Every season, hundreds of Russian football players go months without receiving their salaries. Part of the reason for this are the weak Players Unions, another the light punishments for not fulfilling contractual obligations.
Last season alone, the players of Mordovia, Kuban and FC Rostov went months without being paid, something that clearly took its toll on the players as both Mordovia and Kuban were relegated.
But how exactly does it affect a squad when they are not paid, and what happened at Mordovia who went from having a talented squad and a good coach to being relegated last season? To find out, RFN got in touch with Damien Le Tallec who played for Mordovia for six-months before leaving Saransk in exchange for Red Star Belgrade in January.
Playing youth football at first Le Havre and later at Rennes’ famous academy before moving to German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund and later Ukrainian side Hoverla, 26-year-old Le Tallec has experienced more madness during his relatively short career than most football players do in a lifetime.
When he moved in 2012 to FC Hoverla based in Uzhhorod in Western Ukraine, it was in pursuit of playing time after failing to break through at Dortmund. “I was not worried, because you can find people who speak English all over the world,” he told RFN about his thoughts about moving to Ukraine, “And football is a universal language. If you are a good player, you can play everywhere.”
Upon Le Tallec joining Hoverla, things were looking good for Ukrainian football. The mighty Shakhtar Donetsk had recently won the UEFA Cup, and the country had just hosted the European Championships together with Poland.
“The league was good. There were some good teams with good players, and they had lots of money. I liked playing there. My club was small, and things were difficult, but I just wanted to play football.”
Le Tallec managed 41 appearances in the Ukrainian Premier League before eventually leaving the club in the summer of 2014, due to its financial problems caused by the crisis in Eastern Ukraine.
“It started to be difficult when the Russian-Ukrainian war started. Many clubs became poor, and the hryvnia went down. The foreign players left the country, and afterwards the league was bad. It was only the players from Shakhtar and Dinamo who were paid.”
“I played for free because they didn’t pay me for seven months before I went to Russia. I’m still waiting for the money.”
That was Le Tallec’s first experience with irregular salary payments.
“It is very difficult to play when you don’t get your salary. It hard to go to training, and when you lose it the atmosphere is terrible. Nobody wants to play.”
And while Le Tallec fought his way through it due to his love for the game and ambitions to move to a bigger club, his teammates around him were asking questions.
“”Why do I play, when I don’t get paid?”, they asked.”
The feeling of losing interest in the results as the payments were postponed one time after another hit the squad.
“From time to time we all thought: “I don’t care if I win or lose. Even if we win, I won’t get paid,” so sometimes you simply don’t care.”
Le Tallec was however, one of the lucky ones, as his adventures in France and Germany had allowed him to save up money, which helped him through the rough times, but that was not the reality for his teammates.
“The players in the small teams in Ukraine don’t have a lot of money, so they need their salary to survive. It was difficult for them. But it was not only the players, it was also the staff. The coaches and the people who worked for the club were also not being paid, and they all needed money to support their families.”
When his contract expired in the summer of 2014, he turned down an offer to stay with Hoverly, and instead he opted for a move to Mordovia and Russia.
“My coach from Ukraine knew Yuri Semin, and he recommended me to go. He told me Semin was a great coach, and that Mordovia wanted to build a good team. I went there on training camp and after one day I signed the contract, because I could see it was a serious club with some good players.”
Despite being newly promoted, Mordovia had an impressive set-up and a strong squad. Alongside Le Tallec, significant signings such as Oleg Vlasov, Mitchell Donald, Yannick Djalo and Ruslan Mukhametshin were made, and last but not least they had coaching legend Yuri Semin, famous for his time and championships with Lokomotiv Moscow.
“I didn’t know Semin before, because I didn’t know much about Russia, so for me he was just another coach and not a Russian legend. But I liked his style. Both in training, but also in life. I played all the games for him, so I liked my time with him very much. He is a great person, and he communicated with the players. He’s very open and always try to help, and that’s why we did well. We finished 8th, which was amazing for Mordovia.”
Moving to Russia also meant that Le Tallec, and Mordovia, had to face tough opponents almost every week.
“The Russian league is very good. It’s played at a high level with big clubs. I really enjoyed playing there. It was much stronger than in Ukraine. The Russian league is one of the top ones in Europe, and you can compare it to the French. You have seven or eight clubs with a lot of money, which means they also have very good players.”
During the 2014/2015 season, Le Tallec started 29 times for Mordovia, and he was only substituted three times. The playing time developed him a lot.
“I started as a striker, but in Ukraine I started playing midfielder, which I continued with at Mordovia. Semin taught me a lot about this position, because he allowed me to play every single week, and it is thanks to him that I’m now playing the best football in my life.”
Unfortunately, Semin left the club after the season, and things started to change in Saransk.
“Before Semin left the club, the club made a huge mistake. They told him that they wanted to cut the budget, and when he heard they weren’t going to make a good team for the next season, he left. I understand that because he wanted to play good football. The problem was the regional government who cut the budget, and kept the team. So Semin and many other players left the club, and the team was destroyed.”
“I wanted to stay with Yuri Semin. We finished 8th in the league, and normally that means the club will strengthen the squad, but instead they cut the budget and made things worse. I don’t understand it. Everything went wrong when the budget was cut and Semin left. The club killed the club. It killed the team.”
Halfway through the season, Mordovia were dead last in the league with just two victories and five points up to survival. At that point, Le Tallec, and the rest of the squad, hadn’t been paid for months, and the club was desperate for money.
“I left because the club had big financial problems, and they wanted me to go so they could earn some transfer money. They asked me to go to Red Star, and I said: “Okay, I’ll go, no problem.” Before I left the club, they paid me everything, because otherwise, they wouldn’t receive any transfer money, but for the rest of the players it was the same bullshit as earlier.”
Mordovia made €250.000 from the sale according to Transfermarkt, but that was merely a drop in the ocean compared to their problems. Towards the end of the season, the players went on strike in an attempt to force the club into paying them.
“The boycott was normal. Nobody wants to work without salary.”
Despite the problems he experienced at Mordovia, Le Tallec isn’t ruling out a return to Russia, although his time in Saransk has given him certain demands for his next club.
“I liked the Russian league very much, but I could only see myself returning to a bigger club than Mordovia. I’ll not return to a team like that.”
Since leaving Mordovia, Damien Le Tallec has become a regular at Red Star, for whom he started 14 games in the spring season, helping them secure yet another championship.
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Author: Toke Møller Theilade
Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.