Joy on the cards in Kazan
© AFP

Up until now, Kazan was known as the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation, as well as being an important centre for engineering and reputedly the home of Islam in Russia. Just recently however, the city of a million inhabitants on the banks of the Volga has suddenly risen up the footballing ranks, to the astonishment of most observers.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, there is currently much consternation among football fans. It was widely accepted that if one the clubs from the capital - Dinamo, CSKA and in particular Spartak - did not win the Russian Premjer Liga, then defending champions and UEFA Cup winners Zenit would. With a mere eight games to go, however, Rubin Kazan are well clear at the top of the table, with their play this season as impressive as it has been surprising. They are a whole nine points clear of Dinamo in second, while big guns Spartak and Zenit are 15 and 17 points adrift in sixth and seventh spots respectively.

Seasoned internationals
As if this were not enough, Rubin, who had previously qualified twice for the UEFA Cup (in 2004 and 2007) and lost on both occasions to Austrian powerhouse Rapid Vienna, took it upon themselves to prove last weekend that they were genuinely a force to be reckoned with. The league-leaders went to the Luzhniki Stadium and beat the mighty Spartak 1-0, with former Tottenham man Sergei Rebrov scoring the winner against Russia's record league title winners.

The star Ukrainian forward is not the only big name with an international reputation in the Rubin line-up. Captain Sergei Semak joined the club at the start of the season from French outfit Paris St. Germain, with Turkish international Gokdeniz Karadeniz coming on board at the same time. Goalkeeper Sergei Ryzhikov has also recently made the step up into Russian coach Guus Hiddink's squad, and with players of this calibre throughout the team, it is no surprise that the underdogs from Kazan suddenly find themselves mixing it with the best of them on the domestic scene.

Building from the back
Perhaps the best illustrations of Rubin's dominance this year were their matches against Zenit, in which the star-studded squad from St Petersburg were on the wrong end of 3-1 and 4-1 defeats. It was perhaps those two matches that made the rest of Russia, and indeed Europe, sit up and take notice, with Zenit being many people's outside tip for UEFA Champions League glory this season.

It is not just against the big clubs that Rubin have shown what they are made of. In 22 matches so far this year, they have lost only twice, 3-0 at home to Spartak Moscow and 2-0 away to Spartak Nalchik. Their success has been built on a rock-solid defence, which has conceded a mere 15 goals - the fewest in the league.

Double celebration
Yet this success has not come overnight, with Rubin having brought in no fewer than 15 new players in their quest for glory. Semak in particular has been a revelation, enjoying an Indian summer after his stints in Moscow and Paris to the extent that he has now become a lynchpin in the Russian team. "Here in Kazan I'm a world away from the big cities, so I can just relax and enjoy my time with my family. I'm 32 now and obviously only one serious  injury away from the end of my career, but the three-year contract I have with Rubin gives me some security."

Semak is keen to repay this trust, and his team are well on the way to fulfilling their promise in what is a very special season for the club. Rubin Kazan celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and what better way to mark this occasion than by claiming the Russian league title.