World Cup 2018 Series: How Russia became a football country

This is the first of a series of guest articles by Aleksandr Grudnev, a researcher and SMM specialist in sport. He is a graduate of the Russian International Olympic University, a volunteer of two Olympic Games, and a big football fan who has been working in football industry since 2014 as reporter and writer. This year he worked as a venue manager in hospitality area at the Confederations Cup in Russia.

This series will attempt to shed some light on the workings of football in Russia in the build-up to the World Cup this summer, the first to take place in Eastern Europe. The first is a background to football in the country

In November this year, the remaining teams will be officially qualified for the World Cup 2018: to be hosted by the mysterious Russia next summer. One of the finer points of the Russian bid to host the tournament was that a World Cup has never been hosted by an Eastern European country. So, next summer it will be.

The topic of Eastern European football is too big to be revealed during several months before the event. The field of Russian football is also huge and could not be covered in just a few months. Thus, we’ll touch upon a specific area of Russian professional football – digital and social media marketing.
During the next few months we will give you an overview of Russian football world and its digital reflection. We will unveil the current state of the affairs, the PR strategies of the clubs and their approaches to the fans. We will observe how Russian social media users react on the positive and negative news about their clubs and the national team. And we will see why the upcoming World Cup will shape the future of Russian football, too.

The first step to start with is a potted history of Russian modern football. It’s a short history in its modern form: when FC Barcelona won their first European Cup trophy at Wembley in 1992, Russian fans were watching the first Russian championship after Soviet era.

Being professionalised only after the break-up of the Soviet Union, football in a new Russia suffered from a lack of investment and clearly its clubs faced budget deficits year on year. However, the creation of the Russian Professional Football League in 2001 made a very fragile system more organised. It was a big step towards the commercialisation of the football industry in Russia. Even though some clubs had already moved to a private form of ownership and showed stable results in terms of finance, it was a good sign for Russian football.

Another milestone is the first titles on the international scene. CSKA Moscow, followed by Zenit Saint-Petersburg, won UEFA cups in 2005 and 2008 respectively. The core of that Zenit played a significant role in the success of Russian national team, which played in its first European championship semi-final in 20 years in 2008, losing to eventual winners Spain.

However, it is worth remembering that Russia qualified for that Championship by fortune after an amazing Croatian performance at Wembley, when they won 3-2 against England. The last chapter of the summer fairytale happened in August of the same year. Interestingly, Zenit got its first European trophy in Manchester, while Manchester United won the Champions League in Russia, too, though in Moscow and not Saint-Petersburg. The clubs met in the Super Cup clash in Monaco, when an amazing Zenit win was the last major trophy Russian football has won.

The next years were marked by the bidding for 2018 World Cup. And the bid was successful. Russia promised an international football community the greatest event ever. The first thing you need for that is the stadiums. The initial list of 13 host cities was shorted to 11, with two stadiums in Moscow. In the end, some cities with a football past and present were excluded from the list, while some without a big footballing heritage were given the right to host World Cup games.

However, this has to do with political considerations within the country. Sochi had a good infrastructure after the Winter Olympic Games, and the state needed to be able to justify the huge expenses for that event. That’s how Sochi had an advantage against another city in the same region, Krasnodar, which has two professional football teams and a new breathtaking modern arena. Saransk (which is not a football city at all) started to build a new stadium even before the Russian bid had even won. Very motivated local authorities from the regional capital inhabited by only 300,000 people could provide guarantees to the federal government and convince it to put Saransk in the host-city list.

Another important change for Russian football is transition from a spring – autumn system to an autumn – spring model, which means that, since 2012, league championships start in July, instead of March. Bizarrely, the gap in between two different championships is now shorter than that between the first and the second parts of one season: there’s one month between one season ending and another beginning, whilst there is a three-month winter break. Despite many discussions against the model adopted to synchronise the calendar with other European countries, this is still the case for Russian Football Premier League.

The Confederations Cup, staged this summer in a new generation of Russian stadiums could be marked as the last step towards World Cup 2018. What will come after the World Cup nobody knows, but it is certain that Russian football, which is still very young, will enter into a new era.

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