FC Ufa – How To Run a Small Club in Russia

When FC Ufa was promoted to the Premier League (RFPL) in 2014, they were one of the smallest sides in history to make the top flight. Having only existed since 2010, it took them just three seasons to rise from Professional Football League (PFL), the third tier, to the top flight, though many predicted it would not last long. How could a side like Ufa last in a league dominated by elite teams? The answer lies not just on the pitch, but behind the scenes.

 

At Europe’s End

Ufa is one of fifteen cities in Russia to have a population of over one million people, and yet outside of Russia, you would be hard pushed to find someone who has heard of it. Located in the Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia’s most populous republic, regions which are typically dominated by populations of non-Russian ethnicity – in this case Tatars and Bashkirs – Ufa is a city located just west of the Ural Mountains on the border of European Russia and Asia, and is perhaps most notable for being the birthplace of Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

When it comes to sport, Ufa is hugely into its ice hockey. Their side, Salavat Yulayev, is one of the biggest sides in the KHL, the Kontinental Hockey League, which includes clubs from seven countries around Europe and Asia, winning the Kontinental Cup twice in the last decade – including the first since it was reorganised in 2007 – and always compete for the top positions in the years where they didn’t. Their home arena, aptly named the Ufa Arena, regularly sells out its 8,250 capacity, so when Ufa’s football club was formed and subsequently rose to the top flight between 2010 and 2014 – a period in which Salavat won the Gagarin Cup and KHL outright – it really didn’t catch much attention in the city, despite being under the management of former Manchester United star and Russia international Andrei Kanchelskis for the first two years of the club’s existence. This was clearly reflected in attendances, when even in their promotion season which saw them rise to the Premier League, Ufa averaged a measly 2,800 average attendance.

Ufa’s Neftyanik Stadium – post renovations. Source: falschivomonetchick

In their debut season in the Premier League in 2014/15, attendances rose a little and clocked in at an average of just under 3,000 spectators per match at home, but their total attendance for the season was the lowest in the league. Not a surprise in a year where they scraped to a twelfth place finish, only maintaining Premier League status on the last day of the season, while still facing the battle against Salavat for fans. For part of that season and the following, their home ground, the Neftyanik Stadium, was undergoing a makeover with some games played in nearby Perm instead. When the renovations were finished, attendances more than doubled to 6,600 on average for the 2015/16 season, and they were no longer the lowest total attendance in the league, though still near the bottom of the list. In 2016/17, Ufa achieved an amazing seventh-place finish, but even this was not able to attract larger numbers to the stadium, and on average attendances dropped to 6,400. However, it’s still a very respectable amount in a city dominated by ice hockey, and almost matching the attendances for Salavat, though the full 15,000 capacity at the Neftyanik is very rarely filled.

 

A Small Club Doing Things Right

Unlike a number of the small clubs who make it to the Premier League, Ufa has never really struggled financially thanks to the backing of the Republic of Bashkortostan and the management of the club, particularly the work of general director Shamil Gazizov. Adept in the transfer market over the years, particularly since promotion, they work within their means, and have had a number of successful sales in their short history. According to the President of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov in 2016, Ufa have taken inspiration from clubs across Europe in how they operate;

From the very beginning of the club, we have chosen a business model in which our scouts must find talented young players who are willing to play and improve their skills here in Ufa, enabling themselves to continue their career in world’s top clubs. We look at clubs like Porto, Ajax and a number of French teams who have excellent youth schools as the benchmark for us in this aspect. For starters, Ufa Football Club should ensure that at least 25-30% of its budget comes through the sale of players, and ideally with time, be able to go fully self-sufficient. Of course, the club could afford to sign several stars, but we want to grow them ourselves.

Ufa signed their first foreign player in 2012, Brazilian defender William. He had already been in Russia for three years before turning up at Ufa in the FNL, and after helping them to promotion, he became their captain during their first season in the Premier League. After retiring, he has remained at the club as one of the first team coaches and has a prominent place on the bench next to whoever has been the manager of the club.

Ufa’s first foreign signing William (right), is now a first-team coach. Source: Sport BO

Of course, William at such an old age was not really a suitable fit for the model of buying young players to sell, but such a historic character and legend of the club cannot go unnoticed. Perhaps the most famous signing, and one which may give Ufa their claim to fame, or memorability to fans outside of Russia, was the signing of former Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong. The Ghanaian international was a favourite among fans in England, and his move to Ufa was a huge PR boost for not only Ufa but the league too. His time at Ufa was unfortunately marred and perhaps only remembered for one incident, when he was racially abused by Spartak Moscow fans, and subsequently sent off for his reaction to them, something which was condemned by the manager of the club at the time. Overall, Frimpong’s time in Russia was uneventful, and he did not offer much to the team, other than becoming a fan favourite for his personality on the clubs Youtube channel, where clearly he got on very well with his largely Russian team-mates, something not often seen when a foreigner moves to Russia.

However, Ufa’s dabbling in the market would not go unrewarded for long, and in January 2015, a young Ukrainian named Oleksandr Zinchenko arrived at the club on a free transfer.

 

Self-Sufficiency, Slowly But Surely

Having departed Shakhtar Donetsk the previous summer, and failed to secure a transfer to Rubin Kazan in the meantime, Zinchenko opted to join the project in Ufa. After a short adaptation period, he was introduced to the first team, and his performances immediately caught the eye. After eighteen months at the club, during which he made his debut for the Ukraine national side and played at the European Championships in 2016, Ufa made their first big sale, as English giants Manchester City swooped to sign the playmaker for a rumoured €4 million. A pittance in the current market, but a huge fee for a club whose total annual budget has fluctuated between €8 million and €16 million since their promotion.

But the aforementioned Gazizov, whose role at the club cannot be understated, looked further than money. He saw an opportunity for Ufa to improve their status and infrastructure and struck a deal with City to become official club partners. The agreement would see Ufa’s coaching staff training in England – the current plan is for Sergey Semak and his staff to travel to Manchester during the Russian winter break to observe and work with the club. Among other incentives included was an agreement to share medical facilities and health programs, management training for the backroom staff, and for Ufa’s young academy players to go on summer training camps in England. There are also rumours that Ufa could be a farm club for Man City to send players for playing time, something which would benefit all parties, though this is not confirmed by either club nor have any loans taken place.

Ufa’s General Director Shamil Gazizov. Source: Sport BO

Since then, Ufa has also sold goalkeeper Andrey Lunev to Zenit St. Petersburg in another deal rumoured at around €4m. This was again an eighteen-month turnaround, and once more a player who joined the club on a free transfer. There are a number of other players at the club who have joined for free, who look like they could go on to make Ufa money. Dmitry Stotsky has been at the club for three years now and recently received his first call-up to the national team. Another player involved with the national side is goalkeeper Aleksandr Belenov, though both are yet to be capped, and the latter is now in his 30s.

Ufa is, of course, a side renowned for promoting youth and giving them a chance, and they subsequently look for managers who will do the same. After a rough patch in 2015, Belarussian manager Viktor Goncharenko was appointed. Goncharenko turned Ufa into a rock-solid opponent, as they earned major scalps off some of the country’s biggest clubs. He also supplied a path to the first team for Ufa’s first homegrown academy product, midfielder Igor Bezdenezhnykh. He, along with nineteen-year-old Ivan Oblyakov, plucked from Zenit’s youth academy at seventeen, both made their senior breakthroughs under Goncharenko, and both are now regulars at Russia U21 level, and constantly linked with a move to a big club, a testament to their obvious talent.

Goncharenko’s success was not ignored for long, and in January 2017, CSKA Moscow swooped to bring their former assistant manager back to the club as first team manager, following the departure of Leonid Slutsky. But Ufa did almost exactly the same as two years previous, bringing in current manager Sergey Semak, taking him out of the assistant manager role at Zenit. Semak has had a good start at the club, and once more Ufa looks set to have a decent season in the Premier League.

 

More Than A Club, A Legacy

Ufa is also looking past their own club, and to develop as a sporting city. With the World Cup coming to Russia in 2018, Ufa is set to host one national side for the tournament, though the city will not play host to any matches. For this purpose, a training complex, residential complex and rehabilitation centre have been constructed, and this will then be available for visiting sides to use should Ufa progress to European competition, something not out of the realms of possibility after last year’s seventh-place finish and Cup run to the semi-finals. Ufa is also looking even further ahead. This summer, 50% of the clubs budget for transfers was re-allocated to Ufa’s youth academy, with the aim of increasing the number of people in the academy from 1,000 to 2,500. As a result, Ufa only completed the signing of three first-team players in the summer window, all on free transfers.

There are some ways the club could improve, however – namely on social media. An important platform for any club in the modern era, Ufa’s club website is blocky and quite unattractive, while the official Twitter account is rarely updated and is not even verified. The VK account is the one place where Ufa successfully implements themselves, but as it is a website primarily for Russian speakers only, they lack the ability to capitalise on anything viral in the wider internet. For example, midfielder Ondrej Vanek scored a fantastic goal early in the 17/18 season (below) which was exposed in media across Europe, drawing comparisons to a goal from Gaizka Mendieta from the late 90’s, but when the official club Twitter account only tweets when the club uploads a new Youtube video, they are left wanting in terms of capitalising on this exposure.

This lack of impact can sometimes be noticed in other media. When Ufa do rarely find themselves at the attention of the foreign press, they are often listed as “UFA”, with the understanding that the clubs name is an acronym, like QPR in England, which is of course incorrect. The club’s Youtube channel is another platform where the club does well, and their videos have always attracted a good number of views thanks to the intimacy of the videos. Filmed by one of the staff members on their phone, the content usually revolves around the players in training, in the dressing room and in their leisure time, an insight rarely seen among professional clubs now.

However, Shamil Gazizov does go a long way to make up for the lack of social media influence – in Russia at least, though he has a colourful past, having been accused by former Ufa boss Kanchelskis of storming into the dressing room with a baseball bat in Ufa’s early years. Nowadays, he is very open with the press, and during transfer windows, he is quite clear with the press and fans as to the plans of the club. This openness from Gazizov is refreshing in the modern game, and he is a favoured opinion among Russian journalists. In an interview with Sport-Express given in the summer, Gazizov outlined how the money from the sales on Lunev and Zinchenko would be going towards the issues at the club while admitting it was tough to compete with Salavat Yulayev;

There is a plan and strategy for the development of the club in terms of marketing. We plan to work closely with  media and PR, and we are stepping up our work in social networks and media space. On the ground, we are hoping to attract more families to the stadium. The atmosphere in our stadium is good – our fan sector (ed. for ultras) has not received any comments from the league and therefore families should not feel threatened.

It’s hard for us to compete with hockey, Salavat has a lot more fans in our region. We can only do one thing, and that’s to move together with success. I hope that our co-operation will bring new fans to the stands.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how Ufa manage their online presence in the coming months. On the pitch, things remain stable. The side is in mid-table but look comfortable enough at this stage to fend off their weaker opponents with the top six only three points away. Attendances have been decent, with 12,000 turning out on the opening day of the season for the game against Spartak, but settling in the 5,000’s for the next few games, before dropping to round 3,500 for the visit of Arsenal Tula, a match which ended a three-game losing streak. Nigerian forward Sylvester ‘Sly’ Igboun recently became the leading foreign scorer in the clubs history, while midfielder Azamat Zaseev, who has been with the club since it’s the second year of existence, is still a regular in midfield and the clubs all-time leading appearance maker.

In a league dominated by negative setups and low scoring outfits, Ufa is looking to break the mould and set out to play “more aggressive and entertaining football” this season. So far in the 2017/18 season, Ufa fans have seen 21 goals scored in their teams 11 matches. At the same stage in the 2016/17 season, they had only seen 13 goals, though the goal difference was a tad healthier.

It’s a promising time for Ufa, despite the slight lack of squad improvement over the summer. The club has a solid foundation now as a Premier League side, with a good Russian core in its squad, and promising youngsters coming through the ranks, and willing to move to Ufa for football. Clubs like Mordovia Saransk, Tom Tomsk, Torpedo Moscow and Krylia Sovetov could learn a lesson from how Ufa operate and had they done so, some of those sides may well remain in the top flight today.

Author: David Sansun

Arsenal and Rubin Kazan fan. Possibly too optimistic for Russian football which means I’m left disappointed a lot.

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