While most of the leagues around Europe managed to restart in the "new normal" circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian Premier League has fast turned into a farce.
Clubs were thrown into disarray with numerous cases of coronavirus, the tight timetables don't allow fixtures to be postponed, the FA doesn't have a clear plan, and the competition's value has been severely damaged already.
It all started with Khoren Bayramyan. When the authorities decided to restart the league on 19 June, it was made crystal clear that the clubs are solely responsible for their players' health. Strict quarantine was recommended, but such measures are very difficult to keep for a long period of time.
For Bayramyan, Rostov academy graduate of Armenian origins, restrictions proved to be too tough. He comes from a very close family, and even lived with his parents for a while after getting married. The midfielder visited them while they were apparently ill. A few months ago, a big interview with Bayramyan hailed him as a "positive" guy. Now, all of a sudden, the word "positive" was negative in the extreme.
And so, on 13 June, six days before the game at Sochi, Rostov discovered that one of their best performers had coronavirus. They tested all the rest, and five more players turned out to be positive, including top stars Roman Eremenko and Ivelin Popov. The entire squad, including the coach Valery Karpin, went on quarantine, and the trip to Sochi became impossible.
The club asked to postpone the fixture, but that was easier said than done. With the new 2020/21 season expected to start in August, it is vital for all the games of the current one to end by 22 July. There was only one possible open date to reschedule the game, but the FA were only ready to do so if both clubs agreed. Not surprisingly, Sochi simply refused, and showed complete indifference to the fans' outrage throughout the country.
Sochi president Boris Rotenberg, a close friend of Vladimir Putin, explained: "Rules must be kept, and we did our part. Why should we set a precedent? Clubs might use it for further manipulations. We don't know what would happen in the coming weeks."
The relegation strugglers didn't mind taking advantage of the unique situation, on their way to claim a very unique win.
Rules must be kept, and we did our part. Why should we set a precedent? Clubs might use it for further manipulations.Sochi President Boris Rotenberg
For Rostov, there was no option but to send a youth team to Sochi. The players, mostly born in 2003, didn't even have time to train together. They flew out on a charter flight just a few hours before walking on the pitch of the magnificent Fisht Stadium that staged some of the most dramatic matches at the 2018 World Cup.
Naturally, all the players made their Premier League debuts. Their average age was 17.4 years. They faced a bunch of Sochi veterans, most of whom were part of Zenit squad last term. The game arguably offered some entertainment, but definitely wasn't doing the league any favours.
Sensationally, the young visitors took a very early lead when the gloriously named Roman Romanov finished off a quality team move. Thereafter, though, the 17-year-old keeper Denis Popov turned into a major star. He produced 15 saves, including stopping Anton Zabolotny's penalty, and was voted man of the match despite conceding 10 goals and losing 10-1.
Aleksandr Kokorin netted a hat-trick, Zabolotny and Dmitry Poloz added a brace each, and even the defender Ivan Novoseltsev scored a very rare goal. The game has gone into history books as the most bizarre in the league history, and the losers received a lot of praise for their spirited performance.
The press then expected the youngsters to face Arsenal Tula in the following fixture, but the reality was different. The quarantine started on 13 June, and was supposed to end on 27 June when Rostov were scheduled to take on their next opponents.
They didn't ask for postponement this time, and announced that all the healthy players would take the field without training, or any preparations for that matter.
"We were basically jailed in our rooms", the coach Valery Karpin said. In fact, Tula were the ones whose participation was doubtful, after their general manager Dmitry Balashov initially tested positive, but further tests showed that he – and all the rest of the squad – were not suffering from coronavirus.
Therefore, the game took place as scheduled on Saturday and provided partial answer to a very intriguing question. Are preparations necessary? Can a team perform without having any training sessions for two weeks prior to the contest?
We were basically jailed in our rooms.Rostov coach Valery Karpin
The answer proved to be positive in a profound fashion. Rostov scored twice in the first 17 minutes and proceeded to win 2-1. Eremenko and Popov were still unavailable, but Bayramyan amusingly made a substitute appearance after the break – and looked fit as if nothing had happened.
The result allowed Rostov, who are fighting for the Champions League qualification, to climb back to third place at the expense of Krasnodar, but the latter are yet to play a game since the league had restarted, because their rivals also suffered from COVID-19 cases. Krasnodar owner Sergey Galitsky is known as a gentleman of Russian football, and – contrary to Sochi – he readily agreed to postpone the game last week when several Dinamo Moscow players tested positive.
The only alternative date was now taken, though, and when Orenburg reported that eight of their players and staff members are suffering from the virus, the FA claimed that the game absolutely must go ahead as scheduled. However, Orenburg were unable to field a youth team who are also quarantined, and the Saturday fixture against Krasnodar was cancelled. Orenburg are now likely to be punished with a technical defeat, with Krasnodar getting the three points and overtaking Rostov once again. A remarkable precedent is about to be set, with a team forfeiting a league fixture due to global pandemics.
The crisis has affected Russia more than any other European country so far, and it would be logical to assume that more cases of COVID-19 would disrupt the league that is struggling to come to terms with the situation. The incredible Rostov affair in Sochi made a lot of headlines around the globe, but it might only be the beginning of more bizarre incidents to come.