This feature is part of A Tale of One City

The Gold Room at the world famous Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg is a sight to behold; the very symbol of opulence at the centre of the most lavishly designed city in Russia. High walls laced with gold leaf decorations, sky blue velvet curtains that trail to the floor, and chandeliers hanging beneath the gabled Byzantine ceiling instil a hushed awe within those who step foot inside.

It is said one needs weeks to fully take in the rich display of art, artefacts and historical items the whole museum has to offer, but the jewel in the crown is this corner of the enormous building. Amongst its most prized assets are the Greek gold found near the ancient city of Phanagoria on the Taman peninsula, mere kilometres from Crimea on the coast of Krasnodar Krai, that speak of a history that stretches back nearly three millennia.

Nowadays modern Russia is also home to wealth of a different kind, where conglomerates and multi-nationals have sprung up in the short time following the break up of the Soviet Union, many fuelled by the oil industry. Roman Abramovich was not even 30-years-old when he bought a 50 percent share in Sibneft for $100 million, while Gazprom employs almost 400,000 people and provided eight per cent of Russia’s Gross Domestic Product in 2011, despite only being formed as a corporation in 1989.

However incongruous the pairing of such a storied past and such rapid development may seem, it mirrors the relationship between the two football clubs based in the administrative centre of Russia’s south-eastern region from where the trinkets that dazzle the Hermitage came: Krasnodar and Kuban.

Kuban was founded in 1928 by the NKPD, the Soviet secret police who also backed Dinamo Moscow, and as such are one of the oldest professional football clubs in the country. History is a core value of the club; their name, which was adopted after the original monikers Dinamo, Neftyanik (‘Oilworker’) and Spartak, is taken from the river that runs from the foot of Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus. A daunting prospect, it was scaled for the first time just over 140 years ago by Englishman Florence Crauford Grove, and around 30 people die every year attempting to conquer the twin snow-capped peaks. While the surrounding region has seen all manner of invaders from the Ancient Greeks, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde to the Bulgarian King Kubrat, Elbrus has remained a fixture on the horizon, much like Kuban themselves.

Where this rivalry becomes unique is in the history – or lack of it – of Krasnodar. In what would be a brilliant answer to a pub quiz question, they are the only professional club, other than founding members of leagues, to ascend to the top flight of a major European league without ever earning promotion.

After being founded by billionaire retail magnate Sergey Galitskiy in 2008, they have twice taken advantage of other clubs’ financial difficulties to rise up from the lowest rung of the professional system to take their place at the top table. After finishing third in the third-tier Second Division at the end of their first season, FC Sportakadeklub Moscow and FC SKA Rostov-na-Donu’s voluntary relegation from the second-tier Football National League for failure to guarantee finances for the following season gave the club a free ticket to instant promotion. Although the 2009 season ended in a mid-table finish, a year later it was FC Saturn and FC Moscow whose financial woes gifted Krasnodar another free passage, this time to the Premier League.

Naturally, this has caused a great deal of friction between the fans. Alan Moore is a columnist for Championat, one of Russia’s most reputable sports news sources, and he describes the jealous angst between the clubs: “Kuban fans were a little patronising at times, and Galitskiy didn’t have a great reputation in the region,” he told me. “That the team flew up so fortunately has annoyed many fans, though as with any such case, so long as the money rolls, so does the bandwagon.”

At this point it must be remembered how bizarre life is for clubs in such a vast territory. Ten years ago Luch Energiya Vladivostok entered the Russian Premier League (RPL), and instantly gave Zenit a frightening 4,000-mile away trip crossing an entire continent and seven time zones. Now plying their trade in the Football National League (FNL) – the second tier – they have an even longer trip to make to play Baltika Kaliningrad in the Russian enclave surrounded by Poland. Simply getting to games and back is a major outgoing for many clubs, and the restraints of budgets is a perennial problem. As such, many cities are unable to sustain two professional sides. “It is rare because of finance,” said Moore. “No team is remotely self-sustainable, nor has a hope of being so, which means governments will play a leading hand for facilities, finance etc.”

One common misconception is that the oil industry has spawned a whole host of Russian sugar daddies with cash to burn in their native league. Abramovich’s investment in Chelsea is actually an example of this issue; it is said he has poured over £1 billion into his West London team, but he chose not to invest in one from his homeland. Exact reasons will be known only unto the man himself.

He has, however, provided for new pitches and academies to be established in Russia, not to mention over £120 million into the far eastern region of Chukhotka, of which he was governor for eight years, so he can hardly be accused of ignoring his country, but he elected to avoid getting involved in the messy world of Russian football. Suleyman Kerimov famously ploughed faintly ridiculous sums into Anzhi Makhachkala and demanded instant rewards, but as soon as he realised the sheer scale of investment necessary to truly dominate, he withdrew his backing.

In this environment, it is hardly surprising that before Krasnodar, the only one-city derbies were to be found in Moscow. The relationship between Russian clubs as a result is much more complex; regional rivalries are often characterised by cultural differences rather than sporting reasons. When Chechnya’s Terek Grozny or Dagestan’s Anzhi visit the traditional powerhouses to the north, for example, there is bitterness between the people based on political and historical grievances, but less in the way of pure sporting theatre.

All this is about to change. “It’s a long way off the Moscow derbies, or Volga Ulyanovsk v Volga Nizhniy Novgorod [both of whom compete in the second tier FNL],” Moore explains. “However, in four or five years it will be manic, especially if Krasnodar continue at their pace. It always matters when you play your local rivals, and I think it’s more important for Kuban fans now to ‘get one over’ on FCK, while for FCK fans it’s more important to beat the big boys.”

This apparent snub of their local rivals has stirred the indignation of Kuban followers; the cheeky upstarts already thinking they’re too big for the original residents. After playing their first season at the minuscule 3,000 capacity Trud stadium in the south of the city, The Bulls have had to ground share with their neighbours at the Kuban stadium in order to satisfy basic league regulations. A 35,000-capacity stadium is being built, however, so the enforced ground share won’t last much longer. Forced together, the bitterness was incubated until the two became actual rivals in the league.

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Read  |  Sergey Galitskiy: the man who could change Russian football forever

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Kuban themselves are facing a potentially worrying period ahead, as their major backer Oleg Mkrtchyan is about to pull out his support, leaving the club entirely dependent on the local government unless a new backer can be found. Not only this, but club president and regional governor, Aleksander Tkarchev, has been appointed Minister for Agriculture, meaning he will leave his two posts to work from Moscow. As chief editor of Russian Football News Toke Møller Theilade explains that this could well unsettle the progress they have made:

“Kuban is in a very difficult period right now. The regional government of Krasnodar is trying to get complete control of the club, and the former sugar daddy Oleg Mkrtchyan is about to withdraw from the club. Kuban has delivered the best results in the history of he club during Mkrtchyan and Tkarchev’s reign, but it now looks over. It will be difficult, probably impossible, to find a sponsor who is willing to pay enough to keep the club at its current level, and even though the government aim at transforming the club into the ‘People’s Team’ through a complete government ownership, they face an uncertain future.”

The truth is that their past has been uncertain too, especially if one takes a look at the stability of their administration. In 87 years, they have had an astonishing 66 managers – including 25 since the turn of the century – only two of whom have remained in charge for longer than three full seasons. Often flitting between divisions before their rivals came along, they have suffered ten relegations in the last 50 years, with just four solitary RSFSR championships, the third tier of the Soviet League system, to show for their troubles.

In comparison Galitskiy becomes an even rarer example of an extremely wealthy owner with patience. His attitude to his new club has been both unexpected and refreshing for a man who had made his way by finding the most convenient and efficient route to success, but it has started to reap dividends already. Player development, and not lavish expenditure, has been the driving force behind his philosophy, which has seen him establish not just an academy for the club, but a whole network of schools around the region. He realised that to gain the upper hand in the battle against their cross-town rivals, it was necessary not only to win over the city, but the whole of Krasnodar Krai.

Anastasia Salnikova is a football fan who grew up in Siberia near the oil capital of Tyumen, but moved to Krasnodar two years before The Bulls were established. She has a unique perspective as a non-native follower in the city, and describes the academy, and Galitskiy, as an impressive feature of the football landscape:

“I respect this man. He seems to be free from stereotypes and really does things, such as the academy, the stadium, and doesn’t just talk and get richer,” she said. “I have visited Krasnodar’s football academy quite often and I really like the atmosphere there. Relaxed, but still goal-orientated. He not only built a simple pitch but has established a really good school with all necessary add-ons. Once we even had Pelé attending Krasnodar Academy; every single pupil was invited. That was huge.”

Understanding how to win over fans to his new project ahead of the loyal following of the city’s historical club has been crucial to building such powerful momentum. Bearing in mind the eye-watering scale of the nation, it is not only the fans that have had to be convinced, but players too: “Until three years ago, the best young players were overwhelmingly choosing the Green and Gold [of Kuban],” says Moore. “However Galitskiy made it his priority, using very basic business methods, to make Krasnodar not just the team of the city, but the club for Krasnodar Krai. His establishment of football schools, all tightly controlled from their home base, with great quality facilities, has now turned the tables on Kuban.”

Patience has been vital to the success of this approach, a quality that is in short supply with most owners in Russia. The power of image is intoxicating in a country where less than two decades ago a dark world of bribery, corruption and gangsters controlled whole swathes of society, but Galitskiy maintained his determination to do things his way, rather than sway people’s attention with a brash show of wealth. “He is a football lover,” Theilade explains, “And for him it was important to build his club up from the bottom. Unlike many others, he took his time to do things right. When he opened the impressive academy, he said he wanted to develop gradually, and understand the circumstances before acting.”

For all this apparently philanthropic approach to running a club, money will only talk so much in Russia. Knowing how to operate is absolutely critical to surviving whatever form of business one chooses, and Galitskiy is a master.

“Nobody does business at the top-level without knowing which side of their bread is buttered, so he has been able to speak out, yet not really rock the boat. He is relatively close with Vitaliy Mutko, and thus within the Kremlin circle,” Moore concludes. When the Executive Committee met last year to discuss the incorporation of the three Crimean clubs into Russia’s league system, Galitskiy was accused by Vladimir Yakunin, head of the Russian Railways, of “crawling on his stomach to the West” for resisting the plan for fear of UEFA’s reprisals against clubs such his own. “I have a club to take care of, and tomorrow they will take the World Cup away from us,” he replied.

At the meeting, he attempted to strike a compromise. However, rather than risk suffering the wrath of his leader as an unfaithful subject, he stated his allegiance to Vladimir Putin’s and the committee’s orders on the matter. Theilade takes up the story: “Galitskiy proposed that the committee looked for a middle way, but he also had to be diplomatic and make it clear that he would select his country over anything else. At the end of the meeting he said that he wouldn’t be the bad guy to go against Putin. He obviously knows how the game works, and even though he loves his football club he is not going to go against Putin.”

Less than a year later, and UEFA have forced the Crimean clubs (Zhemchuzhina Yalta, SKChF Sevastopol and TSK Simferopol, the latter having won the Ukrainian League five years ago under the guise of Tavriya) to withdraw from the Russian Football Union’s control, while a new Crimean League is set to begin in August. Following a meeting between the managing directors of the respective clubs and UEFA officials in Nyon earlier this year, this new venture is exactly the kind of middle ground Galitskiy had proposed initially. Tkachev did not take such a diplomatic line. He accepted a medal from the acting head of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea ‘for the liberation of Crimea’, and was recognised as one of the first to publicly support the new leadership.

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KubanKuban’s notorious ultras, Tribuna Yug

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Russian football following contains a certain element intent on aping the aggressive ultras of their Italian counterparts, and in Krasnodar it is no different. Kuban’s Tribuna Yug (South Stand) group often stage marches en-masse on match days stripped to the waist to reveal their tattooed torsos, but their rival’s owner, ever the mediator, has taken unusual steps to avoid this kind of following for his own club. He offered fans of Russia’s most-supported clubs, Zenit and Spartak, free tickets on the condition that they behaved themselves while in town.

The charm offensive that the Armenian-born founder of Magnit, Russia’s largest retailer, carefully planned and executed has not been matched by his rival club. Anastasia recalls her early impressions of football in the city: “Once I attended a match at that time and I wasn’t fascinated at all. It was mostly because of local people’s attitude and behaviour. They used to fight, do what opposing gangs do…”

Even the club themselves have had to fight off accusations of heavy-handed behaviour. In 2010, Montenegrin striker Nikola Nikezić and Slovenian defender Sreten Sretenović were reportedly beaten for 20 minutes by two armed men after they had initially refused to mutually dissolve their contracts, until they finally relented. After contacting FIFPro, the global union for professional players, and the Russian Football Union, Kuban were forced to pay Nikezić €180,000 – the value of his contract that they tried to cancel – while Sretenović was absolved from his debt of €60,000. This shocking affair was a major stain on the reputation of ‘The Cossacks’ as the historical representatives of the city, and something Krasnodar’s fans don’t forget easily.

In recent years, relatively big-name foreign signings such as former Liverpool striker Djibril Cissé, Lacina Traoré and Hugo Almeida have sated Kuban fans’ lust for supremacy, which led to a Europa League campaign two seasons ago involving Swansea City and Valencia, as well as home and away victories over Feyenoord. At the start of last season, they went on a stunning run of 13 games with only one defeat, but then fell apart after the sacking of Belarusian sensation Viktor Goncharenko as manager. Goncharenko had been viewed as a rare break with tradition for the club’s directors; still only 36 when he was appointed two years ago, he had already won the Belarusian Premier League five years in a row, and was seen as someone to establish a dynasty of European standard football.

After his departure, Kuban won once between November and May as they slid slowly away from the Europa League qualifying positions to finish six points off the relegation playoff places. Fellow countryman Leonid Kuchuk oversaw a miserable period which included a run of six defeats in seven games, with his second league win only coming on the last day at home to already-relegated Arsenal Tula. Perhaps the most damaging result was the derby ‘away’ to Krasnodar in April this year.

Krasnodar were in pole position to claim a Champions League place, but twice fell behind as their fellow residents threatened to upset all notion of form. Roman Shirokov, the divisive personality who was sent out on loan by his parent club Spartak Moscow, equalised before setting up veteran full back Valeriy Kishin for a dramatic winner ten minutes from time. “It really looked like they’d not only blown their chances of a Champions League spot, but had finally choked,” Moore recalls. “However, that they did come back was a tectonic shift.”

Kuchuk’s subsequent firing was inevitable, and former Kuban youth team product and Russian international Dmitry Kokhlov was brought in. General director Evgeniy Murvev claimed it represented a shift in the club’s approach: “Dmitry Valerevich has great experience in youth work and fully shares this approach in the preparation of players. Our selection of the head coach is not accidental – he is just one of the new breed of coaches where young and talented Russian players always pay special attention and are given a chance to prove themselves.”

This apparent shift of focus to developing from within has been backed up by the club’s acquisition of Torpedo Amarvir, and subsequent conversion into a feeder club, Kuban II. Much like the B team system in Spain, almost all professional clubs in Russia field an official feeder team lower down the system, and this move will provide Kuban’s youth players with rigorous experience of senior football. It might not be as far-reaching as Krasnodar’s network of youth development centres, but by saving a club from extinction – albeit totally changing the playing staff – they have done a good deed that will earn them much-needed affection in the battle to outdo Krasnodar.

Torpedo won the southern league of the Second Division, but like so many clubs at this level, couldn’t gain the license to participate next season due to money problems. Murvev rejected the chance to take his new junior team up to the second tier FNL (below which the football pyramid splits into five regional leagues), however: “In the current financial climate this option is not possible. As part of the FNL the cost of flights and accommodation is comparable with the Premier League, and it is only part of the problems that need to be solved; a long flight and a long stay for away matches fundamentally changes the conditions of training for young players, and influences the training process itself.”

Whether Kokhlov is given time to implement such an ethos on the club is doubtful, especially given the acting regional governor’s meeting with the new manager last week. Veniamin Kondratyev may only be in office temporarily, but he has set lofty targets already. “Kuban is a really popular team. Even those who aren’t football fans follow our results. Therefore the new manager has to do everything possible to the club to fulfil the expectations of Kuban [the historical name for Krasnodar region]. First of all, he needs to return to European competition – this task is fundamental for us.”

It will take a miracle to overtake, or at least draw level with, the Moscow giants, Zenit, a resurgent Rubin Kazan, and their city rivals Krasnodar themselves next season, but at least in former PSV and Real Sociedad midfielder Kokhlov they have a sensible choice to lead this new era.

Krasnodar have already caught up, with an identical points total in this season’s Europa League group stage, where they were unbeaten against Everton. On the last day of last season, they lost out on a Champions League place on goal difference after an 88th minute equaliser from Pontus Wernbloom saw his CSKA Moscow side squeeze ahead. It is surely only a matter of time before Oleg Kononov takes them one step further. They have moved earlier in the transfer market and secured Fyodor Smolov, whose excellent season on loan at struggling Ural reminded fans of his once prodigal ability, and highly rated Norwegian centre back Stefan Strandberg, both on free transfers.

Even Financial Fair Play is unlikely to be a problem for Krasnodar, although the word ‘fair’ is a bit misleading. Galitskiy, whose actual surname was Arutyunian before he adopted his wife’s, has a creative way of bending the rules in his favour. “He has strong connections throughout the country,” states Moore. “In order to comply with FFP, Galitskiy charged suppliers to Magnit – including some of Russia biggest food producers, such as Cherkizovo, Efko and Sloboda – a “fine” in order to stock their products. These fines were then entered into the books as sponsorships. It is illegal, but manageable. And very, very clever.”

In one of the most bizarre derbies around the world, the momentum is all with Krasnodar. Sergey Schneider is a sports writer for ASNTA based in Tyumen, and he believes the modern dynamic is changing too fast for the Gold and Greens: “Kuban has always been the ornament of the south of Russia. Therefore, the ratio of fans to itself has been distinguished by identity. Their fans revere traditions actively associated with their native land. The club has a bad reputation in Russian football – corruption scandals, problems with coaches, and an undermining of the loyalty of their fans. Kuban will turn into something like Espanyol to Barcelona because Krasnodar is developing at an incredible pace. I think that in the near future, they will fight for survival.”

When contemplating the upbeat message from Kondratyev, the words of William Shakespeare’s Henry Bollingbroke in Richard II become especially poignant for Kuban fans: “Who can hold a fire in his hand by thinking on the frosty Caucasus?”

It may not boast the statistics of Rangers vs. Celtic, or the stellar names of the Milan derby. Only 11 matches have been played between the two, with Kuban leading the head to head with six wins to Krasnodar’s four, while the likes of former Wigan stalwart Andreas Granqvist and Smolov, who had only scored five senior club goals in nine years before this season, currently rule the roost. But Krasnodar’s derby is simmering with intent. Before long the fiery Caucasian cauldron will explode – and you won’t want to miss it.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint