Football National League – The Russian Graveyard

Russia is supposed to be the graveyard for the expansionist dreams of wannabe conquerors, or so the history books say.

The modern Russian Graveyard is the Football National League or FNL. This season was no less eventful and disappointing in equal measure.

Going Down

Because of the ridiculousness of the Russian league structure and especially the ‘Russian Graveyard’, five teams will go down to make way for the five Champions (normally) of the Second Division.

Gone are bankruptcy fans Neftkhimik Nizhnikamsk, Mordovia Saransk, Spartak Nalchik, Sokol Saratov and Luch Energiya Vladivostok.

All five clubs are serial offenders when it comes to paying wages and should not be allowed into professional football until they get their acts together.

For Mordovia it’s their 2nd relegation in a row, having dropped ignominiously last season from the Premier. Whilst the city of Saransk will host World Cup matches next year – nice as the place is in summer – the fact that the resident club are a financial mess leaves a sour taste.

Luch-Energiya are unlucky to have gone down as their points total was the same as the two teams immediately above them – Baltika Kaliningrad and Sibir Novosibirsk.

It was tight at the bottom with 12 points covering the spread between 11th and 19th. Baltika are grateful to continuing living on Kremlin handouts and will continue to believe that their move to the new World Cup stadium will somehow cure all their ills – but it won’t.

Missing out

Having been in the running for an automatic promotion spot, then a playoff spot before being outrageously cheated against by FC Tyumen and malleable officials, Fakel Voronezh were denied a return to the top flight.

One of only three genuine football mad cities in Russia, Voronezh got 10,000 fans to 2nd Division games and, despite a crumbling stadium, would’ve raised the Premier attendance average – which incidentally stood this season at 11,500.

Regional rivals, FC Tambov, finished strongly and were two points off a playoff spot. This new club is a reincarnation of Spartak Tambov from which Yuri Zhirkov and Dmitri Sychev sprang.

Spartak went bankrupt, reformed and the new club is led by ex-Spartak Moscow legend Georgi Yartsev.

Although this was their first season in the FNL, having won the Second Division Centre last year, they’ll need to upgrade their experienced side to make an impact in 2017/18.

Between the Black Earth rivals FC Tyumen sat above Fakel in ninth, their robbery in Voronezh not paying off.

In eighth, former victors against Valencia in the Intertoto Cup, Shinnik Yaroslavl, seem to have a knack of getting into the mix quietly. The city deserves Premier football, though those in charge of the club do not.

Seventh place was reserved for last season’s Premier ‘black sheep’ Kuban Krasnodar. The club who never met a bill they couldn’t avoid paying and who are dangerously close to certain unsavoury elements, are almost Krasnodar’s seconnd team.

From beating Motherwell, Feyenoord and drawing with Valencia and Swansea City in the Europa League 2013/14, they face a very uncertain future.

Above them Spartak Moscow Reserves continued to make a mockery of the league system. For a while they were in a play-off position, yet knew they couldn’t go up (due to Spartak Moscow already having a team in the Premier).

The club don’t really appear to use the team to get talents into the first team, if the example of Vladimir Obukhov is the norm.

Having watched them a number of times this season, the club now look to be bringing in foreign players such as Fashion Sakala and Silvanus Nimeli of Zambia and Liberia respectively for development.

Upwards from the Russian Graveyard

Dynamo Moscow went back up to the Premier at first time of asking and with their new stadium should at least expect to finish mid-table in 2017-18.

If they hold onto Swedish International Rasmus Holmen, get more goals from Kirill Panchenko and have Alexander Zotov maintain his improvement, add a box-to-box midfielder and some youth academy graduates, they’ll stay up easily.

Bankruptcy in waiting, FC Tosno, are riding the largesse of the Fort Group from obscurity and will play next season in the stadium Zenit will soon vacate.

Coming from a village which is better known for housing the Heineken and Caterpillar factories, theirs is not an Orenburg story.

Instead they are fueled by property development cash. An expensive, though useful washing machine, the fear is that they will soon go the way of FC Moscow, though without the brief flirtation with glory.

The longest serving second tier club, SKA Khabarovsk, finally escaped the Russian graveyard through a play-off with Gazovik Orenburg.

The club hails from a stunning city on the Chinese border and seven hours ahead of Moscow.

An academic, military, industrial and commercial centre, there is an adventurer’s energy to it which will serve the Premier League well.

Drooling over the club will probably decrease once the hipster beloved Juan Lescano leaves in the summer to an FNL club where his ability is better suited.

The playing staff needs an overhaul with only Armenian International Ruslan Koryan, Captain Alexander Dimidko and hard grafting Alexander Cherevko with top flight quality.

Stuck in the Russian Graveyard

Losing in a play-off to Arsenal Tula was not how Andrey Tikhonov’s time at Yenisey Krasnoyarsk should be remembered.

The club battles hard to supplant rugby and bandy as the city’s main sport, though should they keep hold of Spartak Moscow legend Tikhonov there is hope.

The coach, if you remember, was robbed of a place in the 2nd Division with Sparta Schelkovo in 2013.

The club had been the subject of a TV sponsored documentary, ’30 Spartans’, and topped the third Division, then had their licence awarded to a newly formed club in Sochi.

It was probably the most singularly galling event I’d ever witnessed in Russian football.

Yenisey are a good side, Andrey a good coach and there might be hope for them to win promotion next season, though it’s doubtful.

Owned and financed by the Krasnoyark regional government, failure to launch into the Premier will be seen as a disaster.

The madness of twenty clubs in this Division goes back to the need for complete reformation of the Russian football league structure.

There is neither the money nor interest to keep the farce going.

Match fixing, player welfare issues, financial problems and soaring costs mean that if the FNL were a horse, it would already be turned into steaks for a fancy French restaurant.

The FNL is that Dentist visit you keep putting off, meanwhile your jaw is bulging like a basketball and not even your pet dog can handle your fetid breath.

Unless the Russian Football Union pulls the rotten tooth and roots of the FNL, the ‘Russian Graveyard’ will continue to destroy more dreams than a sibling who was told too early about Santa Claus.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian based sports journalist, commentator and consultant, working 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 commentated at the FIFA World Cup 2018 and 2019 Rugby World Cup.

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