The first question on every players lips, when considering a move to Russia, is “How much will I get?” It is rarely – “Are you sure I’ll get it?” It was a sobering experience to work in Malta with one of the old stalwart clubs who, after some promise, collapsed internally to leave players unpaid for 6 months. What was worse, was that the players still trained, still played and still gave the appearance of caring about the club. But underneath it was a constant battle to keep the circling sharks away from the bloodied prey.
Mobile phones were confiscated the day before a match so that funny business would be kept to a minimum, yet still the stench of cheating emanated from the dressing room. In the stands not all supporters were unhappy, some laughed about making money on exact scores and of how little it had cost them to know the result. For a club fighting for survival, it went beyond my colleagues and I. One colleague cracked early under the strain and returned home. He was a lucky one. The new administration promised much, but when the newly elected President told me with a powder addled grin that the team manager he was putting in to look after things would make sure that if “we lose one match, we’ll win the next two.” It was at this point that the rest of us exited stage left.
Such carry on was nothing new for me, the Croatian league had shown me that at the top level nothing was left to chance, even against feeder clubs in a one-sided league encounter. There it wasn’t a cheating exercise for players to make some extra bucks, but for clubs to ensure they won. It still stank for me. I was prized for being honest, though being a prize was less than a backhanded compliment. And so to Russia, and my first experience of the panic seen within a club when they suddenly realised they were being set up. In 2007, Volga Ulyanovsk were building something special in Lenin’s hometown. They were up against local and bitter rivals Volga Nizhny Novgorod. Nip and tuck throughout the season they were battling to the last game of the season. The final countdown began with a sneering aside at a meeting in Moscow that I missed thanks to my, then, inferior Russian skills. What I understood to be: “You’ll be lucky to win.” Was actually: “You’ll not have the luck to win.” It was not even code, the officials had been bought and paid for. So the easternmost Volga, Ulyanovsk, who had rebuilt their club from bankruptcy, lived within their means, paid their players and had an almost entirely local side, were almost certain to lose.
The tv report and brief highlights of the game are worth a watch on YouTube. You can feel the tension now you know the background and see the anxiety of the fans, administrators, players and coaches. You can see how much it meant for them to win clean. To go through the season paying all wages and not bribing officials, and win promotion to the 1st Division (2nd tier) was not just historic, but fair! The following season league restructuring, a tiny budget and a club bankruptcy, coupled to a poor start, saw Volga Ulyanovsk lose their 1st Division spot to the other Volga. Ulyanovsk remain in the 2nd Division (3rd tier) and financially responsible. They won promotion and were relegated on the same budget, they have not changed it since, despite clubs like Mordovia Saransk and Volga Nizhny Novgorod going from the 3rd to 1st tiers in quick time.
The upcoming season in Russia promises to be a test of many kinds. With the new format many clubs should thrive (especially in the south) whereas Siberian winters are not going to respect the long term vision being put in place to lift the World Cup trophy in Moscow in 2018. At this moment (July 5th 2012) since January 1sr 2012, 2 clubs in the Premier have paid a minimum amount (10%) of wages per month so as to keep their licence and the players from leaving. In the 1st (or National Football Championship) 6 clubs are in this position, while in 2 of the regional 2nd Divisions the figure stands at 3 and 8 (Ural-Volga and Golden Ring). Under law if 10% of monthly wages are paid then the player is not a free agent, this has now changed for 2 regions this week and will go forward to the FA for widescale implementation. However……and there is a however, the St. Pete’s powerbroker, brother of a Government Minister, former regional Gazprom head, former KGB and former President of Zenit, Sergei Fursenko was dumped as FA President. In fairness to the man, he was pushing this arrangement to curb the damaging behaviour of clubs in the country.
And now the start is near, the curtain is about to go up, the teams are all off in training camps or have just returned, from lovely spots such as Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Sweden. The fans might turn out a little more before the English and Spanish seasons kick off, so if the product is good they may well stick it out. The suspicions will remain that so long as players and staff aren’t being paid on time or at all, who knows if what is happening on the pitch is for real or in the hands of gambling syndicates, or even just ambitious clubs.