Picture the scene, it’s the Russian Premier League promotion/relegation play off and it has come down to one kick of the ball. Promotion hopefuls FC SKA Khabarovsk have been battered for 120 minutes by FC Orenburg but the score on aggregate remains 0-0 – and now Khabarovsk are 4-3 up on penalties, one conversion needed to secure top-flight football. All 7000 people inside Orenburg’s Gazovik Stadium fall momentarily silent as the ball is passed to Khabarovsk’s talisman Ruslan Koryan. The Armenian walks slowly towards the penalty box, jeers and whistles from the home fans now loudly ringing around the small stadium. The ball is put on the spot, the referee blows his whistle, Koryan composes himself and then smashes the ball hard into the bottom corner, relegating Orenburg and launching FC SKA Khabarovsk into the Russian Premier League for the first time in their history. Scenes of pure joy ensue with the added spice that this is not an ordinary Premier League promotion, this is the promotion of a team from Russia’s Far East.
How far east is Khabarovsk? Further east than China and the Koreas, 5160 miles from the centre of Moscow to be precise. Dedicated supporters of the Muscovite teams will need to prepare for either a 107-hour car journey, a 7 hour 40 minute flight or a mammoth trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway across their unbelievably vast country for an away ‘day’ in Khabarovsk. But despite this very distant proximity to Moscow and the ‘focus’ of Russia, Khabarovsk is not a forgotten city of the East – it is a place very much on the up since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s first spell as president, he helped fund a full city renovation, including a new main square, major train station and a high-tech medical centre. Following this development, Khabarovsk hosted the EU-Russia summit in 2009 and recent investment from Japanese and Korean companies has led to modern buildings and shopping centres popping up. There is an ambition and dogged determination in the city, and this was undoubtedly reflected by their football team this season.
Looking at how Khabarovsk managed promotion, their 4th place finish in the Russian Football National League was characterised by strong defensive displays, unsurprisingly patchy away form and moments of match-winning magic by the ‘Armenian Beckham’, Ruslan Koryan, and their Argentinian forward Juan Lescano (Lescano interestingly was on the books at Liverpool and Real Madrid as a teenager and touted as ‘the new Drogba’ before settling in the Russian second tier). After a very positive start to the season, including a victory over eventual Premier League Champions Spartak Moscow in the Russian Cup, Khabarovsk’s Armenian manager, Aleksandr Grigoryan, was poached by Anzhi Makhachkala in January. This led to the 400-appearance club legend Aleksei Poddubskiy taking over the reins and guiding his beloved team to promotion success. Just another layer of romance to this fairy tale season being played out in the depths of Russia.
The tremendous achievement of promotion by FC SKA Khabarovsk will mean they are very much unwelcome newcomers to the Russian top flight. There will be groans around every Russian Premier League club, most notably in Moscow and St. Petersburg, at the prospect of having to travel across the country to the archaic Lenin Stadium – however, one would expect the Khabarovsk players (and most likely fans) will do the journey in the opposite direction with glee. A city in the ascendency with a football team to match, FC SKA Khabarovsk has put the Russian Far East well and truly on the map.