The declining interest in Russian football

Many people, including myself, think the standard of football displayed by the Russian national team and the Russian leagues is greatly improving. The rich oligarchs and development of skilled Russian players over recent years has seen the standard of the post-soviet Russian league rise to international contention, as displayed with the UEFA cup victories of both CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg. But has football really gripped the nation of Russia in the aftermath of the communist regime? A recent study by dedicated Russian website Championat.ru has discovered some alarming and slightly strange statistics.

In terms of international football, Russia have not been a major force since the days of the USSR and the managerial reign of the methodical Ukrainian Valeriy Lobanovskyi but the 2004 European Championships gave Russian football a lifeline. The stellar performances of messrs Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko allowed Russia to reinstate themselves as a serious footballing nation, however, the bittersweet elixir of reasonable success only enhance the problem.

The 2010 World Cup final was the worst cup final since the downfall of the Soviet Union. That, according to the Russian people anyway. Only 28 million people were persuaded to tune in to the world’s most prestigious football match. For a country with a population as staggeringly large as 139,390,205 that statistic really does speak volumes. It is easy to state that the fact that the viewing figures for the 2010 World Cup were remarkably low in Russia because the Russian’s themselves narrowly missed out on a World Cup place due to that 1-0 defeat to the Slovenians in Maribor. The fact is, however, that the Russian’s have not only been shunning football on the international stage, they have also been shunning football at national level.

The record low for number of viewers for a Russian Premier League match screened on national TV was broken this month. The fateful match between Lokomotiv Moscow and Alania attracted a measly audience of 1.5 million viewers, the lowest for fifty years. The decline cannot be explained in a mere blog post, it is more likely to warrant a 10,000 word university dissertation piece but it seems that the majority of Russian people are simply not interested in football. It is perhaps not surprising given that Russia is such a large country, boasting a total area of 17,098,242 square km, but the standard of football in Russia and the Russian Premier League is increasing in spite of the apparent lack of interest from the wider Russian community. This could explain the dearth in ethnic minorities in the Russian national team as the majority of players are of white European stock. People in the outer reaches of Vladivostock and Rubtsovsk may simply have much more vital and important things to worry about than the beautiful game.

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2 thoughts on “The declining interest in Russian football

  1. Eliot, interesting article but I have to disagree to an extent on the premise, and also on your conclusions.

    1. I’d argue an audience of 28 million for a single TV event in modern Russia is a respectable total. Compare that with the record audiences for televised Russian national team games (http://www.championat.ru/football/article-40775.html) – for qualifying matches it’s 34m for Russia-England in 2007, and for tournament matches it’s 61m for Russia-Spain in Euro 2008.

    2. In addition it’s worth adding the caveat that the match kicked off at 10.30pm Moscow time – over in Vladivostok, that’s 5.30am. It would have to be a seriously important event for people in the Far East to stay up/get up early for.

    3. I’m afraid your example of the Lokomotiv-Alaniya game comes with a caveat too. The game was originally scheduled to be shown live at 4pm Moscow time, but because of the unseasonal heat in Russia the game was put back to 9pm. Because of the hasty rearrangement, the game was actually shown at 10.30pm on Russian TV at (i.e. with a 1.5 hour delay) – hence the low audience.

    4. As far as the idea of Russians’ interest in football being in decline is concerned, you’re partly right – though in a way you hadn’t necessarily anticipated. I’d suggest Russians are seriously interested in the English Premier League – so much so that many of the Russians I’ve met profess to supporting English clubs (i.e. Chelsea or Arsenal, for obvious reasons) and don’t follow Russian football at all. This happens for a variety of reasons – boredom with Russian clubs, a product of Russians’ obsession with Westernisation, a preference for following players (e.g. Arshavin) rather than clubs. But that could be a corollary to your point that support for the Russian Premier League *may* (my stress) be in decline.

    But good work on the article, some good ideas come out of it, and it’s great to read about Russia from good writers like yourself.

    • Fantastic that you’ve taken the time to reply James. I appreciate it.
      I was aware of the problems with time difference but with this being quite a hasty article before I jet off to France I kinda sought a way to leave it out but thanks for pointing that out to readers!
      What I wasn’t aware of, however, was the schedule change in the Lokomotiv game which is interesting and also hints at the organizational challenge that the Russian FA have with scheduling matches over such a vast country.

      For anybody (other than me and James) interested in Russian football you would do well to visit James’ blog: http://cynicalchallenge.blogspot.com/

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