Richard van Poortvliet: New season in Russia gets cold shoulder from some

It’s been a very long winter in Russia, far too long for pretty much everyone. Since November 2012, the vast majority of the country has been under a blanket of snow and even in early April, the weather shows no sign of abating.  The domestic football season resumed almost a month ago, following a three month winter break, in what is the first full campaign since the move to a Autumn to Spring calendar, which brings Russian football in line with it’s counterparts from the majority of Europe.

For decades, the Russian season used to start in March and finish in November, making the most of the months of sunshine during the summer. The change in the season dates has not been universally popular, especially with clubs in the lower divisions who have been particularly critical given that they do not have the resources or infrastructure available to play in inclement conditions in December and early March.

Russian international midfielder, Roman Shirokov, who is never shy when letting his opinions be known, believes “we have gone down the wrong path” changing the calendar and he has sympathy for those playing in the lower leagues. “The biggest problem is in the second division,” the 31 year-old continued. “Some of the players there may not be paid for a few months for the simple reason that one could point out that they are constantly on holiday. They end up playing football for only half the year.”

Grigory Ivanov, the president of the first division club ‘Ural’, from Ekaterinburg who are currently top of the table and are on course to be promoted to the Premier League, was even more scathing. “The people who moved the calendar to start in the autumn should be thrown on to the pitch and let them try and play on the pitches we have to. On the day of our game with Volga Astrakhan on the March 12, the temperature was minus 18. Who are we playing for? For the supporters? When the calendar was changed, no one thought that football is for the people.”

The Ural president raises an interesting issue, which has been backed up by attendance figures in the Russian Premier League. Spartak Moscow, who are traditionally the best supported club in the country could only muster a measly 13,000 for last week’s encounter with fellow European hopefuls, Kuban Krasnodar. However, with the temperature well below freezing, it wasn’t really a surprise that the supporters decided to stay at home, rather than sit in a stadium in sub-zero conditions.

It is also no surprise that the highest attendance figures have been in Grozny and Makhachkala, the homes of Terek and Anzhi. Both these clubs are well supported and play in state of the art arenas. However, the fact that the temperature in these Southern Russian cities is well over 10 degrees also plays a key factor.

If so many people within Russian football are against the changing of the football calendar, then why was it changed in the first place? The main reason was to help Russian clubs competing in Europe and make sure they were not majority affected following the resumption of the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. However, no Russian clubs qualified for the knockout stages of the continent’s premier club competition, while despite not having played any competitive football for two and a half months, all three clubs from the country qualified from the Europa League round of 32.

The calls for a return to the old system when the season started in mid March are growing, however, the president of the Russian Football Premier League, Sergey Pryadkin, believes that it’s too early to go back to the old calendar. “I think everyone knows that we have to speed up the modernisation of football infrastructure in Russia. I know it may be sound harsh, but the move to start the season in the autumn will force the regional governments and federations to improve conditions for playing football.”

Pryadkin, who ran for the post of President of the Russian Football Union, but was eventually beaten by Nikolay Tolstykh does have a point. Even within the Russian Premier League, the stadiums and facilities for the fans are outdated, with some fans having to put up with facilities which were built half a century ago and have had very few renovations. The hosting of the 2018 World Cup will help to speed-up the modernisation of Russian football by improving grounds around the country and making them more spectator friendly.

However, the main problem in Russia is the unpredictability of the weather. This time last year, the temperature in Moscow was well above freezing, as had been the case since early March. But in 2013 it has been completely the opposite. The footballing authorities and local governments can throw millions of roubles at trying to improve the country’s footballing infrastructure. The problem is, they will never be able to control the weather.

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