There was a report in the British press earlier this week in which the UK prime minister David Cameron is said to have expressed his desire for the Glasgow “Old Firm” of Celtic Football Club and Rangers Football Club to join the English Premier League (EPL). One may question Cameron’s political motives behind the proposal as he seeks to influence the vote north of the border in the oncoming referendum on Scottish independence to be held in September 2014 but the idea is far from new. In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), momentum has also gathered pace as a number of owners from top clubs in Russia and Ukraine seek to form a breakaway championship run along the same lines as the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) which has been a major success since its inception in 2008. In the United States three Canadian clubs feature alongside their American counterparts showing that cross-border championships do happen in soccer as well as in other sports such as ice hockey, basketball and baseball. If the ideas proposed in the UK and the Former Soviet Union are eventually given the green light in the future will the leagues be as super as they look on paper or will it destroy the essence of the game?
As the Scottish Premier League has diminished in strength over the last 25 years it was always going to result in calls for the big two of the Scottish game to apply to join the English league system. Since Aberdeen FC, under the management of Alex Ferguson, became the last team from outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish championship in the 1984-85 season, Rangers and Celtic have completely dominated the league to the point where any potential third force capable of breaking the duopoly seems almost impossible. But where would the Old Firm begin any potential English journey? Some have suggested that they should begin the Conference league (fifth tier), some say in the Championship (second tier) whilst some call for the Old Firm to join the Premier League at the first opportunity in order to increase what is already a substantial TV contract. Were the two Glasgow giants to join the EPL any time soon they see themselves playing against the likes of traditional major English clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, to name but four, as well as the possibility of facing the two biggest Welsh clubs of Swansea City, who are already in the EPL, and Cardiff City, who look very likely to join them next season, in order to create a truly British super league.
This proposal, although attractive to many, would also see any number of clubs voting themselves out of a certain league in order to accommodate the Old Firm. Therefore the situation would be unlikely as it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas but it seems unlikely that the issue will go away. The alternative for the Old Firm would be to create what has been termed the “Atlantic League” along with the biggest clubs from the likes of Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia in order to create more meaningful and lucrative opposition. The biggest clubs from those countries, for example FC Porto, Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht, continue to dominate leagues in which competition over the years has weakened due to the increasing financial and sporting might of the big leagues. An Atlantic League would, therefore, allow stronger competition outside of officially sanctioned UEFA tournaments such as the Champions League and Europa League.
In the case of the Former Soviet Union there will be many who miss football matches of the calibre of Spartak Moscow v Dynamo Kyiv, Zenit Saint Petersburg v Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Shakhtar Donetsk v CSKA Moscow. Owners and sponsors of the some of the biggest football clubs in the region are behind the idea to merge the top leagues of Russia and Ukraine together. Just like with the situation in the UK, there are perhaps political machinations at work in relation to the proposed new set-up here too. Ukraine is a country which is stuck between a rock and a hard place and seems to face a choice as to whether it wishes to become a member state of the European Union or to align itself with its former master of Russia. Whatever the political issues the new money which is prevalent amongst the biggest clubs in both Russia and Ukraine could force the hand of European football’s governing body UEFA who are naturally against such mergers. Increasingly, in the modern game, money talks and one wonders if the status quo will remain in place for much longer especially as the sport of ice hockey in the FSU region provides the footballing hierarchy with a prime example of a trans-national sporting competition which provides ice hockey clubs from Russia the chance to compete in arguably the second best competition in the world (after the National Hockey League in the US and Canada) alongside clubs from Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belraus, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It is not just in ice hockey where the trans-national approach has been broadly welcomed. Rugby union has embraced such competition in both the northern and southern hemispheres with the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Celtic League (top 14 clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), Heineken Cup (equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) and the Super 15 (featuring the top 15 provincial teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). The other oval ball code of rugby league also embraces such competition but on a much limited scale with one French club, the Catalan Dragons, playing in the northern hemisphere UK-based “Super League” whilst the New Zealand Warriors feature in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL). As mentioned at the top of the piece there is currently one example of a football championship which currently uses such a system, namely Major League Soccer. Three of Canada’s top clubs – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – play alongside the best 16 American clubs in a league which is run alongside similar lines to the other major leagues of ice hockey (NHL), baseball (MLB) and basketball (NBA).
These events have largely come about for two reasons. With travel getting easier and the world becoming smaller thanks to modern technology it is natural that teams and individuals want to constantly challenge themselves against the very best on a regular basis. With the financial rewards that this brings then it is, for better or worse, another natural consequence that such teams and individuals will try to gain those rewards and, if necessary, upset the status quo in order to do so. If UEFA was to allow such cross-border league mergers along the Russia/Ukraine route or allow more of the MLS style leagues to become a reality (for example, a British League as discussed) then this could, and probably would, open up a can of worms for the game’s administrators at both UEFA and at FIFA, world football’s governing body. If such eventualities occur in Europe then how long before mergers become commonplace in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania? Whereas administrators from other sports have had to think outside the box and have undertaken such measures in order to broaden their appeal, football is the one truly global sport and it seems that whatever the traditions and customs which have made the game great in the past, its future could and probably will take a financially driven path down a whole new route.
The business end of the 2011-12 Russian Premier League season began this weekend with the sixteen teams split into two groups of eight. In recent seasons the league would’ve concluded after thirty rounds of matches but due to the changing of the league season from a spring-autumn season to an autumn-spring timetable from the 2012-13 season another fourteen rounds of matches are necessary in order to decide championship and relegation matters this time around.
Zenit Saint Petersburg topped the table after 30 matches of the ‘regular’ season and still remain top following the first round of matches in the “Championship Group” with 62 points despite only drawing 0-0 at home to Anzhi Makhachkala on Friday night. This gave nearest challengers CSKA Moscow a great opportunity to move level on points with Zenit but they blew their chance losing 2-1 at home to 2009 & 2010 champions Rubin Kazan. Third place Dinamo Moscow kept up the pressure on the top two with a 2-1 home win against Kuban Krasnodar moving them to within four points of the league leaders whilst the biggest game of the weekend came on Sunday with Spartak Moscow winning the capital city derby against Lokomotiv by 2-0 thanks to a brace from Emmanuel Emenike, allowing Spartak to move six points behind Zenit in fourth place.
CSKA MOSCOW v RUBIN KAZAN
In the “Relegation Group” cellar dwellers Tom Tomsk lost 3-1 away to FK Rostov and thus remain rooted to last place with a measly 20 points to show from their 31 matches so far. At the top of the group are FK Krasnodar following their 3-2 home win against Spartak Nalchik, the result preserving Krasnodar’s six point margin over Rostov at the top. Nalchik, along with Tom Tomsk, have the most to worry about as things stand with those two teams occupying the two automatic relegation places. In the other two matches this weekend Amkar Perm gained a crucial 2-1 win away at FK Volga in Nizhny Novgorod whilst Terek Grozny and Krylia Sovetov Samara shared the spoils following a dire goalless stalemate.
SPARTAK MOSCOW v LOKOMOTIV MOSCOW
The Russian Premier League title race became more interesting this weekend following two major games involving four of the top six teams. In a capital derby Dinamo Moscow shocked their hosts CSKA Moscow by hitting four goals without reply whilst defending champions Zenit Saint Petersburg also had four put past them in a 4-2 defeat at Lokomotiv Moscow.
Any Moscow derby is a widely anticipated clash and Saturday’s game involving CSKA at home to Dinamo Moscow at the famous Luzhniki Stadium was no exception. In a tense contest the game looked to be heading towards a half-time stalemate but a double strike from Andriy Voronin and Kevin Kuranyi in the last ten minutes of the half gave Dinamo a useful 2-0 lead going in at the break. The game was over as a contest midway through the second half following Leandro Fernández’s strike in the 69th minute and the game was put to bed in the last minute of the match thanks to Aleksandr Kokorin.
Zenit Saint Petersburg appeared to be cruising to victory in their away match at Lokomotiv Moscow after going in 2-0 ahead at the half-time interval. Goals from Danko Lazović and Aleksandr Bukharov had given Zenit the two-goal margin after just half an hour so their collapse after the break was all the more surprising. Nigerian striker Victor Obinna immediately pulled one back after the break and his goal in the 46th minute was followed up by Felipe Caicedo and a brace from Manuel da Costa to secure an amazing 4-2 victory for the Railwaymen.
The current Russian Premier League table sees both Zenit and CSKA remain in joint first place with 46 points from 23 games but Dinamo Moscow trail the top two by just two points. Lokomotiv’s win took them up to sixth place with seven points separating them from the teams at the top.
New Anzhi Makhachkala signing Samuel Eto’o has made an instant impact for his new club by scoring the equalizer in a 1-1 draw away at FK Rostov.
The signing of the Cameroonian international has raised many eyebrows throughout the world of football especially given the huge wages that he is reported to be earning, something akin to 20 million euros a year. Eto’o came on as a substitute just before the hour mark with his side struggling to break down the home side who have been rooted inside the bottom half of the Russian Premier League this season.
Things took a turn for the worse for the visitors when FK Rostov took the lead in the 72nd minute through Timofei Kalachev but Eto’o made sure that his debut would not end in a defeat by grabbing the goal which restored parity in the 80th minute. For a man who has won a host of honours for FC Barcelona, Internazionale and Cameroon over the years, Eto’o is now hoping to steer his new team to greater things with the ambitious club hoping that his presence will begin a legacy of success.
Anzhi currently lie in fourth place in the Russian Premier League, eight points behind leaders CSKA Moscow, whilst FK Rostov are in fourteenth place in the sixteen team league just two points ahead of bottom club Krylia Sovetov Samara.
The 2011-12 Russian Premier League may still have a long way to go but the next nine rounds of matches will prove intriguing. After 30 rounds the league is split into a championship group and a relegation group with eight teams in each. It is, therefore, vitally important for every club that they put some form together at this crucial time.
There is a seven point gap at the cut-off point with eighth place Lokomotiv Moscow able to breathe easily for the time being as they have a healthy margin keeping them in the top half of the table at the expanse of ninth place FK Krasnodar. The top two teams of CSKA Moscow (21 played, 45 points) and defending champions Zenit Saint Petersburg, who trail the league leaders by just two points, are certain of progression already. It would be a surprise if any of the next six clubs – Dinamo Moscow, Anzhi Machachkala, Rubin Kazan, Spartak Moscow, Kuban Krasnodar and Lokomotiv – were to drop into the relegation group given the margins and the recent form guide suggests that the top teams haven’t got much to worry about at this stage.
The eight teams at the bottom of the table face the daunting prospect of playing either a number of meaningless matches or a relegation battle depending on where they finish at the Matchday 30 cut off point. At the moment the clubs who have the most to worry about lie from 12th place Tom Tomsk to bottom 16th place club Krylia Sovetov Samara (21 played, 16 points) who are separated by just three points with any of the clubs – including Spartak Nalchik, FK Rostov and FK Volga Nizhny Novgorod – vulnerable to being sucked into the relegation zone at any time. The three teams who occupy 9th to 11th – namely FK Krasnodar, Terek Grozny and Amkar Perm – seem to be stuck in no-man’s land at the moment with none of the three so close to the top eight but none so close to the bottom two either.
The first weekend of November is when each club’s fate for the remainder of the 2011-12 season will be known. Hopefully there will be much to enthral us before the championship starts for real next Spring.
Former Brazil international and FIFA World Cup winner Roberto Carlos must have been asked for his autograph more times than he can remember throughout his illustrious career. However the most unlikely place he would’ve expected to be asked would be on a football pitch whilst the match is in progress but that’s exactly what happened this weekend. His new club Anzhi Makhachkala were away to FK Volga in the city of Nizhny Novgorod when an overexcited fan ran on to the pitch with a pen and paper and was ecstatic to come off the pitch with the item he’d always wanted, no doubt cementing Carlos’ legendary status even further in the man’s eyes. It turned out to be a good day in general for Anzhi who won 2-1 thanks to goals from Jan Holenda and Shamil Lakhiyalov in their come-from-behind victory.
The Russian Premier League kicks off this weekend with a prolonged season in store. The league has decided to switch to a more conventional autumn-spring season, as used in most other major European leagues, and will see the 2011-12 campaign last for a much longer than usual eighteen months before reverting back to the usual nine month season from 2012-13.
Zenit Saint Petersburg are the defending champions having dominated the 2010 campaign which they led for all but one round of matches. Coach Luciano Spalletti has resisted the overtures of major European clubs and will lead Zenit for a second campaign and his team remain favourites to win consecutive league titles. Their main challengers are expected to come from Rubin Kazan, back-to-back champions in 2008 and 2009, as well as the traditional powerhouses of CSKA and Spartak Moscow. One team who could also throw their weight behind a title challenge is Dynamo Moscow with a squad including players of experience such as Andriy Voronin, Kevin Kuranyi and Zvjezdan Misimović. The championship trophy hasn’t been lifted by a capital side since 2006 and for the success starved Moscovites it is imperative that the clubs can, at the very least, push the champions all the way this time around.
There has also been some interesting developments lower down the pecking order with clubs such as Terek Grozny and Anzhi Makhachkala showing their ambitious streak by making some unexpected signings. Terek, the flag-bearers of the Chechnya region, have brought in Dutch legend Ruud Gullit to manage the club whilst Anzhi, who hail from the southern province of Dagestan, have added to their playing roster by signing veteran Brazilian World Cup winner Roberto Carlos in what has been heralded as a major coup for the club. Sadly things haven’t been so kind to FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast who had to forfeit their place in the RPL due to going bankrupt and Amkar Perm have only recently given assurances about their finances in order to continue their participation.
Amongst the newly-promoted clubs last season’s First Division (2nd tier) champions FK Kuban Krasnodar, coached by former Romanian international Dan Petrescu, are joined by local rivals FK Krasnodar and FK Volga from Russia’s fourth largest city Nizhny Novgorod. All three clubs have made major changes to their squads bringing in dozens of new players in the hope that they can last in what should be a long, arduous campaign. All sixteen teams play their opponents on a round-robin, home and away basis with the first stage of the league completed after thirty games. Following this the league will split into two – a Championship Group (used to determine the championship and UEFA club qualification) and a Relegation Group (to sort out which three teams will go down at the end of the season). After the completion of the second stage each team will have played 44 matches and it will certainly be the case that whoever comes out on top will have earned it the hard way.
MATCHDAY 1 FIXTURES
Anzhi Makhachkala v FK Krasnodar
Spartak Nalchik v Krylia Sovetov Samara
Lokomotive Moscow v Dynamo Moscow
FK Kuban Krasnodar v Rubin Kazan
CSKA Moscow v Amkar Perm
Terek Grozny v Zenit Saint Petersburg
FK Volga Nizhny Novgorod v Tom Tomsk
FK Rostov v Spartak Moscow
Although most of Europe’s top leagues have now got under way for a new season that doesn’t mean that we forget those championships which began earlier in the year and which are now entering the business end of the season. There have been, for example, top of the table clashes in Belarus, Latvia and Finland whilst league leaders dropped points in Russia and won three points in Estonia, Lithuania and the Republic of Ireland. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the latest developments in Europe’s summer leagues.
In the Belarussian Vysshaya Liga on Saturday there were two important fixtures with the match of the round involving defending champions BATE Borisov, looking to win a fifth straight championship, playing against second place Soligorsk. At the same time there was a capital derby with bottom of the table Partizan Minsk taking on third place FC Minsk. BATE took control of their home encounter from the off and were two goals to the good after just half an hour thanks to strikes from Artem Kontsevoy and Edgar Olekhnovich. With no further goals in the game the home side had secured three points without too many problems. In the other game FC Minsk beat their cross-town rivals by four goals to one with Dzmitry Osipenko on target twice to keep up the chase on BATE Borisov (played 20, points 45), overtaking Soligorsk into second place and lie three points behind the leaders albeit having played a game more.
In Latvia’s Virslīga league leaders Skonto Riga (played 15, points 40) kept up their title credentials thanks to a 2-1 away victory at defending champions Liepājas Metalurgs. Brazilian Nathan Junior scored his twelfth goal of the season from the penalty spot to give Skonto the lead and it got better for the capital outfit on 35 minutes when Ruslan Mingazov doubled the lead. After that setback it was clear that Rüdiger Abramczik’s men needed to react and that was what they did just four minutes later, halving the deficit with Jurģis Kalns scoring from the spot. No matter how much the home side tried though they were unable to break through Skonto’s resolute defence for a second time and it was Alexandrs Starkovs’ men who went away with the three points. With Metalurgs now a full ten points behind Skonto in the standings the championship is now a two horse race with second place FK Ventspils easily beating FK Jaunība by five goals to nil to remain just two points behind Skonto. Their imminent clash on 12th September could be a fascinating duel.
The Russian Premier League saw Zenit St Petersburg drop two points at home to Dinamo Moscow. The visitors took the lead thanks to new signing Kevin Kuranyi who opened the scoring after 26 minutes but it only took Zenit eight minutes to restore parity after Danko Lazović scored only his second goal of the season to help preserve Zenit’s lead (played 16, points 40) which remains at seven points after Rubin Kazan, champions from the last two years, also dropped two points in a 1-1 draw away at Terek Grozny. CSKA Moscow went above Rubin on goal difference thanks to an impressive 4-0 home win against Anzhi Makhachkala, Sekou Oliseh scoring twice along with Zoran Tošić and Vágner Love. In the Moscow derby Spartak got back to winning ways with a 3-2 away win against Lokomotiv with Valeri Karpin’s men grateful to the shooting boots of Brazilian forward Welliton whose hat-trick was crucial in gaining three points for Spartak who now lie in seventh in the table on equal points to Lokomotiv.
The Veikkausliiga in Finland saw record champions HJK Helsinki lose at home to nearest challengers Honka Espoo, Rasmus Schüller’s goal midway through the second half was enough to separate the sides and narrow the gap between HJK and Honka to just three points with both teams having played eighteen games. KuPs Tuopio won their game away at JJK Jyväskylä on Friday by three goals to one to remain just a further point behind HJK and ensure that the championship race remains tight in Finland.
Estonia’s Meistriliiga saw both of the main title chasers predictably win their games against inferior opposition. Defending champions and league leaders Levadia Tallinn (played 25, points 60) easily disposed of fifth place Nõmme Kalju by five goals to one with Brazilian Felipe Nunes bagging a brace. Title challengers and eternal rivals Flora Tallinn are six points behind Levadia but have three games in hand, a situation that remains the same after their 5-0 home demolition of FC Lootus Kohtla-Järve with Hannes Anier scoring a hat-trick to keep up the pressure on the league leaders.
FK Ekranas (played 18, points 45) preserved their ten point advantage at the top of Lithuania’s A Lyga coming from behind to gain a point at home to FK Sūduva. Povilas Lukšys gave the away side the lead after 27 minutes only to see the league leaders equalize seven minutes later through Ramūnas Radavičius. All is not lost for the chasing pack however as Žalgiris Vilnius, who drew their weekend game 1-1 away at FK Banga, lie ten points behind with a game in hand and FK Sūduva are a further point back with two games in hand.
Finally in the Republic of Ireland’s Airtricity Premier League Shamrock Rovers managed to pull away from title rivals St Patrick’s Athletic on Friday night after the former’s 2-0 win away at Drogheda United was coupled with the latter’s 3-2 defeat at Bray Wanderers. Shamrock (played 25, points 48) have the advantage but will have to beware of the challenge not just of St Pat’s but also of Sligo Rovers who lie six points behind in third place (albeit having played a game more) after they beat University College Dublin (UCD) 4-0 on Saturday.
It is around this time of year where most of Europe’s major leagues are just getting into the business end of the season whereas in some other countries the season is just about to start for yet another year. There are three cases of the latter occurring in Norway, Sweden and Russia this weekend and “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” previews each of these championships ahead of the big kick-off:
The Allsvenskan kicks off on Saturday afternoon with last season’s runners-up IFK Göteborg away at Kalmar FF with the record champions from Gothenburg hoping to begin to make up for last season’s disappointment of finishing four points behind AIK Solna. The champions celebrated the domestic league and cup double last season and, only last weekend, won the 2010 Swedish Super Cup and will want to carry on this winning momentum with an opening weekend win at home to last season’s Superettan (second tier) champions AIF Mjällby. Former European Cup finalist Malmö FF have been struggling in mid-table obscurity in recent years and haven’t won the Swedish championship since 2004. They hope to improve on this by beating GAIS away with former Sweden international Roland Nilsson, the coach of Malmö, going back to the Gothenburg side which he managed between 2002-07. Djurgårdens, who survived in the Allsvenskan thanks to a two-legged play-off victory over Assyriska at the end of last season, will hope to begin with three points over Häcken BK whilst newly-promoted Åtvidabergs will want to impress or, at the very least, avoid embarrassment by gaining something from their game away at Örebro SK. The other three matches on Matchday 1 sees 1999 champions Helsingborgs play IF Brommapojkarna, Halmstads BK at home to Trelleborgs FF and Gefle IF at home to Elfsborg IF.
Record champions Rosenborg Trondheim secured their twenty-first Tippaligaen title in 2009 finishing a comfortable thirteen points ahead of nearest challengers Molde FK. Erik Hamren, who coached Rosenborg to the title last season, will stay with the champions until August when he takes full responsibilty for the Swedish national team, a job he has been doing on a part-time basis since November last year. Rosenborg begin the defence of the title with as tough a test as they could’ve wished for; an away trip to last season’s runners-up Molde! SK Brann Bergen will hope for a title challenge this season with last season’s Player of the Year Erik Huseklepp hoping to make as much impact as in 2009. SK Brann begin the campaign with a home match against last season’s Adeccoligaen (second-tier) champions FK Haugesund whilst the other promoted sides Hønefoss BK and Kongsvinger, who qualified via an end-of-season play-off in 2009, play against Tromsø IL and Strømsgodset IF respectively. Aalesunds FK, who are coached by former international Kjetil Rekdal, begin 2010 with a home match against Lillestrøm SK for whom former Manchester United star Henning Berg is in charge. Stabæk IF, whose defence of the title last season was unsuccessful, will face-off against Odd Grenland whilst Viking FK start their season against Vålerenga, whose 2005 championship triumph feels so long ago now while in the remaining game on Matchday 1 sees IK Start play Sandefjord Fotball.
Having won the Russian Premier League for the last two seasons Rubin Kazan’s main ambition for 2010 is to make it a hat-trick of titles, for the side based in Tatarstan have high ambitions to become the new dominant force in Russian football. Having beaten record champions Spartak Moscow by eight points in the 2009 season Rubin will want to take charge of the league from the beginning and they have considerably more match practice than their opponents as they have been in UEFA Europa League action in the last month whilst the rest of the league have been in training camps or playing friendly matches abroad. The champions’ campaign begins on Sunday, three days after their UEFA Europa League tie with VfL Wolfsburg, with a home tie against Lokomotive Moscow. Elsewhere Valeri Karpin begins his first full season in charge of Spartak Moscow, having replaced Michael Laudrup last season, and sees his charges begin with a home derby against Dinamo Moscow. Zenit Saint Petersburg, with Italian Luciano Spalletti in charge following the departure of Dick Advocaat, begin away at Krylia Sovetov Samara who were close to dropping out of the Premier League due to financial difficulties but got a last-minute stay of execution having attracted some new sponsors. CSKA Moscow get the show on the road on Friday night with a home game against Amkar Perm and hope that Miloš Krasić will continue the good form that he showed last season, especially in the UEFA Champions League. Two teams who hope to improve on average campaigns last season are FC Rostov and Tom Tomsk who meet each other this weekend and will want to better their 14th and 9th place finishes from last season. Three promoted teams will get their campaigns under way with tough home ties. Last season’s First League (second-tier) champions Anzhi Makhachkala, Sibir Novosibirsk and Alania Vladikavkaz (the 1995 Russian champions) play against Spartak Nalchik, Terek Grozny and FC Saturn respectively.