Anyone in football knows making predictions is often a fruitless endeavour. Never more so than in trying to determine the outcome of the Russian Premier-Liga which this season has cost pundits a few grey hairs. Already one of the fastest developing and wealthiest leagues in Europe, the Premier-Liga is threatening to become one of the most exciting as well given this year's dramatic title race.
During the Nineties Russian football followed a familiar path. At the start of the season one or two sides would briefly threaten to challenge FC Spartak Moskva for the title, before falling away as Russia's dominant force gathered momentum. When Valeri Gazzaev's FC Alania Vladikavkaz did usurp the perennial champions in 1995, it was the exception rather than the rule. In this century, FC Lokomotiv Moskva and PFC CSKA Moskva have had their own periods of power, often competing against each other as Spartak's influence waned. Never before this year, however, could Russia boast five genuine title contenders as well as a considerable number of dark horses at the starting line.
Twenty-nine games later, the title race will be decided on the final day with FC Zenit St. Peterburg, looking to win their first championship since independence, and Spartak vying for the crown. Regardless of the outcome, it has been a breathtaking race from March to November, first and foremost because of the number of upsets, rises and falls among the clubs in the top half of the table. Dick Advocaat has turned aggresive Zenit into an effective point-collecting machine, Spartak changed coach midway through the season but hung on in the title race, CSKA, champions in 2005 and 2006, badly missed their absent Brazilians, and though Lokomotiv fell off the pace even they had a direct influence with some emphatic victories against the title hopefuls.
Add to the big four a number of unfancied sides who have all played a part in making this season one to remember. FC Moskva were among the leaders up until the final days of the campaign and under their 36-year-old coach Leonid Slutski they remain in contention for third place with CSKA. No less impressive are FC Dinamo Moskva whose 39-year-old coach Andrei Kobelev has packed his side with youngsters. Rejuvenated FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast saw an undefeated eleven-game streak come to and end last week but Gadzhi Gadzhiev’s side still sit fifth. A bit further down the table FC Amkar Perm have collected the scalps of several top clubs under the guidance of yet another promising young coach, 44-year-old Rashid Rakhimov.
The number of serious contenders in the Premier-Liga is higher than ever, building intrigue and competitiveness. But while many outside Russia believe the dated stereotype that it is all down to the big money some clubs can count on, those who watch more closely see things differently. It is not just about money anymore, it is about who spends it and how. Money has been a part of Russian football for a long time now and Dinamo’s demise following their spending spree two years ago is perhaps the most vivid example of the problems it can bring. Now it seems, clubs are managing their finances more effectively.
Younger, better educated coaches who are aware of the challenges of modern football are a decisive factor in this. The league itself has also helped pave the way for progress. With limits on the number of non-Russian players growing tighter by the year more faith is being put in younger, homegrown players and they in turn are thriving now they are being given the opportunity. That has its obvious benefits for the national team, which is more youthful and consistent under Guus Hiddink. Smaller clubs benefit as well, nurturing local players then turning a tidy profit when they sell them on because any talented player holding a Russian passport is considerably more expensive inside Russia than a foreigner. Because of the increased demand, Russian players are also well paid, reducing their financial motive to move abroad.
The title race has been tense, dramatic, unpredictable, with European places and the crown itself up for grabs until the final day. Attendances are up and the quality of football has improved as well. Could things get any better? Absolutely. Imagine how much stronger CSKA would have been had they not lost their Brazilians to the Copa América and injury. Imagine Lokomotiv finding a bit of stability or Moskva having just slighly more depth on the bench. Imagine Saturn playing the first half of the league the way they played in the second. Imagine Dinamo with a bit more experience. Roll on 2008. If this year is anything to go by, it should be a cracker.