FC Sibir – PSV : 5000 km travelled for nothing

19th August 2010 : FC Sibir Novosibirsk – PSV Eindhoven 1-0
Final play-off qualifiers for the Europa League group stages, first leg

A few weeks ago the draw for the qualifiers for the Champions League and Europa League were made. Important draws, because this concerned the last qualifier before the actual group stage would begin. The "make or break" round. Some teams are better avoided in the opinion of fans and board members of most clubs, usually because of the strength of the team or because of the difficult travel. If any team was to be avoided by everyone, it must have been FC Sibir Novosibirsk from Russia. A relatively unknown team and an extremely long travel, not exactly the sort of European trip one is hoping for. But someone had to face the Russians, and of all teams PSV were the unlucky ones. The directors sighed when the draw was made. "This will really be a very very long travel" were the initial comments.

Who are FC Sibir Novosibirsk? Not much is known about the team as yet, because they’re a relatively new name in the Russian football (for outsiders, that is). Before introducing the team, let’s have a look at the map. Grab your nearest globe or else, google "map of Russia". Now it could have been worse. A few seasons ago Luch Energya Vladivostok promoted to the Premier Division of Russia, and they did so well that European football became a possibility. Vladivostok is in the extreme east of Russia, next to the Japanese Sea, and very close to the border with China and (of all possible neighbours) North Korea. Alaska and the Bering Straight are closer than the average other Russian city, and a travel from Moscow to Vladivostok is about 8000 kilometers. If a European team would have drawn Luch Energya, it’d have been a travel through 10 or 11 time zones as well. Some clubs, even Arsenal apparently, protested in advance to UEFA that such a trip has nothing to do with European football and is irresponsible towards the players having to travel such a distance. Nonsense of course ; Russia, like Turkey and Kazachstan, is partially in Europe and partially in Asia. They chose Europe in terms of football affiliation, but that doesn’t mean the teams from the Asian side of the country should be excluded from European football if they would reach the tournaments. Clubs in Europe were already afraid of the travel to Vladivostok before they even qualified for European football. And luckily for these clubs, Luch didn’t make it and even dropped back to the second level of Russian football.

However, Novosibirsk isn’t that much better. Novosibirsk is somewhere halfway Russia in terms of west-to-east, but clearly in the Asian part of the country. It is deep into Siberia, a region that because of the myths gives many Europeans an unsettling feeling. Actually, Novosibirsk is Russian for "New Siberia". The city may not be as far as Vladivostok, but to indicate how far eastward it is: the borders with Mongolia and northwest China are closer to the city than Moscow is. So it is a very far trip, maybe the furthest eastward destination ever in a European Cup (for sure the most eastward team in this season’s cup).

When people think of Siberia, they think of freezingly cold endless emptiness, with a few scattered villages now and then. While the very north of Siberia may be like that, Novosibirsk is actually a vibrant city. 100 years ago it was still a small village but it grew so rapidly that it is now Russia’s 3rd largest city only behind Moscow and St Petersburg. There is a heavy industry in the city and several universities. The city, which is the capital of both Novosibirsk Oblast and the Siberian Federal District, has about 1425000 citizens. By no means the empty, desolate town people would picture when thinking of Siberia.

FC Sibir is a new face for those who don’t follow Russian football in-depth. The club was founded in 1936 and changed names 8 times. This was not uncommon during the USSR era. They beared names refering to, amongst others, aero societies, and producents of Siberian agriculture machine producers. Not exactly idyllic by any means. During those Soviet days the club always played in the lower levels. When the USSR fell apart and Russia started its own league in 1992, the team (then named Chkalovets) was in the First Division, the de facto second level (below the Premier Division). Between that moment and 2000 the club was a yo-yo club going up and down between the 2nd and 3rd level. In 2000 the club merged with Olimpik Novosibirsk ; the newly created club started in the Second League (= de facto 3rd level) while the old club continued to exist as Chkolovets-1936 in the amateur leagues (KFK). The club didn’t stay in the amateur level too long because they immediately gained promotion to the Second League. In 2004 followed promotion to the First Division, one level below the Premier Division. It was in 2009, one year after narrowly escaping relegation, that the club finished second in that division and thus claimed promotion to the Premier Division. In Novosibirsk, traditionally an ice hockey orientated city, people would finally for the first time see Premier Division football. Chkolovets-1936 had however vanished from the football map already in 2006, when the club changed its name for the (so far) last time. FC Sibir Novosibirsk has been its name ever since, Sibir being Russian for "Siberia". Life can be simple sometimes, no?

The first ever season at the highest level has so far not been an easy one. At the moment of writing this, FC Sibir at at the bottom spot of the Russian league and fight hard to avoid relegation. However, a nice bonus came to Siberia when the club could immediately enter European football for the first time as well: on 16th May 2010, FC Sibir lost the Russian Cup final against Zenit St Petersburg. However, as Zenit already assured its place in the Champions League qualifiers, FC Sibir still was sure to enter the (qualifying stages of) the Europa League, or the UEFA Cup as it used to be known in the past. A nice adventure for the Siberian club, even when survival in the Russian top flight is probably the priority.

The first unlucky team to have to make the very far travel deep into Siberia, was Cypriot outfit Apollon Limassol. A nice oddity: two non-European clubs facing each other in a Europa League qualifier (Cyprus may politically be affiliated to Europe, geographically it’s in Asia). Sibir won its first ever game, 1-0. In Cyprus the Russians lost 2-1 but the vital away goal was enough to pull FC Sibir through to the next round. The confrontation with the famous PSV Eindhoven was their reward. Few people gave FC Sibir any chance against the experienced Dutchmen, but every game had to be played.

For PSV it was a very long travel indeed. A 2 hour bus drive from Eindhoven to the airport of Cologne/Bonn was followed by an over 6 hours flight in a charter to Novosibirsk. This flight crossed 5 time zones which means that it was already late night in local time when the PSV players set foot on Siberian soil. Luckily for them they had a comfortable plane allowing to sleep on board. A luxury unavailable to Tommie and Frank.

Tommie and Frank? After the draw versus Novosibirsk was made, it was obvious most fans could not afford or did not want to to risk such a long and far away travel. On the PSV fan messageboard there was a topic "who makes himself immortal amongst PSV fans by making the trip?". In the end only 2 fans were brave enough to make the travel: Tommie and Frank, season card holders at PSV and present at most European away games. For them the travel included bus, flight to Moscow, two hours waiting in the transit zone, and another flight to Novosibirsk. A lot less luxury compared to the players, but they were there. They were the only 2 PSV fans to make this unique adventurous trip. By coincidence they stayed in the same hotel as the players (which they booked before PSV booked the players’ rooms !) and their incredible efford to follow the team this far away was rewarded as the PSV coach made time to have an extended chat with them in the hotel lobby. The interview with Tommie and Frank can be found at www.psv.nl/Nieuws/Nieuwspagina/De-unieke-PSVreis-van-Tommie-en-Frank.htm . I guess they now have deserved the status of cult figures within PSV fan circles.

The game was played in the Spartak Stadium, with capacity of 12500 people. Normally it is rarely full but this was such a historical game for FC Sibir that this time the stadium was packed to the rafters. This leaves one wondering… in Siberia, where outside of summer the climate can be harsh, why is there no roof or some sort of cover for the stands? All stands seemed to be uncovered. In summer and with a 19 degrees Celsius this may be OK, but I wonder what happens in late autumn here when Sibir has to play at home. That the stadium has artificial grass can be no surprise given the climate the city is in. Other than that, it looked quite a nice one for football nostalgia: very high floodlights and an insanely big scoreboard. It was like a trip back in time to the former USSR, when a lot of stadiums in the country were like that.

The game itself was coloured with some chances on both sides, and even before halftime both teams were reduced to 10 men with a red card each. It seemed long time that the 0-0 would remain on the oversized scoreboard. That was until 2 minutes in stoppage time, when Degtyarev scored the goal nobody expected anymore and brought the FC Sibir fans into a collective delirium. The victory, for a team with little history, is historical and in fact the European campaign of FC Sibir is already a success now. Can the team defend their advantage in Eindhoven? I fear PSV at home is certainly capable of scoring at least 2 goals. Despite the victory, FC Sibir are no favourites to qualify for the group stages in my opinion. However, they already can be proud of their European campaign, and that already means a lot for a club which for the first time in history experiences top flight football and European football.

PSV made the long trip to Siberia, and 5000 km in the opposite direction, arrived home with empty hands. I hope the two brave fans who followed the team are still happy they’ve been there. Because Novosibirsk is not exactly the type of city many western Europeans choose as a holiday destination. The trip must have been unique, and secretly I hope FC Sibir can further live the dream and beat the odds by qualifying for that group stage.

On this webpage you can see pictures of the Spartak Stadium in Novosibirsk: http://www.psv.nl/Nieuws/Nieuwspagina/Fotoverslag-training-PSV-in-Spartakstadion.htm
Roofless stands in the middle of Siberia, it remains an odd sight.

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About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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