Oct 012014

It is not an unfair generalisation to state that football on the other side of the old iron curtain has, where domestic leagues are concerned at least, atrophied painfully over the last two decades. With a few exceptions, old powers continue to decline amid a wearying litany of mismanagement, misappropriation and plain indifference, not aided by a rapacious market further west.

There are, though, tentative signs that a new way is emerging – that, away from the old power centres, there is space for clubs and individuals to work within more sustainable and transparent models. The Bulgarian side Ludogorets, who ran Liverpool close at Anfield two weeks ago, are one example; now it is Everton’s turn to come up against an emerging power when they travel to the Russian city of Krasnodar on Thursday for a match that writes another page in their opponents’ short, unusual story.

Roberto Martínez’s side will not be supported in huge numbers. Everton elected to cancel their customary official fans’ travel plans due to insufficient sign-up, unsurprising given that Krasnodar – situated 50 miles from the Black Sea and around 100 from the Winter Olympics host city, Sochi – is a 4,000-mile round trip away. Those who do make the journey will be visiting a club that did not exist until 2008, when the retail billionaire Sergey Galitsky decided to set up a new football operation in the city close to his birthplace.

FC Krasnodar rose from the third tier to the Russian Premier League almost straight away in a run that was not bereft of controversy, their promotion to the Premier League in 2010 coming largely as a result of their having greater financial clout to take up a late vacancy (Saturn Ramenskoye had withdrawn owing to financial difficulties) than two of the teams that had finished above them. But their rise has been implacable and, last season, a fifth-placed finish won them European football for the first time. That, in a country whose football fans set great stock in continental representation regardless of club rivalries, has only added to their reputation as something of a fairytale.

“At first it bothered me, but now I do not care,” Galitsky told Sports.ru in August, referring to this perception. “We are not sentimental; we just try and keep on the right path. And it’s not down to us, but a lack of good examples.”

The last sentence sums up why the club, privately owned by Galitsky and thus not beholden to big business (Zenit St Petersburg and Gazprom are the obvious, and generally loathed outside their city, example) or local administration, is viewed as a breath of fresh air despite the budget that has been available to them over the last six years. While private ownership is not necessarily a panacea – Anzhi Makachkala, after Suleyman Kerimov ended their Samuel Eto’o-led experiment and cut their budget to shreds, are proof enough of that – there is space for the right individual to come up with a genuinely innovative approach.

“Galitsky is an unlikely type of businessman for Russia,” explains Ivan Kalashnikov, the UK correspondent for Sports.ru. “He’s pretty open and he understands the media. Most club presidents won’t speak to them but Galitsky uses it as the chance to speak to people, speak to the fans, and express his opinions on football. It’s normal in other parts of Europe but definitely not for Russia.

“He has built a proper football club in one of the provinces from scratch basically, investing his money in a stadium – which is almost complete – and a good youth academy rather than big signings.”

Krasnodar’s academy is the jewel in their crown and has been the focus of Galitsky’s attentions; Fabio Capello, currently the Russian national team manager, has visited and proclaimed it to be one of the best in the world. And Galitsky, who has expressed a dream that his club can one day field an entire homegrown XI, is ready to wait for the fruits of his labours.

“The most relevant age for us is [those who were born in] 2003,” he said in the Sports.ru interview. “They are the ones who have been engaged in our academy from their first steps in football.

“Everyone says ‘Galitsky, the best school, the talents will come through in two days’. Two days later, nothing happens. The results will come in 10 years, and then I will be ready to see anyone who has laughed at me. I get much more pleasure from the academy than out of the first team, because the first team is much less dependent on me.”

It is an unusual approach and one that reinforces the widely-accepted view that Galitsky is in this for the love of football – not to make money or even with a fixation upon winning major trophies. But the first team has come close to doing the latter, losing on penalties to FC Rostov in last season’s Russian Cup final, and Everton must beware. Krasnodar scored eight goals without reply in their home fixtures during the Europa League qualifying rounds, a 3-0 win over Real Sociedad was the head-turner among them.

“They play really good football, attacking football,” says Kalashnikov. “Sometimes it doesn’t come off and they lose to an underdog, but unlike with Anzhi, who had all those expensive players, it can be allowed for. Their style is really appealing to Russian fans.”

A 4-0 win over Spartak Moscow in August was a further example of what Krasnodar, who sit sixth in this season’s league after nine games, can achieve. Not uncommonly for a contemporary Russian club, much of their threat comes from Brazilians: the trio of Ari, Wanderson and Joãozinho give defenders little peace and the former pair scored in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Arsenal Tula. A perhaps more familiar name is the former Wigan defender Andreas Granqvist, who arrived from Genoa a year ago and has captained the team.

The world of Krasnodar and Galitsky is not a perfect one – not yet. They continue to play in the stadium of far more established neighbours Kuban, who are reluctant landlords, until their own home opens next year. They have had to build a fanbase from scratch; Kuban supporters accuse them of bussing in workers from Galitsky’s firm, Magnit, to bolster numbers and the owner does not deny that Krasnodar have to create a groundswell their own way. They have also been criticised for the amount of army members seen at their home games, with Galitsky keen to tap into the city’s large numbers of students and soldiers. Krasnodar is the 17th-largest city in Russia and its long-term prospects for sustaining two top-flight clubs are unclear.

Another problem is looming. Last week, Krasnodar were one of seven clubs that Uefa announced were to be investigated for possible breaches of financial fair play regulations. Galitsky has told local media that this may be on account of what, to the outsider, would be anomalously high spending on the academy; there is also a school of thought that Krasnodar may be the kind of up and coming club that the new rules force back into their box. It is an elephant in the room and, while it seems wrong that they could be bracketed with serial miscreants such as Red Star Belgrade, there is a danger that Krasnodar may have to enjoy European football while they still can.

They are clearly doing so regardless and, however many Everton fans brave the journey to Russia’s south, a point would go down as a good result against a side who drew their first group stage game in Lille. Galitsky may scoff at demands for instant success, but he and Krasnodar are enjoying plenty of it.

Leave a comment below to win one of the prizes in our weekly draw, including baby Everton kit.

 Posted by at 11:05 am

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>