Chelsea will not only be facing FC Krasnodar in the Champions League on Wednesday evening but, it would seem, the whole of Russia.
The group stage debutants from Russia’s deep south are the second team of most of the country’s football fans – and it’s all thanks to their owner.
The term billionaire Russian oligarch conjures up a certain image but Sergey Galitsky has always done things his own way.
Krasnodar drew 1-1 with Rennes in their first-ever Champions League group game last week – pictured are the celebrations after Cristian Ramirez scored their goal in France
Chelsea’s squad train at the Krasnodar Stadium ahead of Wednesday night’s encounter
Krasnodar are owned by billionaire Sergey Galitsky, who founded the Magnit supermarket chain in the 1990s and brought affordable food to the public for the first time
The Chelsea players take a walk around the city of Krasnodar ahead of Wednesday’s game
Instead of exploiting Russia’s vast natural resources to make obscene fortunes following the decline of the Soviet Union, Galitsky gave something back to the long-suffering people.
He opened his first grocery store in Krasnodar in 1998 and from there built the nationwide Magnit supermarket chain, offering the Russian public affordable produce for the first time.
It’s why when Galitsky, whose wealth is valued by Forbes at $3.5billion (£2.7bn), decided to set up a football team in Krasnodar in 2008, it was done in a way that commanded widespread respect.
In just 12 years, Krasnodar have risen from the third tier of Russian football to the Champions League and their fixture with Chelsea represents a major landmark – their first home game in the group stages.
Football fans in the city and well beyond were thrilled when Krasnodar overcame Greek team PAOK in the play-off round and the visit of Frank Lampard’s side is certainly the biggest game in their short but exciting history.
Fans pose for pictures as the Chelsea players walk past them on the streets of Krasnodar
The 35,000-capacity Krasnodar Stadium won’t be quite full because of Covid-19 restrictions
Many Russian football fans were delighted when Krasnodar won their play-off against PAOK
Another unusual aspect about Galitsky, 53, is that he is intimately involved in the day-to-day running of his club.
Typically, the cold stare of a powerful and wealthy owner is an unnerving prospect for managers and players alike but Galitsky has a deep knowledge of both his club, right down to the names of kids in the academy, and football in general.
‘Mr Galitsky is the smartest of men,’ manager Murad Musayev told The Times. ‘He played football in his youth and, as I understand it, FC Krasnodar is the biggest creation of his life.
‘He makes no financial profit from this. This is his magnum opus.’
Musayev, 36, does need to justify some of the decisions he makes with the team to the owner – ‘he has an opinion on everything, he will argue with you on every point’ – but equally the billionaire can be found handing out water bottles to players during training.
After sessions, he has been known to indulge in a little bit of shooting practice alongside Krasnodar’s strikers. He also watches every youth and junior team, fuelling his vision of one day fielding a first team entirely drawn from the club’s academy.
The game will be played at the futuristic Krasnodar Stadium, which opened in 2016
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard on the pitch during a training session on Tuesday evening
The academy was one of the first things Krasnodar set up, even in the lower leagues, and they boast a state-of-the-art training complex and a futuristic stadium with enormous video screens.
With this in mind, arguably the biggest game in the club’s history prior to Chelsea was a UEFA Youth League play-off game with Real Madrid in February 2018, when a crowd of 32,510 at the Krasnodar Stadium saw their team lose on penalties following a goalless draw.
Musayev coached that under-19 team and was appointed to the top job six months later despite not having the necessary UEFA badges. Until he got up to speed, his assistant was officially in charge but Musayev pulled the strings.
Such a large crowd won’t be possible on Wednesday night but every ticket permitted under Covid-19 restrictions has been sold.
But they will have a much broader backing within Russia than commanded by the Moscow clubs or Zenit St Petersburg when they play in European matches.
Former Newcastle United midfielder Remy Cabella (left) is part of the Krasnodar ranks
The Krasnodar team line up for their first-ever Champions League group game last week
There’s also an Englishman plotting Chelsea’s downfall – John Phillips, who worked with Gareth Bale when he was at Southampton, is Krasnodar’s head of sports science.
‘We just have to fight, we have to work hard and try not to be intimidated by them in any way,’ Phillips said of the Chelsea challenge.
‘We can’t switch off because you’ll get punished by this sort of teams. So it’s almost as much mental as it’s physical for this game.’
Krasnodar opened their group stage with a 1-1 draw away to French club Rennes last week and their squad does include a few familiar names.
French attacking midfielder Remy Cabella failed to make much of an impression in his season with Newcastle United, scoring once in 34 games in England before joining Marseille. He’s enjoyed more success in Russia.
Swedish striker Marcus Berg (left) goes round Rennes keeper Alfred Gomis in last week’s game
Swedish midfielder Kristoffer Olsson was in Arsenal’s academy ranks while striker Marcus Berg is a regular in Sweden’s national team.
Unlike other billionaire-backed clubs in Russia, Krasnodar eschew big spending and prefer to field players who appreciate the club’s values. The team that faced Rennes features three academy graduates.
Indeed, the owner himself is on record as saying he’d prefer to entertain the fans than win every single match. In spite of that, Krasnodar have risen swiftly to prominence in just over a decade.
Krasnodar, a drive of 840 miles from Moscow, is frontier territory and once a stronghold of anti-Bolshevik resistance, has often refused to stand in line with Russia’s other cities.
Galitsky has certainly done things differently when it comes to his football club and Wednesday night’s meeting with Chelsea is the perfect opportunity to show the world how far they’ve come.