A new dawn for Russian Football?

It was a much more exciting Winter break this year in Russia, far more interesting than the 2019 Summer version. We saw political machinations and punishment; a new title sponsor for the Russian Premier League; news that the Eastern Division of the 2nd Divsion (3rd tier) was being scrapped.

That’s before we even get to the financial issues that stretch from UEFA Champions League chasing FC Rostov and their massive historical debts, or the hilarious (not really) situation of the Press Attache of a former Premier League club getting his revenge by hanging onto the social media accounts of his former employer and, well, you can guess.

Meanwhile the Premier League President gets re-elected and the 14 of the 16 turkeys vote for Christmas. A new dawn or just polishing a turd?

A very naughty boy

I won’t regurgitate the storied career of Aleksandr Kokorin. His social media faux pas are too numerous to mention, as was his stupidity off the field, culminating in a substance fuelled rampage that landed him in prison. He was released into civilised society, or at least to Zenit St. Petersburg, and in the break found himself getting his knuckles rapped. Off to farm club FC Sochi, where a host of loanees are enjoying the sunny side of life on Russia’s Riviera.

Why send a top class player off to the bottom team in the top flight? There was only one reason, Gazprom needed to be seen to punish him and also prop up their Rotenberg project on the Black Sea. Joining Kokorin is another naughty boy, fallen French World Cup winner, Adil Rami, left Fenerbahce and signed as a free agent.

Playing for Sochi is not something many outside of Russia would take as a punishment. Internationals like Anton Zabolotni, Ivan Novoseltsev and Dmitri Poloz (Russia), Miha Mevlja (Slovenia), Christian Noboa (Ecuador) and Aleksandr Karpetyan and Erik Vardanyan (Armenia) all ply their trade there. Plus there’s Gianelli Imbula, formerly of Stoke City, and who plays for DR Congo.

The team has promise, though a case could be made that the parts are better than the sum. No matter, as punishment goes, getting Kokorin away from the bright lights of Moscow and St. Petersburg might well soothe his savage breast. With the team only five points from safety and 11 games left, it’s not out of the question that they will drop. They play Zenit to end of the season on April 26th, what chances are there that they’ll need a win against the Champions in order to survive?

From Cycling to Football

It’s always difficult for rational people to understand why anyone would want to sponsor Russian sports, apart from hockey. Football has long been the domain of local councils, state companies or state-owned oligarchs. Copious amounts of cash is needed just to run a club well in the 3rd tier, and there will never, ever be a breakeven.

The same can be said of professional cycling, where very often sponsors get involved to blow their brand up, before pulling out due to the latest doping scandal or lack of interest. The new title partner of the Russian Premier League is a very unusual person who built his fortune like many rich ‘biznesmen’ of his time in Russia. Though the timing of the deal is odd.

Oleg Tinkoff began while competing in cycling in the 1980’s, trading goods on the black market. Little by little he altered his directions and thanks to security service connections (and hard work) he was able to be a success in areas as diverse as frozen food, brewing, electronics and banking. His need for sports led him to being the owner of the successful Saxo-Tinkoff cycling team, which boasted convicted doper, and Grand Tour winner, Alberto Contador. In a personal interview Oleg said he detested doping in cycling, though with a rogue’s gallery like Michael Rogers and Steven DeJongh coming from disgraced Team Sky, admitted doper Bjarne Riis, and other dopers like Rory Sutherland and Evgeni Petrov all involved, questions can be asked about the true view of cheating.

Tinkoff bank are already partnered with CSKA and are signed up until the end of the 2012-22 season. Oleg has handed back his US citizenship and will soon come under serious scrutiny this April from the Internal Revenue Service, having been placed on a sanction list by Donald Trump.

The coalminer’s son has been told by market forces to “get on yer bike”, however covering himself in glory by sponsoring the red headed illegitmate stepchild of Russian sport will get some good media stories going.

Leagues under water

If the Premier League is a red headed illegitimate stepchild of Russian sport, Division 2 East is one with freckles, buck teeth, a droopy eye and bad breath. There are six teams struggling to survive in a vast expanse east of the Ural mountains.

A new club was formed in Novosibirsk from the ashes of the once Premier League side Sibir. A club that brought Apollon and PSV to Siberia, beating the Dutch side, who would go on to reach the quarter-finals, 1-0 in Novosibirsk. They are 3rd in the league and will have to have their documents in order come April to ensure they will get a place in one of four Divisions being formed.

Yet again the elephant in the room slaps everyone around the head with their trunk, the wishes and needs of clubs are neglected and instead of any rationality, the Premier League announces they’re going to expand from 16 to 18 teams. Which is good in a way.

Russia is the biggest landmass on earth, has a decent sized (if decreasing) population and should be able to support more teams. Though already the top flight is overloaded with absolute dross with zero hope of survival. If FC Rostov have been unable to pay players, despite having an energised Valeri Karpin on the touchline, Kokorin’s fellow ex-con Pavel Mamaev, Russian International Alexey Ionov, Norwegian starlet Mathias Normann and Uzbek goalscoring phenom Eldor Shomorudov, what hope is there for Tambov, Rubin or Orenburg.

There isn’t the finance, or infrastructure, player base or fan interest to support the already bloated professional football scene in Russia. There are 108 full-time professional clubs in Russia right now. Of these clubs, not one can handle the removal of their main backer – including the lauded FC Krasnodar.

With a top flight TV deal ranked 21st of the top 20 European leagues, with each match having a value of a 1/3 of top flight games in Belgium. And the entire TV deal is tied up with Match TV. Tinkoff have put an English-commentary series of games behind a paywall, though so far it remains to be seen if the shaky start will have any momentum. Complaints about quality of picture and commentary are unfair as they have yet to go fully professional on the latter.

New Dawn or same old tripe

Tinkoff’s attempt at sportwashing pales in comparison to what the owners of Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, or Red Bull Salzburg/Leipzig/New York are at. It’s unlikely he’ll go to jail and he feels that he’ll be protected by being better known internationally. And better known by backing football than a team where chemical and motor doping was a means to survival.

Finance is still an issue for Russian clubs and adding two more teams to an already bloated top flight will not help. There is barely enough interest and money in the country to support 50 pro or semi-pro teams, let alone the 110+ we will still have next year. Voting for RPL expansion is suicide in the short, medium and long term, for all clubs.

Notably only Zenit and Spartak were against it – Two clubs who have money and screwed on heads. I’ll propose a slightly amended league structure in a new article. Though 50 pro teams across the nation, playing in two tiers, with everything below them amateur, is the only way to save Russian football, produce better players and make the National Team a force.

Ultimately Russia will rise and fall by oil. With the price crashing 10% this past week and a further fall expected this coming week, clubs will feel even further under threat. Last week I watched as the shells of players, once highly touted for big foreign moves, go through motions in the Spartak – CSKA cup match.

Dzagoev, Chalov and Zobnin are not old, but look tainted and tired by their Russian league prolongation. Dzagoev was never good enough for a top level team in Europe, though he’d have flourished for a midtable German Bundesliga team. Chalov would knock in 15 goals for a Europa League-level French side and Zobnin would be ideal for Everton, Burnley or even Spurs. He missed his chance to get a big move after the 2018 World Cup when there were offers for him. The Siberian, at just 26, needs to go in the Summer and it would be cheap. Spartak will need money soon (oil prices and stadium issues) and they need to sell him now before his heart leaves the club even more.

Watch this space!

Author Details

Alan Moore

A Russia-based Sports Journalist and Consultant, worked with major sports clubs including:- Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt. Boxed Internationally, played semi-pro football and worked full-time in sports management/consultancy from 2003-13. First published professionally on football in 1990, first Russian league match in 1991, Host of Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow, #ChampTalks2020 and write the odd article. Director of the Centre of International Relations at the Russian State Social University in Moscow. And to make things more fun, he produced and hosted #ChampTalks2018 for UNESCO, Moscow's Tolerance Centre and Capital FM.

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