Murky Days Ahead

Russian football’s stability, uncertain in the best of times, looks even more suspect this weekend. One can’t help but pity Nikolay Tolstykh, Russian Football Union (RFU) president, as he tries to tackle the proposed Russian-Ukrainian United Championship, mounting debt, widespread corruption allegations and agent excesses.

On Wednesday, the RFU reported that it had written to Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy giant, to ask if the company plans to resume its financial support for the organization since cutting off funds last November.

It’s further proof of the complicated relations between Mr. Tolstykh’s organization and Gazprom, which controls Zenit St. Petersburg and would be the primary sponsor of the proposed Russian-Ukrainian football league. The RFU remains coy with regard to the United Championship, explaining that without any official documents from organizers there’s little to comment on. But the organization is no doubt struggling to formulate a proper response, given its own financial ties to Gazprom.

If approved, the league would, at best, reduce the RFU’s control over elite Russian clubs. At worst, the billion-euro competition might render the debt-saddled RFU irrelevant, apart from maintaining oversight of the national team and lower divisions.

It’s the battle for control over Russia’s top clubs, and with it the thorny issues of match-fixing, agents’ roles, money, and the limit on foreign players, that’s threatening a major overhaul in the domestic game. Tolstykh, though fairly popular with the public for his hardline approach to the sport’s murky side, appears to be getting boxed in by Gazprom. The suspension of financial support, after all, came about the same time that Gazprom chairman and Zenit owner Alexey Miller first proposed uniting Russian and Ukrainian football.

At any rate, Sport-Express reports that RFU finances are bad enough that national team manager Fabio Capello had to use his credit card as a guarantee for the squad during its stay in a Spanish hotel prior to February’s friendly with Iceland. Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko has also been said to be scrambling to find money to pay Capello’s assistants.

It’s not all Tolstykh’s fault. After beating out Russian Premier League president Sergey Pryadkin in RFU elections in September, the former Dinamo Moscow midfielder inherited an 800-million ruble (approximately $27 million) debt left by Sergey Fursenko’s administration.

But Tolstykh has been unable to make peace with the men who might be able to bail him out: first and foremost, Gazprom’s Aleksei Miller, as well as Anzhi owner Suleiman Kerimov and CSKA president Evgeny Giner, all of whom backed Pryadkin and are leading proponents of the United Championship.

Asked to comment on the RFU’s financial woes, United Championship executive Valery Gazzaev rubbed salt in the wound. “The United Championship will pay 5% of its budget to the RFU and FFU (Football Federation of Ukraine). That’s an enormous sum of 50 million euros. In the history of the RFU there’s never been a budget like that,” Gazzaev told Interfax on Thursday.

Neither side admits to a conflict, however, which makes it difficult to know exactly what is going on underneath the surface. Many expect that Miller and Kerimov, two of Russia’s richest men with tight business and political ties to the Kremlin, will squeeze Tolstykh’s RFU dry until he either jumps on board with the United Championship or is forced to resign due to his organization’s financial insolvency.

A separate issue, simmering on the backburners at present, is the battle with match-fixing in Russian football. The RFU announced the formation of a new anti-corruption committee this week, with Nikolai Tolstykh as chairman, three months after disbanding the more informal group that had been put in place by Tolstykh predecessor Sergey Fursenko. The new committee will include representatives from a slew of government agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Security Service, Ministry of Sports, Interpol and Federal Migration Service, as well as football experts.

They face a massive task – convincing the general public that they will be ruthless in cleaning up the sport and assuring clubs that everyone will receive fair treatment. If investigations into matches like the Amkar – Anzhi encounter last November turn up dirt on one or more Premier League clubs, frustration with Nikolai Tolstykh could boil over in the Premier League ranks.

The RFU also recommended on Tuesday that Russian clubs refrain from working with agents. The reaction to the announcement was primarily that of confusion. No one, except perhaps the agents’ union, is enthralled with the shady nature of the business, but it appeared that Tolstykh was just digging himself a bigger hole with top Russian clubs.

“Just as in any sphere of life, there are trustworthy agents and true professionals, as well as some unprincipled ones. But there’s no doubting that the institution is necessary,” said CSKA adviser Valery Nepomnyashchy, reflecting the entrenched role that agents play in professional football today.

The RFU will meet with agents on April 2 in Moscow to explain its concerns. In any case, the recommendation made earlier this week was non-binding, and no one knows yet what consequences, if any, there will be.

Meanwhile, on the United Championship front, Michel Platini told journalists on Thursday that he doesn’t support the plan for now, because Russian clubs, in his opinion, aren’t in dire financial straits. Valery Gazzaev took a respectful approach in response. “We don’t have any problem with the UEFA chief speaking out carefully,” he said.

At the same time, the official press release from his organizing committee emphasized that “uniting with a strong Ukrainian league was necessary for survival” and repeated what Gazzaev has been saying for months now: “In the near future all of the necessary documents, presentations, analysis and proof, competitive and marketing aspects of the project will be presented to the national and international football organizations.”

And, in closing, Gazzaev addressed those who may doubt the project, especially after Platini’s tepid assessment, “The organizing committee is not only confident in its strength, but we feel that the process of creating the United Championship is irreversible.”

The league, if hammered through, would mean enormous revenue increases for clubs as well as a likely end to the limit on foreign players, an obvious advantage for the Zenits and Anzhis of Russian football. At the same time, however, it might negatively impact football talent development and hinder efforts to improve the Russian national team, both of which the RFU is entrusted with overseeing. Wealthy football owners, conversely, are rarely invested in such matters.

Change comes slowly, no matter the organization or the setting, but it appears that forces have been released in Russian football that demand resolution. It’s difficult to predict what will happen next, but as the issues percolate in committee meetings, private phone calls, newspaper headlines and backroom powwows, reputations and the rules binding Russia’s number one sport are sure to be affected.

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.

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