Kurban Berdyev celebrates one of the great Champions League shock results
By Mike Henson
In 2008 the great bear of Russian football started to stir.
For the first time since the break-up of the USSR, the national side reached the knockout stages of an international tournament as they dispatched the Netherlands on their way to the European Championship semi-finals.
Shortly before Euro 2008, Zenit St Petersburg clinched the Uefa Cup, three years after CSKA Moscow had claimed the country's first European club trophy with victory in the same competition.
But like a Russian doll, there was a surprise within the surprise.
Last summer for only the third time in 17 years a club outside of Moscow claimed the domestic Russian Premier League.
And rather than the financial might of a Zenit side bankrolled by energy giant Gazprom, this time the winners were an unfashionable Rubin Kazan side from the predominantly Muslim region of Tatarstan.
A team of unsung players featured former Premier League players Sergei Rebrov and Savo Milosevic and only one Russia regular in midfielder Sergei Semak.
Both Milosevic and Rebrov have since moved on but Kazan have continued to confound expectations.
At home Kazan lead the Russian league, but it was their shock 2-1 Champions League win over Barcelona in the Nou Camp - the defending champions first European defeat in 10 matches - that had neutrals scrambling for their atlases to locate Tatarstan.
Kazan's draw with Inter Milan in their previous Champions League game should have given Barca due warning that the Russian champions would be no pushovers.
Aleksandr Ryazantsev's stunning long-range strike jolted Barca, who equalised through Zlatan Ibrahimovic's powerful finish, only for Gokdeniz Karadeniz to fire the winner following a breakaway as Pep Guardiola's side slumped to their first defeat of the season.
Only promoted from the second tier seven years ago, the one consistent element in Rubin's rise to break the Muscovite monopoly has been manager Kurban Berdyev, a devout Muslim, who was born in Turkmenistan.
Definitely one of the most successful and original managers in Russia
Marc Bennetts on Kurban Berdyev
"It is difficult to create a team with lots of new players but he managed to do it," Rebrov, now working to develop young players at Dynamo Kiev, told BBC Sport.
"It is because we played together and for each other that we won the league last season.
"He is a very good manger who brings great discipline to the side and that is why they succeed even without many national team players," added the former Tottenham striker.
"Sometimes when we were losing from time to time he would get angry, but he is very religious.
"I don't think it is good or bad, but it is really his life. I like it when someone believes in something, and he really believes."
Berdyev's commitment to Kazan, where he is also a vice-president, and quirky style have kept him out of reach of Russia's richer clubs.
"He is like the Brian Clough of Russia," said Marc Bennetts, author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game.
"He's a really interesting guy. Definitely one of the most successful and original managers in Russia.
"At most press conferences he just says "Glory to Allah, we won". If he does say more, he mumbles away in his trademark baseball cap and wanders off before anyone's really worked out what he has said."
It is usually worth deciphering though.
After an 89th-minute winner against Saturn Moscow from former Aston Villa striker Milosevic had sealed Rubin's title, the 57-year-old offered his views on football's place in Russia.
"In the Soviet era, people believed in the Party, in the ideas of that age. But what do people believe in today?" Berdyev asked.
"We're not so rich in ideas, right? But sport provides us with aims that can be achieved, one that allows those who share them to feel pride.
"In that respect, all the clubs in Russia are engaged in a very necessary activity - we are shaping the souls of children."
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While Andrey Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko's international exploits have helped them shape their own futures at English clubs, Berdyev's squad have stayed under most scouting radars.
Argentine striker Alejandro Dominguez, who scored a superb goal in the 1-1 draw with Inter, was brought back to the club after falling out with Zenit boss Dick Advocaat and has responded with a rash of goals.
"Dominguez is very good. He is quick and strong, he already has two goals and I think will prove to be one of the best strikers in the Champions League," said Rebrov.
If Dominguez gives Kazan a cutting edge, midfielder Semak's influence provides their trademark cohesion.
The 33-year-old's career appeared to be winding down when he arrived at the club from FC Moscow in 2008, but his pivotal role in Rubin's title run won him his place back in the national side.
After a two-year absence, he played every game of the tournament as Rubin's sole representative in Guus Hiddink's squad for Euro 2008.
"Semak is the most important player for Kazan in my opinion. With him and without him they are a very different side. He is a skipper who leads both on and off the field," said Rebrov.
But for some the mix of Berdyev's cunning and Semak's influence did not add up to title success.
Kazan's unpredicted triumph sparked scepticism with suggestions that the title may have been the latest appeasement to a region that voted for independence from Russia in a 1992 referendum.
Karadeniz and Aleksandr Ryazantsev scored Kazan's goals in the Nou Camp
"When anything unexpected happens in Russian football there are allegations of conspiracy and corruption because, even as President Medvedev admitted, the country is blighted by corruption," said Bennetts.
"Whenever anything unusual happens, people look for a reason and that reason is usually lots of money changing hands or threats or political influence. But I personally think the won the title because they were the best team."
Berdyev, who in the Nou Camp was constantly running beads through his hands as he always does during games, has described his side's place in Group F as a holiday.
After Tuesday's remarkable win in Catalonia, which put Kazan on four points - and level with Barca and Dynamo in the group - Berdyev could yet sample other the delights of other European cities.
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