By Andrew Flint –
The organisation of the Russian league system has taken its predictable trajectory of twists and turns in the post season this summer, likened to “Russian roulette and rollercoasters” on Championat, with unsettling ramifications for member clubs and fans alike. Last week, the latest chaotic farce was produced when Zenit-2 was granted an unorthodox promotion to the Football National League (FNL) thanks to the RFU overruling the original FNL board decision. Their second place finish, by the letter of the law, was not enough to earn them a place at the next level, but with the uneven numbers set to make up the second tier, it was deemed preferable to supplement Spartak-2’s ascension with their St Petersburg counterparts.
The nature of the decision has sent a confusing message about the chain of command in the domestic game, while the need for such a decision to be taken in the first place demonstrates a worrying lack of stability.
The Saga of the Two Torpedoes
The chain of events has been as follows: having won the Second Division South league, Torpedo Armavir announced that they would not be taking up their rightful place in the FNL due to the financial commitment involved in competing at the national level. Kuban then revealed projected plans to take over the team as a feeder side, Kuban-2, but to keep them in the Second Division for the same reasons.
At the other end of the scale, Torpedo Moscow, the historic club of Eduard Streltsov, announced that, following their relegation from the Premier League, they would be unable to fulfill their obligations to obtain an FNL license and would not be applying to join the second tier, opting instead to drop down to the Second Division. Club president Alexander Tukmanov had left his fans in suspense by failing to reveal the fate of his club until a few days ago.
As if that were not enough, Torpedo Armavir announced last week that it had somehow secured the necessary sponsorship to maintain their club after all. While this is a positive development, it is one that swims against the tide of clubs which are dropping out of existence, and at the same time raises a number of intriguing questions about how to preserve the long-term future and credibility of the FNL.
It is staggering how regularly clubs don’t just fall into heavy debt – while unwelcome, it is a commonplace feature of modern football – but drop out of professional football all together. 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.
When one factors in players’ salaries, staff salaries, marketing and in some cases stadium rent, the sum—equivalent to just over two months of Radamel Falcao’s salary—becomes miniscule. Of course at some stage the league system has to become national, but why force clubs, who a few weeks earlier had average journeys of under 1,000 miles, to suddenly make journeys which cross a quarter of the globe?
Government Funding: A Double-Edged Sword
Government funding of sport, especially outside the elite levels, is a double-edged sword. While it in theory provides a steady stream of finance instead of relying on wealthy owners to maintain an interest in building a project, in reality that stream is often less than a trickle. Tyumen’s Regional Governor Vladimir Yakushev, for example, has recently announced that the city’s hockey side, 2011 VHL champions Rubin, are in 2015/16 not going to receive funding at anywhere near its previous level.
This hockey team will now have to promote youngsters, as they are no longer able to sign foreign stars such as Canadian enforcer Darcy Verot, whose deal two years ago had included full schooling for his three children at an exclusive international primary school and a $10,000 performance-based bonus. Plans for a brand-new stadium in the outskirts of the city that would have accomodated a bid for promotion to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), have been on hold for five years, and now appear destined to be permanently shelved.
The successful futsal team MFC Tyumen released their Brazilian contingent, including Futsal World Cup-winning coach Marcos Sorato, last summer for similar reasons. Full-size football in the city has also taken a blow, with FC Tyumen’s budget slashed in half just months after talks were held with Dmitry Sychev’s father about the striker’s possible dramatic arrival at the Geolog Stadium. Despite these hardships for Tyumen sport, the glamorous Race of Champions was staged at the city-owned Geolog, which brought the world’s best biathlon competitors to Western Siberia.
Yakushev is also a board member of the Russian Biathlon Union, which explains his ability to persuade organisers to stage the popular exhibition in his region’s capital. Although 10,000 people watched global stars race around the high-priced course, it demonstrated a major flaw of state funded sport – clubs have no control over how their primary source of income is allocated.
The situation in Tyumen is just one example of the malaise brought about by the present standard model for the organization and administration of FNL clubs. As Zenit continues to flourish due to the backing of Gazprom’s millions, fellow St. Petersburg club Dinamo is struggling to make ends meet following relegation from the FNL. Despite having been established before its wealthy neighbour, Dinamo St. Petersburg has received no support from Zenit; there was even talk of Dinamo Moscow taking over and renaming the club Dinamo-2, much like the Kuban/Armavir plan. As unlikely and impractical as such a suggestion may seem, it is indicative of the desperate measures being considered just in order to survive.
League Structures: A Major Obstacle Towards Achieving Sustainability
The second major obstacle to sustaining a thriving league is the structure of the second and third tiers. At present (ignoring the inevitable and predictable liquidation of clubs), there is little incentive for clubs in the Second Division to be competitive, as there is only one promotion place per league within the regionalized third tier. Existence at these levels is more comfortable given the relatively shorter distances to travel, the ruling that bans foreigners from playing at this level, and the absence of the need to throw money – if there is any – at marquee signings in the chase for promotion. Many clubs opt to simply survive at this level, rather than risk everything in the brutal race for promotion.
The jump from five regional leagues in the Second Division to one national league in the FNL is too great for most teams to cope with. A league system requires all leagues within it to strive for enduring success, and to most observers it is clear that in Russia this not the case. The changing of the calendar from a spring – winter schedule to a European-friendly August-May season was woefully shortsighted, and has left teams a virtually impossible five or six week period to conduct post season and pre season rebuilding work.
The argument that it will benefit the teams that qualify for Europe—four, out of a total 103 professional clubs—is without foundation. Russian clubs have had very limited success on the continental stage since Zenit’s and CSKA’s UEFA Cup triumphs nearly a decade ago when the season sensibly followed the previous schedule.
Valery Gazzaev – Reforming Russian Football
There is hope for the future of the FNL. Valery Gazzaev is a man who is not afraid to think outside the box in order to achieve surprising results; the former Russian National Team manager won the Premier League in 1995 with Alania Vladikavkaz, and two years ago fronted the United Football League proposal, which intended to merge the best sides from Russia and Ukraine. He has revealed a number of measures to improve Russian professional football which are both imaginative and practical.
“Presently, three of our leagues contain as many as 105 [professional clubs],” he said in March. “There isn’t a single European country that has such a high number, yet, they consistently manage to outperform us in comparison. We propose to keep the professional status only for RFPL and FNL. By doing so, we’ll be able to reduce this number down to 54.”
Under his scheme, the top flight would be expanded to 18 teams, while the FNL would be split into three parallel leagues of 12 teams each. With a larger RPL, three places could be designated for automatic promotion from the FNL, as opposed to the current two, while the lighter schedule would allow for an extended promotion playoff system between the higher ranked teams. This would maintain a competitive edge throughout the season. “It is better to organize a high quality performance for 54 professional teams, than struggle to maintain the survivability of over 100. The question of quality of teams supersedes that of their quantity,” Gazzaev added.
A further change would be to merge the administration of the top three tiers into one governing body, the Russian Football League (RFL). The issue of a confused chain of command, as demonstrated by the Zenit-2 debacle, would be eradicated, and with a common interest there would result a greater likelihood of the interests of all professional clubs being served rather than just the moneyed elite. “I think as a result of unification we’ll be able to achieve a higher quality of control,” he added. “Moreover, there will be a substantial reduction in costs: instead of three currently existing structures such as RFPL, FNL, and PFL, each of which has its own president and multiple respective departments, we’ll get a single, more compact and effective one.”
Gazzaev is currently standing for the vacant post of permanent president of the Russian Football Union – a position from which Nikolai Tolstykh was forced to resign just over a month ago. If Valery Gazzaev is successful, there is a chance that his forward-thinking vision for Russian football will safeguard the future of the FNL.
Andrew Flint is a English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.