Problems with the Trans-Siberian Football League

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The Russian Football National League (FNL) has been in place since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, unchanged from 1994 and remains one of the toughest logistical and fiscal challenges in world football. The Soviet Top Division and First Division were combined into the Russian Top Division in 1992, with the new Second Tier regionalised into a Centre, East and West. However, this model was scrapped in 1994 in favour of a 20-team single-region division we see today.

The Russian Top Division consisted of six Russian teams from the Soviet Top Division and 14 others from the First Division. The league has been reformed and changed often over the years, moving down to 18 teams in 1993, 16 in 1994 and reformed again with 16 in 1996. In 2001, the league was drastically reformed into the Russian Football Premier League (RFPL) and the groups dividing the league were removed to fit Western standards.

None of this reform affected the FNL, and many of the 20 teams in the division are struggling financially due to this. The league is the largest football league in the world, spanning from Baltika Kaliningrad (on the Baltic Sea, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania) to Luch-Energiya Vladivostok (less than 100 miles from both the Chinese and North Korean border). The only reform considered was to decrease the number of teams partaking in the competition from 20 to 18.

Even this was forced upon the RFU, as Torpedo Moscow refused to partake in the FNL upon their relegation and Torpedo Armavir likewise refused promotion from the Professional Football League (PFL) Southern Division, but they stuck to 20. Armavir finally accepted their position with financial aid from oligarch Oleg Mkrtchyan. However, by this point the RFU promoted both Zenit-2 and Spartak-2 to replace the twin Torpedo’s, therefore the league was forced to start with 20 teams. In the end, it started again with twenty and both reserve sides of the Premier League giants compete – successfully – in the FNL, unlike the aforementioned Baltika and Luch thanks to their central location and funding from parent clubs.

Geographically, the league is by far the biggest in the world, as-the-crow-flies, Vladivostok and Kaliningrad are over 4,500 miles apart. Comparatively, the distance between the two clubs furthest apart in the English Championship – Sunderland and Cardiff City – is “only” 310 miles. Imagine Fulham, for example, playing away to Vancouver Whitecaps, on the far west coast of Canada. SKA Khabarovsk’s promotion into the RFPL after defeating FC Orenburg in the recent playoff was an almost monumental occasion considering the costs accrued for a side located in the Far East playing in the FNL, costs that have been instrumental in the downfall of many clubs within the league.

Financial Instability

Luch and Baltika are not only the two teams geographically located the farthest apart, they are perfect case studies for investigating and analysing the troubles revolved around this Trans-Siberian Football League.

Due to this astronomical geographic distance between many of the clubs in the league, those with less funding and higher distances are struggling and barely survive. The two Torpedo’s, Torpedo Moscow and Armavir both refused to enter the FNL due to both their own financial constraints and the huge expenses required to merely play in the league. A mid-table side typically has a total operating budget of $4m yet this meagre budget needs to cover travel and accommodation for a league encompassing over 4,500 miles as-the-crow-flies for 19 away games.

In comparison, the furthest two clubs in the English Premier League (Newcastle United and AFC Bournemouth) are only 295 miles apart. The operating budgets for Premier League teams are undisclosed, however, the bottom team in 2016-2017 (Sunderland) were awarded over £99.4m in prize money alone. Newcastle United accrued roughly £7.1m in prize money alone this season for winning the EFL Championship (excluding £40m in parachute payments), a mere drop-in-the-sea compared to their relegated North-East rivals, but also a large fortune compared to the annual operating budgets of club’s operating within the FNL.

Igor Akinfeev claimed that Luch-Energiya Vladivostok “should play in the Japanese League” in response to their promotion to the 2008 RFPL. The club was immediately relegated and have struggled financially ever since. Sport-Express have reported that the club has accrued massive debts. Then Head Coach Oleg Veretennikov claimed in 2015;

“Yesterday we played in St. Petersburg against Tosno, we won 2-0…now we will fly to Vladivostok and do not know where the team will be based, because the team has been expelled from our training base…it is very difficult for the team…and the [financial] situation gets worse and worse”.

Now, the club should have been relegated from the FNL, and should be preparing to play in the Eastern Zone of the Professional Football League (PFL), Russia’s regionalised third tier, but will remain in the FNL as the winners of the Eastern PFL, FC Chita, failed to present the correct paperwork in time for promotion. The question is whether or not those at FC Chita failed, or merely decided against handing in the paperwork for promotion into the league altogether. They can simply continue to function as a normal club in the third tier, able to focus all funds upon the development of their first team, academy and facilities, instead of travel and logistics.

The Primorsky Oblast has repeatedly refused to fund Luch in their travel expenses – a minimum eight-hour flight from the capital – and current sponsorship deals in the FNL are minuscule compared to the Premier League – and even more so compared to the riches of the English Premier League. As such, Luch has been unable to pay their players for a number of seasons, and have missed monthly wage demands already in 2017. The current system only benefits the Moscow and Saint Petersburg elite, with Rostov, Rubin Kazan and FC Krasnodar the only clubs who have recently attempted to challenge this city duopoly in the top division, while teams on the periphery of the nation in the FNL have not just been left to languish as those in the RFPL have, but face a daily battle to merely survive.

Political Difficulties

As is nearly always the case with Russia, it is just not fiscal instability which constantly hinders football teams in the country, but also politics and corruption. Particularly regarding Baltika Kaliningrad and the Dinamo Saint Petersburg.

Baltika is located in an enclave between Poland and Lithuania, entirely cut off from the rest of Russia, and thus are an outside member of both Russia in general and the world of Russian football. Despite this, Baltika remaining in the FNL or above is key to Russia’s national interests as the whole region is a key political site by providing the Russian Federation, and particularly Vladimir Putin an important military base on the Baltic Sea. A problem which has dogged the nation since the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

Königsberg was occupied by the Red Army on 9 April 1945 and became a Russian city in a Decree of 4 July 1946, named after Communist Party apparatchik Mikhail Kalinin who had died just a month earlier from Cancer. Renamed along with Tver, and Korolyov (the latter in 1938, previously Podlipki) and is now the only one of the three that has kept Kalinin’s name following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ever since 4 July 1946, the region has been more than just a constituent part of the country, but has been (unofficially) granted elevated status as the ‘Baltic Republic within the Russian Federation’.

Because of this important geopolitical status, Kaliningrad is one of the 2018 World Cup Venues, with a new 35,000 seater state-of-the-art stadium being built in the city, due to be the new home of Baltika after the tournament. Baltika’s attendances averaged out at 3,394 last season, filling only 23% of their current home which is less than half the size of the prospective Arena Baltika. The club will likely struggle to maintain maintenance costs of their new home but have been given the stadium even while under great risk of relegation to the PFL. Rumours of Olga Smordskaya taking over as CEO refuse to go away, and the threat of relegation has lingered. But the club has started this season’s FNL successfully, after Matchday Four they sit unbeaten and second in the table. The Kaliningrad-based team balance either on the edge of success or failure and if they sway towards the latter may become another dissolved team with a giant empty stadium like the snow leopards of Alania Vladikavkaz.

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A 2015 artist’s mock-up of the most recent Arena Baltika design. Source: StadiumDB

Baltika is not the only team stuck amidst political corruption and nepotism in the FNL. Dinamo Saint Petersburg has been promoted to the league under a new guise from the traditional and existing one that was relegated back in 2015. Leonid Tsapu, the previous owner of the once famous club – which partook in an incredible football match during the siege of Leningrad in 1942 – pulled out his support during that disastrous season, in which players were left unpaid, and debts surmounted as the club disbanded.

Boris Rotenberg is now the new owner of the reborn Dinamo, as the Saint Petersburg side is now essentially a feeder club to Dinamo Moscow. Rotenberg looked to renegotiate the balance Spartak Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg achieved in the beginning of last season’s FNL when their own respective feeder teams were promoted to the second tier. Whereas CSKA Moscow in November 2016 announced a “cooperation agreement” with SKA Khabarovsk, Dinamo essentially bought out their old sports society comrades. Both sets of clubs are historically related, with CSKA and SKA likewise society comrades, both were Army Sports Clubs (SKA) and owned by the Army during Soviet times, hence the moniker they both share; the Army Men. At the time of the agreement, SKA was fourth in the FNL and was designed to be a feeder team to their Muscovite comrades, but now find themselves direct league rivals.

Although all four clubs; SKA, Dinamo SPb, Spartak-2 and Zenit-2, are financially stable, these agreements and promotions are merely just cases of nepotism transient throughout the world of Russian football. The smaller teams are paying for fiscal stability and short-term survival with long-term development, as all four will merely be transformed into conduits to favour their larger Premier League comrades. To make matters even worse for Dinamo Saint Petersburg, they have been forced out of their city to play games at Veliky Novgorod, as the RFU has granted FC Tosno – 30 miles south-east of Petersburg, and the old tenants of the Electron Stadium – playing rights at the Petrovsky while Zenit play in the Krestovsky as Dinamo are pushed out in favour of the Premier League teams. Though part of the decision has been at the behest of the Petersburg City Police, who do not have enough forces to police Zenit, Tosno, Dinamo SPb and Zenit-2 matches.

Dinamo midfielder Ivan Soloviev recently hit out at the decision ahead of their city derby with Zenit-2;

“We’ll play where they tell us, but I think that it would be better to take an opponent on at the Petrovsky, so that all our fans would be in the stands. Many of those who come to our games in Saint Petersburg may not be able to go to Veliky Novgorod”.

Although the decision to move Dinamo’s home games against Kuban Krasnodar, Rotor Volgograd, Fakel Voronezh and Olimpiyets Nizhny Novgorod was at the behest of the SPb city police and rubber stamped by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, suggestions of nepotism cannot be ignored. It is no surprise that the three teams currently playing in Saint Petersburg today have close links within their upper echelons; Zenit and Zenit-2 are of course both owned, funded and ran by Gazprom, and FC Tosno are owned by FortGroup, a commercial real-estate agency based out of Saint Petersburg. Although at first, this seems to be just merely privatisation at work, something more sinister emerges regarding the investigation of Fort Tower, a twenty-one floor, 80m high mixed use tower block built in Moskovsky District by Q4 2016. The international architects Chapman Taylor were commissioned to design the tower, and describe it as a “new architectural centrepiece of Saint Petersburg”. Initially, the plans were made alongside ZAO VTB-Development, a real estate branch of the VTB empire, Dinamo Moscow and SPb’s chief sponsors, but in March 2017, VTB was overlooked in favour of Gazprom, who leased the entire tower block for 4.545 billion rubles (£57.8m). Interfax reports the deal was signed in December but was never disclosed until the investigation in March, and analysts have called the deal to rent Fort Tower the largest in 2016.

For several years, Gazprom has been gradually moving its offices to Saint Petersburg. Two-thirds of all transactions made in 2016 in the office market of the city fell on the entities of the monopolist and its contractors. It can be seen as no coincidence that the VTB-funded Dinamo SPb have been pushed out of the city in favour of FortGroup-owned FC Tosno merely six months after the biggest real estate deal in Russia likewise overlooked VTB in favour of Gazprom and FortGroup. Moreover, moving FC Tosno to the Petrovsky would likely increase attendances at their home games, a big problem for the RFU in both the RFPL, but particularly the FNL.

Plummeting Attendances

Ivan Soloviev, while accepting his fate, has not just admirably defended his team and fans, but unwillingly stumbled into the attendance debate currently ongoing within the Russian football echo chamber. Attendances in Russian football as a whole have exponentially increased since the fall of the Soviet Union, from an average of 5,974 fans per game across the whole league in 1995 to 11,333 per game (only counting January-June 2017). However, since a post-Soviet high of 13,543 and 13,334 in 2007 and 2008 respectively, the total numbers of fans, average per team, the average for the top division and average for the country as a whole has dropped. The only reason for the vast increase since 1995 was the turmoil the country as a whole endured adapting to post-Soviet life and a natural progression with this adaptation. The zenith in 2007-2008 was likely due to the excitement caused surrounding the success of Sbornaya with stars like Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Sergei Semak, Sergei Ignashevish et al in their prime, easily qualifying for the tournament and reaching the semi-finals during the course of the tournament itself.

Last season, the FNL experienced the lowest average attendances in the history of the competition, even lower than during the turbulent Boris Yeltsin era. Although part of the explanation could be the inclusion of Spartak-2 and Zenit-2, who are essentially reserve teams with average attendances of 1,125 and 885 respectively, this is not actually the case, as the two teams attracted thousands of spectators whenever they visited the better-supported resident FNL teams such as Fakel Voronezh, when 10,600 fans turned out to see possibly their frst opportunity in years to see a Spartak team play. The reason, however, is not just the composition of clubs within the league; this will fluctuate each season as certain teams enter the league, for example, whenever Krylia Sovetov are in the FNL their average attendances drastically improves the average attendance of the league. The problems are much more systemic and structural to Russian football as a whole.

First of all, however, we must analyse the individual teams’ average attendances in the FNL last season. In my investigation – with statistics provided by Stanislav Chudin’s fantastic blog on Sports.ru, Football Cartography – only FC Tosno (59%) last season had an average attendance higher than 50% of the capacity of their stadium over the course of the year. Shinnik Yaroslavl (7%) and Volgar Astrakhan (8%) had the lowest average attendance ratios in the league last season, largely due to inclement weather and waning interest in football outside of European Russia. The highest average attendance was Fakel Voronezh with 5,074 at their Trade Unions Central Stadium, regulars near the top of the table. However, only 15% of their 32,750-capacity stadium was filled, one of the lowest in the league. Kuban Krasnodar, who had the highest attendances in the whole of Russia in 2012/13 had the fourth highest average attendance in the FNL last season, at just 3,593. This figure is a far cry from their 25,235 average attendance in 2013, as on average 79.7% of the stadium was filled during the course of the season.

Statistics sourced from Stanislav Chudin, @StalislavChudin on twitter and Футбольная картографи on Sports.ru

Statistics sourced from Stanislav Chudin, @StanislavChudin on twitter and Футбольная картографи on Sports.ru.

One reason suggested is the low capacities of each individual stadium, with Spartak-2 forced to play in the Spartak Academy Stadium, Zenit-2 forced to play in the MSA Petrovsky, FC Khimki forced out into the Rodina Stadium and Dinamo Saint Petersburg (now) forced to play in the Electron Stadium, however the first three of these clubs only filled 42%, 32%, and 18% of their respective smaller stadia. Allowing them to play at the Otkrytiye, Petrovsky and Arena Khimki would merely damage the pitch while playing in front of an almost empty stadium. Spartak-2 did host one game at the Otkrytiye last season, the local derby against Dinamo Moscow in front of 10,355 fans, which only filled 23% of the stadium. This was against one of their most bitter of rivals and arguably the only time Spartak-2 would play Dinamo’s first-team in their history, but even then, three-quarters of the massive stadium were left unfilled. This match was the third highest attendance in the FNL last season, with only Fakel Voronezh’s impressive support beating the Moscow derby, with figures of 12,900 and 10,600 against Dinamo Moscow and Spartak-2 respectively. Furthermore, there are numerous larger stadia in the FNL such as the Kuban Stadium, Trade Unions Central Stadium and Shinnik Stadium with capacities well over 20,000 left empty the majority of the season. The stadia are big enough – and sometimes even too big – the problem is the lack of people in them.

Statistics sourced from Stanislav Chudin, @StalislavChudin on twitter and Футбольная картографи on Sports.ru

Statistics sourced from Stanislav Chudin, @StanislavChudin on twitter and Футбольная картографи on Sports.ru

The arrival of Dinamo Moscow and the feeder “two” clubs last season generally piqued interest within the league. Spartak-2 and Dinamo were involved in five of the 10 highest attendances last season, including both derbies at the Otrkrytiye and Arena Khimki respectively. Yet notwithstanding this, the average attendance was still the lowest since 1994 despite the higher interest in these two clubs’ involvement. Fakel Voronezh was once again top of the average attendance list, as they have been for the previous two years and Dinamo was a respectable second. Other promoted teams SKA Khabarovsk and FC Tosno were third and tenth respectively, owing to the advantage a good crowd gives to a team.

The FNL has seen an exponential drop in attendances over the last ten years, dropping from an average of 4,448 in 2007 to last season’s all time low of 2,251, almost half. By way of comparison, the PFL has also dropped from an average of 1,929 to 969, a similar 50% drop in levels but at a much slower rate. The reasons aforementioned; a fluctuating economy, ruble and national team’s fortunes, as well as failure in Europe, are responsible, but generally only in the RFPL. The FNL has seen such an exodus chiefly due to the size of the league and structural problems within it. the PFL has been split into four zones; West-Centre-East-Ural Povolzhye, whereas the FNL is still a single twenty-team division spanning such a vast geographic area making away fans almost non-existent. One of Luch-Energiya Vladivostok’s recent trips to Kaliningrad even made headlines as just a single solitary away fan travelled the minimum 26-hour round trip. As such, attendances within the PFL has stagnated at a much slower rate, generally due to lack of interest or other, systemic problems with Russian football.

READ MORE: All Attendance Data and Figures in this Investigation

Fiscal instability, political corruption and structural problems with the league itself cause nearly every team within the Trans-Siberian Football League to constantly plan one day at a time, with long-term development and survival a luxury only few can afford. As a result, the call for reform has exponentially increased over the last five years and will be explored in the second part of this investigation.

READ PART TWO: Reforming the Trans-Siberian Football League

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.

Comments

  1. Great analysis, thanks a lot

  2. Excellent! Many thanks

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