As we watch the resumption of European football this week, it hard to forget quite how much of a shock it is to Russian clubs. For obvious reasons, three months of the year is completely untouched by domestic competition – even the last round of fixtures in mid-December suffered as temperatures dropped to as low as -17° Celsius – so most teams emerge as rusty as the bumper of a clapped out Lada.
Only a few years ago Russian clubs switched to a European playing calendar, in theory to help the top clubs when performing in Europe. The best laid plans of mice and men, eh? Previously the Soviet-style calendar ran from spring to late autumn without an enforced break in the middle, but since the switch to ape the majority of UEFA nations, there has been little difference in performance.
Last season, for example, Zenit St. Petersburg blew their Europa League group away on paper with five wins from the first five matches, although the powerhouses of Dundalk gave the Gazprom-backed Zenit a real scare home and away, while Maccabi Tel Aviv went 3-0 up before a stirring comeback saved Russian blushes. All the good work went out of the window though when they crumbled in the first leg of the round of 32 clash with Anderlecht.
Whatever organisational decision is taken by the Russian football authorities (don’t even TRY to go down that particular wormhole of pain…), there will always be a significant portion of the year without football in Russia. This doesn’t mean Russian clubs simply lie shivering behind mounds of snow, clasping bottles of Stolichnaya. Warm-weather training camps in the Middle East, Turkey, Cyprus and Spain are used to stretch out muscles, take Instagram selfies and give a loose reintroduction to the rigours of full-time professional football.
For wealthy Russian Football Premier League (RFPL) clubs, this is a comfortable existence. La Manga, the Stars Academy in Qatar and other glamorous and superbly equipped facilities are affordable, and attract a suitable level of opposition. Further down the system, however, it is a whole different story. Luch Energiya Vladivostok, for instance, lie just above the relegation zone of the second-tier Football National League (FNL), and were so financially beleaguered earlier this season that their players went unpaid for months.
This in itself is a depressingly common state of affairs in Russian football, even in the top flight, but the fact remained that some of the squad had to spend some nights in the club training ground with fans donating food as some players couldn’t pay their rent. They certainly cannot afford to underwrite a two-week stay for up to 30 club staff in a far-flung exotic location. Instead, the FNL organises a 16-team tournament in Cyprus, which serves more purposes than simply a mid-season jolly.
Firstly, there is a very modest prize fund on offer. It doesn’t amount to much, even in the context of the FNL’s barren fiscal landscape, but it does offset some of the costs involved in getting there. Then there is the guarantee of appropriate run outs for their players. Friendlies against third-tier Macedonian part-timers are of use to nobody, but facing your direct rivals for promotion or survival adds an element of pride to proceedings.
There’s no point kidding yourself that the FNL Cup has any serious meaning. What it also does though is provide clubs a chance to play trialists against genuine opposition, and provide players with the chance to showcase themselves in front of their only likely potential suitors. The turnover of players at lower-level Russian clubs is very high, and a period such as this is crucial in helping teams piece together their squad for the final part of the season.
The 2018 FNL Cup, which kicked off a few days ago, has even thrown up some genuinely interesting ties. Not all FNL teams can afford to participate, so ‘guest’ appearances are being made by 2017 Russian Cup finalists Ural Ekaterinburg, Roman Pavlyuchenko’s last club Ararat Moscow from the third tier, and the fascinating Chertanovo – whose squad is comprised only of local players, a la Athletic Club. In fact, fewer than half the entrants are actually from the FNL.
Some may snigger at the low-scoring bore-fests that are often thrown up in the lethargic Mediterranean heat, but for many clubs it is a welcome shot in the arm when it comes to recruitment. The real work begins when they return to the icy winds of Russia itself.