Richard van Poortvliet: Unfamiliar faces in less familiar places

Makhachkala is a hive of activity as the city on the shores of the Caspian Sea prepares to host one of the biggest games in it’s history. The Russian Cup final will take place on Thursday, at the new Anzhi Arena, which opened over a year ago.

The event will be of much significance for the city of Makhachkala, which certainly has a point to prove to the rest of Russia and Europe, if any one happens to be taking note. For the past two years, the local team Anzhi have been forced to play their European matches in Moscow, due to the volatile nature of the Republic of Dagestan, which has become a haven for separatist fighters, who are trying to carve out an Islamic republic within Russia’s predominantly Muslim south. A well organized and successful final would certainly make a case for important matches to be played in the city, though with Anzhi currently in the relegation zone in the Russian Premier League, European football is a long way off.

It has been five years since the Russian Cup final was held in the capital, with the country’s showpiece event visiting cities such as Rostov and Ekaterinburg in between. Last season’s final was held in Grozny, the capital of the Republic of Chechnya, something almost unthinkable just over a decade ago. The decision to take the final away from Moscow has certainly worked, with capacity crowds drawn to the last two finals.

Given that Anzhi season ticket holders are being let in for free and there is a genuine passion for the game in the region, despite the team’s struggles, it is quite possible the Anzhi Arena could be close to its 30,000 seat capacity on Thursday. How much the club or the Russian Football Union will actually earn from hosting the game is certainly questionable, with tickets for the game costing from 100 to 1500 roubles ($2.80-$42.30).

While the preparations have gone relatively smoothly, the match itself has gone largely under the radar in Russia, except amongst the most ardent football fans and the supporters of the two clubs competing. However, it is the two teams taking part that makes this an intriguing encounter and one which I will be certainly watching.

Few would have predicted a Rostov v FC Krasnodar final when the competition started. It has been ten years since a team from Moscow or Zenit St. Petersburg have failed to reach the decisive game in the Russian Cup.

A decade ago Terek Grozny managed to beat Krylya Sovetov 1-0, however, there were widespread reports when Terek won the Russian Cup in 2004, shortly after the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, who was the father of Chechnya’s current President, Ramzan Kadyrov, that they had bought the final – against Krylya – for $6 million. The claims were denied and nothing was ever proven.

There is unlikely to be any controversy a decade on, with two teams who have epitomised mid-table obscurity within the Russian Premier League, looking to battle it out to win a first trophy in their respective histories.

It is the history of the two teams, or recent history in the case of FC Krasnodar, that interests me most. Over a year and a half ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Southern Russian city to watch Russia’s friendly match with the United States. However, what struck me most from that visit was the quiet revolution that was taking place within FC Krasnodar, who were only formed in 2008 and won promotion to the Russian Premier League in 2011.

The man who is responsible for their meteoric rise is their chairman and owner, Sergey Galitsky. The 46 year-old has built up a retail empire called Magnit, which caters for budget grocery shopping across Russia. According to Reuters, the company’s London-listed stock has risen by 133% since it floated in 2006 at $27, putting a valuation on the business of $30 billion.

He is famous across Russia for Magnit’s ‘Always low prices’ slogan, but it is also on the football pitch, where the Sochi native has become an equally important figure. He founded FC Krasnodar from nothing and has already built one of the best football youth academies in Europe. This is no over-estimation as the facilities on offer are stunning and would not look out of place at Real Madrid or Manchester United. Galitsky is also looking to build a new football stadium for his team.

Galitsky is a breath of fresh air within Russian football, in an environment where large-scale State Corporation’s have dominant investment within the sport. For Lokomotiv Moscow – think Russian Railways; Zenit St. Petersburg – Gazprom. FC Krasnodar one of the only teams in the Russian Premier League, which rely on support from one person. The owner of Anzhi Makhachkala, Suleyman Kerimov is the other obvious example. Leonid Fedun and Evgeny Ginar, who own Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow respectively may argue that they are also solely responsible for the financing of their sides, but given the popularity of the clubs within the Russian domestic market and their ability to attract sponsorship, the two Moscow-based clubs are not as reliant on their chairman for capital in comparison to FC Krasnodar or Anzhi Makhachkala.

Rostov, FC Krasnodar’s opponents are largely bankrolled by the local government, with the club receiving in the region of 28.2 million dollars. Of course this is nothing in comparison to the sums received by Zenit or CSKA, but it is still a significant step for the development of football in Russia’s regions.

While this year’s Russian Cup final is unlikely to break any television viewing records, it is an important step for the development of football in the country, as the dominance of Moscow and St. Petersburg, is finally being broken. Rubin Kazan were the last team to try and breakthrough and challenge the elite, which they did successfully, winning back to back Russian Premier League titles in 2008 and 2009, but ultimately lacked the financial spending power to build on that success.

It is unlikely that either FC Krasnodar or Rostov will be able to able to compete with Zenit or the Moscow clubs over a prolonged period, but importantly the grass roots are being sown, which will certainly be helped by new stadiums for both teams in the near future to try and increase the success of the teams both on and off the field of play.

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