The youngest club in the current Russian Premier League, FC Ufa were formed from a merger of two modest local teams in a city with no previous experience of top-flight football.
The fact that this all happened barely a decade ago makes it even more remarkable that FC Ufa qualified for Europe in 2018.
In 2009, Dinamo PB and Taxist were amalgamated to create Bashinformsvyaz-Dynamo. Few outside of Ufa would have noticed. This city of a million people, capital of Bashkortostan, contained a 75-year-old stadium of 4,500 capacity – and had shown little interest in the game since Gastello Ufa had lost out in a relegation battle with Lada Dimitovgrad and Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian zonal First Division in 1992.
Football here took place in front of a few hundred, if that.
But Bashkortostan was more than just a former member of Soviet Russia, east of Kazan. Crude oil, natural gas, coal, all were making the most populous of Russia’s 22 republics rich – but not famous. If Kazan could not only compete against the big clubs of Moscow and St Petersburg but beat them, putting the city on the international stage when European football beckoned, why not Ufa?
Incoming Bashkortostan president, Rustem Khamitov, had Bashinformsvyaz-Dynamo renamed FC Ufa, persuaded Andrei Kanchelskis of Manchester United, Everton and Rangers fame take over as coach, and looked at creating a proper football stadium. The Dynamo Stadium dated back to 1934 and was good enough for the third tier – but not for Ufa’s ambitions.
Under Igor Kolyvanov, who had won international honours at youth level for Russia as a player and coach, FC Ufa snuck into the second tier by the back door in 2012. While Khamitov had his architects plan the conversion of a sports ground north of the city by Park Pobedy, Kolyvanov led Ufa from the third flight to the Premier in four seasons.
Goals from striker Dmitri Golubov, not least four in the first leg of the play-off against Tom Tomsk, helped Ufa gain a berth in the top flight. Bringing in Brazilian playmaker Marcinho, Ufa survived a first season with the big boys, playing most home games at the Zvezda Stadium in Perm.
Just after the start of the 2015-16 season, the Neftyanik Stadium was ready, inaugurated in front of a 14,000 crowd witnessing the visit of champions Zenit. A late winner from the St Petersburg side was the only goal of the game, but Ufa survived the season, again one spot above the relegation play-off zone.
Under Sergei Semak, captain of Rubin Kazan when they won two consecutive titles in 2008 and 2009, Ufa improved to reach the semi-finals of the Russian Cup and finish closer to the European qualification spots. Defensive solidity was provided by multi-capped Slovenian international Bojan Jokić. Goals came from Nigerian international Sylvester Igboun, also top scorer in Ufa’s best campaign to date, 2017-18.
Rarely falling out of the top eight, Semak’s Ufa lost only two games out of ten in the run-in after Christmas, bagging a first ever European place.
Semak’s achievements didn’t go unnoticed, and he landed a contract at Zenit St Petersburg. Replaced by his former assistant Sergei Tomarov, who had played at Stroitel Ufa as an amateur, Ufa recorded a narrow win over Domžale in the Europa League, a vital late equaliser by Jokić putting paid to his compatriots. Another late equaliser, this time from Croatian Ivan Paurević in Luxembourg, pushed Ufa into the next round, and a narrow defeat at Rangers in front of a near-50,000 crowd at Ibrox.
The 15,000-capacity Neftyanik Stadium is a 21st-century revamp of the sports ground that stood here in Soviet times. Next to a swimming pool and a large park dedicated to victory in World War II – it even has a T34 and eternal flame on display – the Neftyanik is set in Ufa’s outskirts. The club’s old stadium, Dynamo, is right in town. This is 15km north of it.
Despite the three-year revamp, the Neftyanik still looks Soviet, an open bowl, a last-minute-thought of a roof covering half the seating and an archway of neo-classical columns, topped by a scoreboard, behind one goal.
Alongside at this north end (Северная трибуна) is the section for visiting supporters, few in number if Krasnoyarsk Yenesei are in town, pretty numerous if it’s Moscow Spartak. Home fans gather in the south end (Южная трибуна), sectors C9-C14.
Neutrals may be wise to choose the West Stand (Западная трибуна), C15-C19, which is covered, handy in the blistering Russian summer or rainy spring.
The Neftyanik Stadium has its own stop on trolleybus Nos.1 and 22 routes.
From the Ufa Arena for ice hockey in town, the No.22 (every 10min) is direct, journey time 25min. The No.1 (every 12min) sets off from the Friendship Monument, through the city centre, all the way to the stadium, 16km from the starting point. The whole journey is 40min. It passes
Each service runs until at least 10.30pm.
A taxi from town should cost at least 1,000r/£11.50.
The ticket offices at the stadium (ulitsa Komarova 9) open during the week, 10am-8pm with no lunch break. Usually there’s little problem with availability on a match day, and the cashier projects a plan of the stadium onto the glass in front of you so you can pick your seat.
Russian speakers can also order online.
The cheapest seats are behind the goals, 200r/£2.30. Along the uncovered sideline, the East Stand (Восточная трибуна), it’s 300r-500r (£3.50-£5.80). The dearest seats are those in the covered West Stand (Западная трибуна), 500r-600r (£5.80-£6.90).
For major European games, prices at least double, so it’s 500r/£5.80 behind the goals and towards the halfway line 1,200r-1,500r/£13.85-£17.30.
FC Ufa have no proper merchandise store but a small tent is set up in the concourse on match days, selling scarves, flags and replica shirts of red with green piping.
The main drinking spot for both home and away supporters is the Café Bar Arabella, at the junction of main ulitsa Komarova and ulitsa Maksima Gorkogo, a homely pub/restaurant with TV screens. Fans gather outside and round the bar counter. Nearer the park on Komarova, the Sport Bar is more a darker drinking hole for local fans, again with a TV for matches.
On the other side of the stadium in the big park, fans gather at the Amazonia Grill for barbecued meats and beer, clambering over the T34 tank a pre-game ritual. Other smaller kiosks abound.
Within the stadium, stalls are set up for grilled meats, snacks and soft drinks – there’s no beer.