Division Two – Where Russian football lives and dies

The third level of Russian Professional Football began the season with great gusto. Added into the mix were homecomers – from Crimea – Yalta, Sevastopol and Simferopol.

However, once the RFS President stood up to Kremlin bullying and Russian nationalists in enforcing UEFA rulings, they were out of the Russian League system before the second half of the season. They were not alone in failing to see out the season.

KAMAZ Stadium, home of Kamaz Naberezhnye Chelny

Hipster beloved Rotor Volgograd went slowly out of business when “Likes” were not translated into “Dollars”. From the initial 78 teams who began the season spread across the Russian Federation in six leagues/divisions, these four were joined by two more clubs, Vybor-Kurbatovo of Voronezh and Metallurg of Vyksa. While the latter was purely down to the local metal plant taking a financial hit and cutting costs, Kurbatovo was a puzzle to begin with.

Sharing the Centralny Stadium in Voronezh with the latest version of Fakel, nothing seemed to make sense of their place in professional football. Funded by a construction company, Vybor (meaning Choice) were a well run club who romped home unbeaten in the 2013 Third Division Black Earth and chose to come up to the Second Division for this season (having sat out the 2014 Third Division).

Sitting comfortably in mid-table was not enough to pay the bills and in December they were broke, finally closing down their pro operation in mid-March. So if you want to know how the Tosno FC farce ends – I’ve just spoiled it for you!

So who is moving up or down?

Former bankruptcy victims Kamaz Naberezhnye Chelny from Tatarstan were money personified in winning the Ural-Volga region handily. Unbeaten in 21 games with 15 wins and a for-against of 36-5, they go back up to the FNL. They beat Volga Ulyanovsk 1-0 to secure the title with four games to spare.

Volga, the club from Lenin’s hometown, were disappointing all season, losing only two of 21 matches but drawing 12! Three more draws than any other team in any level of Russian Pro football this season. A record Roddy Collins would be proud of. Dropping down will probably be Spartak Yoshkar-Ola from the Mary El Republic. With a miserable eight points from possible 63 they’ve looked terrible all season, though they do pay their bills so should be back up next season.

In the East Division it is a three-horse race between Baikal Irkutsk, Irtysh Omsk and Metallurg Novokuznetsk, all have 39 points but Irtysh have played more games. Baikal, during their brief old 1st Division days, ruined my travel plans when I was with Volga Ulyanovsk. So with two games in hand over Omsk and over over Metallurg, if they come up I’ll be finally making a pilgrimage there next season!

Down at the wrong end of the 11 team table are the reserves of Tom Tomsk and Sibir Novosibirsk, and along with Yakutia Yakutsk will duke it out to survive. Tomsk are pretty certain to be Amateur next season, though being Russia who knows.

In the south there’s another three-way fight for promotion with Vityaz Krimsk, Chernomorets Novorossiysk and Torpedo Armavir looking for second tier football next year. With only two points from first to third, it’s going down to the last game of the season.

The port city of Novorossiysk has seen Premier League football before and the club has a good fanbase and youth system, while the other pair have never been higher than the third level. Vityaz are top right now and promotion for the Krasnodar Region club would be a great step forward for the area where 171 people died and thousands left homeless in the floods of 2012.

Fans of former top flight champions, Alania Vladikavkaz (pic by Oleg Kisiev)

Krasnodar Reserve side are in danger of dropping, though reformed Sochi are in a race to the bottom with them and Terek’s reserves. Sad to say that the once proud Alania Vladikavkaz are in the mini-relegation pool also. The tenth anniversary of their Premier title should not see the club struggling so badly, especially since two years ago they were in the top flight.

In the Central Division, Fakel Voronezh have gone for bust, to go bust, and have gone up with 21 wins in a 26 game unbeaten season, while at the other end Arsenal Tula’s Reserve side will drop having not won all season. They’re gone for sure, unless somebody else pulls out during the summer.

Fakel have a good side and their run in the Russian Cup showed they can match up with the best, plus they are capable of pulling in far bigger crowds than most of the Premier clubs, yet their recently renovated stadium is already falling apart. If they can hang on to their experienced players like Vladimir Tatarchuk and Viktor Stroev they have a base for next season.

In the pitiful West Division it says something that the top two clubs are the reserves of Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, and Spartak-2 won promotion to the second tier. In a frightening scenario former bankrupt side and basket case club FC Khimki who challenged strongly, and had “youth development” side FC Strogino chase them in the last five games.

Strogino are a club a short metro ride from Arbat Street and set out in good faith to build a club from youth up, but as with Vybor of Voronezh, they’ve gotten a rush of blood and started to throw money at results. The local government and a construction company are backing them, which rarely ends well.

At the bottom, Znamya Truda are probably going down, despite having one of the finest young defenders, Alex Bortnik, in their ranks. They were just slightly worse than new madey-uppy Moscow club Solaris, also know as Spartak-3.

So that’s it for the moment in the bottom rung of Russian Pro Football. It’s going to be interesting to see who goes up for sure and who disappears from view. The bankruptcies and scandals, non-payment of wages and odd results mess up what is actually a decent level of football, outside of the West Division.

There are a lot of talented players on view and so much can be done with the Second Division to have Russian football blossoming. However, it’s not going to be more than a way station for players on their way out of the game. None of the clubs are even remotely self-financing and continue to suffer from poor central administration from the Professional Football League (PFL).

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.

2 thoughts on “Division Two – Where Russian football lives and dies

  1. It is terrifying to see how many clubs go out of business every year at this level – is there a source that could tell us how many have gone bust each year for the last decade/two decades? Might make depressing reading but my morbid fascination would be satisfied.

    Also, why do you think so many clubs rely on local government funding, given the number of successful businesses? Easy self-promotion I’d have thought, even if their long-term stability is often at risk.

    1. Leaving aside the usual culling of pro teams (roughly an average 5 a year for 5 years), the destruction at Amateur level – 4th tier – is more worrying. Again it goes down to clubs paying players, or promising to pay them, heavy expenses and towns/clubs/companies over-reaching. Which is why the old suggestion of a 50 club pro group (in 2 tiers) should be the way to go. You know how it is in Siberia with travel alone, so professional operations are tough.

      Why the reliance on such sources? I honestly am at a loss, in one sense. In another it is a very Russian phenomenon (you understand better than most how this works). All clubs have a political element, or patronage. It’s a way of getting central monies and spending them, and when enough cuts are taken out, the rest goes to the club operations. To a lesser degree it’s the same with “company clubs”, though cuts there are more along the lines of taxes or agents. And very importantly, the economy isn’t there to keep clubs going. It’s a culture difference and also local economy. eg Voronezh – good average wages for the target audience of football are c. 20,000rbs pm. Even living at home it is tough to save cash and if you’re married, and with kids, it’s impossible to justify home games let alone away trips. So the club gives out free tickets or charges 100-200rbs. And going to matches in Russia are very much bare-bones, so there is no real entertainment factor for a casual fan.

      The talent is there in players, the support base is potent. It’s just about making it interesting for more people.

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