So Long, Premier League

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The Premier League fizzled out on Sunday afternoon. Three matches in Moscow barely drew 20,000 fans between them, CSKA and Zenit stumbled on the road after deciding the title race the week before. Krasnodar hosted the biggest game of the weekend, Kuban – Anzhi, with the home team needing a win to guarantee its first-ever place in the Europa League. Nearly 32,000 fans, possibly more according to eyewitnesses, celebrated a 1-0 victory over 3rd-place Anzhi.

The biggest embarrassment came from the other three clubs jockeying for two Europa League places. Fewer than 10,000 fans showed up for Dinamo and Rubin home matches, while Terek’s Akhmat Arena crowd of 14,000 sagged significantly below its season average. Many will blame the early start time, 1:30 pm, but it’s disappointing for the season to go out with a whimper, after a spring schedule packed with controversies, upsets and better-than-expected attendance.

Blame the schedule-makers, the weather, and Moscow’s dearth of quality football venues, though, for the apathy in the capital, not just the fans.

My Sunday morning started at 8:30 am, steady rain beating against the window panes. I faced a 40-minute metro trip to meet up with Alania fans by 11:30, in order to bus over together to the stadium for the Spartak match. The home team’s Luzhniki Stadium closed a few weeks before to prepare for rugby and athletics competitions this summer, forcing a move from its 80,000-seater to the outdated Eduard Streltsov Stadium on the Moscow River. Spartak couldn’t even sell any tickets, as the number of season-ticket holders roughly matched the capacity of the 13,500-seat venue. That’s one reason I joined the away support. I’m not sure I could have gotten in otherwise.

Elsewhere in Moscow, Lokomotiv fans hardly bothered to show up for a meaningless match with Mordovia. Relations between club management and organized fan clubs has degenerated to such an extent that the once-proud South stand filled to maybe 1/4 its capacity and spent much of the match reaming out Lokomotiv executives.

Lokomotiv fans protest management during Sunday's match

Lokomotiv fans protest management during Sunday’s match

Dinamo fans may have it worst. Dinamo Stadium, no more than a 15-minute metro ride and 5-minute walk from Red Square, has been under reconstruction since 2009, and the club’s temporary home, shared with CSKA, takes at least an hour to reach by public transportation from downtown. Six thousand fans, a fairly typical showing in Khimki Arena, showed up to support their team in a must-win match against Volga. The rain may have stopped, but grey skies and an hour-plus commute kept the crowds. Muscovites rarely get to bed before 1 or 2 am on the weekends, anyway, making the early afternoon start time too much of a headache.

That’s the reality of Russian football. It’s packed with potential – an astounding 14 of 16 clubs had something to play in the 2nd-to-last week of the season. Up to 25% of the league can be relegated each season and six of 16 (38%) earn a place in European competition. Lokomotiv – Mordovia was truly a dud, with the visitors already relegated and Lokomotiv recently eliminated from European contention. But Dinamo needed to beat Volga to get into Europe, while the visitors needed a result to avoid the relegation playoffs. And Spartak, despite an underwhelming season from start to finish, could still finish 4th and sew up a Europa League berth with a win over last-place Alania.

Tagging along with the Alania crowd, I knew that I was in for a long day. I arrived at the meeting place at 10:45 am, about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure for the stadium. Carrying my Anzhi scarf as proof of good intentions, I waited with 30-40 other fans for the buses to arrive. In the loose North Caucasus fan alliance between Anzhi – Terek – Alania – Spartak Nalchik, Alania are the distinguished, elder statesmen. They won the league in 1995 and consistently finished near the top of the table in those years, the one club to interrupt Spartak’s 1992-2001 title fest.

Big crowds cheered on Alania in those years, too. But the North Caucasus torch has been passed to Anzhi over the last two years, after brief sparks from both Nalchik and Terek, both in terms of organized support and success on the pitch. Alania, of course, can’t compete with Suleiman Kerimov’s millions, but the Anzhi fans have also overtaken the Alanskie Barsy (nickname – Alania Panthers) supporters. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of fans show up for Anzhi matches in Moscow, joined by a smattering of Terek, Alania and Spartak Nalchik fans.

Recent Anzhi match vs Spartak in Luzhniki Stadium

Recent Anzhi match vs Spartak in Luzhniki Stadium

The matches mean more, with all of the Moscow clubs consistently in contention for Europe and Anzhi fighting to assert itself among Russia’s elite clubs. But it’s a sad fall for Alania Vladikavkaz, the club that kicked off a football boom across the North Caucasus. After returning to the Premier League in 2010, following a four-year absence, Alania promptly dropped down again. This year’s promotion, replete with a new sponsor and the return of championship manager and native-born Valery Gazzaev, promised much, but the players reportedly went unpaid for months and abysmal play in the fall doomed Alania to relegation once more. The Spartak match on Sunday would mean farewell to the Premier League and a step backward in the struggle to regain relevance.

In all, about 70 of us showed up to support Alania. One fellow Anzhi fan (I counted four of us in all) surmised that most Muscovite Anzhi fans stayed home to watch the Kuban match. A handful of Spartak Nalchik scarves rounded out the away section’s North Caucasus diaspora.

 

Alania fans mingling before kick-off

Alania fans mingling before kick-off

If you don’t know anything about the North Caucasus, attending a football match between one of the region’s football clubs and a Moscow side can be a decent way to start. We didn’t leave for the stadium until a little after noon, and weren’t let in until close to 1 pm. The policemen surrounding our little section behind the goal nearly outnumbered us and we looked up on both sides to mostly full Spartak stands.

Several thousand Spartak season ticket-holders must have stayed home as well, with the stadium filled to no more than 75% capacity. 10,000 – 70 can still feel rather daunting, however, especially in a small venue, and the home fans welcomed our section, nearly all of us Moscow residents with ties to the North Caucasus, with a pithy reminder of one of that’s region’s primary occupations in years gone: “Sheep-****ers, sheep-****ers, sheep-****ers” echoed around sturdy Streltsov stadium in the early going.

Don’t get me wrong – the point here isn’t to denigrate Spartak fans. Their support, particularly at away matches, is unmatched in Russia, and the club has a valuable history, rooted in Soviet-era dissent. I watched a few weeks ago as dozens of Spartak fans, still upset at their own team’s 1-1 draw with Krylia Sovetov, respectfully asked Krylia manager and Dagestani native Gadzhi Gadzhiev for pictures and autographs.

But Russia’s racial realities are wildly distorted by the mass media, flawed understandings of Soviet-era economics and its post-USSR implications, as well as base religious and ethnic propaganda that seeks to dehumanize. The largely Muslim, darker-skinned North Caucasus, home to massive unemployment and outbreaks of political and religious violence, is the easy target. For the reasons listed above, immigrants to large, primarily Slavic, Orthodox Russian cities are often seen as freeloaders, criminals and a scourge on Russian society.

Victimization – it’s irrelevant whether it’s real or perceived – brings a backlash and football matches often give vent to anger otherwise suppressed in dorm rooms, dark bedrooms and dinner-time conversations.

So we fired back at the Spartak crowd, “You’re our sheep,” and settled in for the national anthem and a start to the match.

Five minutes in, Alania’s Ivorian defender Akes Dacosta gave the middle finger to the Spartak stand in plain view of a linesman. Alania later reported that he had been provoked by the fans’ racial abuse, but from our vantage point we could make next to nothing out, reduced to chanting “Dacosta” as he trudged off the field.

Tactically speaking, Spartak needed all the help it could get. While Alania certainly didn’t dominate, Sergey Bryzgalov’s 28th minute goal took the pressure of a home side that struggled to create much against Alania’s thick defense.

Luckily for Spartak, the visitors muffed their two best chances of the game in the 1st half. A few minutes before Bryzgalov’s strike, Weliton evaded detection in the box, but sent his header directly at goalie Andrei Dikan.

Just before halftime, Anton Grigoriev wasted an even better chance. All alone in front of the goal, his flick had Dikan beat this time. From our vantage point behind the net, it looked like the equalizer, but instead flew just wide of the post.

Alania’s support, in contrast to Spartak’s nearly constant singing, was half-hearted at best. One fellow in an Anzhi shirt kept yelling at the fan leaders to do something, but no one seemed all that motivated. A handful of rousing “Alania” cheers were heard following the team’s two best chances, but half of the time we stood in silence. Our best motivator proved the Spartak stand, which went off on Alania manager Valery Gazzaev, former CSKA Moscow boss. A few insulting lines were directed at Spartak coach Valery Karpin before dying out.

It seemed enough just to be there at the game, facing a last-place finish and relegation, hemmed in by the Spartak crowd. We periodically checked on the scores in the Anzhi and Terek games, though it become clear soon that Terek, despite a win at home, wouldn’t be qualifying for Europe with Spartak, Kuban, and Rubin all leading in their matches.

And Spartak were going to have their day here in Moscow. Though fans raised banners that read “Certificate to FC Spartak for another **** season” and jeers multiplied midway through the second half, Spartak turned up the pressure in the final twenty minutes. The Alania defense broke down multiple times, but Alania keeper Soslan Dzhanaev, on loan from Spartak, kept the score at 1-0 until midfielder Jano Ananidze slotted home in the 79th.

Spartak stand and banners

Spartak stand and banners

2-0 felt fair, in light of playing a man down, and the Alania support improved down the home stretch, particularly for Dzhanaev, who was evidently getting heckled by his parent club’s fans. He even turned once to sarcastically applaud the bleachers. We picked up the fight, suggesting rather poetically in the original Russian that the Spartak crowd “Suck it from Soslan.”

Soon after Ananidze’s goal he shut down a Yura Movsisyan one-and-one. We cheered as wildly as if he had preserved a much-needed Alania win.

Once the match ended, Dzhanaev, Grigoriev and Igor Khaimanov, a 19-year-old youngster who made his senior team debut in the 84th minute, trotted over to our section to toss their jerseys into several grateful hands, a fitting memento for the final Premier League appearance Alania would be making in quite a while. After that it was a 25-minute wait for the Spartak crowd to leave the stadium, then a police escort to our buses parked a hundred yards away.

Two lucky Alania fans holding Khaimanov and Dzhanaev jerseys

Two lucky Alania fans holding Khaimanov and Dzhanaev jerseys

We had an uneventful ride home. If a lot of the conversation on the way over in the back of the bus revolved around racist football fans, then the way back dealt more with results from around the league, particularly the divvying up of Europa League places and the promotion/relegation ties to be played in a few days between two Premier League and two Football National League clubs.

For good measure, Abdul, the Anzhi fan I got to know best, and I put away our scarves before dropping down to the metro. Plenty of Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Spartak fans about and the only thing worse than your team losing is having a scarf or other club gear taken from you, even if it’s a mob ganging up one person.

I think I’m ready for next season. The wear and tear of the 2012/13 RPL campaign – Zenit, Dinamo, Spartak and Lokomotiv’s angst on the field and off it; Anzhi’s vacillating brilliance and lackluster play; utter chaos from Alania; and the incessant gossip over which club bought off which refs have worn me out. Closing it out by watching Alania fall 2-0 to Spartak in near silence, while the opposing fans alternated between jeering their players and insulting Alania’s homeland seemed fitting.

But I’ll be ready to go at it again two months from now. Russian football rivals the world’s top leagues for competitiveness and intrigue, and it won’t be long before the infrastructure catches up with the roster investments. Meanwhile, attendance appears to be on the rise (13,027 fans per game this season, just 20,000 total fans less than the Premier League record set in 2007) and the introduction of up to a dozen new stadiums in the 5-7 years will help that number to grow dramatically.

Who knows if the ethnic conflict in the stands will die out by that time…As repulsive as it can be, it’s often as much a chance for the North Caucasus to fight its battles on the football pitch as it is opportunity for Muscovites and fans in other cities to vent their anger at the region and its inhabitants. Russian football has issues to sort out, particularly when it comes to fan civility both inside and outside the stadium, but the potential for a passionate, rivalry-packed competition is immense.

Andy Shenk

Author: Andy Shenk

I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.

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