The Incredible Russian Premier League

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September 10, 2012 by Henry Popiolek

Hulk’s 50 million transfer to Zenit St Petersburg might be just what the Russian Premier League needs for us all to sit up and take notice of what is fast beoming one of Europe’s most exciting leagues.

Living in the Premier League era of relentless self-aggrandizement, you’d be easily forgiven for not knowing all that much about the supposed lesser leagues in European football. The EPL is the best thing that has ever happened to mankind and the Sky Sports Top 4 are the World’s most worthy institutions, so why bother with anything else? 

The constant flow of superlatives from the British press may have once been gratifying to those who spent their time following the World’s greatest ever league, but now all they do is serve to unnecessarily drown out the rising stocks of other exciting European leagues. It’s about time some of us sat up, paid said leagues some deserved attention and accepted that there is indeed increasingly exciting football to be found, not only away from the Premier League, but also away from the so-called elite leagues of Europe.

Knocking hard on the door of this elite group is a league whose stocks are arguably rising more rapidly than any other in our continent at the moment. A league that gets nowhere near as much international coverage as its entertainment value and playing quality deserves. A league that has been consistently improving in recent years. 

The Russian Premier League.

Ranked as the 6th best European league by the International Centre for Sports Studies and with 3 Champions League places and 2 Europa League places allocated to the more successful clubs, the upper echelons of football are evidently already aware of the leagues merit. It’s about time the rest of us started to notice it too, which is where Zenit’s recent €80 million investment comes in.

It’s fair to say that Givanildo Vieira de Souza, or Hulk to you and I, would have had the opportunity to go to either of Manchester City and Chelsea in the near future if he’d have really wanted it, maybe not in this Summer’s transfer window, but the opportunity would have surely have arisen. The Brazilian inside-forward was being touted all across Europe after impressing so consistently for FC Porto. And yet he’s ended up at Zenit St Petersburg. 

Money talks, some would say. And they wouldn’t be wrong. The Russians didn’t get him cheap, and he is inevitably being paid an absolute fortune to ply his trade in St Petersburg. But 5 years ago no amount of money would have ever persuaded such a rising star to pledge his future to the freezing temperatures and the distinctly unromantic landscapes of the Easterly outskirts of Europe. It’s a sign of the times, and such a transfer, along with Witsel’s recent move to the same club, will only raise the profile of the league. 

Also vital to raising the league’s international profile are its club’s European performances. Which, conveniently, look to be on the cusp of dramatically improving. Due to too many years of under-par performances in Europe’s major club competitions, the Russian Football Union has decided to align the Russian footballing calendar with that of Europe. A controversial decision, as there will now be games during Russia’s grueling winter which can feature temperatures as low as -30C.

But this change does mean that when in previous years, clubs would have been playing their advanced European games after their domestic season had finished, they will now be playing them at the same stage in the season as those clubs that they are competing against. This even keel makes individual Russian clubs a far more attractive prospect in Europe, and the country’s league becomes far more impressive on a macro level.

Rich with investors and with the growing ability to attract players. The Russian Premier League has all the signs of a league that is about to make it. In fact, it already has the 3rd highest percentage of active internationals playing in it, at 28.6%, behind only the Premier League and the Bundesliga. With talents like Doumbia, Eto’o, Diarra, Dzageov and even David Bentley playing their football there, it’s undoubtedly on the ascent.

 But what’s particularly special about the Russian Premier League isn’t the incoming investment, nor is it the growing list of star names- it’s the competition. Although Zenit St Petersburg have won two titles on the trot, a good 5 clubs go into this seasons campaign with real designs towards the title. Realistic designs, too.

This coming season looks especially exciting with Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow’s new managerial appointments. Unai Emery and Slaven Bilic, in respective order, are real managerial talents and both clubs can expect a sustained title challenge. Add to that the high spending of the two other Moscow sides, CSKA and Dynamo, and you have a remarkably well set-up season. Zenit can expect a seriously sustained challenge this year from plenty of fronts, with Rubin Kazan and Anzhi Makhachkala also sure to be in the mix. 

Established in 2001 and thus fast approaching it’s 12th year of existence, let’s hope that puberty can be kind to the Russian Premier League because if it is, then Europe’s elite leagues can expect to soon be welcoming a new comrade to their ranks.


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