Irish solution for a Russian problem – Russian League Realignment

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I’ll be slaughtered by friends at home over this, though I happen to think the 10 team Irish Premier Division is a decent idea. Stay with me. I think it’s a good idea as we don’t have enough talent or money to go around. We don’t have enough fans to go around. I don’t want to see a closed off League, though what happens with the First Division is equally as important to me. Yet in order to get football moving in Ireland, bringing in crowds, sponsors and players, a 10 team division is the best option. Just as it is in in Russia. Realigning the Russian league structure so that the Premier, and all leagues feeding into it, have only 10 teams is a must. And here I’m going against Vitaly Mutko.

Cash flow issues

Not a single Russian club is financially solvent – fact. Because of the reliance on state-linked largesse, clubs are never more than a nose out of joint away from going under. Even Spartak, the self proclaimed people’s club, are a State oligarch owned financial mess and, despite having excellent people working there, are no closer to being self-sufficient than my first working experience of them a decade ago. Zenit have equal office talent, yet are always on a knife edge. And that’s at the top. In the Second Divisions it’s like End of Days each December and May.

To get money flowing there needs to be less ego boosting/money washing vehicles (i.e. pro clubs) and more supporters. Clubs need to matter, to connect with their communities again. I saw this first hand in Austria, where there is at least some balance. When based in Germany, I picked up a short project assignment with FC Tirol Innsbruck. The club were flying high then under Kurt Kara, about to pick up their first silverware. Our project was to forge a stronger connection between club and community. They threw money at it and then, just as we were to launch, they won the League and it the project was shelved.

I paid no heed to it until early in 2002 when on Spring holidays from Saudi Arabia and was invited to the project launch in Innsbruck. Joachim Löw was coaching the club towards a 3rd title in a row and the I was told that there’d be a position for me in the project. It wasn’t to be as they went bankrupt. The community project was a last gasp attempt to get state funding and pull back some sponsors. My contact with Austrian football increased when I was based in Croatia and I saw a gradual stability develop.

Of course the fizzy energy drink club (guided their former East German “sports doctor”) still top the rankings, and are regulars in the Europa League group stages. Vienna has returned to some prominence with Rapid also doing well in the Europa League. While one club are going to continue to dominate, there is a leveling between clubs like Sturm Graz, Altach, Rapid and Austria Vienna, and Modling. Even if this season the two League-qualified Europa League spots are down to three teams (Altach, Graz and Rapid), from a recent conversation with an Austrian sports commentator from ORF, the game is doing okay there.

Russian League Roulette

Stanislav Cherchesov, national team coach, brought up the 10 team league idea – as an advance on RFPL president Sergey Pryadkin’s 14 team and Zenit CEO Maksim Mitrofanov’s “US style closed” leagues. Cherchesov, when speaking with Ilya Kazakov last week, said that he’d seen it work in Austria and that it is an alternative. And he should know. When I was working on the project in Tirol, he was first team keeper. When I returned in 2002, he was still there and later returned for his second managerial job with the reformed club. He knows from experience that this will work in Russia and is brave enough to say it.

As he said on last Monday night, “Imagine four Spartak-Zenit matches in a season.” I’d add, four CSKA-Spartak, four Loko-Spartak and better, four Spartak-Ufa. Regardless of their perceived status as victims/heroes, Spartak fans are scattered around the nation and turn up to watch their club. They will add thousands to gates and increase the atmosphere in stadia. This is great for Russia and Russian football.

Cherchesov also acknowledged that 36 matches will not put pressure on players and will benefit the national team. Russia needs this, and needs it now. Pryadkin’s 14 team league is simply pulling the trigger and hoping the chamber is empty. Nikita Simonyan’s 12 team Premier League is arranging deckchairs on the Titanic. And the thought of expanding the league to 18 or 20 is akin to loading up a second and third chamber to increase your odds. But the problem is, it’ll only be a matter of time before a bullet just takes the head off you. The Russian league structure needs to retreat from playing roulette with the game before expanding.

13 x 10

Hacksaw Jim Duggan’s old 2 x 4 worked wonders on the noggins of many foe, and a 10 x 10 variation on Sergey Kuzmin’s idea from 2009 (he discussed having only 50 pro clubs in Russia and a regionalised second tier) would knock some sense into Russian football.

10 team Premier League – In season 2018-19 7 teams are relegated directly, 9th placed team plays off with 2nd place in the FNL, FNL Champs are promoted directly. From this season on it’s automatic one up, one down (winner of Championship playoff goes up, runner-up faces 9th in the PL in a playoff). The teams in the Premier League play each other 4 times a season.

4 x 10 Team Championship – This is so easy it’s criminal. Four Regional leagues of ten teams each. In each league the teams play each other three times and then a round against rivals from other leagues (Home and Away). This is vital for the growth and survival of Russian League football. As was told to me at the Russian FA AGM last year, it’s boring to play the same teams from the same region over and over, not just for fans. If, for example, Volga Ulyanovsk had four road games against: Kuban Krasnodar, Dinamo Moscow, Buryatia Ulan-Ude and Baltika Kaliningrad, and return matches against the same teams plus one other, it would generate public and business interest. 10th placed team from each league goes down, 9th place plays off.

Everything below this is amateur football. Effectively you have 50 professional clubs, no Reserve sides.

8 x 10 Team Promotion League – Promotion from this level is not difficult, as the regions combine into four pairs, each feeding up one defined section of the Championship. From each “pair” the Top 2 teams play semi’s and a Final. Winners of four finals go up direct, runners-up play off with 9th place team in their defined Championship section. Again, Interleague play is a must. As is each club being Amateur. Reserve teams can rise to this level.

And on down we go, ten team leagues feeding up to leagues above. No excuses, no cowardice, only football. The Russian League system will be robust, marketable and, if managed properly, produce local players of greater quality than we have now.

Pros and Cons

I got feedback on the idea from a number of people involved with pro clubs and media since last week. One journalist friend told me, “If the Russian League was a human, I’d shoot it in the face”. I need to add he’s an IT Crowd aficionado. One Moscow Region pro club director advised me to call “Donny Trump”, and ask him to hit every pro club in the country with a Tomahawk so we could start from scratch.

The pros for a Russian League realignment are pretty simple. As it stands the structure is a rotting corpse. It is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be taken out into the yard and buried. We can be sentimental, be as embarrassed as much as we wish that Russia cannot support a 14-20 team top flight, though this is where we are.

Less pro clubs will allow for greater oversight and control. It will allow for greater central support and guidance for clubs, with increased player welfare, reduction of undue influences and a far more manageable Football League system. Licencing will be easier and there will be greater competition. Allowing regions to play each other means that fans, players and sponsors (not to mention media) will get more involved. It is a win for all.

The cons will be highlighted and crowed over. The most inept clubs will try to block it. Matchfixers will be furious as when players are paid and looked after, there is less business for them. Inadequate player agents/intermediaries will cry out, though the best will do even better. Those most against saving Russian football have friends in media and government. They will make their voices heard and be an irritant. And some in the media will use patriotism as a roadblock, though supporters, players and those who love football will see their nonsense for what it is.

Less pro clubs means less work for players, though all those who play will get paid. And those who end up in the Promotion League will be far better off than they would be in today’s FNL or 2nd Division. Amateur is only a term of contempt when things are run badly, however this applies to how Russian football is run at present.

If it began today

If you’d have a proper, fit for purpose Russian League structure from next September this would be the line up for the Premier and Championship Leagues:

Premier:
Spartak, CSKA, Lokomotiv and Dinamo Moscow; Zenit; FC Krasnodar; FC Rostov; Amkar Perm; Terek Grozny; FC Ufa.

Championship:
West: FC Tosno, Arsenal Tula; Baltika Kaliningrad; FC Khimki; FC Strogino, Dynamo St. Petersburg; Dolgoprudny; Spartak Kostroma; Domodedovo Moscow; Torpedo Moscow.
South: Kuban Krasnodar; Anzhi Makhachkala; Volgar Astrakhan; FC Tambov; Fakel Voronezh; Avangard Kursk; Rotor Volgograd; Armavir; Afips Afipsy; Chernomorets Novorossisysk.
Centre: Rubin Kazan; FC Orenburg; Ural Ekaterinburg; Kryilya Sovetov Samara; Sokol Saratov; Volga Ulyanovsk; Zenit -Izhevsk; Olimpets; FC Chelyabinsk; Nosta Novotroitsk.
East: SKA-Khabarovsk; FC Tyumen; Sibir Novosibirsk; Yenisey Krasnoyarsk; Tom Tomsk; Luch Energiya Vladivostok; FC Chita; Dinamo Barnaul; Sakhalin; Smena.

A gripe will be that if, for example, Spartak get relegated and Chita are promoted, do Spartak play in the east section? Of course not. There will need to be a slight reshuffle, though this keeps the Russian League structure flexible enough to handle all eventualities. It happens now with teams dropping down from the FNL, so there is already a system to redistribute clubs – though now it will be more effective and stable.

Bob or No Hope

There is the power in Russia to make this happen with a pen stroke. There is the power to make Russian football a force to be reckoned with and to make it a real game for the masses. At present people stay away from stadia because of perception – rightly or wrongly. They avoid the local pro side because they don’t want to get caught up in half-witted idiots taking a cut off one another. And this is why Russian football is dying the death of a thousand cuts. Perception based on a mix of facts, urban legend and downright lies.

There is hope. There is a way to make the Russian football product more appealing, more interesting, more exciting and a tool to build a united nation. Russian League realignment is only a small part, though it is a start. The journey will be long but in 2030, when Russia are in the World Cup Final in China, we can all say we were there for the first step.

Alan Moore

Author: Alan Moore

A Russia-based Sports Journalist and Consultant, worked with major sports clubs including:- Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt. Boxed Internationally, played semi-pro football and worked full-time in sports management/consultancy from 2003-13.

First published professionally on football in 1990, first Russian league match in 1991, now hosting Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow and the Capital Sports Stadium Shows at the RZD Arena and writing the odd article. Director of the Russian State Social University College in Moscow.

Comments

  1. First of all, congratulations on a very interesting article. I would like to play however the devil’s advocate. Underneath are the reasons why I think your proposition is not such a great idea.

    1 One of the biggest problems in Russian football is lack of popularity. You could argue that TV ratings will be much higher and attendances inside the stadium bigger when Spartak-Zenit is placed four times instead of twice, but football in Russia is more than football in Moscow and Petersburg and how on earth are you going to attract more football support in Yaroslavl, Samara, Orenburg, Novosobirsk, and all the other provincial towns if their teams are deprived of even the future possibility of reaching the Premier League. Ten teams minus the big Moscow four and Zenit means that 5 teams out of the rest of the huge continent have the chance to play Spartak and CSKA. On Zenit website you can see a video “Away games with Zenit” were a Zenit reporter travels the vast country visiting the towns where Zenit is playing an away game. What strikes me everytime is the warmth and enthusiasm of young and old in Orenburg or Tula when they see the Zenit stars. For the local kids it could be a stimulus to play themselves. In your system this stimulus will be a faraway dream, the provinces will never get to see the stars.

    2 You mention the Irish and Austrian league as an example for Russia. With all due respect, but which Europeans triumphs have the Austrian teams (let alone the Irish) celebrated so that they could serve as an example to follow. If Russia should copy any foreign example, it should copy the really successful ones. Germany for instance (lesson: how to attract fans and big crowds) or at least the smaller nations who are more successful than Austria. Belgium for instance (lesson : how to produce a highly talented generation and how to reach the quarter final in Europe with two teams). Between brackets: little Belgium has 16 teams in first division.

    3 What about the national team? Poor Cherchesov can now only pick from a limited amount of talented players. Have you any idea how many players with a Russian passport will play in the ten-team Premier League? Already now Russia’s talents have a hard time finding playing time in the Premier League, but then there are teams like Samara were Zuev can gain experience or Ufa were Vasin spent the previous years and promising Ilin in Ural. In the future all these teams and players will end up in second division. Poor Cherchesov!

    I agree with you that something has got to change, but I don’t think that 10 teams for 150 million people is the ideal way.

    • Frederick, thank you for this really interesting and helpful comment. I agree, a 10 team league is the nuclear option, it blows everything up and reduces down the league to an Ireland-Austria level. And I do have reasons to propose it which I only touched on in the article.

      For example, one of the greatest issues is player welfare and payment. At present this is a terrible mess from years of neglect and lack of a cohesive plan. However with the ARFPU now responsible for looking after players rights, they are able to implement plans from insurance, to salary payment to contract rights to anti-discrimination programs. At the same time there is a lack of money to spread around and disinterest from the public. By narrowing down clubs who are professional, means that there is greater oversight for this one area. Plus players will have far more chance of getting paid.

      Agree about provincial football, yet if you look at Ireland, provincial teams have had great success with small fan bases – Sligo, Dundalk, Derry. There are less instances of a Drogheda United or Shelbourne now as clubs have to be self-sustaining. The ability of the PFAI to get involved also helps. I could see a small city or club team, with proper planning and resources, like Volga Ulyanovsk, Gazovik, Fakel, rise and become a Premier team and get into Europe. At present this lifeline, UEFA money, is kept solely by clubs with rich sugar Daddy’s/companies – FC Krasnodar, Loko, Spartak, Zenit, CSKA. And with a highly competitive League system, Federal and Regional media will be more interested, as local and national money will gravitate towards it.

      Belgium is a great example, though the country has always had a strong talent pool, well backed clubs and success. I know the country has not been without issues related to football, though with the economy and lack of alternative sports, it is a bit of an outlier. Ireland I picked because of the lowly position football holds there and Austria because of the regularity with which their clubs have been in Group stages, as well as the National Team getting a recent revival.

      For the Russian National Team, limiting the number of pro teams will improve the players available, in my opinion. As it stands there is a large amount of sub-standard Russian players getting contracts in the Premier League, reduce the number of teams and they immediately need to begin to scrap at the next level below. Or, if they truly back themselves, they go abroad. This is something that will give the National Team an infusion of energy that it badly needs.

      Again, it’s only one way to address it, though I agree, it’s not going to be easy in any way shape or form.

  2. Dont think its a good idea ….. actually i thought it was good idea 8 years ago)))
    With this system u basically get the best from the top teams, and it works well i guess there, cuase football is well developed there, i mean regionally – the academy, the amateurs leagues, a school leagues etc.
    And ur idea is good for the well developed country, heir u need to make the system work, and then to see do u really need to cut down the number of teams.
    When you develop something its usually not good thing to put the limits(hello to Mutko) cuase its slows don the progress.

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