By Saul Pope –
For the second time this century it seems that Torpedo Moscow is about to lose its professional status. Having been relegated from the Russian Premier League following a forgettable 2014-15 campaign, the club has missed its deadline for registering in Russia’s second-tier Football National League.
Although club president Aleksandr Tukmanov has said that the club might yet play in the third tier, this seems unlikely; with debts of around 230,000,000 rubles (£2.7 million), player wages unpaid, and no source of new sponsorship in sight, the most logical route out appears to be bankruptcy.
Its situation looked promising a year ago in that under former Russian national team assistant manager Aleksandr Borodyuk, Torpedo had just won promotion to the top flight via the play offs, despite a slow start to the 2013-14 season. Borodyuk’s contract, however, had expired and he did not want to renew it because the club had not paid promised bonuses to him or his staff, and also because, according to some fan accounts, he was sick of Tukmanov’s lies. Borodyuk was joined in his departure from the club by several key players, which meant that Torpedo started 2014-15 with a significantly worse side then when it had won promotion. Immediate relegation was, therefore, no surprise.
Aleksandr Mamut – A Failed Opportunity
Tukmanov’s track record is weak, and fans blame him for Torpedo’s fall to its historically lowest point: the slip into amateur football in the 2009 season. In 2008 the club, which was playing in the third tier after two quick relegations, had caught the eye of billionaire Aleksandr Mamut. What appeared to be an opportunity which should be grasped with both hands was passed up. In a championat.com article, Torpedo fan Oleg explains how Tukmanov demanded from Mamut a 30% share in the club despite the fact that he did not put in an equivalent amount of capital himself.
When Mamut politely declined to invest, Tukmanov was suddenly short of much needed investment funds. Another Torpedo fan, Sergey, picks up the story: “He tried to find some money from somewhere…and Torpedo missed the deadline to register in the second division…Nothing in the almost one hundred years of club history has been as shameful as this. The only silver lining was that there was no lower to fall.”
Under Tukmanov the club’s infrastructure has atrophied. The crumbling Eduard Streltsov Stadium, named after the club’s legendary player, was barely used in 2014-15. Almost all of Torpedo’s home games last season were played in Ramenskoye, a town about thirty miles outside Moscow. Many fans blame club debt for the failure to rent more central Moscow stadiums such as the Lokomotiv Arena, or the new Otkrytie Arena..
Although there is a Torpedo academy, which is financed by the Moscow city government, the club has no well-structured club headquarters. Their poverty is such that, according to championat.com, after matches the players can’t give their shirts away to fans because they’re are the only ones the club has.
Torpedo’s Intransparent Ownership Structures
Perhaps most worrying for Torpedo fans is the fact that nobody really knows who owns the club. According to Tukmanov, the main shareholders are what remains of the ZIL factory that formed the club, and the property department of the Moscow government. The fans, however, have their doubts. “Amongst club shareholders is one of Tukmanov’s friends, Tatevos Surinov,” explains Oleg. “He’s the only ‘live’ shareholder sometimes seen at matches. This only strengthens the feeling that the link to the city is just a screen.”
Tukmanov’s most recent attempt to court sponsorship demonstrated his trademark creativity and lack of judgement. Though the story has been denied by a Zenit coach, championat.com published a piece claiming that Tukmanov met Zenit president Aleksandr Dyukov and asked him to pay off Torpedo’s debts, as this would make it easier for Zenit-2 to gain entry to the FNL (Torpedo remaining in the FNL would leave an odd number of sides and one vacant spot that Zenit-2 could fill). Perhaps sensing the conflict of interest were one football team to pay off a league rival’s debts, Dyukov apparently declined.
Club history under Tukmanov has largely been inglorious, and this latest gaffe, if true, is just one more incident in more than a decade of his mismanagement of one of Russia’s historic clubs. Unfortunately for the fans it might not yet be over. Tukmanov’s determination to keep Torpedo Moscow going is partly due to the fact that bankruptcy would result in his loss of the rights to the club’s trade marks, most notably the club badge and the iconic capital ‘T’ which appears on players’ shirts. These trademarks are a significant brand within Russian football; whoever owns them has control of the original brand of the club that was formed in 1924. If Tukmanov loses control of these, then Torpedo will have forever fallen from his grasp.
Torpedo is certainly not the only Russian club to be experiencing serious financial problems, but its management is generally recognized as one of the most inept. The coming weeks will determine whether another ‘new era’ is genuinely on the horizon, or whether the club’s fans will continue to suffer as they have since their president first appeared in 2007.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football for twenty years. Since 2004 he has been a regular contributor to When Saturday Comes magazine, mainly on the economic, political and social aspects of Russian football. He is a fluent Russian speaker who lived and worked in St. Petersburg for several years.A Zenit St. Petersburg fan who first saw them live in 1998, his all-time favourite Zenit players are Aleksandr Panov and Aleksandr Spivak. He once saw Andrey Arshavin in a supermarket, but was too embarrassed to go and ask for an autograph. Follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.