It was only a small news report. On Wednesday morning the Russian sports daily Sport Express announced that Rinat Akhmetov is one of many candidates who has shown interest in purchasing the Serbian SuperLiga team FK Vojvodina Novi Sad.
As later reported on UKRfutbol, Akhmetov is facing competition from Serbian businessman Milan Mandaric to purchase the club, which finished fourth in the Super Liga last season, and it is currently sitting at third place.
While UEFA rules are an obstacle, they have in the past been ineffective at dealing with international partnerships. There are several examples of this situation in Ukraine where oligarchs own several clubs, such as Kolomoyskyi’s football network has demonstrated. There is also the connection between Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem, where there were allegations that Roman Abramovich is the owner of both clubs.
In truth the major obstacle for Akhmetov to purchase Vojvodina is Serbian state law, which currently prohibits the private ownership of football clubs by an individual. As the French sport portal Footbalski has pointed out on Twitter: “clubs are state owned with the exception of Cukaricki, [which is already privately owned]. The remaining clubs are supposed to [be] privatize[d] but still waiting for it.”
On April 12, 2011 a law was introduced that was supposed to facilitate the privatization of clubs, however the clubs boards have been reluctant to privatize, using the constitutional right to freedom of association to slow down the privatization process. Board members have been blocking this process, as they fear losing their political influence over club management. But it is expected that a new legislation on enforcing privatization will finally be pushed through in June 2015.
Many clubs in Serbia have structures that have been called mafia-like, with owners being linked to all sorts of criminal activities, including money laundering and corruption, as well as third-party ownership of player contracts. Despite this situation “authorities have done little to investigate these allegations and combat corruption in teams or fan clubs”, it was said in an article published by WikiLeaks.
Another obstacle to privatization is the fact that many Serbian clubs have serious financial problems. These debts, however, should only be a small obstacle for oligarchs from Ukraine or Russia, or for large state owned companies from the Russian Federation. In fact Vojvodina is not the only club linked with post-Soviet money, as Belgrade’s Red Star FC has long been linked to rumours of a takeover by the Russian energy company Gazprom, the current sponsor of the club.
However, it remains to be seen if there is any fundamental truth to the rumours at all, as Footbalski points out on Twitter that “with Serbia you always have to wait for the facts.”
This possibility begs the question what could be the motivation for Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and companies to purchase these clubs? For Akhmetov extending his network could have two motivations. Firstly, Shakhtar’s farm teams in the Donbass are currently not an ideal location to send youth team players out on loan.
Therefore Novi Sad has the potential to be a new farm-team for Shakhtar. Also the Serbian market could help to diversify Akhmetov’s financial portfolio, which has taken a major hit during the conflict in the Donbass. For Gazprom however, the motivations could be more politically motivated, as the purchase of one of Serbia’s most storied clubs would be a statement of the extension of Russia’s influence in the Balkans.
By Manuel Veth–
Interesting, particularly given the continued uncertainty over the future of the Ukrainian league and the problems being experienced by Shakhtar.
I assume FK Vojvodina’s fanbase is predominantly Serb ethnically?
I assume so as well, I am, however, an expert on post-Soviet football rather than Serbia. For me this was an interesting example as I think that Akhmetov might be only interested in the purchase to diversify his portfolio. Perhaps also to find a new home for Shakhtar’s rental players as his club network in the Donbass is under pressure due to the conflict.
There are no legal obstacles to privatization of football clubs in Serbia, and indeed this government, as well as the two previous, have been extremely interested in starting the process. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would buy a club in Serbia., however, due to three huge obstacles.
Number 1: Unsustainable system. There are two huge clubs (Red Star and Partizan) whose joint fan base (way over 80%) is matched only by their control of domestic league (24 of last 25 titles). Vojvodina is clear number 3, but in terms of support it can’t match the two even in its hometown. League size (16 teams) is detrimental to any quality concentration. If Red Star is taken away, average attendance is below 3000, half of the league lingers around or below 1000. Facilities are so poor that winter break lasts nearly 3 months, just as long as spring half-season. The only team that has managed to get into group stage of European competitions since 2007 (Partizan) managed only 2 wins in over 30 group games.
Number 2: Lack of money. Literally everyone here, from club management to journalists to government to general public, is worried about the debts that burden football clubs. What most fail to notice is that key to those debts are not huge costs, but extremely low income (joint revenue of the whole 16-strong Superliga is well below 20 million euros per year; 13 of those don’t get to a million per year). Commercial income barely exists – it took Partizan 4 and a half years to find a shirt sponsor. They were national champions nearly all that time. All the TV money in Serbian football history can’t add up to a single Barclay’s Premier league game. Average Hungarian league member earns more from TV than Serbian league as a whole.
For some time many clubs lived of the players they produced, but Serbia is a rather small country (population under 8 million), with a limited production of quality players, and for 5 or 6 years now most of them leave well before they turn 20 (some of them move to top leagues, as Nastasić or Milinković-Savić; most of them to upper middle class, as Sulejmani, Đuričić, Mitrovic or Marković; some even to mediocre European leagues – Chelsea’s Nemanja Matić moved to Košice of Slovakia, Hungarian league is filled with talented Serbs; only three of all those made any impact in Serbian clubs before leaving). Their early exit dramatically diminishes transfer fees and cuts off main source of income.
Number 3: The question of property. No-one is quite sure what exactly would proposed new owners get once they buy the club. Most of them don’t even own their own stadium or training grounds (these are usually owned by municipality, there are similarities with Italy) or any other assets aside from human resources (players, coaches, administrative and maintenance workers).
Even if we take into account that for an owner like Akhmetov FK Vojvodina would be just a feeder (or backup club), it is hard to understand why he wouldn’t purchase a club in one of more developed Central European leagues, based within EU (Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia or even Romania).
It is indeed. Apart from Novi Pazar (which is Bosniak) all Serbian top 2 level clubs are mainly supported by ethnic Serbs. This includes even those based in areas with strong or predominant minority presence (such as Spartak Subotica), as most of the minorities support the clubs in their ancestral countries (like Ferencvaros, Hajduk Split or even Fenerbahce). Here in Balkans it is quite usual. Huge majority of Serbs living outside Serbia support Red Star, Croats outside Croatia are evenly split between Hajduk and Dinamo.
Ciossa thank you for the lengthy response. This sounds very fascinating, would you care to do an article for Futbolgrad on this? It could act as a follow up to the Gazeta post. You can always contact me via twitter @homosovieticus.