Siberia – the gigantic area which covers 77% of Russia – has a reputation as a major wilderness, but local football will come in from the cold in 2010/11 when FC Sibir Novosibirsk make their European debut.
Founded in 1936, the club are playing under their ninth name having appeared in every division of the national league. They are the third Siberian club to play in the Premier-Liga – after FC Tom Tomsk and FC Tyumen – and though they have taken just one point from seven top-tier games and sit bottom of the table, the Russian Cup successes have already made their name.
Sibir will play FC Zenit St. Petersburg in the final in Rostov-on-Don on 16 May knowing that, with the 2007/08 UEFA Cup winners already sure of a place in Europe, they will have a spot in next season's UEFA Europa League regardless of the outcome. For the club's chairman Lev Strelkov, playing in UEFA club competition will be a supreme achievement.
"They asked me in 2002 what this club could achieve when we were playing in the second division," recalled Strelkov. "When I mentioned UEFA club competitions those words were met with a smile, as if I was living in a dream world. However, I always believed it could happen. Now everyone else can believe it too."
Crucial to the recent success of the 'Orly' (Eagles) has been the nous of their Belarussian coach Igor Kriushenko. The 46-year-old took over before the start of their promotion-winning campaign of 2009 and earned a two-year extension to his contract after a final-day win against FC Chita opened their door into the top division.
Now the former FC BATE Borisov and FC Dinamo Minsk boss is hoping Russian Cup success can reignite his side's league campaign. "A good result should give us new momentum," Kriushenko said. "
As for European competition, I had a taste of it during my time in Belarus. European ties were always a big occasion."
Sibir's 2010 squad have been built around 12 inter-season signings, starting with former FC Spartak Moskva and Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Kowalewski, Sibir's player of the year in 2009, who replaced the PFC CSKA Moskva-bound Sergei Chepchugov. However, perhaps their biggest star is 33-year-old striker Aleksei Medvedev, with the captain scoring 18 times in their promotion season.
European football, meanwhile, means Strelkov can dream of finally stepping on the pitch at Liverpool FC's home stadium. "They owe me one now," he joked. "When I visited the Anfield museum in 2004, I asked if I could walk out on to the pitch. They told me it was forbidden. I replied that they would be leading me out on to it one day."
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