Déjà vu all over again – Rotor Volgograd Reborn

Zenit Stadium in Volgograd. Photo: Volganet.ru

For long-term followers of Russian football’s second-tier, the Football National League (FNL), the fixture list for the opening day of the 2017/18 campaign will, for some at least, have brought a strange combination of faint hope mixed with premature resignation. Last season, the feeder division to the Premier League was at least graced with historical giant Dinamo Moscow, battling below the top flight for the first time in their history. Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg’s reserve squads provided an interesting window into the development of players at the two championship rivals, while there were questions to be answered elsewhere – would FC Tosno finally make it up? How would Kuban Krasnodar and Mordovia Saransk respond to their relegation? Would any of the promoted sides from the Professional Football League (PFL) survive?

This year, there seems to be less intrigue. The two second teams are still there, no longer a mystery. The three relegated clubs – Tom Tomsk, FC Orenburg and Krylya Sovetov – are not the big scalps that Dinamo and Kuban were a year ago. From the regional leagues of the PFL, we have once again been blessed with Dinamo St Petersburg, Avangard Kursk, and a rebooted Nizhny Novgorod side in Olimpiets – all frequent visitors to the second tier and no-one to catch the imagination of the neutral fan. Oh, and Rotor Volgograd. Again.

Rotor are a side steeped in history. Tracing their history back to 1929, the Volgograd side was one of the top Russian clubs of the 1990s, finishing runner-up in 1993 and 1997, and regularly running the likes of Alania Vladikavkaz and the Oleg Romantsev’s dominant Spartak side close in the battle for national honours. Few will forget the 1995 vintage dumping the mighty Manchester United out of the UEFA Cup, surging into the lead at Old Trafford only to be denied the outright win by Peter Schmeichel’s late header. Rotor provided players to the national team, entertainment on the field, and a real chance of success to a proud and football-mad city.

But in 2004 it all went wrong, the club finishing dead last in the Premier League and failing to gain a professional licence for the following season. That meant the club effectively starting over, and after a few miserable seasons in the southern regional league, a merger with new side FC Volgograd and taking a conveniently-open spot in the FNL shortly after Volgograd had been announced as a host city for the 2018 World Cup. A shiny new stadium was promised, and so obviously the city needed a team worthy of the arena. Despite significant investment in the playing staff, they finished 17th, and went down again.

World Cup 2018 venue, Volgograd Arena. Photo: Maximos

Back up they went at the first time of asking, and this time there was at least a brief reprieve – two seasons of consolidation before a withdrawal of local government funds, financial meltdown and a complete collapse of the professional outfit. For 2015, Rotor would play in the local amateur leagues, unsurprisingly winning it handsomely and making the step to the third-tier PFL for 2016/17 – a division they would win by five points from Afips Afipsky and FC Armavir. Once again, they had fought back to the national level.

And yet, on the opening day of the 2017/18 season, the latest iteration of this once-proud football club crashed 3-0 away at Khimki, a side not expected to make too many waves in the second tier this time round. Their second match of the season, a game expected to be the first home game of the year – the club playing at the city’s Zenit Stadium while construction on the World Cup site continues – has been switched to the home of opponents Volgar, a nine-hour train ride away in the Caspian port of Astrakhan. The reasoning has not yet been made clear, but the omen is not a good one. The side warmed up for the new campaign with three friendlies – a win and a draw against third-tier Chernomorets Novorossisyk, and a 4-0 hammering by divisional rivals Kuban. The team, quite simply, do not look good enough.

This is nothing new for a club newly-promoted into the FNL, which with five relegation spots must be one of Europe’s most perilous divisions. However, it is also nothing new for Rotor, who on their last two visits to the second tier managed just three seasons, and for whom the additional costs – player wages, travel to the likes of Kaliningrad and Vladivostok – coupled with a lack of income common across the Russian game, make a place in the national league simply unsustainable. It would appear that their only option is to win promotion, and with that highly unlikely, the club will wait for the inevitable.

It is not for want of trying. Local government and even the Ministry of Sport has propped Rotor up in the past, but to no avail. On the pitch, Rotor have tried competing with a primarily local, young squad, and at other times has brought in seasoned professionals from around Russia. On the sidelines, managers have been as varied as globe-trotting journeyman Vitaly Shevchenko, proven FNL winner Fyodor Shcherbachenko, and club legends such as Oleg Veretennikov and current boss Valery Yesipov.

And yet, with the pull of the past well and truly faded, a location far removed from the bright lights of Moscow, a history of financial problems and a fanbase who patience must now be wearing thin, the clock already seems to be ticking on Rotor’s time in the FNL. Whether it turns out to be this season or next, whether or not the federal government intervenes to save a club in one of its World Cup host cities, whether or not performances on the pitch improve, the odds on Rotor establishing themselves in the second tier – let alone pushing from promotion to the top – are slim indeed. Circumstances both within and out of their control will simply not allow it, and in a two or three years we will be reading once more of Rotor’s return to the FNL. As ever, it’s hope that kills you.

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.

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