It has been a busy couple of weeks for Zenit-2 St. Petersburg and, at times, it has been a little bizarre. The side finished second in the Professional Football League West in 2014-15, which wasn’t enough for promotion to the Football National League; the one available spot went to PFL West champions Spartak-2. But for both Zenit-2 and Spartak-2 promotion is beyond reach due to league rules.
But that does not eliminate the possibility of promotion in Russia. The FNL is a particularly arduous league because geographically it tends to span the entire country. The distances involved makes away games expensive for teams with limited budgets and someone invariably drops out or declines promotion, which is exactly what came to pass: PFL South champions Torpedo Armavir refused their place, leaving a vacant spot which Zenit-2 announced they could take. Apparently they’d outgrown the PFL after two seasons there. Whether that actually is the case, given that they finished eight points behind Spartak-2, is another matter.
Torpedo Moscow then threw a spanner into the works: Torpedo had been relegated from the Premier League but didn’t take up their FNL place due to financial problems. As a result the league suddenly had only nineteen teams, and nobody was keen on an odd number and the fixture problems which this causes. According to championat.com, Torpedo President Aleksandr Tukmanov even met with Zenit Chairman Aleksandr Dyukov and asked him to pay off Torpedo’s debts, which would mean that Torpedo would be able to join the FNL after all and thereby create an even number of sides. Perhaps because he detected the conflict of interest this might cause, Dyukov allegedly refused.
On 23rd June Zenit-2’s FNL attempts appeared to be all but over: “At today’s general meeting we confirmed that the number of teams in the FNL will be eighteen,” said FNL President Igor Efremov at a subsequent press conference. FNL clubs supported this move unanimously. The following day, however, at a Russian Football Union meeting, this was overruled and it was confirmed that Zenit-2 would have a place in a nineteen-team FNL after all.
Many fans in Russia reacted badly to the news. “They didn’t give Torpedo the money, so why grease someone else’s palm?” was a comment left under a championat.com story on the theme. “Spartak got there honestly…Zenit-2 are the boardroom champions,” wrote another. Some fans were more positive and pointed out the opportunity the experience will give to young players, and that the games between Spartak-2 and Zenit-2 should be well-attended in a league where many sides draw in just a few thousand fans.
There are, however, still more problems than solutions: Next door to Zenit, St. Petersburg’s oldest side Dinamo is withering on the vine following relegation from the FNL and its only option currently is to become Dinamo Moscow‘s farm club. Zenit has expressed no interest in helping its neighbor. For both Zenit-2 and Spartak-2 promotion is beyond reach. Finally, with next year’s FNL expected to be a weak one given that many sides are struggling financially, there is a real possibility that one or both of these well-funded junior teams could finish in the promotion places.
One can always hope that doubters such as myself will be proved wrong and that the junior teams will be good for the league. For now, however, the comment of another fan on championat.com resonates most strongly: “RFU: sporting principle – hmm, what’s that? A bag of the nation’s money! Yeees, we can see it!”