Russian football in crisis – part 2

In the second of a three part series, Alan Moore discusses Crimea, control and Russian football. Part one can be found here. 

The story goes that because of their success on the field, the Starostin brothers (of Spartak Moscow) were hounded by Lavrenti Beria and the KGB, eventually being exiled to labour camps until 1952.

The truth is a little different, though in any case the ruling elite in authoritarian countries will have the ultimate say in sports. So drawing the line from the media truth about Russia and the Putin ‘regime’, what is handed down from the Kremlin is word and law.

 

We were preparing for a big bash Saint Patrick’s Day in Voronezh when all discussion in every meeting turned to the vexed question of Crimea. Would it or wouldn’t it? Comparisons were made with Kosovo, though that was way off the mark. There was no vote in Kosovo, it was carved away from Serbia by the ‘West’, though many Eastern countries (Croatia, Slovenia, parts of Bosnia, Turkey) and Arab money merchants clapped with glee.

At the time Russia seethed with Western ‘tampering’ in its sphere of influence. Fans at matches across Russia chanted “Kosovo is Serbia”, in Croatia Kosovar flags were waved in jubilation – while Kosovar Croats (known as Janjevci) were discriminated against and called “dirty Albanians” in the country they were forced to flee to between 1992-9.

In Crimea the referendum went ahead on March 16th and, like any election in the former USSR, the result was known well  in advance. Regardless of manipulation, the majority are Russian and any waverers were scared into rejoining the motherland with increasingly strange statements from Kiev.

And so the holiday destination for generations of Russians was no longer a foreign country, the same tourists who stayed away in droves in 2014. It was the beginning of a long and difficult period for Russia and Ukraine, especially for sports and football.

Last Summer there was much spoken in the football world about taking the Crimean sides into the Russian League system, and indeed, as per Kremlin order, it began. As Eastern Ukraine burned and tens of thousands of refugees from the ethnic cleansing arrived in Belgorod, Rostov and Voronezh, Crimean clubs were admitted into the Russian League and Cup system. The keyboard warriors were out in force, claiming it to be a victory for the “motherland” while others laughed at the efforts of the Ukraine FA to go the legal route.

The clubs in Crimea: Sevastopol, Simferopol and Yalta, made a supreme effort to get set up for run at glory in Russia. Sevastopol’s win the the 3rd round of the cup arrived the day after UEFA decreed that no Crimean club could take part in Russian football. That win on August 23rd was a bittersweet success as the club were knocked out by Volgar Astrakhan in the next round.

The Kremlin sent a note (on paper) to the President of the Russian Football Union, Tolstykh, advising him that if the Union were to be rescued from bankruptcy, they’d leave the Crimean clubs in. The clubs were kept in the Russian system but the Union was split. A bloodless Civil War grew in intensity in Taganka, the home of the Russian Union.

Threats of Russian clubs being banned from European competitions were always a nonsense with Gazprom sponsoring UEFA competitions and a number of clubs, in addition to the desire for European nations to keep friendly with the oil and gas rich Russia. However this all changed with a push by UEFA to ensure that the Russian National Team coach, Fabio Capello, received his back pay.

 

The Italians case was leverage for the Union President to obey the UEFA rules. By Christmas, the patience shown by UEFA for the Russian Football Union to get its house in order, had run out.

On January 1st, 2015, no Crimean club could play in a RFS sanctioned competition, until the Ukrainian FA signed them over. A “source close to the Ukranian Football Union” said that nothing would happen until Russian troops left sovereign Ukranian soil. On January 23rd, the Russian Football Union ruled that the three clubs would be suspended from the Division 2 South (3rd Level). It is a move that will do one, some or all of three things:

1. Have Tolstykh replaced by a Kremlin/Gazprom man.
2. Earn brownie points from UEFA and FIFA.
3. Allow for smoother peace talks between the parties in Ukraine.

The third point looks less likely now with more than 20 people killed in a rocket attack on a market in Mariupol, Ukraine. The rhetoric went up online immediately – “We give them back our clubs and now they pretend we attack them”. The stand taken by the RFU looks, at face value, as being brave, however the Kremlin have slightly distanced themselves from matters in Ukraine, even if their media outlets keep the rhetoric rabid.

Vitali Mutko’s invitation to drug testers into Russia was as unexpected as it was admirable (though no footballers or rugby players were tested). The recent shock of five medal-winning athletes being outed as dopers led to the final resignation of Russian Athletics President Maslakov. However Mutko received a backlash immediately with revelations hitting the media this past weekend about his dealings when at Zenit St. Petersburg.

The people he dealt with there make Ollie Byrne’s associates at Shelbourne look positively angelic. While Tolstykh’s stand against more than half of his constituency and many in the sports media shows that the former Dynamo man might just have learned from his club’s sqeuamish past.

Coming soon – Part 3: Unpaid wages, devalued currency and unhappy foreigners. Sponsors stepping back. Bankruptcy beckoning.

Author Details

Alan Moore
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, now hosting Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow and the Capital Sports Stadium Shows at the RZD Arena and writing the odd article. Director of the Russian State Social University College in Moscow. And to make things more fun, he produces and hosts #ChampTalks for UNESCO, Moscow's Tolerance Centre and Capital FM.

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