Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
This week NMTB is heading out east, waaaaay out east.
To the Far East, no less, to say zdravstvuyte to a team at the wrong end of the Trans-Siberian Railway on Russia’s Pacific coast.
But before it arrives in the Muravyov-Amursky peninsula to pick like some football-hungry vulture at the remains of Luch-Energiya Vladivostok’s extraordinary fixture last Friday, NMTB has a couple of stopovers on its onerous journey east at some familiar friends of the blog.
The first port of call is Ukraine, where Shakhtar Donetsk fans have been in exultant mood since the club arrived home from Istanbul with the UEFA Cup last week.
It was a well-deserved victory over Werder Bremen and Dario Srna may be flexing his trophy-lifting arm again this weekend when the Miners face Vorskla Poltava in the Kubok of Ukraine.
Srna and cup
Next it’s over the border into Moldova, where similar scenes of jubilation greeted Sheriff Tiraspol in Transdniestr upon their return from Chişinău with the Cupa Moldovei.
BLOG: A powerful Sheriff, a haircut and a drunken war
The win was about as inevitable as an Igor Smirnov victory in the schismatic state’s elections, but the president would’ve enjoyed an extra tot of Kvint before bedtime on Saturday after their victory capped an unprecedented treble for his team.
It was the third chapter in a remarkable season that has also yielded the CIS Cup and the Divizia Naţională for Leonid Kuchuk and his players.
Поздравляю. (That’s “congratulations” not a Russian insult, honest.)
But back to Vladivostok, a city whose ‘Lord of the East’ nickname doesn’t suit the hapless Luch-Energiya – hardly members of the country’s footballing aristocracy.
10 games into the new campaign, the club are back in the First Division relegation zone.
Last season was equally mediocre and Luch-Energiya exited the Premier League in reprehensible fashion after just three wins in 30 matches, two of them against fellow relegation sufferers Shinnik Yaroslavl.
It’s not all the players’ fault. They aren’t entirely exculpable, but the club have a gargantuan impediment that eggheads don’t quite know how to overcome.
Luch-Energiya are miles away – thousands of miles away – from their opponents.
Only SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk are remotely near to Vladivostok. That’ll be just the 1,000-mile round trip for the local derby this season, then.
"Bit of a trip this weekend, lads"
Football clubs in Russia are heavily concentrated in the west, yet Vladivostok isn’t much more than a goal kick away from the North Korean border. (They wouldn’t get their ball back if it went over the fence.)
So their away games habitually involve long-haul flights across the world’s largest country and several time zones.
Luch-Energiya have accrued an unremarkable 10 points so far, all of them won at their decrepit Dynamo Stadium against bleary-eyed opponents.
The only points they’ve accumulated on their travels this season have been air miles.
Their rather special guests last weekend were Baltika Kaliningrad, from the eponymous Russian exclave on the Baltic coast, some 4,575 miles away.
It was a record-breaking game, the furthest a team has ever travelled for a league match, not that Baltika were overjoyed to make such history.
There was a distinct lack of bunting out for their arrival, although Luch-Energiya were blooding yet another manager in Constantine Emelyanov, who opted for a 3-4-3 formation on his debut.
Obviously it worked. Vitali Kazantsev and Artyom Mikheyev scored the goals in a 2-0 win for Luch-Energiya that was all down to the coach’s tactical nous and motivational ability, and nothing to do with the visitors’ eye-watering trek across Russia.
The match was last Friday (midnight for the away team, what with the time difference), which at least gave Baltika and the dyed-in-the-wool supporters who travelled to Asia the opportunity to make a weekend of it in Vladivostok.
The city’s naval base dictated that it was closed to foreigners until the collapse of the USSR and it doesn’t get many visitors today, although there is a rather pleasant beach and, naturally, a museum dedicated to local lad Yul Brynner.
Yul & co share a joke about the Muravyov-Amursky peninsula
Actually, forget a weekend - Baltika supporters might have considered making a week of it, had they not had another fixture in midweek.
Vladivostok is closer to Australia than to Kaliningrad and Luch-Energiya were once sponsored by Castlemaine.
Last season Luch-Energiya were drawn at Baltika in the fittingly-named Rambler Cup, and it was evident that then-manager Zoran Vulic didn’t give a XXXX about it.
He didn’t send any of his first team halfway across the world; in fact, Vulic didn’t even bother to make the trip himself. At least Sir Alex travelled to Hull.
The PFL attempted to solve the issue by scheduling visitors to the Far East to face Luch-Energiya and SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk on the same trip in a move that, in reality, suits no one.
The two eastern clubs are also afforded similar assistance with their fixture lists, but it doesn’t do anything for the problem of players’ jetlag.
No one wants to play two games of football in four days after a journey that would make Michael Palin recoil in horror.
Visitors to Vladivostok have employed various techniques in an attempt to find a solution, although the problem may not last much longer.
On their current form Luch-Energiya will soon be heading down to the Second Division and Russia’s regionalised leagues.
If that were to happen, not many from the far west would be crying into their vodkas.
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