Rubin rise dogged by match-fixing claims
Russian football really is on the up. Two of the last UEFA Cup finalists have come from the east, while the national side impressed at Euro 2008 and, after their hosting of last year's Champions League final in Moscow went off without incident, the country now boasts one of the most open leagues in Europe.
Many highlighted Zenit St Petersburg's title success after years of domination by the Moscow clubs as a reason to cheer; but now, in their 50th anniversary year, Russian football has a new darling in Rubin Kazan.
The Tatarstan based club won their first ever Russian championship on Sunday with a 2-1 win over Saturn Moscow Oblast, putting them 10 points clear of CSKA Moscow with only three games remaining, although the fairytale rise of the club has been blighted by allegations of match-fixing.
Having only arrived in the top flight in 2003, they are no strangers to success having finished third in their debut season and fourth in 2005, but have been accused of the practice of "dogovornyak" - when a side is 'owed' points from previous thrown matches - this year.
Indeed, beginning the season in incredible fashion, Rubin blew away the rest of the league with seven wins out of seven - including a 3-1 win over Zenit, in St Petersburg, and wins over both Dynamo and Lokomotiv Moscow, also away from home.
With such impressive results, the club came through arguably the toughest set of fixtures from start of the league and, although a 3-0 home defeat to Spartak ended the run, many cynics pointed to cloak and dagger tactics as the reason for their rise.
As the title race was wrapped up, such rumours failed to disappear; and with a game plan that sets itself in the foundation of solid defending and bright counter-attacks, the danger is that Rubin's ideal of attacking football - and their first ever title - may be tainted in the eyes of history.
It is not a first for Russian football as Zenit had been accused of underhand tactics in their UEFA Cup semi-final win over Bayern Munich last season and, although there has been no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this was the reason for Rubin's incredible start to the season, the allegations began to arise after the club beat Zenit away from home in the third match of the campaign.
Rubin's chairman, Alexander Gusev, who is also the chairman of the state council of Tartarstan, dismissed the claims but has not been helped by the perception of manager Kurban Berdyev's transfer policy as 'dodgy' or the arrest of sports director, Rustem Saymanov, on three charges of alleged murder back in May.
Berdyev, a man described as a "Turkmenistani Harry Redknapp" by The Guardian's Jonathan Wilson, has come under fire despite leading the club to compete with the likes of Zenit and the Moscow clubs in recent years. A calm and deeply devout man, Berdyev can often be seen with prayer beads in his hands on the touchline, but his reputation as a 'wheeler-dealer' has also cast doubts on the club's credibility.
Rapidly becoming the most recognisable Turkmenistani in football history, Berdyev was appointed Rubin manager in 2001 after spells in Turkey, Kazakhstan and a period in charge of the Turkmenistan national side. He won promotion to the Russian top flight in his second season and has enjoyed unprecedented success with a transfer policy that keeps players constantly fighting for places.
Some point to a lack of stability as a reason to criticise, but building the current side with the likes of 34-year-old Savo Milosevic and 33-year-old Serhiy Rebrov playing important roles, Berdyev's team is certainly not reliant on superstar performers or inflated transfer fees - the €8.7 million outlay on Gökdeniz Karadeniz proving their only big money signing of recent years.
In the face of criticism, Berdyev has certainly bought well. Turkish international Karadeniz may have cost a pretty penny but he has been in inspired form this season and, following a controversial switch from Trabzonspor, has gelled well with 32-year-old captain Sergei Semak in midfield. Together, they have played nearly every match for Rubin this season and have notched up 10 goals between them, pulling the strings for the side.
Experience is also a key component of Rubin's success, with 32-year-old Stjepan Tomas and Roman Sharonov forming part of an effective back-line and, along with Semak, Rebrov and Milosevic, the squad's older players are enjoying something of a revival.
Semak, in particular, has been in superb form and has earned a recall to Guus Hiddink's Russia squad, while Milosevic rolled back the years to seal Rubin's championship win with a goal from off the bench and credit must go to Berdyev for being able to get the best out of his ageing charges.
With 23-year-old Ecuadorian midfielder Christian Noboa chipping in with six goals and the likes of striker Aleksandr Bukharov providing youthful exuberance, the club appear to be moving in the right direction.
In the past, the likes of Sergei Budylin and Vitaly Volkov had been heralded as the future of the club only to be discarded but, while new faces will arrive, there is more of a commitment to the development of young players.
Most recently linked with Everton winger Steven Pienaar, Berdyev told Sport Express this week: "Last year we had talks with the South African Pienaar. He is now at Everton, but he doesn't always play and he may be thinking about our offer."
"I know the recipe of how to make Rubin even stronger, next year we will have new players," he added. Pienaar could do worse than joining the new Russian champions.
With the construction of a new 32,000-seater stadium beginning in May and Berdyev and the board remaining resilient in the face of criticism, the club look well placed to build upon their success in the future.
Of all the European leagues, Russia's had been one of the most obvious to predict but in recent years the emergence of Zenit and Rubin have changed things to make it three post-Soviet champions from outside Moscow.
It is a shame that allegations of corruption have blighted their title celebrations, but it is to be expected when one of the underdogs upsets the established order.
Whether there is any truth to the rumours remains to be seen but, with questions raised over the validity of the club's title, it would appear the damage has already been done. The real tragedy of such allegations are that they cast doubts on what might legitimately be one of the most remarkable rises in European football.