MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian Premier League has suffered from falling attendances since changing its calendar six years ago as freezing conditions and a lack of indoor stadiums make life uncomfortable for fans and players.
The winter break therefore cannot come soon enough for a league which goes into hibernation for three months on Dec. 5 with temperatures having plummeted below zero.
There have been calls for a return to the ‘spring-autumn’ system that was jettisoned in 2010 from the current ‘autumn-spring’ arrangement but not from Russian Football Union (RFU) honorary president Vyacheslav Koloskov.
“This would be laughed at around the world,” the former RFU chief, who wants clubs’ infrastructure and facilities to be upgraded, said in a telephone interview.
“The new system is more progressive than ‘spring-autumn’ as it is adapted to the European and world standards. However, it does have its faults,” he told Reuters.
He added that the key to improving the popularity of the sport at the home of the 2018 World Cup hosts is to improve the infrastructure, especially the provision of indoor facilities.
“There should be only one decision and that is to build the necessary infrastructure around the country, especially in the Urals and Siberia where the winters are particularly harsh.”
From 1992 until 2010, the Russian championship had a ‘spring-autumn’ system, which started in March and finished in November. This calendar is traditionally used in countries in the north of Europe like Sweden and Norway, where winter starts early, and by November pitches can be covered in snow.
However, former RFU president Sergei Fursenko decided the country would be better off moving to an ‘autumn-spring’ system from 2012 after a transitional 18-month season in 2011/12 so the campaign could finish in May.
The Russian championship now starts in July, with the first part of the league finishing at the start of December.
Following a winter break, the teams start playing again in early March, with the season concluding at the end of May.
The final rounds of matches in 2016 will see some switching of venues because of the harsh weather.
Sub-zero temperatures in Western Siberia mean Tom Tomsk will give up home advantage against Lokomotiv Moscow with the game to be played at the Railwaymen’s ground in the capital on Dec. 1.
Krylya Sovetov’s clash with Spartak Moscow on the same day is also under threat, with temperatures in the city on the Volga expected to drop as low as minus 17 Centigrade.
“Spectators should not have to sit in the snow wearing fur coats and warm gloves,” said Koloskov.
“At the turn of the millennium when I headed the RFU, we forced the clubs to install undersoil heating, have individual seats and create conditions for the press and television.
“...we also needed to list our demands, such as setting dates when clubs should have indoor facilities.
“Unfortunately, none of this has been done and these are the problems with the new system.”
The leading Russian clubs, who regularly play in Europe, were in favour of moving the calendar to ‘autumn-spring’.
“The move from the old system took a long time and is continuing,” the president of CSKA Moscow, Yevgeny Giner, told broadcaster Match TV.
However, attendances have fallen under the new system.
The average attendance in the Russian Premier League is 11,459. During the last few seasons under the old ‘spring-autumn’ system, the average crowd was as high as 13,000.
CSKA’s new stadium, which seats 30,000, was opened in September but has not been full even in the Champions League.
The Army Men’s head coach Leonid Slutskiy was criticised for once saying Russia, who will host the 2018 World Cup, was not a footballing country, but Koloskov agrees with his view.
“There are three criteria to be either a footballing or non-footballing country,” he told Reuters.
“The first point concerns the average number of people playing football. We are in around 50th place. We have around two percent, where as in Germany this figure is around seven percent.
“The second criteria is the achievements of the national team. We are not even always able to qualify for major tournaments,” he added, with Russia having missed out on the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals.
“The third criteria is the number of spectators. We have around 500-700 spectators watching matches in the second division and from 1,700-2,000 in the first division.
“Aside from the top clubs in the Premier League, the average attendance is 3,000-5,000.”
“Is this a footballing country? I wake up and fall asleep with the dream that we will become a footballing country, but at the moment this isn’t happening,” Koloskov added.
The current president of the RFU, Vitaly Mutko, has not ruled out switching back to the old system.
“I was always against the ‘autumn-spring’ calendar,” he told the R-Sport news agency.
“It is sad to lose a whole month in the summer. This, of course, for a northern country is not good. We will think about this but until the World Cup, there are unlikely to be any changes,” he added.
Reporting by Dmitriy Rogovitskiy; editing by Ken Ferris