Following Zenit St. Petersburg's stunning victory in the UEFA Cup final in Manchester in front of hordes of howling Glasgow Rangers fans, and the upcoming Champions League final in Moscow between those two giants of English football - Manchester United and Chelsea - the football world has fixed its attention firmly on Russia. And it has realised that it knows next to nothing about the subject.
While the world's media has long been full of tales of Russian spies, politicians, and oligarchs, the country's football still remains the Great Unknown, isolated by politics and geography, culture and history.
The break-up of Soviet football
Sport in the former Soviet Union, as in many other communist and totalitarian states, was considered hugely significant for international prestige. Victory was proof of the wonders of socialism; defeat was a disaster, a disgrace to the ideals of Lenin and Marx. As a result, huge amounts of resources were poured into the USSR's sporting infrastructure, and talented youngsters were encouraged, nurtured and provided with the very best in terms of facilities.
However, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 meant more than just the end of the world's first socialist state; it also signalled the break-up of Soviet football. Overnight, the Soviet Union's players found themselves deprived of the centralised state system, and thrust into a new and sometimes frightening world.
The realities of post-perestroika Russia meant that the ruling powers, indeed the general population, had little time for any form of sport. In the 1990's, Russia was in real danger of ceasing to exist as a fully functioning state. The world's largest country was being ripped apart by a brutal separatist war in Chechnya, a vicious crime wave, and the incompetence and corruption of the Yeltsin regime. Football was the last thing on most people's minds.
The first games I went to in Russia in the mid-1990s were characterized by extremely low crowds, players whose only desire was to sign with a foreign club, and an overwhelming sensation of sadness as once great football was brought to its knees. Turnstiles were often opened at half-time to let fans in for free, such was the lack of interest.
The oil dollar effect
Now, however, everything has changed. Oil dollars have transformed Russia, and its national game along with it, making its Premier League football the fifth richest in Europe in terms of turnover. The crowds have come back, and the quality of both the domestic players and the imports, or ‘legionaries' as the Russians say, has risen dramatically.
The ‘player drain' has been well and truly plugged, with average wages looking increasingly generous and top players regularly claiming that they see no point in leaving Russia to play for a mid-table European side. A great change indeed from the 1990's, when, for example, Sergei Yuran, the Spartak Moscow mid-fielder and Russian international, signed a contract with the struggling second division English side Millwall at a time when Spartak were champions of Russia and regularly involved in Champions League football.
Top Russian players like Zenit's Andrey Arshavin can now earn $200,000 a month. However, the economic boom sweeping through Russia may be in the process of transforming the country, but it is also exaggerating social differences. It is splitting the population into ‘the wealthy' and ‘the poor', with the spaces in between looking increasingly sparse.
Granted, the very top stars in the English Premier League earn far more than their Russian counterparts, yet while the salaries enjoyed by John Terry and co are unquestionably obscene, they are not, I would suggest, contributing to a rapidly widening, and potentially cataclysmic, division within British society.
The Soviet legacy
Despite the Western-style lifestyles and salaries enjoyed by Russia's top players, the legacy of the Soviet system of sport, with its emphasis on draconian measures to ensure the fitness of those men and women chosen to represent the USSR is not entirely dead.
Russian players are cursed with possibly the strictest training regime in the entire world. They are forced to attend sbori, or training camps, during the close season, each lasting between two and six weeks. In the four-month gap between seasons, players are almost constantly away from home. They are more than often held abroad, but sometimes in the Russian south, in Black Sea resorts like Sochi and Adler. Separated from their families, the players are subject to strict diets and heavy training sessions. Footballers in Russia are also obliged to stay at the club's out-of-town training camps before games, including home matches, with the result that if a team has two matches a week they are simply never at home. As the former Spartak striker, Vladimir Beschastnykh, told me not so long ago, ‘Sometimes I feel like they are training us for the Special Forces.'
The system of sbori comes from Soviet times, from the routine for international away matches. The players would be kept in the training camps prior to fixtures to ensure they were in top form before representing the USSR. The system then spread to clubs, and has remained a part of the Russian football scene.
Restoring Russian greatness
Sbori are not the only thing to remain from the Soviet era. Now that Russia has begun to reassert itself on the global stage, it is again looking to promote the country through sport. The Russian football national team, so often a source of shame and embarrassment, not once having managed to get out of its group at a major tournament, is resurgent. It goes into this summer's European Championships in Austria and Switzerland as one of the competition's dark horses.
This revival of Russian football stems from a 7-1 defeat to Portugal in Lisbon in 2004. Even taking into account the almost complete control that the Russian authorities enjoy over the mass media, there was no way the humiliating result could be hushed up. It reflected badly on President Putin's pledge that Russia would eventually ‘catch up with Portugal' (in terms of GDP).
Putin, furious at the way Russia had been torn apart in Portugal, contacted the president of the Russian Football Federation, Vitali Mutko, and instructed him to build up the national side, to look for sponsors and investors. As a former KGB officer, the Russian national leader had naturally enough inherited the Soviet belief that sport was intimately connected to prestige on the international scene. Spineless and incompetent displays like the one in Lisbon were hindering his attempts to restore Russian greatness and world influence.
Oil money was rapidly turning Russia into a potential superpower, and states that aspire to regional, and even global, leadership simply do not get beaten 7-1 at football by tiny south European nations. Mutko, in turn, contacted the oil oligarch and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. The sixteenth-richest man in the world, doing his part to rescue Russian national pride, promptly conjured up respected Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, who immediately set about rebuilding the demoralised Russian team.
‘We are the future'
However, despite the Russian footballing boom, the Champions League final will be an all-English affair. The British media has made much of the Russian hooligan threat, yet as scenes in Manchester during, before, and after the UEFA Cup final last week prove, it may be Muscovites who have more to fear from drunken English supporters.
Indeed, Russian football hooliganism is extremely organised. The majority of ‘hools' have no interest in attacking fans who are not involved in what they call the ‘near football' world. Indeed, the majority of Russian hardcore hooligans are dismissive of the English football scene. They recognise that while the Millwall and Chelsea thugs of the 1970's and 1980's were trendsetters, times have moved on. As one Russian hooligan told me recently, "We respect them, but we are not afraid of them. They are the past - we are the future!"
As investment pours into the Russian game on an unprecedented scale, the country's sides will be hoping that soon they will also be able to say the same thing about their English, Italian, and Spanish counterparts.