Champions League 2016: FC Rostov and Russia's football fairytale

    Russia's FC Rostov will compete in the European Champions League for the first time.

    Story highlights

    • Champions League returns this week
    • FC Rostov making debut in competition

    (CNN)Over a thousand kilometers separates Rostov-on-Don and the Russian capital Moscow -- but in terms of football pedigree, it might as well be light years.

    So when FC Rostov, a team usually fighting to avoid relegation, finished just two points short of champion CSKA Moscow in the race for last season's Russian Premier League title, it sent shock waves through the country's soccer elite.
      The fairytale story centers around a former Rostov player turned manager, Kurban Berdyev, who inspired his squad to overcome the club's crippling financial problems to finish above five-time Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg and claim a place in Europe's lucrative top competition, the Champions League.
      Rostov's achievement was somewhat overshadowed by the shock success of underdog Leicester City in the English Premier League; this week both clubs will compete against the continent's finest teams for the first time.
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      On Tuesday, Rostov -- whose sole post-Soviet-era trophy is the Russian Cup, won in 2014 -- will travel to Germany to face five-time European champion Bayern Munich in the opening round of the group stage.
      So how did a team that was completely written off overcome so many odds?

      Troubled times

      Having won the Russian Cup, Rostov was soon embroiled in a legal battle against exclusion from the Europa League in the 2014-15 season after the Russian Football Union (RFU) claimed players had been improperly paid out of a government pension fund.
      While the club was ultimately allowed to compete in the continent's second-tier competition, it lost in the first round.
      Financial trouble continued to plague Rostov. The regional government, which owns the team, was stretched by recession and an influx of refugees from the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
      More controversy followed in November 2014, when then coach Igor Gamula -- who led Rostov to the domestic cup title -- was suspended by the RFU for saying the club had "enough dark-skinned players" and would not sign another.

      Daring to dream

      Facing relegation and financial ruin, Rostov demoted Gamula to manage the under-21 team and turned to Berdyev -- a former midfielder who played one season for the club in 1979-1980.
      Berdyev had enjoyed recent success, leading Rubin Kazan to the Russian title in 2008 and 2009 and a remarkable Champions League victory over Barcelona at Camp Nou.
      It was a genius decision.
      Not only did Berdyev ensure survival, he built a team which produced one of the most astonishing stories Russian football had seen -- not to mention a $14 million payout for Champions League qualification.
      "Rostov was fighting for the title until the end -- it was like Leicester last season," Artur Petrosyan, editor-in-chief of Sport-Express, told CNN.
      "Towards the end of the season nearly all the neutral fans wanted it to go all the way. When it managed to beat Zenit 3-0 at the end of last season, every fan, outside St. Petersburg, just fell in love with the team."
      Berdyev won two Russian league titles with Rubin Kazan.
      Not only did Rostov give CSKA Moscow a run for its money, but it outclassed the so-called bigger teams such as Zenit, FC Krasnodar and Spartak Moscow.
      The achievement was even more remarkable given the state of the club's finances and the drama unfolding behind the scenes.
      By October 2015, some club employees were threatening to strike over unpaid wages, while some players discussed boycotting a game after their salaries went unpaid.
      Rostov has not responded to CNN's request to comment for this article.

      'Bankrupt'

      "The funding has actually been a huge problem," Manuel Veth, editor of Futbolgrad, told CNN. "At some point last season the club was almost bankrupt, and players even boycotted a Russian Cup game.
      "Players went without salary for months, yet Berdyev kept his team together, and managed to challenge for the Russian title last season. In any other league in Europe, the club would have been declared bankrupt and relegated."
      Sardar Azmoun has been one of Rostov's most impressive performers.
      While the off-field problems continued, there seemed to be little negative effect on the players.
      Experienced Ecuador international Christian Noboa ran the midfield, while prolific Iran striker Sardar Azmoun -- on loan from Rubin Kazan, but now permanently signed -- provided the goals.
      By April, Rostov was in first place and on course to pull off the most unlikely of triumphs.
      Only in the final weeks did it stutter, drawing too many games and allowing CSKA -- the official team of the Soviet army during the communist era -- to win its 13th national title.
      Despite the heartbreaking near miss, a place in the Champions League -- and the potential cash bonanza to follow -- was much more important to the club's survival than a trophy.
      "Berdyev is a very good coach and motivator," Veth said. "Champions League football was the only way to keep the club alive, hence the players knew what to do."

      Setback

      Azmoun scored against Anderlecht and Ajax in the Champions League qualifying rounds.
      If this was a Hollywood story, the script would have ended with there. But success only brought about more drama.
      Berdyev wanted assurances over the club's finances and promises that the situation would improve.
      In June, he met with Rostov's regional governor Vasily Golubev and signed a new two-year deal.
      But salaries remained unpaid, money was not forthcoming for new signings, and players bolted to other clubs.
      Berdyev eventually had enough, quitting after victory over Anderlecht in August's Champions League third-round qualifier secured a place in the playoffs -- the last step before reaching the group stage.
      Assistant coach Dmitri Kirichenko took temporary charge after Berdyev's departure.
      Rostov was left rudderless, and handed the reins to an assistant while Berdyev shopped himself around to bigger teams.
      But nothing materialized for the 64-year-old who, in a bizarre U-turn, headed back to Rostov in a consultant role. He is now listed as a team vice-president and assistant.
      "It doesn't matter what he's called, he's just doing what he did before," clarified Russian journalist Petrosyan.

      Destiny

      On Tuesday, Berdyev will be in attendance at the 75,000-capacity Allianz Arena to see his side, led by newly-appointed coach Ivan Daniliant, face a star-studded Bayern team that has won its national league 26 times.
      Rostov will then host last season's losing finalist Atletico Madrid and Dutch champion PSV Eindhoven at its aging, 16,000-capacity home ground, but the club is awaiting the completion of its new stadium. Being built for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the $310 million, 45,000-seat facility is due to be finished by the end of this year.
      Such an upgrade elicits a feeling in Rostov that this is what everyone has been waiting for.
      "The home games will be a big thrill for everyone," Rostov assistant coach Dmitri Kirichenko told reporters after the draw.
      "The excitement will be incredible. I am sure the fans will help us to get positive results. We have a really lively atmosphere at the stadium in Rostov-on-Don, and the fans deserved this."