Russia's Leicester in the hunt for unlikely league title
MOSCOW (AP) A narrow escape from relegation one season, then a stunning title challenge the next. It's not just Leicester City playing that game.
Almost 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) east of the King Power stadium, provincial club FC Rostov is defying gravity at the top of the Russian Premier League despite crippling financial problems that have led some to suggest it could quite literally be `win or bust.'
Just as the rise of the underdogs in England this season has raised fears for the health of giants like Chelsea and Manchester United, so the success of Rostov, a club little known abroad, has prompted Russian pundits to suggest their top clubs could be stagnating ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Saturday's 2-0 win over Spartak Moscow, which has a record nine Russian titles, wasn't pretty but it was effective, following Rostov's usual recipe. Two headed goals - one from a free kick, one on the counter - plenty of long balls and solid defending for a fifth consecutive shutout mean Rostov is a point clear with eight games to play.
Where Leicester has the twitchy figure of Claudio Ranieri masterminding his team's tactics from the dugout, Rostov has Kurban Berdyev, a devout Muslim who holds prayer beads in news conferences.
Not usually a man given to public displays of emotion, Berdyev was jumping and punching the air when Rostov beat main title rival CSKA Moscow 2-0 last month but soon returned to his usual terse self. ''The demand on us was to play with maximum discipline and execute transitions correctly. With the exception of several incidents, everything worked out for us'' was his dry verdict on that game.
Berdyev previously won two Russian titles with Rubin Kazan and the Rostov team now has five ex-Rubin players including target man Alexander Bukharov, a big physical presence who epitomizes Rostov's rough-and-ready style.
This season's success, and a potential first-ever title, follow a campaign in which Rostov lurched from disaster to disaster, surviving only in a relegation playoff.
The club started the 2014-15 season fighting a legal battle against exclusion from the Europa League after the Russian Football Union claimed players had been improperly paid out of a government pension fund. Winning back a Europa League place on appeal didn't do much good as Rostov was immediately knocked out of the competition.
Then there was the case of coach Igor Gamula, Berdyev's predecessor, who was suspended after saying the club had ''enough dark-skinned players'' and would not sign another.
Meanwhile, Rostov was nearing the financial abyss. The club is owned by the regional government, whose funds have been strained by Russia's recession and the need to house refugees from the conflict in nearby eastern Ukraine. By October 2015, the situation was serious enough for some club employees to threaten a strike.
Rostov has limped on with sponsorship income from tobacco tycoon Ivan Savvidi but its future after this season remains uncertain. Winning the league may be less important in the long-term than the lucrative Champions League qualification that comes with it. In the longer term, the future holds promise for Rostov with a new stadium being built for the World Cup to replace its dilapidated 16,000-seat Olimp 2 arena.
Rostov's current situation is extreme but it's also part of a broader financial malaise in Russian football. With the economy struggling under international sanctions and low oil prices, football has become a burden on many of the state companies, oligarchs and regional governments that fund top Russian clubs.
Some clubs, like Dynamo Moscow, are under UEFA sanctions for past overspending. At Kuban Krasnodar, a Europa League team two seasons ago, players have threatened to boycott games over unpaid wages. Russia's usually dominant duo of Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow have been forced to watch as Chinese-funded teams snap up players who would have been prime Russian transfer targets in the past. The Kremlin is keen to trim spending on the 2018 World Cup, chopping hotels and a costly new broadcast center from the budget.
In tight financial times, long-term plans are scrapped and Russian football becomes ever more focused on the next game. That's just fine for Rostov.
''No one has set any targets at all for the team,'' Berdyev said last month. ''We go from game to game. Knowing our financial problems, how could you set any serious targets?''