Leonid Fedun’s “Football Revolution”: How the Spartak owner proposes reforming Russian football

Leonid Fedun is a highly influential figure in Russian football, and when he speaks, we all listen. He is the current majority shareholder of Spartak Moscow, LUKoil and former military officer. He has recently spoken out on reforming football in Russia, proposing what he claims is a “Football Revolution”.

Every year at the winter break, questions over reforming the league structure and schedule crop up, partly due to the lack of match action, but also the sheer importance and need for this reform. Sergei Pryadkin has discussed reform recently, but interestingly, claimed none is arranged to neither the structure nor schedule. But such an important and high-profile figure in Fedun discussing it will hopefully expedite matters. Krasnodar general director Vladimir Hashig has since announced his support for Fedun’s comments, but just what exactly has he proposed?

READ MORE: Sergei Pryadkin on Reforming the Russian Premier League

 

Reform #1: Calendar

Fedun has proposed to bring the winter months into account when scheduling the calendar for the year;

On Wednesday, there was a RPL press conference, we discussed calendar issues there. It’s clear that such games as SKA vs CSKA and Lokomotiv in Khabarovsk in freezing weather, our [Spartak’s] away game against Arsenal weren’t exactly the best sight. I think there are elementary things we can do to prevent that. And they are necessary in the very next season

I agree wholeheartedly here with Fedun, it is ludicrous for Russia to try and follow western European standards of scheduling, due to both the sheer size of the nation and the inclement meteorological conditions in the winter. However, he does not go insofar as to propose a return to the old Soviet system, but instead proposes an interesting “seeding” format in which some clubs, such as SKA, Ural, Arsenal, would be saved from playing in December;

Seed the teams that would play 2-3 games before the winter break and 2-3 games after it at home. We have 8 or so clubs that can play in basically any weather: from the Southern federal district, plus St. Petersburg and Moscow, where stadiums can be used in any weather. These clubs can be “seeded” during the calendar-making process so that they would play, say, 20th-24th rounds at home, and then draw all other rounds. Such planning would allow us to skip visiting Kazan, Ufa, Far East or, say, Krasnoyarsk in winter.

Now, Krasnodar goes to Perm for an away match in December. Why not vice versa? It’s easy to change, and I can’t understand why the league still didn’t do that.

This is a sensible change from Fedun; the current format by playing in late November and December is both ludicrous and dangerous, meanwhile moving to an old-school Soviet calendar, while preferred, would force them to play through international tournaments on a bi-annual basis. Both systems cause those in Europe to suffer, playing the Round of 32 and Round of 16 before the RPL even starts again. This system allows flexibility – a crucial advantage in such a large and meteorologically fluctuant nation and should be introduced from the elite all the way to grassroots.

 

Reform #2: Format

His second reform is predicated on the need for the elite-level clubs to play more often, citing;

Now a more global topic. I’d like to raise the question of league format changing. From 2018/19 season, our league infrastructure changes completely. We’ll get nine new quality arenas. Krasnodar, Spartak, CSKA, Zenit have spent big money to build the stadiums, but they aren’t used too often. Just 15-17 home games a season – it’s almost nothing. Very few! It’s impossible to recoup the spent money that way.

There’s also another question: for whom do the teams with home audience less than 5,000 play?

The interviewer responds in kind, that the governor of the local region often pays for the club to play. Although seriously disparaging to smaller sides, Fedun does have a point. These stadiums need be used far more often in order to recoup the heavy, heavy costs. Just think, the Stadium Saint Petersburg would be used just 15 times domestically in a season, yet is the most expensive stadium in the world, costing $1.1 billion.

This is how Fedun would solve the problem;

Let’s ask a question then: does the Premier League need such clubs? [Smaller sides, with attendances under 5,000] There’s a rule in American sport: if your club doesn’t have 15,000 spectators or more at every match, you just don’t get a license; perhaps we should introduce a similar rule too? But I’ll say simpler: I think we should, beginning with the 2019/20 championship, decrease the number of RPL teams to 14 and change the formula. Before the winter break, play 26 rounds, 5-6 of them midweek. And then, divide the teams into two halves: top seven competes for the championship and European places, bottom seven competes for survival.

two teams relegate, two teams play in relegation play-offs. That way, clubs will get 19 home games instead of 15. Such team as Spartak will get an opportunity to play several more high-level games: against Zenit, CSKA, Krasnodar, Lokomotiv. This means capacity crowds and tickets of the highest price category.

For the second seven, the games will be important too: the spectators take much interest for the survival games. By my count, all clubs will get additional 100-300 million rubles out of this. And Spartak or Zenit will get close to 500 million rubles.

Fedun is essentially reducing the RPL to 14 sides, then splitting the league into a two-tier system as seen in both Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League and Scotland’s Scottish Premiership. I agree with the two-tier system, come to the end of the season it’ll intensify interest in both the relegation battle and title race, creating some vital and intense matchups. However, this is a reform inherently advantageous to the Russian elite. Smaller clubs often rely upon the following of bigger club’s (mainly Spartak) in increasing their attendance and gate revenue. As I have explored in the past, smaller teams, particularly those in the FNL struggle to simply survive, and such a cash injection hugely boosts the club’s coffers. In the FNL last season, Dinamo Moscow and Spartak-2 were involved in five of the ten highest attended matches in the league, including both Moscow derbies and the three highest averages season-wide.

Interestingly, Fedun acknowledges this impact upon the bigger sides;

Spartak earns 50-60 million rubles from one match. You can get additional half a billion from the reform. This will also increase the broadcast ratings since the first seven will be more popular. This is better for the new TV contract negotiation, and competition will increase.

Also, our players, while getting higher wages than in Europe on average, play less. A RPL player plays around 40 games a season. At the West, they play 50. The reform will allow us to reach the same level. I understand that this is quite radical, but I can’t see any other way to give additional profit to clubs and increase the competitiveness.

Furthermore, I disagree with reducing the number of teams in the league. Otherwise, we would be let with a league of the Russian elite and the rest struggling in the FNL. If he wants to reduce the number of sides in the RPL, it must only follow either substantial regionalisation to the FNL, or the implementation of a geographically-centred two-tiered system. Fedun must remember from his ivory tower that Russian football is not just Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Fedun likewise acknowledges the hit on smaller clubs;

Of course, relegation battlers in RPL will oppose this. But I hope to get support from RFU and my colleagues who are interested in making our football more intensive and profitable. I’m expecting a discussion of my offers. I’d like to hear balanced pros and contras.

I see only a few disadvantages of the system. When we have more clubs that can attract, say, 10,000 spectators regularly, we can increase the league size again, to 18 or 20 teams. But for the fans, for Spartak, CSKA or Zenit, having two home derbies instead of one is a big plus, the high point of the entire league.

Lastly, Fedun opposed the idea of a closed league as utilised in the USA;

This would be bad. We’ll lose migration between the leagues, which won’t make football any better.

Denouncing a closed league is a massive relief, it simply isn’t suited to a nation in which less than 10% of the clubs are privatised. In America, it works due to their population, profits, interest, attendances and so on. In Russia, it would kill off nationalised, smaller sides already struggling under the lack of regional investment.

 

Reform #3: Russian Cup

Next, the Spartak billionaire discussed the Russian Cup and proposed changes to the format;

I’ve got another interesting offer. Let’s remember the point about footballing legacy in the Russian president’s report at the World Cup preparation committee. What happens to the stadiums in Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd, Sochi, Kaliningrad, Saransk – the cities that have no Premier League teams and little hope to get one. I visited Faro a few years ago and saw the arena where Russia national team played two games at the Euros. A pitiful sight: just a battered husk left.

And so, I came up with the initiative: change the Russian Cup format, so that 1/16, 1/8 and 1/4 matches be played at the arenas with no RFPL clubs. For instance, we could get Amkar vs Spartak in Volgograd. Every “white elephant” stadium will host three or four such games in the season. The governors will receive subsidies for upkeep of those stadiums, and these games will show us how well these subsidies are used. These three or four top matches will attract the crowd interest and help maintain the infrastructure. The cities themselves are beautiful, they have their history and unique architecture, many fans will travel. We may play two games in summer on those arenas and, say, two games in April.

Semifinals will be two-legged, as in European cups: one home match and one away. And finals are always to be held in Luzhniki.

This is an excellent idea to ensure the long-term use of these white elephants, but what about the fans? He is, of course, Spartak owner, the most widely-supported club in the nation with huge enclaves of support all the way from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. Therefore he need not worry about fans travelling from Moscow to Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Sochi or Saransk. However, for just a few games a season, it may be worth it in order to protect the legacy of those respective stadia and avoid them becoming deadweight for the respective regions’ ever-tightening budgets.

Fedun, when asked whether or not he believes these would be accepted, was bullish;

Yes, I do. Nobody can come up with anything better with the Cup. League reform, of course, will require discussion with the clubs. I talked to [CSKA director] Babaev at the derby about the downsizing of the league. Of course, he agreed. One more match with Spartak or Zenit at any stadium is more money. There are teams that do not care whether spectators come to their games, they aren’t interested in that. So, the next question should be to the RFU leadership. The main thing is our players not playing as much as they can. Perhaps that’s why they aren’t playing as well as in Europe.

He’s right, nobody else has come up with a better option, and this seems plausible – and the need to get Russian players playing more is vital. They do not play for just under six months of the year, in England, it’s under two, Germany under three and so on. Fedun is right, Russian players need to play more often.

 

Reform #4: Transfer Payments

Fedun’s fourth and final reform is what he calls an “effective solidarity mechanism”, effectively protecting young Russan players from being poached for nothing;

I would like to talk about the lack of young talents in Russia in comparison to the West. Youth coaches still have wrong motivation. They want to win another regional tournament rather than train really talented players. I’ve tried to explain that when RFU introduced the solidarity mechanism: youth coaches that trained the player get five percent from the player’s transfer sum. But we have next to no transfer deals. A Rostov player can just go to Zenit for free.

The solidarity payment should be calculated from the player’s basic earnings in his first year of contract, including agent’s fees. So, everyone who took part in training the player before 21 years of age, would get some money. For instance, we signed Zobnin. If this system was in place, his Irkutsk coach would immediately get around $30,000. This is great money for him. This will get the coaches interested in training really talented players. The player may change a lot of clubs, but his coaches, rather than his agents, will always get some money from each transfer. Currently, only agents are getting any money.

This doesn’t mean the players themselves will pay as many have feared, but the club. It will become a transfer fee.

No. Who pays the agents – do the players pay them? The clubs pay, and they pay a lot – around 10 percent of the whole sum. The agents will have to step aside. Dzyuba joined Zenit for free, but if this solidarity mechanism was in place, Spartak would get a good cut of his wages. Even 5 percent of his wages would cover 30 or 40 percent of the Academy’s yearly budget.

This is clearly in reaction to Zenit’s transfer business; Aleksandr Erokhin, Dmitri Poloz, Anton Zabolotny, Daler Kuzyaev and  Denis Terentiev all joined for either nothing or a nominal fee this season. Spartak was forced to pay for Georgi Dzhikiya and Aleksandr Sleikov last winter. But it isn’t just sour grapes from Fedun and makes a lot of sense, protecting the smaller sides.

Who will bear the burden, however? Agents, according to Fedun.

This is an effort to decrease their [agents] profits. But we can’t do anything more to motivate the coaches. Yes, we built new stadiums and fields. And then paid groups train in these fields. But under this system, say, Golovin’s first coach would get a good cut if Golovin transfers to another club.

This initiative completely changes the vector of youth football. If we also build new training centres, like in Germany or England, we’ll already get a new economic mechanism in place. And in 5 or 10 years, we’ll get a lot of talented youngsters. Our players will become stars aged 17-18, like in Europe, not aged 25-26, as now.

He has even thought of a way to avoid the current problems with youth coaches’ solidarity fees, which get ignored;

Yes, but it turned out that there are just no money-related deals. Two clubs agreed with each other, and the player gets transferred. This can’t be controlled financially. There should be documents that can be checked. The player’s contracts are all checked, and they are transparent, all sums are clearly written down, including agent fees. All these numbers can be summed up, then we calculate 5 percents and pay them to the coach.

There is no worry for palyers to be taken advantage of. The players aren’t fools! What if they get sold after the first season? 60-70 percent of all our contracts are 1-year. Only top 5 or 6 clubs sign long-term deals.

 

Denouement

This is essentially his proposal in microcosm. Fedun had an interesting exchange with the Sport-Express interviewers; Maksim Maksimov, Sergei Egorov and Viacheslav Korotkin, which lies as follows;

At the executive committee, you can get negative reactions. The main argument would probably be along the lines of popularization of football in the country, while you’re offering to decrease the number of clubs in the RPL.

Popularization of football? Look at Khabarovsk, we’ve all been there. What’s their average attendance: less than five thousands? Three, at most four thousands at the stands. Is that popularization? It’s profanation!

Make your teams at least as popular as hockey teams. Now the whole league’s attendance is carried by three or four clubs. Of course, relegation battlers will not agree. But we’re talking about global football here, not defending the local interests.

But, as the proverb says, your own shirt is always closer to the body. Not everyone is interested in the global picture.

I hope that Sport-Express supports me. Is it interesting for you? It will surely be more interesting if we get more games between Spartak, CSKA and Zenit.

How can we play 26 games in the autumn?

Play more midweek matches. Begin the championship a bit earlier.

What should the teams playing in Europe do?

How do the English teams play 60 games a season? And we here suffer when we have to play just 40. There are big wages in Europe, but the players really earn them by their work, and our players don’t. It would be better to make the league even smaller, 12 teams or so, but nobody will do that.

How will FNL react? Should we decrease its size too?

There’ll just be more teams. I think this league should be divided into two divisions.

So, essentially, you’re offering a revolution.

You have to have a revolution! We didn’t talk about that before because there was no infrastructure. Before, only Lokomotiv and Kazan had normal stadiums. And now, even the teams that didn’t want new stadiums got them. Five more stadiums may become dead weight on regional budget. That’s why changes in the Cup are necessary. It’s going to be a great thing for the regions! The good thing is that now we know where do the maintenance money go.

This exchange is fascinating. The trio grill Fedun on his reforms, but he holds out and calmly answers each point they have. It highlights both the strongest points of his reform, yet likewise is his downfall.

Yes, Fedun is offering football revolution. But a revolution only for those who can afford to be involved. It is a revolution for the elite, one from above. Lower-league sides and those struggling in the RPL, even some perennial mid-table sides would be disappointed by his reforms. He needs to outline how he would improve the FNL in much greater detail. As far as I’m concerned the Trans-Siberian football league is still which requires the most urgent reform. Yes, the RPL needs reform to thrive, but FNL needs it to merely survive.

READ MORE: Problems with the Trans-Siberian Football League

Fedun’s reforms could work. Especially for the propagation of the Russian game globally and upon the European stage. But we also need more reforms to protect those with the local and regional interest.

The biggest stumbling block, however, is that all of this would be arbitrary if the problems of finance in the nation aren’t solved immediately, through privatisation and fiscally stronger broadcast deals.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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