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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CSKA Within a Whisker of History

ReutersCSKA coach Valery Gazzayev answering questions Wednesday at a news conference in Lisbon's Alvalade Stadium.
LISBON -- Six months ago, Russian football had seemingly reached its nadir when the national team was thrashed 7-1 in Lisbon by a rampant Portuguese team. No one then could imagine that a Russian club would return to the same city Wednesday with the chance to win Russia's first European club trophy.

It will also make Russia's defense minister even happier than he was when he went into the CSKA dressing room after its 3-0 win over Parma in the semifinals earlier this month.

CSKA Moscow will take on favorite Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday at the Jose Alvalade Stadium in the UEFA Cup final with the chance, more than a century after the first club was formed in Russia, to win the country's first-ever European club trophy.

More than 3,000 fans are expected to flood into the Portuguese capital for the game, and although they will be heavily outnumbered by home supporters in the 52,000-seat stadium, a significant Russian presence in the capital was confirmed by CSKA fans singing in the town center Tuesday -- a day before the match.

Two weeks after Chelsea was knocked out of the Champions League, it will also give Roman Abramovich, who owns the West London club and whose oil company Sibneft funds CSKA, another chance to win in Europe.

If CSKA wins, it will be a momentous moment for Russian soccer and perhaps the spur that the sport needs to move onto the next level after the enormous influx of money into the game over the last five years.

CSKA Moscow has cut a swathe through the UEFA Cup after it was dumped out of the Champions League last year by its soccer blood brother Chelsea, beating Benfica, Partizan Belgrade, Auxerre and Parma in style on the campaign.

Chelsea fans even made it to Lisbon on Tuesday, although they hadn't made the trip necessarily to support CSKA but to sell fake UEFA Cup final T-shirts.

"Although if there is a choice between Sporting and CSKA, we'll obviously support CSKA," said Mickey, one of three fans who had made the trip, as he waved off a tout selling fake watches in the center of Lisbon by saying he was a football policeman from England, "however tenuous the link, CSKA could become a feeder club for Chelsea."

CSKA's success means that Russia will have two clubs in next year's Champions League, and the rest of Europe is looking over its shoulder at Russian soccer as the country poaches soccer players such as Vagner Love of CSKA and Cavenaghi of Spartak Moscow for millions of dollars where a few years ago they would have been expected to go to Spanish or Italian clubs.

The Russian Premier League had an overall budget of more than $400 million this year, as rich businessmen have followed Abramovich's lead and invested into Russian clubs, putting it in the top six of leagues in Europe in annual turnover.

Russian clubs never won any European trophies throughout Soviet times. Dynamo Kiev won two European Cup Winners Cups in 1975 and 1986 and Dynamo Tbilisi won the same tournament in 1981, but Russia's only final appearance ended in defeat when Dynamo Moscow lost to Glasgow Rangers in 1972.

Despite the influx of money nobody had given CSKA a chance of reaching the final.

"Nobody would have dared to suggest a Russian team could make it to Lisbon at the start of the campaign," wrote the country's biggest sports paper, Sport-Express.

CSKA sealed a place in the final a few days before Victory Day in front of a packed Lokomotiv Stadium with a relatively easy 3-0 victory over Parma.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov congratulated the players after the game, joking that now he would not have to draft them.

The joke was a reference to the fact that CSKA was the team that belonged to the Red Army in Soviet times, and its habit of drafting players from other teams into the Army so they could play for CSKA. Whether the numerous foreign players on the team got the joke was not reported.

Ivanov also made an emotional speech, saying: "You played and won for Russia. For the veterans of the Great Patriotic [War] whose holiday is coming. After all, whom do our veterans support? It's obvious -- CSKA!"

Ivanov even gave them some advice for acclimatization in Portugal, saying "Look lads, the fourth day of acclimatization is critical. I know that from my military studies."

Victory will inspire Russian clubs to more success, soccer experts hope, and to empty more wallets.

"Now CSKA has to inspire a new wave of rich Russians," wrote Sport-Express. "They know it is not a fantasy to reach huge heights with Russian clubs."