SKA – Lokomotiv: The Politics of a Russian Winter Game

SKA’s homefield in Khabarovsk. Photo: Andshel

Russia as a country is known for its insanely harsh winters, and obviously this also affects football. The white winter pitches and ice cold temperatures are almost trademarks of Russian football, but it is not just fun and games. In fact, the frozen pitches and freezing temperatures can really be quite dangerous for the players.

An example of this came last weekend, when SKA Khabarovsk hosted CSKA Moscow home at Lenin Stadium in -17 degrees celsius. During the game both Georgy Milanov and Aleksey Berezutsky of the Moscow side had to be carried off the pitch, and it was later revealed that both of them suffered serious injuries.

The risk against the health of the players is two-fold: firstly, there is of course the low temperatures, which greatly affects the body. Anybody who has been outside in the cold for a longer period can testify that the body reacts differently under such extreme conditions. The body is slower to warm up, and quicker to cool down, which of course increase the risk of injuries.

Secondly, there is the pitch. The pitch at Lenin Stadium was absolutely horrendous. The surface was both rock hard and incredibly bumpy, which also increases both the risk and seriousness of injuries.

A disgrace or just spoiled players?

Next week, it is Lokomotiv Moscow’s turn to take the long trip to the Far East and Khabarovsk, and the weather is expected to be even colder than against CSKA. Obviously, the Railroaders aren’t happy about it.

Last weekend, the red-greens sent SKA an official request to postpone the match. However, the hosts refused with general director Oleg Flegontov stating to Championat that he saw no reason to fulfill Lokomotiv’s wish.

Flegontov pointed out that only the referee could and should decide whether or not to cancel a match. Furthermore, he argued that he had never experienced a match being postponed just because of a weather forecast, before rhetorically asking if other countries cancel games depending on the forecast.

The general director even suggested that Lokomotiv were perhaps just afraid to fly to Khabarovsk.

Lokomotiv head coach Yuri Semin has been an outspoken supporter of moving the game. Through the media he has advocated for moving the game to Moscow or Sochi or postponing it to the spring. Speaking to Championat he said:

“First of all, there are some UEFA recommendations that needs to be met, and secondly we need to think about the health of the players on both teams.”

Semin furthermore used the example of CSKA, where the conditions caused two serious injuries, and stated that the league should aim at creating surroundings where the players could show their best without risking their health.

Lokomotiv have received support from people in high places. Duma parliament member Igor Lebedev, who also sits on the Russian Football Union’s Executive Committee, called the SKA-Lokomotiv game a “disgrace for Russian football”.

“It is abuse of both players and fans. We must remember that both Lokomotiv and CSKA represent our country in European competitions and make up a large part of our national team. You can’t force them to play in such weather.”

Lebedev seems to be alone with his opinion at the moment though. The RFU hasn’t shown any willingness to meet Lokomotiv’s request. Speaking to Champions, honorary president Vyacheslav Koloskov stated:

“I think Lokomotiv should play in Khabarovsk. Why should there be any exceptions for this club? There should be no exceptions for the railway men. Everyone are played, so why shouldn’t they? We can never hold a championship if we keep postponing all the time at the requests of the clubs.  However, we need to think of all these things in advance, so these situations doesn’t happen. We know in advance what the weather is like in Khabarovsk in November.”

However, requests like this one have been met before. As recently as last season, Lokomotiv managed to talk Tom Tomsk into moving a December game from Siberia to Moscow. The game eventually saw Lokomotiv win 6-1 at home. This however, raised criticism that Lokomotiv received an unfair advantage over their competitors as they played 16 home games instead of 15.

Return to the calendar season?

With the terrible weather, the Russian football world is once again discussing whether or not to return to the old calendar schedule, where the season follows the calendar year. This was the case until 2011, and it saw the season start in March and finish in early November, which meant the clubs could avoid the late winter games.

With this format, more games would be played during the summer, where football is more enjoyable for both players and spectators. Furthermore, it has been argued that this format makes the league more equal as the winter break becomes less important. Right now, the richest clubs can afford several exorbitant training camps, while the smaller clubs are forced to prepare in significantly worse conditions.

In an interview with Russian Football News from January, former Krylya Sovetov physical coach Bart Caubergh advocated for fewer winter games too: 

“If you only look at how to get the best circumstances to train and play, then for sure it would be better to avoid playing in the winter.”

Changing the schedule is a difficult process though, and it required a lot of hard work and adaption from all parties involved back in 2011. Therefore, for now, it seems that the players and fans will have to accept playing in sub-zero temperatures for at least a few more seasons.

Toke Møller Theilade

Author: Toke Møller Theilade

Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.

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