A Mess Worth Making? – The Rise and Fall of Mordovia Saransk

The Mordovia Arena in August, 2017. Source: ПСО Казань.

In Russia as elsewhere in football, it is a reasonably rare thing to see a team emerge from obscurity, climb the league system and find itself dining at the top table of the national game. When it does happen, it is often thanks in no small part to a sudden influx of cash – Wigan, Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig – which history has shown does not always stick around. Even established clubs who catch the taste of success – Anzhi, Portsmouth, Deportivo – often find that their flirtations with glory come at a long-term cost.

The same appears to be true of Mordovia Saransk – a club which, until just a handful of years ago, very few outside Russia and only a small number within the country would have been able to tell you anything about. Saransk is, compared to the many great cities which litter the vast Russian nation, unremarkable, with the Republic of Mordovia from which the club takes its name one of the less celebrated Russian regions. Should a tourist find themselves in Saransk, they would probably be lost.

And yet, without the pulling power of a Moscow, St Petersburg, or even Volgograd, Sochi or Nizhny Novgorod, little Mordovia – the latest iteration being the 2005 merger of two smaller local teams – a club with precisely no history in the Soviet championship despite existing in various forms for some 40 years, managed to claw their way through the regional leagues, up through the FNL and into the Premier League in time for the 2012-13 season. This was a surprise – it came after just two seasons in the second tier – and was at the time credited to two things – the managerial acumen of Fedor Shcherbachenko, and increased investment in the club by the regional government.

Mordovia were a club on the rise. Star players such as the brothers Rustem and Ruslan Mukhametshin and Chilean international Gerson Acevedo, became objects of desire of clubs further up the league table, while Shcherbachenko found his stock rising rapidly for a relatively young manager. However, the fairytale did not have the ending Mordovia desired – at the end of their debut top flight season, they would return to the FNL, failing to avoid automatic relegation and winning just five of their 30 Premier League games.

Since then the club has, in consecutive seasons – won the FNL, finished an impressive 8th in the top flight, been relegated again and, with an embarrassing lack of fight, suffered a second consecutive relegation back into the regional PFL. Currently 6th after a handful of games in the Ural/Volga zone, anything other than an immediate return to the FNL will be a failure. But performances on the pitch do not tell the full story.

While Shcherbachenko was rightly praised for his work in taking Mordovia up, his career after leaving Saransk has not set the world on fire – being at the helm of Rotor Volgograd during one of their many financial struggles, and then leading Kazakh club Kaysar Kyzylorda to relegation in 2015. That he has yet to find a job since suggests his talent may not be as mercurial as perhaps once thought. Nor have the managers who have since taken over Mordovia been necessarily poor – the legendary Yuri Semin took the reins after Shcherbachenko, while his successor Andrei Gordeev has since been appointed to the Russia under-18s role. Leadership alone has not caused their downfall.

Sadly, it would appear that, as in so many other cases, money has played a key role in Mordovia’s slide down the league system. Once a proud pet project of the regional government, and with no shortage of partner companies willing to lend a hand with a sponsorship deal or two, the Saransk outfit now compete in the third tier without a sponsor on their chests, their red home shirts bearing nothing but the eight-pointed star that makes up the club crest. Without the funds to attract players, pay coaches, or even register as a presence in their home city – despite their Premier League jaunts, attendances at Start Stadium are worryingly low – it would seem that the days of Mordovia’s top flight ambition is at an end. Promotion from the PFL may be the aim for the current season, but beyond that, mere survival in an FNL with five relegation spots would be an achievement.

However, the truth of the matter may simply be that they – both those running the club and those in the regional government once so willing to invest in their local side – may not mind. The timing of Mordovia’s rise through the ranks to the Premier League meant that, when the World Cup organisers were selecting host cities for 2018, Saransk was controversially chosen over the likes of Krasnodar and Yaroslavl as a venue for matches at the tournament. As the result, the region will see significant investment, enjoy all the benefits of having the World Cup circus arrive in town and, most importantly for those in charge at the club, a brand new 45,000-seater Mordovia Arena.

The Russian World Cup will no doubt throw up several white elephant stadia – Volgograd’s premier side is struggling in the FNL, Nizhny Novgorod’s is a year old and in the regional leagues, while there is currently no professional team in Winter Olympic host Sochi, and not for lack of trying. While many of these will find themselves at reduced capacity and hosting alternate events, it is not too much of a stretch to estimate that the majority of the grounds built for the World Cup will not see a capacity crowd for a football match after the tournament is over.

READ MORE: Interview with ex-Mordovia player, Damien Le Tallec

But by that time, those responsible for bringing FIFA’s great spectacle to their cities will have their pat on their back, their legacy and no doubt in some cases a financial reward for doing so. They will be congratulated by many for their achievement and for the investment brought into a region which is perhaps a little further off the beaten track than others, and they will think little of the legacy – or lack thereof – brought about by the competition. Mordovia will not be the only team to be presented with a huge stadium they do not need, cannot afford and will never fill, and there is every chance they will not be the only side to either languish in the regional leagues or even disappear entirely. Whether anybody outside of Saransk notices remains to be seen.

Author: Rob Dillon

An Englishman fascinated by the Russian-speaking world, its history and its sport. Lives in hope of a Caucasian club ending the Moscow/Petersburg axis.

Comments

  1. Thanks, very nice and interessting article.

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