Mordovia’s Evolving Nightmare


Dalibor Stevanovič went from villain to hero last weekend, as his winning penalty to defeat the then-league leaders Rostov capped a remarkable few days for Mordovia Saransk. Prior to the match he was reported to have left the club’s training sessions along with Serbian Marko Lomić in protest over unpaid wages, but after a dramatic intervention from the President of Saransk Region temporarily resolved the issue he was reinstated to the starting lineup. The issues are nothing new to Russian football on the face of it, but they highlight the worrying environment of club football.

Even their high-flying opponents from last week are not immune to irregular funding; twice this season Rostov have been slapped with a registration ban for not paying employees, although they have pulled through on and off the pitch. Mordovia have somehow managed to keep their heads above the water in the league table, despite being the only club unable to bring in any new players over the winter break while seeing foreign midfield lynchpins Damien Le Tallec and Mitchell Donald leave to Red Star Belgrade. The tale of their season has been of struggle at the wrong end of the table and since they parted company with the legendary Yuri Semin last May, and they find themselves in the middle of a tense battle to maintain top fight status.

Both Stevanovič and Lomic have less than two months remaining on their current contracts and it seems increasingly unlikely that they will sign an extension in the current climate on and off the pitch, with even claiming that their contracts might be terminated early. This seems premature after the former’s crucial contribution last week on the pitch, but it is not uncommon to come across cases of players extracting themselves from contractual obligations early due to financial issues.

Mordovia Press Attache Vitaliy Laptev announced that the first part of the unpaid salaries had been delivered two days before the Rostov match, indicating that he rest would be paid over the next few weeks in instalments, but appeared unsure if the training session would go ahead. The Minister of Sport of the Republic of Mordovia, Vladimir Kireev, assured the media later the same day that it would do, and attempted to deflect the responsibility of late payment to the uncertain economic situation in Russia.

What he couldn’t answer was why the players had not been informed of the reasons for the delay in delivering their salaries. Back in February Kireev came under intense scrutiny from the Russian Federation’s Minister of Sport himself, Vitaly Mutko, as a number of athletes competing in Mordovia competitions had been caught for doping. Kireev escaped being fired, as Mutko had suggested, after his Deputy Minister Vera Tsybusova took the rap instead.

Last Saturday, Russian Premier League President Sergey Pryadkin revealed that a meeting between the leadership of the Republic of Mordovia and the club itself had agreed to guarantee staggered payments of outstanding debts, but Mutko returned to the debate in forceful style. “I think today there is a problem in the management of clubs themselves, as it was in Vladikavkaz and other cities,” he told reporters. “In Saransk really all that happened is related to the economy.

“Big businesses in the capital buy assets in the regions, and they are absolutely not interested in football. When the appropriate people start checking the finances of clubs, they cannot understand that a lot of money has been spent on service agents or why the club employs dozens of players who don’t play for the team. It is necessary to stop the dominance of some companies. At Mordovia there should be 20,30, 100 shareholders, maybe even some fans.”

The company he refers to is the Moscow-based Eurocement, whose affiliate MordovCement have provided significant financial support and advertise at the stadium. Two years ago, the group signed a $530 million deal with Chinese clients to supply equipment and training, and claim to have spent nearly 1 billion roubles on improving environmental services and charitable donations, but make little or no mention of their connection to the football club.

The concept of dividing ownership of clubs between a minimum number of shareholders would techincally avoid dependence on the financial health of individual sponsors, but it is not as simple as just implementing a rule dictating this. In Germany, there is a “50+1” rule that by law dictates that no one shareholder can own more than 49% of the club, or on other terms a controlling interest, but some clubs have found ways around this. Red Bull Leipzig have officially complied with the rules, but a closer inspection of their ownership a year ago would reveal that the group of shareholders who together control the vast majority of the club are all employees or business partners of the Austrian-based conglomerate.

Officially the club has had no commercial sponsor for 18 months – the blank home shirts are not an ethical stand like Barcelona used to employ – which has severely impaired the club’s long term financial health. This is something which the players understand according to goalkeeper Ilie Cebanu, but which is not excused by the conduct of those off the pitch. “The whole team understands that it is difficult at Mordovia – there are players here who have already gone through similar situations at Torpedo [Moscow], Alania [Vladikavkaz] and Saturn [Moscow].

“The lack of dialogue with the leadership however is embarassing. [On Saturday] the head of the Republic came into the locker room, talked with the whole team and explained the reasons for why this situation has occurred. In principle, such a conversation would have been enough if it had happened before. This is normal when the management communicates directly.”

With the threat of boycotts removed for the time being, the future of the club is the next major obstacle to be dealt with. The entire squad, which has an average age of 29, have contracts that run out this calendar year, and a full time manager is yet to be appointed, with the league status of the club hanging in the balance despite the recent upturn in results. Acting head coach Marat Mustafin has thanked the Head of the Republic Vladimir Volkov for his support in public, but whether they will both continue working towards the survival of Mordovia Saransk is uncertain.

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewMijFlint

Author: Andrew Flint

I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…

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