Back in September last year I wrote about the plight of footballers in Russia and in particular one young man, Viktor Ivlev, who was subjected to bullying and violence at a Second Division club.
I’ve an update – it ended well, he was given his dues and escaped the nightmare. It was just another example of the mission of care that is a given in most European countries.
That he had a positive result was down to the work of the All-Russian Football Players Union (ARFPU) and their C.E.O. Alexander Zotov, who have been doing the right thing since 2010 – www.footballunion.ru .
Underfunded and overworked, they have steadily made gains in the Russian game. Recognised by the Russian Football Union (RFU), leagues, clubs and players, their biggest task continues to have full membership in the global governing body FIFPro.
And it’s all very Russian as to why they are still waiting, more on that later. First a reality check.
In all the noise in foreign media about Russian sport, you’d be forgiven for thinking that mother’s breastfeed their babies meldonium and as soon as little ones begin to walk they’re stuck in a lab to become Ivan(a) Drago’s.
This and the perception that Russian football is awash with cash, their clubs yearly in the business end of European competitions and all that lovely Gazprom lucre to share around, hides a frightening truth.
Not a single club is solvent in Russian football. The majority of professionals in Russia are owed wages and many for considerable amounts of time.
While the economy and society are nominally improving, the plight of Russian footballers deteriorates further each season.
Though Waterford United’s Roderick Collins was heavily sanctioned for bemoaning the state of the League of Ireland, players and managers speak out regularly in Ireland, England and Germany.
In Russia it has been muted since the end of the Soviet Union.
From someone who worked on the management side of football here I can vouch for the parlous state of affairs of both club and player finances.
I’ve written many times of the depredations meted out to players in Russia and this can all be ended in a short space of time, should FIFPro speed up their review process. Because the ARFPU are a heartbeat away from being the shining light in Russian sport and society.
Their Mission of Care will lead to major changes on the sporting landscape.
As I mentioned above, the reason why the ARFPU are not FIFPro members is very Russian – there are 2 Footballers Unions in Russia. One, Union of Footballers and Trainers (PSFT) was established to operate purely as a football agency, and the ARFPU operate as, well, as a union.
The former forged players signatures on documents to get recognition, the latter enjoys the support of players. Yet while the PFST is derided and ignored by players, clubs and the RFU, the ARFPU, backed by the RFU, is still waiting for FIFPro to afford Russian footballers the protection enjoyed by Lionel Messi, Billy Dennehy and Manuel Neuer.
The mission of care needed by footballers across Russia is being delayed needlessly.
The ARFPU partnered up with one of the most prestigious and progressive Russian Universities, Plekhanov, to provide educational opportunities for footballers.
They are involved in the RFS Disputes Resolution Committee, Statues, Ethics and Judicial Committees, and are an accepted part of the footballing fabric by clubs around the country.
Yet despite their growing influence there is a massive amount of work still to be done according to Alexander Zotov:
We face some major challenges. The biggest is to increase solidarity among players. The Ivlev case showcased this point. We need more feedback from, and involvement of, players.
And this is where the Mission of Care comes into play. The other challenge facing the ARFPU is to prepare players for life after football.
Given that so many are under or unpaid, and without formal education or training, they have little or nothing to use after football.
The average professional salary in Russian football is south of $1,000 per month, at a time when working in McDonald’s can bring in $700 a month.
The difference between serving Happy Meals and playing professionally is that you know Ronald McDonald will have your pay cheque lodged each month.
Oh, and you will be given professional development and training by the US-owned outfit, whereas professional athletes are scorned and neglected after they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Alexander feels it is vital for players to give voice to their concerns:
Players need to be more involved in issues that relate to them, not just salaries. They need to have an input on the calendar of seasons, game times, environmental issues such as playing and training in extreme weather.
Something which would resonate with League of Ireland fans is the state of pitches. Regularly players go from sub-standard artificial to equally sub-standard natural grass and then when they pick up an injury, their club has every chance to wash their hands.
Injury prevention, nutrition and health are also areas the ARFPU are raising awareness of, with the blessing of government.
In all the noise over government sponsored doping, there is little interest outside of Russia in what is actually being done to educate and assist athletes from the very top of the power vertical.
The mission of care being championed by the Alexander and his colleagues is unique in Russian sport, which is a great news story.
A major step for the nationally recognised ARFPU could happen in June, when the RFU have the chance to place their representative on their Executive Committee.
With this in place there will be greater input from players on welfare to workers rights to insurance. And insurance is something that is not a given here as in other countries.
In Malta I had a personal experience where two players were injured in a game, both needed immediate operations and the club procrastinated. As the link between club and players it landed on my head.
I eventually found out that the club had never paid insurance premiums (despite lodging a document stating we’d done so with our licence application). The same chicanery is rife in Russia and worse.
Often clubs willingly drag out the situation and falsify records so that they are absolved of blame. Addressing this is just a small part of the Union’s mission of care.
So next month we hope the RFU bring footballers fully into the family and a year on from FIFPro beginning to investigate the bogus PSFT, there might be a result.
In our modern world, Russia is increasingly demonized and scapegoated. Yet football, once more, can show the way in embracing Russian footballers and bringing them fully into the global family.
And as supporters of the world’s game there is a mission of care from our side to make sure that those we cheer from the terraces are afforded the same protection and respect as any other worker – “Where there is Unity, there is Victory!”