Escaping the graveyard – Russia’s First Division

Apart from the previously reported collapse of Dynamo St. Petersburg, the Russian First Division or FNL, has been its usual mix of mess and math. Or messing with Maths.

Nine clubs are three months or more behind on paying their players and one club has not been able to pay players in full since September (less than 20% per month), yet despite this players continue turning out and hoping to get paid at the end of the season.

It’s a common situation in this neck of the world with local/regional government or the main sponsor ponying up cash commensurate to the team’s showing. It’s unfair, bad for business, yet accepted as a way of survival.

Topping the table and ready to return to the Premier are Anzhi Makhachkala, yes, the former home of Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o.

After owner Kerimov’s legendary temper tantrum a couple of seasons back, he has once again dripped in cash to the club and seen them perform solidly.

His tantrum came out of his being “un-awarded” sole rights to the Caspian Sea International Port and led to the club dropping down a division. Kerimov got “his” port back and now the club is returning to the top flight after a season away.

Key to success have been the goals of ex-PSG, French-born Ivorian Yannick Boli and solid coaching from Ukranian coach Sergey Tashuyev.

However they look like being promoted from one of the weakest First Divisions in the last decade.

The top four clubs are solidly clear of the rest and behind Anzhi the battle for second place and automatic promotion is between yo-yo clubs Krilya Sovetov Samara and Tom Tomsk, and future bankruptcy victims FC Tosno.

While Samara and Tomsk have both had top flight experience, and success in Samara’s case, Tosno are less than seven years old (in a very tenuous sense) and in the pro game less than two years.

They are on their ninth head coach since 2013 and financed by the “Fort Group”, a real estate development company. An estimated 80% of their funding is from this company with the remainder thrown in by the Leningrad Regional Government via the local town – of under 40,000 inhabitants.

The club was forced to play matches at Zenit’s home ground due to having an insufficient stadium, and other home matches taking place in the town of Tihvin.

In exchange for backing a local team the company have managed to get control of valuable plots of land and property, as well as political backing.

A club rising quickly with backing of Russian money, about to break into the top flight with all the cool hipster jizz exploding in the sky, sound familiar Portsmouth or Bournemouth?

Fifth place Gazovik Orenburg took Lokomotiv Moscow all the way to penalties in the semi-final of the cup and this is a good season for the South Urals side. Loko will face Kuban Krasnodar in the Final).

Closer to the Kazakh Capital Astana than Moscow, they play at the basic Gazovik Stadium, so they’ll have to do some major renovations if they happen to nab a top four spot and promotion.

The club is based on the goodwill of both Gazprom and the local government (who get most of their money from Gazprom or its activities), but the city is sports mad so they would add something special to the top flight.

Chasing them hard are ex-top flight side Shinnik Yaroslavl and Volgar Astrakhan. Shinnik have, as always, had money problems and while they’ll be bailed out locally, they are in desperate need of regime change at the top, though with World Cup money flowing in, this is unlikely to happen.

Volgar are enjoying a good season having at the outset announced that a top half finish would be a success. They have a small playing budget, but pay their wages, so this could represent a way forward for other clubs. Pay your players and they play better.

Volga Nizhny Novgorod had a disappointing season despite a sizeable budget and following. Like fellow Volga region side, Sokol Saratov, they look like falling into the Graveyard trap as Sibir Novosibirsk have done.

The capital city of Siberia has population, money and government support, yet year after year they fail to make that extra step up in class.

The true zombie section of the Graveyard is populated heavily by Siberian and Eastern clubs. Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, FC Tyumen, Yenisey Krasnoyarsk, SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk and Sakhalin all inhabit the bottom rungs of the ladder.

Sakhalin suffered from the criminal case surrounding the regional Governor and his “misappropriation” of Federal relief funds, though the fact is that the club have neither the support nor financial wherewithal to compete higher than the Far East Region.

The graveyard division is a mess and there are no plans to clean it up soon. Boom-bust clubs run through it, however once a club gets stuck, they’re stuck. When a club comes down, or has a financial issue (like Dynamo St. Petes or Rotor Volgogograd) the default setting is bankruptcy and dropping to Amateur football.

The difficulties of the non-business of football (or more realistic – sports) in Russia are amplified in a division where the full breadth of the Russian Federation is felt.

From the enclave of Kaliningrad to the Sakhalin Islands, the travel costs involved destroy clubs without serious backing and often clubs who escape to the Promised Land are so burdened with debt that they never find stability.

Two more active clubs will face the drop, Khimik Dzerzhinsk and Sakhalin most likely to be the unfortunate pair, though only last week an official from a club about to go up to the FNL half-joked with me that he’d love a late season revival from Khimik, and for Baltika Kaliningrad and Sakhalin to disappear to the third level, “to make travel cheaper”.

He’s unlikely to get his wish, but from personal experience I understand his point of view.

So with three of the four clubs who dropped from the Premier odds on for a quick return and a newly formed club charging up through the league on successive promotions, it will be another season of misery and non-payment next season for most clubs.

Baltika, Yenisey, Sibir, SKA-Energiya and Shinnik have played in every FNL season since its inception in 2010 and they’ll be in the same place next season, unless club officials get their wish and Baltika disappear.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian-based sports journalist, commentator, radio host & consultant. Worked with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports 3.0, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and FIFA World Cup commentator.

4 thoughts on “Escaping the graveyard – Russia’s First Division

  1. Agree with you Alan about the lack of professional running and planning that’s gone into the FNL. I’ve been following FC Tyumen for five years now, and although we have held our own in our first season back, the problems are clear. Wouldn’t you say it needs an overhaul into, say, a two-conference format, whereby travel would be reduced, with more incentive and competitive opportunity introduced for clubs coming up from the Second Division? Expand the FNL into East and West by reducing the Premier League and offering an extra promotion place, making three into each half. There is just too much of a jump for clubs to make from a five-division regional third tier to a one-division national second tier.

    I’m a big fan of your writing on here, keep it coming. Where can I find more of your work? Are you published?

    1. Thanks a million Andrew! I hope the Spring has hit Siberia! I agree with the overhaul concept, though 2 Divisions might be too little. The issue with salaries and expenses are also worrisome, and the transition (as you rightly point out) from 2nd to FNL is too much for a regular club. Also the point of just parachuting teams in at any old level is a practice that has led to many clubs just being destroyed. I was told a statistic from an Premier club President that his club was outside the FFP rules, and not a single club in the league was in compliance. It’s not a surprise.

      I’m working with Championat, some of the stuff is going straight into Russian, but we’re developing the Friday column and adding in 2 more (Mon-Weds). Trying to find the time to write is the tough part! And thanks a million for the really positive support!

  2. Alan, so sorry for taking ages to reply, but thank you for getting back to me! I would love to think that the proximity of the World Cup will focus the minds of the authorities on how to better run the leagues, but like you, I’m sure, I’m not holding my breath.

    Just out of inerest, how long did it take you to get to a confident level of Russian? I can make myself understood with plenty of grammatical mistakes, but I can’t pick up on press conferences here at all. I’d love to get involved with Championat in the future when my Russian permits me to do so.

    I will try and keep up to date with your column, assuming you son,t use too many complicated Russian words!


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