Twice recent Russian champions and regular European competitors, Rubin Kazan have been the main challengers to the Moscow-St Petersburg monopoly of the domestic game.
For most of the club’s history, Rubin were the most provincial of plodders. Formed in 1958 as Iskra (‘Spark’), they flickered around the lower levels of Soviet football without ever catching fire. The most dramatic moment possibly came in 1965 when the team adopted a new name – Rubin, or ‘Ruby’.
The end of the USSR opened up a path to top-flight football in the Russian league as several traditional powerhouses found themselves playing in newly independent countries – although Rubin took a while to take advantage. Financial problems and the loss of the team’s key sponsor pushed the club into the third tier for the fraught season of 1995. Three times Rubin simply failed to fulfil their fixtures, and survival was secured with an 85th-minute goal away to Spartak Yoshkar-Ola on the final day of the season. That late 1-0 win pushed Druzhba into the relegation zone and amateur league oblivion.
A year later, when the club’s chief patron, Kamil Ishakov, became mayor of Kazan, he unveiled plans to get Rubin into the top flight. With financial fears a thing of the past, 1997 saw Kazan tear up Division 3 (Central), romping to the title with 32 wins in 40 games and 102 points. A five-year stay in the second tier ended triumphantly in 2002 when head coach Kurban Berdiyev led the team to promotion and put Kazan up into the top level of Russian football for the first time.
Berdiyev, a man who emerged from almost nowhere to take an unfashionable provincial team to unprecedented heights, can bear comparison to Brian Clough – even down to a penchant for green sweaters. Yet their characters could not be more different. Born in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, Berdiyev is a devout Muslim. Teetotal and prone to fingering his prayer beads on the bench, Berdiyev’s mumblings in press conferences are the antithesis of Clough’s brash self-aggrandisement.
But both men shared a rare talent for assembling teams of misfits and getting them to perform at a level they could never achieve in more exalted surroundings. Players such as Alexander Bukharov, the ungainly forward who fired Rubin to two league titles before flopping at Zenit and failing to make an impact at international level, has something of the Gary Birtles about him.
Under Berdiyev, Rubin established themselves in the top flight, flirted with Europe and then – sensationally – celebrated the club’s 50th anniversary in 2008 by winning the Russian Premier League. Nobody saw it coming: Rubin had finished tenth the previous year and looked mediocre, while in the post-Soviet era, the top prize had only left Moscow twice. When Rubin began the campaign with a 1-0 win at Lokomotiv, the headlines screamed ‘Plokho-motiv’, punning on the Russian word for bad, plokho. The Railwaymen were perceived to have flopped in an easy home game. Even after Rubin won their first seven games, few expected them to stay at the top. In the end they won at a canter, wrapping up the title with two games to spare after ex-Aston Villa misfit Savo Milosevic got the winner at Saturn to take Rubin out of reach of second-placed CSKA.
Then they did it again in 2009, pausing only to deliver a 2-1 win over Barcelona at the Nou Camp as they became the easternmost team ever to feature in the Champions League group phase. A beast of a draw saw them battle with Barça, Internazionale and Dynamo Kyiv, emerging in third place and eventually reaching the last 16 of the Europa League. Bukharov was in his pomp as Rubin defended the league title; he scored 16 goals that season, as did Argentinian Alejandro Domínguez – another player who blossomed under Berdiyev but struggled elsewhere.
Success continued in the cups: in 2010 and 2012, Rubin won the Super Cup and reached the Russian Cup final, winning in 2012 against Dynamo Moscow after a last-minute defeat to CSKA in 2010. However, Rubin lacked the financial muscle to compete with the likes of Zenit and CSKA, and Berdiyev’s champions grew old. By 2014 the team was limping to a mid-table finish and the legendary coach had left the club.
The current line-up is a youthful one, with goalie Sergei Ryzhikov and midfielder Gokdeniz Karadeniz remaining from the golden years. Rinat Bilyaletdinov, a native Tatar, is in the hot seat and led Rubin back into Europe with a sixth-placed finish in 2015, while Igor Portnyagin’s emergence up front earned him a call-up to the national squad.
While the new-build Kazan Arena was being adapted after hosting the World Aquatics Championships in 2015, Rubin had to move back to their previous homes of the Tsentralny and Rubin Stadiums.
European games were hosted at the Soviet-era Tsentralny. As its name suggests, Tsentralny is by far the easiest to get to. Set in the shadow of the Kazan Kremlin wall, it’s near the city’s main tourist attractions and a comfortable walk from most locations in the centre. Built in 1960, a classic bowl in the Soviet mould, it now holds around 26,000 after plastic seating was brought in during a 2010 revamp. Only half the ground is covered, though, including the away sector.
The main club shop is also based here for souvenir headgear and Russian dolls.
After the exiting the Kazan Arena, rather than return to the Tsentralny, Rubin initially played most home games at the Rubin Stadium, part of the club’s training facilities in the north of the city. This is a small but smart 10,000-seater, but with both ends open it lacks atmosphere. It’s also a bit short on facilities, with most seats open to the elements. Sometimes anxiously watching the rain clouds sweep across the horizon can be a more pressing concern than watching the game. Reserve side Rubin-II, stalwarts of the third tier PFL Ural-Volga section, also play home games here in darkest suburbia. After the game, jumping on the metro back into town is a more attractive option than hanging around.
By contrast, the 45,000-seater, €292-million Kazan Arena (‘not just a football stadium but a true metropolis’) was inspired by the local surroundings and culture. Although from the outside it’s not quite clear how true that is, the Populous group, with lead architect Damon Lavelle, has created an impressive contemporary arena. Long-term plans include a business complex, a children’s entertainment centre and other sports facilities. As always with these new complexes, it’s out of the centre with little else around it. Stadium tours (1hr, 300r) can be arranged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org three days in advance.
Tsentralny is near Kremlovskaya metro station and served by several bus routes linking the city centre, the railway station and the river. The Dvorets Sporta bus stop is also close but you can probably walk to the stadium from most locations in the city centre.
Rubin Stadium is a ten-minute walk from Aviastroyitelnaya metro, the last stop in the north. Simply follow the main road back towards the city centre and keep an eye out for the floodlights. Alternatively, tram Nos.1 and 6 stop at Ulitsa Dementyeva, closer to the ground.
The Kazan Arena has its own stop on tramline Nos.5 and 6. Alternatively, trolleybus No.1 shuttles to and from Kozya Sloboda metro station in about ten minutes. Bus route Nos. 74, 74A and 75 run from Tsentralny to the Arena in 15 minutes or so but continue on circuits that take about 40 minutes to loop back to the city.
Tickets & shop
It is possible to buy tickets online but there’s no English-language version and information often appears just days before the game – a common feature of Russian clubs. Tickets can also be purchased in person from the club shop at Tsentralny Stadion and on the door, if you don’t mind a big queue. Prices are low – for league fixtures, it’s 300r in the South (юг) and North (cевер) ends, 350r-400r in the East (восток) Stand and 500r-1,000r plus in the main West (запад) Stand, where sectors 1, 2, 8 and 9 are cheapest, and 5 the priciest.
Tsentralny is set beside the Pyramid, Kazan’s oldest nightclub and also a reasonable bet for a pre-game beer. Otherwise, it’s a short walk to ulitsa Baumana and its many bars.
There’s very little around the Rubin Stadium apart from a chain burger joint.
As for the Kazan Arena, unless you want to spend serious roubles at the fourth-floor Palladium restaurant – stained-glass windows, state-of-the-art karaoke system, European and Japanese cuisine – which is probably only open for World Cup VIPs and business clients anyway, drinking and dining options are limited. All you’ll find amid the malls and chains are the Grillwood restaurant (prospekt Khusaina Yamasheva 103, by the Sberbank), with its hulking steaks and burgers, and various uninspiring fast-food outlets.