A New Challenger Approaches: The State of Russian Women’s Football

Women’s football has experienced rapid growth in recent times. If the 2019 Women’s World Cup and its immediate aftermath showed us anything, it is that interest in women’s football exists in not insignificant quantities and it is up to federations, leagues, clubs, and sponsors to invest in the sport and make it more accessible for the broader public.

Some have done a decent job; the NWSL x Budweiser #WontStopWatching campaign and the new broadcast deal with CBS Sports and Twitch come to mind, as well as Japan’s commitment to establishing a new professional league and the English FA making WSL games free-to-watch on the FA Player.

Russia, on the other hand, sits on the opposite end of the spectrum. There is a worrying lack of coverage, exposure, and interest in the game. The national team has never made it out of the group stages of a European Championship and hasn’t qualified for a World Cup in almost two decades. On the continental stage, Russian clubs have been lagging behind their Western and Northern European counterparts.

Zvezda Perm finished as runners-up in the 2008-09 Champions League; since then, only one other Russian team has managed to reach the Quarter-finals stage – WFC Rossiyanka in 2012-13. Perhaps a more damning fact is that no Russian side has reached the Round of 16 of the Champions League since the 2016-17 season, when Rossiyanka were beaten 8-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich.

Nonetheless, women’s football’s recent spike in global popularity and exposure hasn’t gone unnoticed. More men’s clubs want a piece of the pie and are now committed to rectifying Russia’s lack of competitiveness.

Russia has struggled to establish itself among Europe’s elite (Brendan Moran/Getty)

New Teams

Russian football has been suspended until the end of May due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak and thus no RWF Championship starting date has been announced as of yet, but nevertheless, there are some shiny new toys to get excited about as we wait for the season to start.

Zenit Saint Petersburg

While the men’s side is on the verge of claiming their third consecutive Russian Premier League title, having been around for 95 years, the women’s department is still very much in its infancy after only being established on January 21.

Former Russian national team defender Olga Poryadina was named as the team’s first head coach, having previously worked as an assistant at one of Russia’s youth women’s national teams. The 39-year-old won four Top Division titles and six Russian cups during her playing days.

On February 3, Zenit announced the signing of 13 players to their inaugural roster, among them three former league champions. 34-year-old Ekaterina Sochneva was signed from CSKA Moscow and is the veteran presence on the team, boasting three league titles and one cup, as well as 82 caps for the Russian national team. One of Sochneva’s CSKA teammates, Vera Simanovskaya, also joined Zenit after only playing a bit part role in the 2019 title-winning season. The 22-year-old midfielder started just four games and will be hoping to make more of an impact in St. Petersburg. Defender Ekaterina Morozova joined from Chertanovo with whom she finished as runners-up in 2018. The 28-year-old won the second tier with Kubanochka Krasnodar in 2009.

Somewhat of a wildcard signing is Liudmila Shadrina, another former CSKA player. The 27-year-old left-back missed all of 2019 through injury. The last of the CSKA signings is Daria Shkvara, who hasn’t actually played for the Moscow outfit in two years, having spent the 2018 and 2019 campaigns on loan at Zvezda Perm. The 24-year-old midfielder has won three consecutive Russian cups (once with CSKA and twice with Perm) and twice finished as RWF Championship runners-up with Rossiyanka early on in her career. 30-year-old defender Yulia Zapotichnaya won Russian Women’s Player of the Year in 2018 while at Lokomotiv Moscow but didn’t play at all in 2019.

Since the initial batch of signings, a further ten players have joined including two internationals in Kazakhstani midfielder Aida Gaistenova and Azerbaijani defender Zhala Mahsimova. Russian national team goalkeeper Yulia Grichenko signed for Yenisey in December but decided to move to St. Petersburg after Zenit came calling. The 30-year-old will battle it out with Alena Belyaeva for the starting spot between the sticks.

The club announced that it would place great emphasis on signing St. Petersburg natives to assist fans in identifying with the club, but out of the 23 players currently at Zenit, only three are locals. Ironically, all three are teenagers whose only previous experiences are in Futsal and the Under-17’s national team.

Zenit’s men have set the standard in Russian football and on paper, the women have the talent to break into the league’s top three, but Olga Poryadina’s limited coaching experience, paired with the COVID-19 disruption and the need to build team chemistry would suggest that the women’s department might struggle in its inaugural season. A reality that Poryadina herself acknowledges. “The word “Zenit” is enough for you to know what the team’s aims are”, Poryadina said in her first interview as head coach. “But we know that for the first year, the building of the team will take time and the most important thing for us is to build the club, to staff it and pass our ideas and plans onto the players.”

Olga Poryadina has assembled a strong squad, but can they be competitive from the get-go? (Source: Zenit)

WFC Krasnodar

On February 4, Russian Premier League club FC Krasnodar unveiled its new women’s side, WFC Krasnodar, but the circumstances surrounding the creation of this team were quite different from their St. Petersburg counterparts. WFCK will replace perennial strugglers Kubanochka Krasnodar, rather than starting completely from scratch.

Originally established in 1988, the first Kubanochka was dissolved in 2000 following its best-ever league campaign in which the club finished 4th. In 2007, the club was re-established and promoted to the Top Division after spending two seasons in the second tier. Kubanochka struggled for most of their time in the top flight, although they did finish as runners-up in the 2014 Russian Cup. History repeated itself when Kubanochka was dissolved earlier this year after achieving its highest-ever league finish last season – third behind CSKA and Lokomotiv. Reasoning behind folding the club for good was that it would be more sensible if a Krasnodar women’s side were part of FC Krasnodar’s set-up rather than an independent entity.

The club’s unveiling took place in early February and almost two months later, there is still no official announcement as to what players Krasnodar have signed and which Kubanochka staff members will be transferred over. Notwithstanding, it is widely believed that most, if not all, players and staff will remain with the Krasnodar side.

WFCK will be coached by the most influential individual in Krasnodar women’s football – Tatiana Zaitseva. The 41-year-old singlehandedly brought Kubanochka back from the ashes in 2007 and served not only as head coach but also as club president until the club folded earlier this year.

Russian national team number one Tatyana Shcherbak will most likely be forced to miss most, if not the entirety, of the 2020 season after undergoing surgery in early March. The 22-year-old came through Kubanochka’s youth system and has been part of the first team set-up since 2015. In 2016, she was awarded the Master of Sports of Russia title and from 2017 through 2019, she was Kubanochka’s iron woman, playing every minute of every game. Deputizing for Shcherbak will be 20-year-old youth national team goalkeeper Natalia Stanovova, who had a nine-minute cameo as an outfield player last season.

Natalya Solodkaya is a fellow 2016 Master of Sports and the 24-year-old midfielder has been with the Krasnodar organization since 2010, making her first team debut in 2013. A mainstay in the side in 2016 and 2017, Solodkaya missed 2018 through injury and stepped away from the game for the 2019 season. After such a long time out, it will be interesting to see if she can rediscover the form that saw her make the squad for the 2017 European Championship.

After joining Krasnodar in 2016, Nasiba Gasanova has played more minutes than any other outfield player on the team in the past four years. Either deployed as a wing-back or forward, the 25-year-old’s attacking output suffered in 2019, failing to score in any of the 18 games she played in after scoring four times in just 14 games the previous campaign. She will have to put up better numbers if she wants to emulate her idol Thierry Henry.

Prior to the rebrand, the club announced four new signings. 22-year-old defender Alina Likhota and 20-year-old attacker Ekaterina Frolova both arrived from Torpedo Izhevsk, which has since folded. Defender Anna Sinko was signed from Zvezda Perm. The 24-year-old featured in all but two games for “the Stars” last season. Lastly, another defender joined in the form of Yana Vorobjeva. The 20-year-old arrived from Tambov.

Most importantly, the main core of the side that finished third last season is still intact. With the leadership of captain Yana Chub, Daniela Basaeva marshaling the backline and experienced coach Tatiana Zaitseva, there is nothing to suggest that WFC Krasnodar won’t be able to repeat the success of last season. However, there is one slight problem; they finished 2019 with a goal difference of 0, Lokomotiv in second had a GD of +38 and champions CSKA boasted a GD of +44. They need to score more goals!

Elena Fomina is keen on replicating last season’s success with her new-look Krasnodar side (NurPhoto/Getty)

The Established Elite

CSKA Moscow

Speaking of CSKA a.k.a. the Almost Invincibles, the Moscow outfit won its first league title in 2019 and will surely contend for the championship once again this term.

The first iteration of CSKA women was established in 1990 but folded after just three seasons. The club was brought back in 2014 and disappeared after one year. Following the dissolution of Zorky Krasnogorsk in 2015, a new CSKA team joined for the 2016 season. The club’s inaugural campaign ended in humiliation, with the side finishing second bottom, but the subsequent year, five-time league champions and perennial Champions League participants WFC Rossiyanka folded and the majority of the squad relocated south to Moscow.

Two fourth-place finishes, a 2017 Russian cup, and a 2019 league title followed. CSKA won last season’s competition at a canter on 56 points, 12 ahead of Lokomotiv in second. Given Russian clubs’ underperformance in Europe in recent seasons, the nation’s coefficient has suffered and as a result, the champions are the only side to qualify for European football.

Maksim Zinovyev’s team, built around national team playmaker Nadezhda Smirnova, only lost once all season. That loss, a 1-0 defeat at home to city rivals Lokomotiv, came on the final day with the league already comfortably wrapped up. Defender Ksenia Tsybutovich, who has since departed for Ryazan, came second in the league’s goalscoring charts with 11 goals, but the team’s MVP was undoubtedly the aforementioned Smirnova. The 24-year-old featured in every match and recorded nine goals, nine regular assists, as well as six secondary assists – her best campaign to date. Her set-piece delivery was CSKA’s most potent weapon and a move to a major club could soon be on the cards.

The Red-Blues made two signings during the offseason; Ogonna Chukwudi and Lyubov Yashchenko. Nigerian national team veteran Chukwudi had been playing in Sweden since 2011 and joins from Djurgården, with whom she barely avoided relegation last season. The 31-year-old will most likely act as Ekaterina Sochneva’s replacement.

Lyubov Yashchenko made the switch from city rivals Lokomotiv and the center-forward adds quality in a position of need. The 21-year-old scored two goals last term despite being stuck behind top-scorer Nelli Korovkina and only seeing limited game time. CSKA’s three strikers scored a meager five goals between them all of last season, so the addition of Yashchenko could prove to be a savvy piece of business.

Unquestionably, the most significant loss is national team captain Ksenia Tsybutovich. The 32-year-old was the team’s defensive stalwart and chipped in with plenty of goals, either from set-pieces or as the designated penalty taker, although Smirnova showed last season that she is just as assured from the spot as her former teammate. In addition to Tsybutovich, CSKA won’t be able to call upon Ksenia Kovalenko. The 24-year-old full-back suffered a serious knee injury while on international duty. Surgery was required and she is expected to be out until December.

CSKA finished 2019 with a goal difference of +44, only conceding 8 goals in 21 games. Even if the team does give up the odd goal without the experience of Tsybutovich and energy of Kovalenko, the squad will still be able to overwhelm and suffocate teams with its sheer quality and high-pressure style of play. Backed by the #12 – the women’s side’s very own supporters group, who cheer their team on home and away (some even made the 5000-mile round trip to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia) – it would not come as a shock to see CSKA retain their crown in 2020.

CSKA’s Nadezhda Smirnova in action against rivals Lok (Source: CSKA)

Lokomotiv Moscow

A team that will have a thing or two to say about CSKA’s planned title defense is Lokomotiv Moscow. Similarly to their rivals, the current side isn’t the first iteration of a women’s team. Last season’s runners-up first appeared in the early 90s but folded after just two years due to financial struggles. The modern-day Lokomotiv was founded in 2018 and came sixth in its inaugural season.

Spearheaded by national team forward Nelli Korovkina, the “Railway Workers” are CSKA’s most prominent concern. Korovkina joined Lokomotiv from fellow Moscow outfit Chertanovo prior to last season and won the golden boot in her debut campaign, tallying 20 goals in 21 games and almost tripling her 2018 return. Only CSKA’s rigid defense was able to prevent the 30-year-old from scoring.

Lok doesn’t have the air of invincibility that last season’s winners can boast, but Elena Fomina, who concurrently coaches the Russian national team, has her side well-drilled and ready to compete. The 40-year-old brings a wealth of coaching experience to the table, having won the 2016 Top Division title as manager of Rossiyanka.

Five players left Lokomotiv during the offseason, including the aforementioned Yulia Grichenko and Lyubov Lashchenko, who joined Zenit and CSKA respectively. Young attacker Viktoria Dergousova and Ukrainian goalkeeper Albina Fomchenko have moved on to pastures new and defender Ekaterina Bratko, who made 13 appearances last season, has signed for Yenisey.

The biggest offseason signing is hands down the capture of Alsu Abdullina. A marauding left-back and winger, the 18-year-old finished 2019 second on the league’s assist charts whilst at Chertanovo and is arguably the hottest young prospect in Russian women’s football.

Kristina Mashkova was signed from Ryazan and has high expectations for this season. The 27-year-old wants to be a regular starter as Lokomotiv mount a serious title challenge. Deployed either at center-back or full-back, Mashkova brings a wealth of experience to her new team’s backline. Between 2016 and 2018, she featured for Kazakhstani outfit BIIK Kazygurt, where she won three consecutive league titles, cups and competed in the Champions League. Furthermore, she has amassed over 30 caps for the Russian national team. Mashkova isn’t just keen on keeping clean sheets; “Even though I am a defender, I want to score at least three goals in the new season”, she said in her first interview with Lokomotiv.

Ukrainian attacker Tatyana Kozyrenko joined from Perm and will replace Lyubov Lashchenko. The 23-year-old dreams of winning the Champions League, but in order to achieve that, Lok will have to win the league first. Additionally, squad depth has been bolstered with the signings of 19-year-old goalkeeper Olga Nesvetaeva – a Lok fan – and 23-year-old defender Anna Stipan from Tambov.

Lokomotiv’s second half of the 2019 season was plagued by inconsistency, which ultimately led to CSKA running away with the title. If Elena Fomina’s squad can keep their foot on the gas for the full campaign, there is no reason to believe that Lok can’t give their rivals a good run for their money and perhaps even come away with their first title at the end of the season.

Nelli Korovkina after scoring four goals vs Kubanochka (Source: Lokomotiv Moscow)

Fight for Acceptance

Similarly to almost every women’s league, the Russian Top Division suffers from a lack of coverage, exposure, and accessibility. With the additions of Zenit and Krasnodar, more major Russian men’s teams are present in the women’s game, but Spartak and Dynamo Moscow, as well as FK Rostov, are still plodding behind.

In a 2018 interview with Swiss newspaper Blick, CSKA’s Ksenia Kovalenko talked about what she has to put up with as a woman playing football in Russia. “The most insulting thing people say is that women shouldn’t play football”, Kovalenko said. “People are shocked when they find out that I am a professional football player. Most people have never watched a women’s game and the majority aren’t even aware that it exists. The media doesn’t cover it at all. There is no support when we play for the national team. The stands are empty most of the time.”

Kovalenko’s comments were echoed by Russia Beyond’s Boris Egorov. “‘Football is no work for women’ is a popular phrase that female footballers often hear”, Egorov wrote in his piece ‘Why Don’t Russian Women Play Football‘. “The skeptical attitude towards women’s football is not only displayed by common people but even by those in professional sport. For instance, one of the leading Russian football commentators Vasily Utkin recently expressed his opinion during his radio program: ‘Women themselves are much more interesting than women’s football…Women’s football is interesting only for those who have no access to men’s football.'”

Besides the clear prejudice, misogyny, and degradation from outsiders, Russian players also have to fight for exposure within their own clubs. It’s often small, seemingly innocuous things that can make a big difference.

Firstly, after the initial batch of signings, Zenit did not announce a single one of their ten new arrivals. For some reason, English news items regarding the women’s side appear on the men’s website and there is no link to the women’s team on Zenit’s English site. There is also no link on Zenit’s English Twitter account, despite the women having not one but two accounts. If that seems like an inconsequential matter, please remember that you can easily access Zenit’s reserve team account and profiles in a whole host of different languages through the official English Twitter account. Basically, every other profile with the Zenit brand gets promoted, except for the women’s team.

Staying on the theme of social media, the Russian national team Twitter account doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of a women’s national team.

On FC Krasnodar’s website, there has been no update on the women’s team since the launch of the program. There is absolutely no mention of WFCK in the “Teams” section of the website and you can only access the women’s segment by either clicking on the tag included in the unveiling announcement or by typing /teams/women/news in the URL bar. Not ideal!

Now moving on to the league’s website. First of all, the “Champions” section hasn’t been updated since 2018 and the news section is scarce, to say the least. Throughout all of March, the news tab was exclusively occupied by either Zenit or the national team, with one bit of CSKA news thrown in there in the wake of Kovalenko’s injury. The “Teams” section is the exact opposite, as there are more teams listed than actually play in the league, presumably due to their involvement in the Russian Cup, but there’s no way of knowing for sure because there is absolutely no information anywhere on these teams on the Top Division’s website – which is understandable because, well, they don’t play there. Most of them probably compete in the second division (which is called the First Division, because of course it is), but again, there is no way of knowing as the First Division doesn’t have a website and all the links on the league’s Wikipedia are either dead or haven’t been updated in years. Kubanochka and Torpedo Izhevsk are still listed in the “Teams” tab, while Zenit and Krasnodar haven’t been added.

Another baffling matter is that the English Top Division Wikipedia entry carries more information than the Russian version, which again highlights the lack of actual coverage of the league in Russia – if anything it should be the other way round! Also, the Russian Wikipedia page of Lokomotiv’s stadium – the Sapsan Arena – doesn’t mention the women’s team at all and in English, the team is listed as, quote, “Lokomotiv Moscow’s farm club”.

To end on a positive note; the league is making big strides forward. The level of play is great, especially at CSKA and Lokomotiv and the former’s supporters have set the bar for fans of the league rather high. The added presence of teams financed by big Russian Premier League clubs adds some much-needed stability and will help the league grow in the long term since it’s clearly more sustainable than independent ventures.

Additionally, CSKA could surprise a few teams in the Champions League and the national team is on course to achieve qualification for the next Euros, whenever they may be played. Russia’s U-21 national team played Spain’s U-21s twice in a two-game friendly series recently and won the first match 1-0, before losing the second game by the same scoreline and in Alsu Abdullina, Russia has produced one of the hottest young prospects in European football.

With all that said, there is still a long way to go before Russia can truly compete at the highest European level. An improved youth network needs to be set up, giving girls a clear pathway to the professional level. More investment needs to come from sponsors, the federation and media coverage has to greatly improve in order for the league to ever be truly competitive with its English, German, Spanish, French and Scandinavian counterparts. For the league to grow, it has to become more readily accessible for the general public and, unfortunately, right now, it’s all but accessible.

Besides the teams backed by Russian Premier League sides, four smaller clubs are vying for a place among the league’s elite. Chertanovo, Zvezda Perm, Ryazan, and Yenisey may not be able to attract the same caliber of players as the likes of CSKA and Lok, but they are not to be overlooked and could cause the occasional upset.

Whenever football returns and the season starts, games can be watched on the Top Division’s Youtube channel for free.

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