By Manuel Veth –
Life is tough in Russia’s second division, the Football National League (FNL). Unlike the Russian Football Premier League (RFPL), which is almost entirely centred on the European part of Russia—Ural Yekaterinburg, the club that is located the furthest east in the RFPL, is technically right on the border between Asia and Europe—the FNL spans almost the entirety of Russia from its Baltic enclave in Kaliningrad (nudged uncomfortably between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea) to the Pacific in Vladivostok (located just 80 miles north of the North Korean border). FNL clubs compete in ten out of Russia’s eleven time zones.
This makes the FNL an extremely expensive competition in which to play. Smaller clubs such as Luch-Energiya from Vladivostok, and Baltika from Kaliningrad, for example, are entirely dependent on air travel, an expense that makes it extremely difficult for clubs stay operational. As Andrew Flint pointed out in his Futbolgrad article on July 7: “A middling side in the league typically has a total operating budget of around $4 million, which, at present, must cover flights, accommodation, and sustenance, for at least 20 players and staff for 19 away trips across the world’s largest continent.”
FNL – Doubts over Size
Before the FNL kicked off this season, there were doubts as to whether the league would be able to continue in its 18 team format, as Torpedo Moscow—a club that struggled with racism and financial difficulties in last year’s Russian Premier League—declined to participate in the FNL after being relegated from the RFPL last season, and Torpedo Armavir initially refused promotion to the FNL from the Second Division South League. In the end, Torpedo Armavir secured financial assistance from Ukrainian-Russian oligarch Oleg Mkrtchyan, and Torpedo Moscow’s place was taken by Zenit’s farm team Zenit-2.
Torpedo Armavir’s late inclusion to the league, and the fact that both Zenit Saint Petersburg and Spartak Moscow had their second teams promoted, although amidst controversy, meant that the league kicked off with 20 rather than 18 teams.
Yet, there is doubt whether the league will actually finish with 20 teams, as there are several smaller teams that are going through financial difficulties. The latest example is Luch-Energiya from Vladivostok. Located an eight hour flight away from Moscow on Russia’s Pacific coast, Luch-Energiya’s development has often been hindered by geography.
Luch-Energiya Vladivostok’s Geographic Disadvantage
Luch-Energiya played in the RFPL in 1993, and then once again between 2006 and 2008, which led to the famous suggestion by Russia’s current national team goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, that “they [Vladivostok] should play in the Japanese League.” Promoted from the FNL in 2005, Vladivostok was an ambitious project undertaken by a local oligarch, who wanted to lift the club into European football.
But, as is often the case with football projects in Russia, Luch-Energiya struggled in the RFPL and was relegated in 2008—and the fears of the German and English press that their major clubs could be travelling close to 10,000 km to get to the Pacific in European away matches were short lived. With its dreams of European football long gone, Luch-Energiya has struggled since relegation, and was even briefly relegated to Russia’s Third East Division in the 2012-13 season. Although the club managed instant promotion and even finished last season in a respectable eighth place, financial concerns have remained.
As Sport-Express reported on September 22, the club currently is encumbered with a huge debt accumulated during its brief hiatus in the third division. To make things worse, the Primorsky Krai regional government and local sponsors have offered the club very little financial aid. Due to its debt, the club frequently failed to pay wages last season, and is already behind on wage payments this season.
Luch-Energiya Vladivostok are currently placed fifth in the FNL, and at present, look like a challenger for a promotion spot to the Premier League. But its dire financial situation means that the club could actually go bankrupt before the season is over.
The FNL’s Instagram account recently published a quote by Luch-Energiya’s coach Oleg Veretennikov: “Yesterday we played in Saint Petersburg against Tosno. We won 2:0. Now we will fly to Vladivostok, and do not even know where the team will be based, because the team has been expelled from its training base.” He added, “It is very difficult for the team, we have all these long flights, and the [financial] situation gets worse and worse. During the game, the players forget about the debt, but at the same time they have families and children to worry about. They are most of all afraid about the fact that we are being evicted from the place where we were based, and now they are flying back to Vladivostok and they do not know where we will be located. Conditions at the old base, were bad enough…”
Reforming Russian Football
The situation at Vladivostok is illustrates the problems that smaller Russian professional clubs are facing. But, as Andrew Flint pointed out in July, there is some hope for the FNL because the former Russian national team coach, Valery Gazzaev, who won the Premier League in 1995 with Alania Vladikavkaz, and who two years ago fronted the United Football League proposal, which intended to merge the best sides from Russia and Ukraine, has since taken on the project to propose reforms for Russian league football. Gazzaev has suggested a number of imaginative and practical measures to improve Russian professional football.
Speaking to the Russian football homepage Championat.ru on September 22, Gazzaev recommended some major changes to the current league pyramid: “I have repeatedly advocated to increase the number of Premier League teams from 16 to 18. Therefore, I fully support the idea of expanding the Premier League, and I consider it necessary to extend the first league (FNL) to 36 clubs and divide it geographically into three divisions in order to reduce transport costs. This new league system would bring about, on average, a 52% reduction to the current travel expenditures. In addition, the division of the first league into regional divisions would allow the growth of professional and youth football in the Far East, Siberia, and the Urals.”
While his proposal does not come up with a solution on how to handle clubs from the Far East that are promoted to the RFPL—although here costs are usually covered by regional governments, or oligarchs who want to bask in the glory of having a club participate in Russia’s top flight—Gazzaev’s proposal certainly makes sense because clubs from the Far East, such as Luch-Energiya, would save huge amounts on travel costs whilst playing in the FNL. The question is, whether such necessary reform will come in time for Luch-Energiya. The coaches and players of the club are currently walking a fine line as they fight for promotion to the RFPL while they, at the same time, are forced to deal with immense financial uncertainty.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be defended in November. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.