Reforming the Trans-Siberian Football League: The Eastern Solution

Vladivostok is a place considered the edge of the world, a city which causes one to conjure up evocative and redolent images of the far end of our world. Above all, as Vladimir Lenin once surmised; Vladivostok is far away, but it is ours. Lenin himself never did gaze across the Pacific Coast to the Sea of Japan himself, but his statue outside the cities’ ostentatious station has guarded it for a century. It would take roughly a week to reach the Trans-Siberian Railway’s western terminus in Moscow, and even flying between the two is a 9-hour flight. As a result of this isolation, even blissful isolation, much of the Premier League did not bat an eyelid upon their relegation back to the second division in 2008. The city may be considered the edge of the world to some, and it certainly is the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, but it isn’t the far edge of the Trans-Siberian Football League, which spans much larger than the biggest railway in the world.

READ PART ONE: Problems with the Trans-Siberian Football League

READ PART TWO: Reforming Trans-Siberian Football League

In the following two installments of this series, we explored the inherent problems with the Football National League (FNL), remarked as the “Trans-Siberian Football League”. This section will move away from just reforming the FNL, and instead, shift focus upon the teams based in Siberia and the Far-East of both the FNL and Professional Football League (PFL), and more precisely, approach the ideas that consist of the “Eastern Solution”, the route to easing the burden set upon the eleven lower-league teams based out in the farther reaches of Siberia; Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, Sibir Novosibirsk, Tom Tomsk, FC Tyumen and Yenisey Krasnoyarsk from the FNL and FC Chita, Dinamo Barnaul, Irtysh Omsk, Sakhalin Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Smena Komsomolsk, and Zenit Irkutsk from the PFL.

 

The “Eastern Problem”

Igor Akinfeev once unwillingly ignited the debate to the Eastern Solution way back in 2008, when in response to a 4-0 defeat away to Luch-Energiya Vladivostok in the 2008 Premier League, he bemoaned that they “should be playing in the Japanese League”. Although part in jest, he did accurately define just what the “Eastern Problem” is. All of the Eastern teams struggle in terms of travel distances back to the overpopulated European Russia. Overpopulated in terms of both general population levels and the number of professional football teams based west of the Urals. Only twelve fully professional first team football clubs exist east of the Urals, and none of these are based in the north of the country, with the farthest north Tyumen, at 57° North and the farthest west, just 500 km from the base of the Ural’s themselves, and the rest of the twelve snake south-east from Tyumen, as the inclement weather and contemptible meterological conditions in Northern Siberia makes the running of a professional football team almost impossible. Because the top division in any country can never be regionalized, these teams will always struggle with the Russian football elite strongly centered upon European Russia, and Moscow and Saint Petersburg specifically.

Club’s in the Far East have often developed a siege mentality with one another, and despite obvious rivalries, the club’s in this far edge of the world are not just close geographically, but have developed close links with one another and often stand by each other’s side in debates with European Russian teams. In 1993, allegations in Russia were adduced that Luch and Okean Nakhodka were both conspired against by other teams who did not want to even travel out to the Far East. Igor Rabiner explored the debacle whilst still working for Sport-Express;

The circus began in the last league round; Lokomotiv Nizhny Novgorod and Zhemchuzhina Sochi put on an unforgettable show. A fire truck was deliberately sent late to the stadium, and so the game began twelve minutes later than all other games…the players started feigning injuries after all fouls, so the delay increased to almost 15 minutes towards the end of the game. When all other games ended, everyone learned that Zhemchuzhina wouldn’t get relegated at all, but Lokomotiv needed a win. And so, 1-1 quickly turned into 2-1. The emergency meeting of the PFL, of course, couldn’t prove anything. If anything, the teams became even more brazen in the transitional tournament. Referee Igor Zakharov, who played for Luch back then, said in an interview much later; “The entire thing was fixed”. Dinamo-Gazovik Tyumen won their first three games to secure promotion and then threw their last two games. Krylya Sovetov needed two wins in the very same last two games – and they got those wins. It was enough for Lada Togliatti to draw Chernomorets Novorossiysk in the last round – and they got their draw, 1-1. The entire Higher League [second division] wanted Okean and Luch relegated – and the Far Eastern teams didn’t survive.

Rabiner later spoke with Viktor Antikhovich, then Krylia Sovetov manager, ten years after the game;

The tournament was played in Moscow, on artificial fields, under everyone’s eyes. My club stayed in the Higher League, but Luch…Nobody wanted to fly 9 hours to the games. The desires of Higher League clubs are totally understandable. But even that wasn’t enough. During the Krylya Sovetov – Okean game, which Krylya won 3-1, the Nakhodka team forward Oleg Kokarev accused goalkeeper Yuri Shishkin of deliberately throwing the match and came off the field. And then he gave an interview to Sport-Express describing it in great detail. Of course, this also didn’t change anything.

Nothing ever came of the match-fixing, this was a much wider problem in the Soviet Union – the only time a person was “punished” for match fixing was in 1969. In the last round of the 1969 Soviet Top League, Torpedo Kutaisi and SKA Rostov-on-Don drew 3-3. David Kherkhadze scored a hat-trick for the home side and Vladimir Proskurin for SKA, which allowed them to catch up with Spartak’s Nikolai Osyanin as the top scorer in the league. An article later published in Футбол-Хоккей found this to be very suspicious, and only Osyanin was awarded the highest goalscorer award. The article didn’t even openly state any allegations of match fixing, but only awarded it to Osyanin for he was a; “forward of the champion team, who scored very important goals that secured the championship for Spartak”. The problems of match fixing are much wider than this investigation will explore, but in this case, the interest is not the match fixing itself, but that the whole league conspired to remove all Siberian and Far Eastern teams from the Russian First League.

Akinfeev’s similar idea to ostracise Luch and “send them to the Japanese League” may make fiscal sense for FC Sakhalin, SKA and Luch et al, who are closer to many teams in both Japan and China than they are to Tyumen, considerably. However, in reality, the geopolitical difficulties regarding negotiating such a deal would be impossible to navigate. Never mind the cultural and local impact upon the club and fans in being forced to play in Japan. This is an impossibility.

 

Circadian Advantage

First, before exploring the routes to solving the Eastern Solution, we must explore the notion that teams in Siberia and the Far East are inherently disadvantaged. Sports commentators in the United States have theorized a “circadian advantage” that western-based teams have over those in the east. This advantage was initially theorized by researchers at Stanford and the University of Massachusetts in 1997, however, the term itself wasn’t coined until 2004, when Dr. Christopher Winter, a neurologist and sleep specialist, initially studied sleep patterns and the effects of Major League Baseball teams traveling between differing time zones. Living organisms have an innate sense of the length of a day, caused by your adjustment to the natural rhythm and cycles of sunlight. Plants rely on sunlight for energy, while animals have settled into niches based on the span of hours they considered the optimal time to be awake. As a result, somewhere inside the cells of most living things is what amounts to a fairly accurate 24-hour clock, known as the “circadian rhythm”, which tells an organism when it is time to rest, or time to expound a lot of energy. Winter claims that when a player travels, he loses his circadian rhythm, and as such, the home team has a circadian advantage. Referring to the 24-hour cycles of activity and sleep that mammals go through daily.

Winter and his colleagues based their conclusions on an analysis of the results of 24,121 MLB games played during baseball seasons from 1997 to 2006. Though it may seem like just a “small advantage”, Winter says it could mean the one- or two-game difference between making or not making the playoffs at the end of the regular season. He highlighted the three-hour time difference from New York to San Fransisco as a particular problem, as the Mets traveling west would have a 60% chance of losing on the first day, 52% on the second day and a 49% chance by the third day of a three-day series.

In Russia, there are no series’ but vastly longer time differences and travel distances. Without knowing it, players of teams from the East are playing at a massive, inherent disadvantage. Because of the circadian rhythm, which they can’t control, their bodies are past their natural performance peaks midway through the first half. By the end of the game, the team from the East will be competing close to its equivalent of midnight, and even farther beyond for those like Sakhalin, Luch, SKA, and Smena Komsomolsk. Their bodies will be subtly preparing for sleep by taking steps such as lowering the body temperature, slowing the reaction time, and increasing the amount of melatonin in their bloodstream. Players in the team from European Russia, meanwhile, are still competing in the prime time of their circadian cycle. This is all aside from the huge costs the clubs regularly spend on traveling to and from games and maintaining both the pitch and ground.

 

Re-Regionalization

As aforementioned in “Reforming the Trans-Siberian Football League” previously, the amalgamation of the FNL and PFL resulting in a 75-team division split into six differing zones according to the 2016 Regionalisation proposals may be the best way forwards to minimise travel distances and logistical problems. With these eleven teams reformed into the Eastern Zone, the longest journey (Tyumen – Sakhalin) a 4,900 km travel distance instead of the 7,000 km plus trips to Kaliningrad and regularly 6,000 km plus trips to European Russia. FC Tyumen could be regionalized into a different zone, such as the Ural-Povolzhye due to their close distance to the Ural Mountains, but by virtue of being on the Eastern side, for this hypothesis at least – will stay in the Eastern zone. Adding SKA Khabarovsk to the mix, who – if relegated from the RFPL – will take a place in the Eastern Zone, this enables twelve teams who will be consisting of an eleven team division (with one in the Premier League) and does easily split almost half way into an East-West and East-East grouping.

The East-West group involves (all listed from their location traveling eastwards); FC Tyumen, Irtysh Omsk, Sibir Novosibirsk, Dinamo Barnaul, Tom Tomsk and Yenisey Krasnoyarsk, all within a 1500km, few-hour flight of each other. The East-East will involve more traveling due to the high number of teams in the very Far East; Zenit Irkutsk, FC Chita, Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, SKA Khabarovsk, Smena Komsomolsk and FC Sakhalin. The longest journey of all these teams would be the 2,700 km one-way journey that Sakhalin and Zenit Irkutsk will have to carry out once a season respectively.

Although regionalizing a regionalized zone is murky and will create two six-team zones, which is far too low in creating a competitive regionalized zone as a whole, yet the current PFL Eastern Zone is likewise a six-team division with distances of over 4,500 km regularly traversed. Regionalising the zone into one eleven-team division and unifying the lower leagues is a no brainer to allow competitive competition, but re-regionalizing again will almost half the gargantuan financial and fiscal burden placed on these teams. Restructuring the leagues must be an act taken sooner rather than later, but the RFU and heads of Russian Football themselves have two clear options following these lines, and either is better than the current status quo.

 

European Russia Training Base

Luch-Energiya Vladivostok spent 2006-2008 in the Premier League, and battled throughout their three-year stint; the players with fatigue, club officials with running costs and everyone with the travel and weather. Luch finished ninth, fourteenth and sixteenth respectively, with at first a successful season-ending at mid-table followed by a relegation playoff victory and then relegation itself finishing dead last in 2008. Luch performed admirably to stay in the league for three years, and their eventual relegation was almost inevitable due to their location.

From 1936-1991 there was never a single Siberian team that performed in the Soviet Top League, who were often pushed out by their Soviet, non-Russian opponents funded by almost entire nations. The closest team to ever reaching the Top league was Kuzbass Kemerovo, who finished sixth on two occasions (1977, 1987). They were the only team in the Soviet First League (second division) until 1982 when they themselves were displaced by SKA Khabarovsk, and in 1972 neither of the top two divisions of Soviet football featured any team from Siberia or the Far East. It is by no tradition in Russian football that a Siberian team is successful in the top flight, and thus their relegation in 2008 came as no surprise.

During this run, Luch setup a temporary training base outside Moscow to be based from for longer away trips. In May 2007, Luch were based in European Russia for three weeks during a period of three away games against Krylia, Kuban Krasnodar and Rubin Kazan. This road trip was sandwiched on either side by respective runs of four and three straight home games to make up for the difficult away schedule. These types of “trips” are commonplace in American sports, and we have thus far only seen SKA Khabarovsk do it once when they stayed in Moscow for successive games against CSKA and Lokomotiv.

Luch Energiya fans celebrating against Tom Tomsk at the Dinamo Stadium. Source: fcle.ru

Some suggestions to solve these problems would be to relocate eastern teams to European Russia to train, and then fly back to home games. Similar ideas have been mentioned in North-East England in order for Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough to combat the increasing North-South divide, with all three having apparently discussed opening a “London Training Base”. I oppose both permanent moves, as both the Russian Far East and English North East are parts of their respective countries somewhat isolated in footballing terms and have garnered a strong defensive identity through this blissful isolation. If for example, Luch moved permanently to European Russia, this would not solve any problems and would simply create a myriad of fan related troubles through a loss of identity to and in the region.

One way that this could work, however, is on a temporary only basis. Say, in the hard months of Winter, Luch could have a training base in European Russia for the month in which they played four home games and nullify weather troubles, financial costs, and the Circadian Advantage. Then, for the new year or vice versa Luch will have numerous home games in order to negate the inherent geographical disadvantages.

 

Denouement

One aphorism that resonates when considering the future of these Far Eastern teams is again Lenin’s words that “Vladivostok is far away, but it is ours”. All football fans can empathise with Igor Akinfeev’s comments regarding the massive distance to Vladivostok, but he had to only make that trip once. Just once, from Moscow and then straight back. His comments are in fact both ignorant and narcissistic. Oh, woe betide poor Igor, having to travel to the Far East just once a year for three years when the whole Luch playing and coaching staff, media team, club officials and doctors would have to make that same flight every week. Former Luch defender Matija Kristić has himself bemoaned this;

It’s not as bad for other teams because they only need to travel this distance once a year whereas we have to do it for all away matches.

Exactly the same can be said now with SKA Khabarovsk, a squad of players who will have to endure over ~180,000 km of travel during the course of a 30-game, eight-month season, including seven-timezones and usually more than one flight.

Most cities in both the FNL and away from European Russia often have to travel to Moscow in order to fly to certain cities. Yegor Titov, Yenisey Krasnoyarsk Assistant Manager, and Spartak Moscow legend spoke of the difficulty flying out of Krasnoyarsk. There are very few direct flights from Krasnoyarsk to other FNL teams’ cities. For example, Titov has had to travel Krasnoyarsk-Moscow-Kaliningrad and Krasnoyarsk-Moscow-Astrakhan. This is typical of the problems Siberian and Far Eastern clubs see on a daily basis, instead of a direct flight which would shorten their journey time drastically, clubs are faced to fly hours out of the way in order just to change flight paths on Rossiya or Aeroflot passenger planes – not private jets – from Moscow.

The club’s all often fly into Moscow, and although will likely lose their identity and links with their respective fanbases if they stay there for longer periods of time. Maybe temporary relocation for training into European Russia will allow teams to prosper both on and off the pitch. However, this temporary road trip base may only work hand-in-hand alongside restructuring the Russian lower divisions and returning to the old Spring-Fall schedule.

No matter which route the RFU decide to reform the Trans-Siberian Football League, one option which they cannot take is to do nothing – and as is the case with Russian Football, this is the most likely option.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

Comments

  1. Amazing article as always. It seems that every solution comes with another problem. Of course dividing the league by regions shortens the distances but because the far east doesn’t have a large number of teams you still have to cover a lot of ground. So in the end it’s still a system that favours the european side teams. And when one (or more) of the far east promotes in the first league we come back to the same problem. But it’s still the best solution that we can come up with.

Leave a Reply