Russia's revolution: winter football!

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Huzzah! Another victory for football’s moneymen. Up yours, loyal supporter!

There’s a very good reason why hitherto, professional football in Russia has been played over the summer months. Mainly because it gets cold in winter; really, really, cold, and there's loads of that snow stuff about, meaning it’s not exactly feasible to be outside on the lawn kicking a ball around, even if it is an orange one.

Still, they’ll have to find some way of doing it, because last week the Russian Football Union announced that from 2012 the country’s top three divisions will no longer play to a traditional March-November calendar, and instead they're going to be brought in line with the major European leagues. Gah!

This means a season beginning in August and finishing in May, and playing football in some of Russia’s most adverse weather conditions, regardless of the RFU plonking a three-month break in between December and February.

This is massive. It’s like when those monsters at the BBC unceremoniously shunted Neighbours around year after year to accommodate Wimbledon. Worse, if anything.

Next season is going to be a whopping 44-game transitional one for the Premier League where, upon completion of the usual 30 matches, the 16 clubs will split into two groups to contest title/relegation issues. Russia’s second tier will also be trimmed from 20 to 18.

OK, a summer league was a bit inconvenient when an international tournament came around, but generally it works.

You haven’t experienced a proper winter on this miserable planet of ours until you’ve been to Russia. It helped see off Napoleon and Hitler, and pretty much the only thing that doesn’t freeze around this time of year is the vodka.

But for the Russian clubs who have their own plans for European domination – y’know, the big ones with all the cash and political sway – winter is also a massive impediment to them, as when the Champions League begins to get interesting in the new year they're still ring-rusty. Mostly this is because they have been pissing around on a golf course somewhere in Turkey; Belek, usually.

This is a huge fillip for them. No wonder they're all for it. Terek Grozny vice-president Haidar Alkhanov more or less admitted last week’s vote was a fait accompli, and that they were "powerless" to do anything about it.

This shift will also make the Premier League far more lucrative when attracting sponsors, and should add a few more roubles to the pile when the competition is flogged to foreign television companies. Cor, it’s great, capitalism!

It'll have to be. Even under its current schedule, during the opening Premier League rounds Russia is covered in a blanket of snow, and matches are played on some terrible pitches that haven’t had a chance to thaw out. To counter this, it’s going to take money. Lots of it.

For most, this will necessitate the introduction of Astroturf pitches, undersoil heating, stadium roofs, heated terraces, things like that. This constitutes a major problem, unless your owner is one of them oligarch chaps who poops roubles.

Alexander Shprygin, the head of the official Russian football fans’ organisation, the VOB, said he was aware of a lack of enthusiasm among supporters for the move.

Zenit's stadium. And St Petersburg isn't particularly cold

However, the perennial European qualifiers probably won’t be overly perturbed when attendances begin to drop faster than the temperature. As in the West, top-end football is becoming less reliant on gate receipts and more about television revenue, and clubs are increasingly becoming the playthings of the rich. 

Say hello to a backlog of fixtures, especially the further east you travel from Moscow and the lower you go down the football pyramid. The Russian Football League, the body responsible for the country’s second and third tiers, are opposed to the move and affirm many of their teams simply aren’t capable of staging matches in such conditions, especially in Siberia and the Far East, where it gets more than a bit parky.

Nor is it universally popular with players. The footballers’ trade union said they are "seriously concerned by the haste of the RFU decision to change the championship's format. It's a very alarming symptom that the RFU decided to withdraw from public and professional discussion over these extremely important changes."

Their poll conducted among players from nine of the Premier League’s 16 teams revealed 73 were against the move, as opposed to just 23 in favour.

But the big teams want this, and so it will happen. Politics and football are inextricably linked in Russia, considering who owns many of these sides; this new calendar is deemed beneficial for the country’s 2018/22 World Cup bids, and woe betide anyone who gets in the way of that juggernaut.

Better get used to it, then. More to read...
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