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Richard van Poortvliet: Home is…wherever you can find an open stadium

“I’ve heard there hasn’t been this much rain in Moscow since the Tsarist times”. Those were the words of the President of the Russian Football Premier League, Sergey Pryadkin; to describe the torrential downpours the capital has been experiencing over the last two weeks.

The rain has finally ceased, giving way to an artic chill, which has done little to cheer the local population, especially with the thought of five months of snow and bitter cold to look forward to, with the onset of Winter. One man, who will be cursing the inclement weather more than most, is the President of CSKA Moscow, Evgeny Giner.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United playing a home game in Liverpool, or Real Madrid doing the same in Barcelona. However, this is the fate that awaits CSKA Moscow on Wednesday, as they are set to play their UEFA Champions League clash with Viktoria Plzen in St. Petersburg. The reason the reigning Russian Premier League champions have been forced to play over 700 kilometres away from the country’s capital, is the state of the pitch, which resembles a quagmire, at the Arena Khimki, where the Armymen are playing their home games this season.

Without a home ground of their own and with the Luzhniki Stadium undergoing reconstruction ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, CSKA are sharing the Khimki Arena with rivals Dynamo Moscow. However, the pitch became unplayable following Dynamo’s recent match with Lokomotiv, due to the incessant heavy rain, with the Railwaymen’s midfielder, Sergey Tkachev describing the playing surface as a “vegetable patch”.

Ground sharing is nothing new in the Russian capital. Spartak are tenants at Lomomotiv, as the Red and Whites wait for their new state of the art stadium to be completed. However, such agreements do put strains on the pitches and the problem can become catastrophic when unseasonal weather conditions are added to the plot. The Lokomotiv Stadium would have been the ideal location for CSKA to use, however, the playing surface is only slightly better compared to the Khimki Arena.

Playing their ‘home’ games away from Moscow is nothing new for CSKA Moscow, or Russian clubs as a whole. Back in the 1992-3 season, the Armymen even played their Champions League Group Stage games in Germany, due to the lack of under soil heating and the poor state of pitches in the Russian capital. The reigning Premier League champions have also regularly played European fixtures in warmer southern cities, like Krasnodar and Vladikavkaz following the resumption after the winter break. Just last season, Rubin Kazan played their UEFA Europa League matches at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, some 720 kilometres from the capital of Tatarstan because the pitch at the Tsentralni Stadium was understandably in poor condition after being under a blanket of snow for four months.

The move will be a bitter blow for CSKA, who missed out on qualification for last season’s Champions League. However, according to the club’s general director, Roman Babaev, the situation could have been much worse, “The situation was critical and there was the risk that we would be forced to play at a neutral venue in Germany or Italy for example.” At least playing in St. Petersburg will allow a number of the club’s fans to attend, as there are numerous flights and trains between the two cities.

When a club qualifies to play in a European competition, they are allowed to select two stadiums where they can play there home games. For the majority of teams in the continent, this is not an issue, however, the opposite is true for clubs from Russia, due to the adverse weather conditions in winter.

CSKA chose Krasnodar, in the south of Russia as their reserve venue, the only problem being, the local club Kuban are due to play a Europa League match at the very same ground, the day after CSKA’s match. A member of the Kuban board was in no mood for charity and was quick to quash the possibility of the ground hosting back-to-back matches, leaving the Petrovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg as the only viable option.

This brings into question how a city like Moscow, which has four top-flight teams, has only two stadiums capable of holding European football matches. Of course this situation is being addressed, with the advent of the 2018 World Cup, but even then the speed at which the grounds are being built, is staggering. The Dynamo Stadium, which has an excellent location, close to the city centre, closed for reconstruction in 2008. I pass the ground on my way to work almost everyday and absolutely nothing has changed over the last five years.

The new arena is due to open in 2016, however even this date looks optimistic given the current rate of construction. Take the Allianz Arena in Munich for example. Construction of the 71,000 capacity stadium started in the autumn of 2002 and by the summer of 2005, the ground was already able to host matches. It took under three years to complete one of the best stadiums in Europe. Perhaps the board of directors from Dynamo or Zenit, who’s new ground was due to open in 2008 but will now only be completed eight years later, could learn a thing or to about meeting deadlines.

You only really appreciate something when it is gone and this is certainly the case for the Luzhniki Stadium. Its artificial pitch may not have been to everyone’s liking, however, it offered a good playing surface in all conditions, and given the severity of the country’s climate, this is invaluable. Russian clubs are spending tens of millions of euros on bringing top footballers from around the world to play in the Premier League. It is just a shame they can’t invest in stadiums and playing surfaces, which would allow them to show off their talents to the best of their abilities.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.