The football graveyard awakens – Russia’s second tier rising

I borrowed “football graveyard” from Ireland’s First Division for use in relation to Russia’s First Division, now renamed the Football National League (FNL). A mess of a league which spells death for clubs and players, it’s a place where clubs usually go to die, or at least go bankrupt fully.

A prime example of such a disaster is Fakel Voronezh. More of them anon. But things are not quite as gloomy as I’d have expected to write, there is possibly some good news on the horizon, possibly.

I was working on a project back in summer 2011 that took me down to Voronezh and into a meeting with Konstantin Sarsania. I took Tim, then an 18-month-old hardened sports veteran, with me to a Fakel game with Chernomorets. I met Konstantin afterwards and discussed possible player transfers.

Remember this was when the seasons changed and clubs were forced to play one and a half seasons to prepare the National Team for next month’s World Cup.

A player I knew from Volga Ulyanovsk, Denis Klopkov, was in Fakel and unpaid for many months. I wanted to get him paid and out of the club to Europe. He duly scored the only goal of the game, in the right end, and the 10,000+ fans went wild. He was 25 years old and wanted by clubs in Belgium and France.

Konstantin was happy for him to move, so long as he signed for his favoured agency and a percentage would be paid into his hand. I sat back a little, Tim was happily eating a bread roll in his buggy, so I was under no pressure.

The minimum transfer fee on the table was €200,000, our company would get 5% from Fakel and  receive 8% of the players salary at his new club. I told him we’d not sign with his agency.

Sarsania told us to push Fakel for 20%, to split it with him, plus to ensure the club let the player go he wanted 4% of the players salary.

Voronezh is the most football mad city in Russia. Even struggling in the First Division, in a bowl of a stadium, they were bringing in crowds to make “big” Premier clubs like CSKA, Lokomotiv and Spartak weep.

The city loves not just football. Go to a Buran game and the Jubileny Arena is filled, even with an awful team. Volleyball, basketball, rugby the city and citizens are a bit loopy.

It should have been a World Cup host, far moreso than Krasnodar, Saransk, Kaliningrad, Podolsk, Samara or Nizhny Novogorod. But it was never on the cards.

Now the club is about to lose FNL status two years on from almost returning to the Premier League. Players unpaid for months, crisis in the boardroom and a crumbling stadium.

Yet it could have seen Europa League group action in the autumn.

For sure there is a price to pay for falling out of the top flight, not just in Russia. Especially when players brought in to “survive” in the first tier have agents who know their job.

A newly promoted club will always be gouged by agents, and players. Odds on the club staying up are high, so a good player will ask for high wages, a multi-year contract and no wage drop in case of relegation. Like idiots, clubs agree, mainly because someone is getting a bung.

In Russia’s football graveyard it’s a little different. Clubs getting up from the regionalised third tier have to pay a premium to players for a shot at FNL survival.

Three years ago I was asked to write an article for the leading Voronezh business magazine, De Facto. I posed a question – would Fakel (then third in the FNL at Winter Break) have the finance to survive in the Premier League. Turns out they hadn’t and now are going to go bust in the Summer. Chasing the dream ended a step short.

Another club that was reincarnated with the same idiots at the helm looks like returning to the Second Division. Two years ago I was asked by Manuel Veth to contribute a piece for his site Fulbolgrad. We decided on the topic of Rotor Volgograd and the article ruffled a few feathers.

Previous versions of the club owe millions of roubles to players, former employees and businesses. This current one is collapsing towards another name/company change. Like a wealthy Irish businessperson, some time out of the limelight and the gobsheens who cling to the 90’s Rotor memory will rush to their keyboards to praise the club’s next resurrection.

Jesus rose once, Russian clubs do it a little more often.

Other clubs who paid the price for daring to fly to the sun and are now FNL hung and drawn, and owing millions thanks to the incompetents who cling to power through cosmetic changes – Khimki, Luch Energiya Vladivostok, Olimpiyets Nizhny Novgorod, Tom Tomsk, Kuban Krasnodar, Shinnik Yaroslavl, Baltika Kaliningrad and Sibir Novosibirsk.

Even Krylia Sovetov Samara have yet to pay former players and creditors, a great advert for a club returning to the top flight. Yet the longer these unfortunates remain in the football graveyard, the harder it gets to escape.

Good news in the football graveyard?

So enough complaining. What good is there?

Quality players – I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a number of very good young players ply their trade in the place where normally careers go to die. Dynamo Moscow product Andrei Panyukov is a rare breed. He’s a Russian striker who a) scores goals and b) backs himself.

Now with Zenit and playing for their reserves, he is a solid ten-goal a year striker for any Russian Premier club and would easily slot into a lower table Bundesliga team, though he’ll never get a Russian full cap as he rejected Stanislav Cherhesov’s agency while at Dynamo.

Aleksei Sutormin I watched many times back in 2013 when he was with FC Strogino. I’d cross the road to watch him. That’s not an analogy, it’s a fact. The barebones home of another well meaning but poorly executed project, FC Strogino played and trained opposite my former home.

Sutormin had been recruited from Zenit and even as a gangly 19-year-old our company saw enough to recruit him. Now likely going to be a Premier Leaguer next season with Orenburg, he’ll never set the world alight, but he’s eight to twelve goals a season in him for a half-decent outfit.

Another Aleksei, this time Aleksei Rybin, is a player I’d noticed in 2012 for Metallurg Lipetsk. Metallurg were a staple of the Second Division, recovering from a brief flirtation with the First Division in 2009. In 2014 I met Aleksei again in Voronezh and told him he’d go nowhere with his hometown club.

A defender of real guile who can perform Paul McGrath miracles, he moved across the Black earth to FC Tambov. In his first full season he led them to the Second Division Centre title and fifth in the FNL last year.

And this year their fourth place finish is enough to play off with Amkar or Rostov for Premier spot. Should Aleksei stay, he will have three good top flights seasons, if not at Tambov then certainly somewhere else.

Marat Shaymordanov was a solid performer when I saw him with former club FC Chelyabinsk in the Second Division Ural-Povolshky. A hardworking, goalscoring midfielder he is just about at his peak and any Premier club would be thrilled with his output.

He deserves a bigger stage, regular salary payments and better club. It’s a decade since Shinnik Yaroslavl were a top flight side; eight seasons into life in the Football Graveyard and they are secure in their coffin. Marat will get out with the right bid.

Movements from below

Orenburg return to the Premier along with Samara. Timely for a city, Samara, due to host World Cup matches. Bringing back the former assistant to ex-manager Robert Evdokimov (profiled here) was an astute move and Orenburg will be a good addition to the top level.

Yenisey Krasnoyarsk and Dmitry Alenichev will try again in the play-offs.

The Spartak idol dirtied his bib during an ill-fated spell as the self-named “people’s club” boss, though last year’s heartbreak might have removed the bad karma he built up in his undermining of former Spartak boss Starkovs.

Tambov also will give the play-offs a rattle. Former and future crisis club, and St. Petersburg’s oldest, Dynamo are on their way to Sochi.

Yet another car crash in the making, even with Boris Rotenberg’s backing, they’re going to go the way of the last transplant club in the Black Sea vanity project. Dynamo, like Fakel, Tambov, Rotor, Kuban, Luch-Energiya etc are in their latest form, having been twice dissolved (last time 2012).

Battle to stay in the graveyard

The battle at the top of the Russian Premier League will be exciting tomorrow. Champions and Europa League spots are still up for grabs and we could well see FC Ufa, Akhmat Grozny or Arsenal Tula playing Dundalk FC later in the summer.

Down at the bottom of the football graveyard it is a gorefest. Fakel long ago paid the price for not paying players. But four other clubs will join them in the third tier next season, should they avoid bankruptcy or dissolution.

Tom Tomsk, 14th, are not safe. Spartak Moscow’s reserve team and FC Tyumen likewise are looking for results to go their way. They are a point behind Tom but only two ahead of an ugly threesome locked together on 37 points.

Zenit St. Petersburg reserves, Rotor Volgograd and Luch-Energiya will fight until the last day, today, to have another season in the shade.

So my day today, beginning at 1.30pm Moscow time, will be to cover the final round of matches which all kick off at 2pm and say how great it is for Tyumen or Tom or Rotor to have “won” another season in the Russian football graveyard.

Don’t believe me yet? Click on this link and use Google translate. In the “Business” section of the official league website – it shows “Mistake – Not found”. There is no sense in the nonsense of the FNL. Nor will there ever be.

Football graveyard finale – almost

Fakel were long gone, but four other fortunates are gone that way too. FC Tyumen drop after a 3-1 loss in Kaliningrad, Luch-Energiya ‘won’ 2-0 against promoted Samara but go down.

Rotor saved their best until last, winning 3-1 against Khimki, but go down and out. Zenit-2 beat Shinnik 1-0 but drop. Spartak’s ‘win’ over Sibir Novosibirsk dragged them clear.

Soon to be bankrupt Kuban fought back from a 3-1 deficit at half-time to draw 3-3 and just avoid relegation. If ever there was a math to investigate for suspicious betting patterns (both sets of players are waiting for wages). Overall there were 66 shots, 46 on target. Tomsk had 27 of them!

The equaliser from Bosnian-born Croat Ante Puljic was copy paste from the worst of matchfixing handbook. I remember Ante being sent down to our farm club, NK Zadar, where he blossomed.

Eleven years on he’s hung onto FNL status with a fine headed goal.

But let’s wait. We have promotion playoffs, Kuban losing their licence and not all the five losers might go down. A death penalty reprieve awaits at least one corpse.

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.

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