Far-flung min­nows give Rus­sia’s elite travel night­mare

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

When SKA Khabarovsk se­cured their first-ever pro­mo­tion to Rus­sia’s Premier League last May, there was no time to dwell on the loud groans em­a­nat­ing from Moscow and St Peters­burg, some seven time zones away.

In­stead, fans of the far-east­ern club, whose ground is roughly 20 kilo­me­tres from the coun­try’s bor­der with China, were busy bask­ing in an un­likely achieve­ment. The far-flung min­nows reached Rus­sia’s top di­vi­sion fol­low­ing a nail-bit­ing shootout vic­tory over Oren­burg in the rel­e­ga­tion play-offs.

Now the club is the curse of much of the Rus­sian foot­ball elite, which lives in dread of the long-haul visit to the club’s 15,000-seater Lenin sta­dium lo­cated 8,300 kilo­me­tres away from Moscow. Khabarovsk is an eight-hour flight from the Rus­sian cap­i­tal and even fur­ther from St Peters­burg.

“Few peo­ple be­lieved we would be suc­cess­ful as Oren­burg are a far more wealthy club than we are,” Yury Sobeshchuk, SKA’s press spokesman, told AFP by tele­phone. “Many of the coun­try’s small clubs’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives ex­pressed their grat­i­tude to us, say­ing they were pleased money doesn’t yet de­cide ev­ery­thing in our foot­ball.”

Founded in 1946, FC SKA has long lived in the shadow of the city’s more fa­mous bandy and ice hockey teams. But now the club can look for­ward to dates with Rus­sia’s most sto­ried clubs, even if the feel­ing is far from mu­tual.

“The hopes of our sup­port­ers came true. They have fi­nally re­ceived a chance to watch the coun­try’s top teams live,” Sobeshchuk said. “And our first Premier League match with Zenit (St Peters­burg), which was sold out in just few hours, showed the se­ri­ous rise of in­ter­est in foot­ball in Khabarovsk.”

The sea­son-opener marked an in­aus­pi­cious start to life in the big time as SKA were beaten 2-0 by Ital­ian Roberto Mancini’s Zenit.

‘EX­TEND FAIRY­TALE’

Af­ter the game the Zenit cap­tain and Mancini’s com­pa­triot Domenico Crisc­ito branded the flight to Khabarovsk as “the worst in my life”. Khabarovsk is not the most east­ern­most team to have com­peted in Rus­sia’s top flight, how­ever.

Luch Vladi­vos­tok and Okean Nakhodka, who played in the coun­try’s elite di­vi­sion in the early 1990’s, are both based 100km fur­ther east of the club. For fans of Zenit and the Moscow clubs, an away trip to Khabarovsk means a choice be­tween a lengthy flight and a train jour­ney last­ing more than five days.

“I’d like to at­tend ev­ery away game of Spar­tak (Moscow) but I just can­not af­ford to buy the plane tick­ets to Khabarovsk and back,” 29-year-old Sergei Trofi­mov, a sup­porter of one of the coun­try’s most cel­e­brated clubs told AFP.

“It’s too ex­pen­sive. And I will def­i­nitely never dare to go there by train. “Of course SKA are not to be blamed for their city’s dis­tant lo­ca­tion but it will be much more con­ve­nient with­out them in the Premier League.” Fans of Rus­sia’s big hit­ters might well see their wishes ful­filled come the end of the sea­son. —AFP

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