Russian Premier League Roulette

by Niall Farrell

Niall Farrell returns to BPF to talk about the state of the Russian football league, where due to the diminishing lack of funding from wealthy oil merchants teams like FC Moscow are folding regularly.

Last Sunday was what would be, in the English media, a Russian version of “Super Sunday”.

Four of the biggest Russian teams faced off against each other; Zenit St. Petersburg playing Spartak Moscow and CSKA and Dinamo contesting the Moscow derby.

Welliton (R) of Spartak Moscow battles for the ball with Radek Sirl of Zenit Saint Petersburg during the Russian Premier League match between FC Spartak Moscow and FC Zenit Saint Petersburg at the Luzhniki Stadium on March 15, 2009 in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Radek Sirl;Welliton

However, as often happens in hyped-up matches, they failed to live up to their expectations. The big winners from the 0-0 and 1-1 draws in St.Petersburg and Moscow, respectively, were the nouveau-riche of Russian football; Rubin Kazan. Rubin hail from the capital of the autonomous region of Tatarstan in central Russia and played in this year’s Champion’s League after winning the Russian Premier League (RPL) last year.

But nouveau-riche is a phrase that doesn’t sit well in Russian football at the moment. FC Moscow, founded as the team of the Moscow regional government in 2004, were ejected from the RPL after their main source of income dried up. What hallmarks Russian football is the reliance on benefactors to prop up clubs, usually an oil or energy company; Zenit are backed by Gazprom, Spartak by Luzneft and CSKA by Bashneft. FC Moscow were largely bankrolled by metal company Norilsk Nickel. When Norilsk said it could not justify sponsoring FC anymore, the club folded and were ejected from the league to be replaced by Alania Vladikavkaz.

FC Moscow’s collapse has thrown light on what many see as an over-reliance in Russian football on wealthy companies and oligarchs. Krylia Sovetov, who just last season competed in the Europa League against St Patrick’s Athletic, are probably the most high-profile of the many clubs in crisis.

Krylia Sovetov are the only major team in Samara, the biggest city in south-eastern Europan Russia. For the last few seasons, they have been a mid-table side. 2004’s third-placed finish was the club’s best in generations. Krylia can count players like Andrei Kanschelskis, Jan Koller and Jiri Jarosik amongst their more famous recent players.

Until the fall of the USSR, Krylia were a side that hovered around the second and third tiers of the Soviet league system. They hadn’t made an appearance in the top tier since 1979 (when they finshed 18th after being promoted the year before) before being thrust into the new Russian Premier League in 1992 as teams from newly independent states left the Soviet league for their own leagues.

As money flowed into Samara in the newly capitalist Russian Federation, the club was able to afford the wages of expensive foreign imports like Jarosik and Koller. Krylia was backed by the local government as well as several other suitors including Roman Abramovich.

http://www4.pictures.gi.zimbio.com/FC+Rubin+Kazan+v+FC+Lokomotiv+Moscow+Premier+LPbmXX4wloEl.jpgThose suitors now form the Achilles Heel of Krylia Sovetov. Krylia owe $80 million to various creditors, including over $5 million to Abramovich himself. The squad and manager Yuri Gazzaev (brother of Dynamo Kiev and ex-Russia boss Valeriy) are threatening to boycott matches until they are payed. The opening two matches of the season saw two losses and four goals conceded, no goals scored.

Krylia are an emblem of the decline in Russian football. Just two years ago the oil money was still being pumped into the league and it was ranked alongside France and Germany in the lists of Europe’s best leagues. Russian Football was consistently talked about as one of the more stable systems. Now, it faces into a crisis which is shared with the rest of the world, only top Russian clubs are feeling the effects a tad more keenly.

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