Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
You could argue that an opening ceremony consisting of a man some people don’t care for kicking a ball about in half-*rsed fashion in a half-empty stadium managed to capture the essence of just what the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Cup means to folk nowadays rather well.
Michel Platini was the guest of honour in St Petersburg at the weekend for the annual get-together for the league champions of the former Soviet republics, and wrapping things up next Sunday is grand twit supreme of world football Sepp Blatter, although Never Mind the Bolsheviks is baffled as to why Tweedledum and Tweedledee even bother to turn up. Christ knows the fans don’t.
A gruelling schedule of matches played indoors on an artificial surface, the big teams preferring to prepare for European competitions elsewhere and a lack of decent sponsorship, prize money and television coverage has resulted in clubs fielding second-string sides or simply withdrawing altogether. In its current guise the CIS Cup is an obsolete tournament, albeit an obsolete tournament recognised by both UEFA and FIFA. It wasn't always like this.
The CIS Cup is an intriguing concept and there was a genuine interest to see the old rivalries of the Top League renewed after the dissolution of the USSR had split the Soviet Union’s football pyramid into 15. The first 10 tournaments were divvied up between Spartak Moskva (six) and Dynamo Kyiv (four).
But interest has been waning for the best part of a decade, and aside from the matches involving Zenit St Petersburg and the Russian youth team (competing hors concours) at the weekend, attendance figures were in the hundreds rather than thousands, despite tickets priced between 100 and 300 rubles (roughly £2-6).
Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit plus BATE Borisov are busy preparing for the knockout stages of European competitions elsewhere. They aren’t willing to risk injuries by playing a flurry of games on an artificial surface; Shakhtar and BATE have withdrawn, while a youth team is representing Zenit, ditto for Dynamo Kyiv, the Miners’ replacement.
Russian and Ukrainian clubs have only won two of the last eight tournaments, but in their absence the other republics – the ones who do take it seriously – have flourished. For them it’s an opportunity to represent their country, and the CIS Cup is a worthwhile exercise for sides like Iskra-Stal Rîbniţa of Moldova (Sheriff Tiraspol’s replacement), who’ll find the experience of such a competition useful if and when they make future forays into European football.
Luckily for Iskra-Stal, they’re grouped with İnter Bakı from Azerbaijan, who are in it to win it, along with the Central Asian pair of Istiqlol Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and Neftchi Kochkor-Ata of Kyrgyzstan, who’ve sent something resembling their first teams.
The bragging rights for unofficial champion of the former USSR could be decided elsewhere. Shakhtar and Zenit have both been lured by the petrodollars and sunshine of the UAE, where they’ll compete in the Dubai Cup, a six-team competition in the Middle East with the likes of Sparta Prague and MŠK Žilina. Mircea Lucescu will also be taking his players to Spain for the Copa del Sol to get them match fit before they travel to Italy for Shakhtar’s Champions League fixture against Roma in February.
There might be life in the old dog yet, though; certainly if the Russian Football Union tinkers with the format and gets the big clubs interested again. The RFU’s president Sergei Fursenko spoke at the weekend of perhaps shifting the CIS Cup to the summer to incorporate it into Russia’s new domestic calendar.
This blog would personally favour taking the competition around Russia – or even the other republics – to drum up interest, and perhaps rejigging the format; namely removing the Russian youth team and the other “guest”, whom this year is HJK Helsinki from Finland.
Georgia withdrew from the CIS in the aftermath of the conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which leaves 14 republics, an awkward figure when it comes to organising the group stages of a football tournament. NMTB would invite the winner from the previous year. They would more than likely be Ukrainian or Russian if these countries resumed their interested in cup and this would subsequently increase the overall standard of the tournament.
That would leave five groups of three to yield eight for the next stage, which isn't ideal, admittedly; it does reduce the number of games, however. The two finalists this week will have played six games in just nine days.
Of course, one of the key issues is money. Bragging rights and a massive trophy are all well and good, but the RFU could really do with finding a sponsor and coughing up a sizeable amount for a prize fund to lure the stronger clubs back. Get this right, then the fans and television networks would surely return.
While NMTB has your attention, here’s this year’s story so far....
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