander Tarkhanov. As a player in Soviet times, Tarkhanov always wanted to join Spartak but was forced to remain with the army team CSKA. Not surprisingly, the team’s style is very much a Spartak one.

Some fans aren’t too happy to see their team packed with foreigners – the fact that Tka­chenko is Ukrainian doesn’t help either – nor that Sibal are in charge. The alum­inium business has one of the worst reputations in Russia and Sibal’s president is currently being sued for the small matter of $2.7 billion in the US in relation to al­leg­edly corrupt business practices.

Samara’s battle with the centre has been spiced up by the bad blood between them and Spar­tak. Krylia have been pro­pelled along by the skills of former Spartak players Andrei Tikhonov and Yevgeny Bushmanov, both of whom had been dumped by the Moscow club. With Spartak coach Oleg Romantsev also in charge of the national side, that virtually ended their international careers as well. Tikhonov has had the most influence at Samara. Still one of the best midfielders in the coun­try, he has a goody-goody reputation and was once voted “gentleman of the year”. “Before he arrived, I thought it was all hype about Tik­honov,” sighed one club employee, “but it’s all true.”

As Krylia outshone his team at the start of the sea­son, Romantsev stirred things up by saying the two players were “on the scrapheap”. Tkachenko res­pon­ded by calling Romantsev a drunk, something others had only said in private. Spartak have been subdued for most of the season, as if they still can’t believe they have to play against teams like Fakel Voronezh after the glitz of the Champions League. Rom­antsev stop­ped talking to the press and has bought heavily, ditching half the team in typically grumpy style.

Provincial clubs have come into their own on the back of an attendance boom that has mainly bypassed Moscow. Samara have the second biggest crowds in the country, just above 25,000, while Spartak is the only Moscow side in the top ten. The capital continues to hoover up the trophies, but football’s pulse beats stronger in the provinces – if Krylia’s success doesn’t last or their metals giant suddenly loses interest, the fans will still go.

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month