Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Much like Timbuktu, Vladivostok is one of those places whose name conjures up evocative images of some distant outpost at the world’s end.“Vladivostok is far away,” Lenin once opined. “But it’s ours.” The Soviet Union’s founding father never gazed out upon the Pacific coast, unlike the statue of him outside the city's grandiose train station does.
Boarding the famous Rossiya from there, it would take an entire week to reach the Trans-Siberian Railway’s western terminus in Moscow, some 4,000 miles away. Even a flight between the two cities is an onerous nine-hour journey.
So understandably there were few tears shed when Luch-Energiya Vladivostok finished bottom of the Premier League table four seasons ago. Their relegation was no doubt welcomed by CSKA Moscow goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who a year earlier had bemoaned their very presence in the championship, declaring that instead they should join the Japanese J-League.
Luch-Energiya’s Dinamo Stadium is only 100 metres from the Sea of Japan. In fact, many of the cars you see driven on Vladivostok’s roads are right-hand vehicles shipped over from Japan, and the club's recent preparations for the league’s resumption took place in South Korea.
It isn't until the third tier that Russia’s pyramid becomes regionalised. But like Russia itself, football is overwhelmingly weighted towards the west of the country and Luch-Energiya are just one of a handful of clubs in the top two divisions located on the Asian side of the Ural Mountains.
The only other Far Eastern outfit among them are SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk. Concessions were made in an attempt to accommodate these two far-flung sides, with the league “pairing” fixtures to cut down on travelling.
That means two matches in quick succession. For example, Baltika Kaliningrad – from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, around 4,500 miles west of Vladivostok – would travel out to play Luch-Energiya then a couple of days later face SKA-Energiya.
There have been talks about changing this format, however. Like the Russian Premier League, this is an elongated campaign in the First Division as it falls into line with UEFA by ditching their traditional summer calendar to adopt an “autumn-spring” system.
Despite the acting governor of Primorsky Krai – the region of which Vladivostok is the administrative capital – recently announcing that he’d like to see Luch-Energiya back in the top flight side, they and SKA-Energiya find themselves in the bottom half of the table.
(As an aside, quite how clubs like these will fare with the new schedule when temperatures plummet in Siberia and the Far East remains to be seen.)
Despite this “pairing” of fixtures, Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are hardly what you would call near neighbours. Khabarovsk, the Far East’s second-largest city after Vladivostok, is a little over 400 miles away, just a stone’s throw from the Chinese border on the Amur River. For SKA-Energiya’s fans, that means taking a 13-hour train south to Vladivostok when the pair meet on Monday.
Driving isn't recommended. Six years ago, a hardy trio of Zenit St Petersburg fans climbed into a 20-year-old Honda to drive to a league game in Vladivostok – 4,000 miles as the crow flies, more like 6,500 miles as the road wends.
Although they managed to see their club record a 2-0 win, the car died, leaving them stranded in Vladivostok. They were forced to take the train all the way back to St Petersburg, making it home just in time for Zenit’s next match the following week, whereupon the club rewarded their loyalty by presenting them with a new car. Today, the clapped-out Honda is on display in the Zenit museum.
It's not just a problem for visitors. As Luch-Energiya manager Sergei Pavlov once said during an interview with UEFA, "it takes us two days to adapt when we travel to Moscow, but when we return home it takes a whole week to get back to normal.
"It's terrible that none of the scientific recovery programs can help the team. There's no secret recipe here. This whole thing is tougher for us than for anyone else."
In spite of all these long haul flights though, neither Luch-Energiya nor SKA-Energiya have vastly different home and away records, as one might expect. Luch-Energiya in 15th are two places and five points behind SKA-Energiya.
Monday’s game will make a pleasant change for both, yet it is business as usual for Pavlov and his team the following week. They face the eye-watering trip to Kaliningrad on 1 April to play Baltika, in what is surely the longest away day anywhere in the world.
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