The Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will decide this weekend whether or not to uphold the Russian Football Union’s decision to punish Zenit with a technical defeat in last November’s match vs Dinamo, after a flare thrown from the Zenit away stand nearly hit Dinamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin.
The resolution of Zenit’s nearly six-month long appeal will finally bring clarity to the top of the Premier League table. If the appeal is successful, Zenit will leap into a tie for first with CSKA (depending on the outcome of the weekend matches). Dinamo, who led the match 1-0 in the 37th minute before it was called off, would drop from 4th to 7th, a tough blow in the race for Europa League places.
The decision, of course, won’t be fair, no matter which side wins. Because of the nature of Zenit’s appeal, CAS’s only two options are to uphold the ruling or rule that Dinamo, as the match host, should have been handed a 3-0 technical defeat for failing to ensure safety at the stadium. Zenit, understandably, were outraged to lose three vital points because of the actions of a few fans. But a technical defeat to Dinamo would be even more odd, given they led 1-0 when the match was canceled and that the flares came from the away stand.
The aftershocks from November 17, meanwhile, rumble beneath the surface in Russian football. Lest you’ve forgotten, in the days following the match, Zenit announced that it was considering withdrawing from the Russian Premier League if the loss was not overturned. The bravado subsided for a few days, before Gazprom chairman and nominal Zenit owner Aleksey Miller unveiled plans to launch a Russian-Ukrainian United Championship within two years.
Joined, ironically, by CSKA and Anzhi, the two clubs battling with Zenit this spring for Champions League places and the league title, Miller put together a United Championship (UC) organizing committee headed up by Alania president Valery Gazzaev. The initiative has brought to the forefront divisions within the Russian football elite. Nikolai Tolstykh, Russian Football Union (RFU) president, is seen as the primary opponent of the UC and backed by numerous football dignitaries and much of the Russian football media.
The UC has the support of most of the Russian Premier League clubs, excluding Terek and Mordovia, as well as RPL president Sergei Palkin, the man Tolstykh defeated in September elections for the RFU presidency.
The most popular game right now for the Russian football media, in fact, is attempting to sniff out the grudges and shifting alliances thinly veiled by this conflict. Tolstykh himself has not directly criticized the UC, but several of his deputies have, claiming that the whole thing is an attempt by Zenit, Anzhi and CSKA owners to undermine the man they voted against in the September elections. They may well be right. What’s more troubling for UC opponents, however, is the enthusiasm with which other Premier League clubs, including Spartak, Lokomotiv, and Rubin, have embraced the concept of the new league, which will be backed heavily by Gazprom in the early going.
But Dinamo is a fascinating case. Openly on the fence regarding the UC — Dinamo president Gennady Solovyev said in February that he hadn’t decided one way or the other — and caught in the middle of the conflict that started the entire affair, the club also has close ties to Tolstykh. The RFU president played his entire career for Dinamo in the 1970s and 80s and served at nearly every level of club management, including as president from 1999-2001.
When the RFU assigned Zenit its technical defeat and gift-wrapped three points for Dinamo, plenty of gossip about Tolstykh’s favoritism circulated. Now Dinamo appear to be balancing delicately between support for the RFU and solidarity with other Premier League clubs. After the initial CAS hearing yesterday on the Dinamo – Zenit match, all Solovyev would say was that Dinamo was prepared to accept any ruling by the Lausanne organization, even as Zenit and RFU spokesmen push more openly for a decision in their favor.
The most likely outcome is for the Russian Football Union’s punishment to be upheld. Zenit, no matter its grievances, are very unlikely to persuade CAS that Dinamo deserve defeat instead. The most judicious decision, of course, would have been to complete the match at a later date, but CAS only has jurisdiction to assign technical defeat to the guilty party.
In any case, the significance of the match extends far beyond the three points at stake. Who knows, Russian football itself may need to take a trip to Lausanne if the divisions within the sport continue to widen.
Author: Andy Shenk
I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.