Reforming the Trans-Siberian Football League

FNL-Geography-16-17-RFN

The Football National League is the biggest football league in the world according to geographic area, covering over 4,500 miles as-the-crow-flies and even crosses eight time zones. Due to the size of the league and other problems synonymous with Russian football such as fiscal instability, political corruption and systemic mismanagement, many clubs – as previously explored – do not face a race to thrive, but a battle to survive.

READ PART ONE: Problems with the Trans-Siberian Football League

In recent years there have been renewed calls for reforming the FNL, unchanged since its inception in 1994. Numerous proposals have been put forth, but nothing has been enacted as yet. These proposals will be analysed in full, but further reform than just structural will be necessary to re-address the imbalance within Russian football.

Largescale Privatisation

Before the league itself can be reformed, the way clubs do business must be changed to allow an equal footing. The vast majority of FNL teams are nationalised and funded by regional governments who simply cannot afford to back their teams, or alternatively, choose to fiscally support the more highly supported hockey clubs over the FNL’s floundering attendances. Some have suggested membership structures as seen in Germany or Spain, however, the continued plummet in attendances in league football throughout Russia, the continued sanctions from the west and fluctuating Ruble may hamper these plans.

Tom Tomsk, having been promoted in 2015 from the FNL, have now been relegated back into the league and face the prospect of repeat relegations after losing their first three games of the 2017/18 season, scoring merely two goals and conceding nine. This is due to their inability to pay the substantial travel and logistical costs of being in either of the top two tiers of Russian football, and will this year have roughly a working budget of around 250 million Rubles (£3m), the vast majority of which has been ploughed into restructuring and used to pay off their debt.

Tom is funded by their regional government as merely a few clubs in Russia were lucky enough to be privatised and compete successfully following the fall of the Soviet Union. They are chiefly financed by the local Tomsky Oblast and have experienced such fiscal difficulty as recently as the 2011/12 season, in which the players also went numerous months without pay. Former Tom Tomsk midfielder Denis Boyarintsev likened the situation at the club as the start of the calendar year to the 2011 crisis but expected this one to be worse. Although the club’s debt has now been paid off, the club has had to implement a 300,000 ruble cap upon a players salary per month in order to avoid repeated missing payments, an amount dwarfed by the FNL favourites such as Yenisey, Orenburg and particularly Krylia Sovetov.

FC Tosno and SKA Khabarovsk, on the other hand, thrived in the FNL, achieving promotion last season – the latter remarkably so despite being located in the Far East. In terms of FC Tosno, Leonid Khomenko has followed the Krasnodar model of privatisation, and constant financial stability since their inception in 2013 has been the backbone to their promotion last season. Press Officer Vladimir Basmanov used the term “carte-blanche” in describing Dmytro Parfyonov’s portfolio to rebuild their side since the 2014/15 promotion playoff loss to Kurban Berdyev’s FC Rostov, and their form since has been nothing short of remarkable, finishing a respectable seventh in 2015/16 before promotion last season. During that time, they have signed numerous talented players from big clubs such as Rustem Mukhametshin, Artur Nigmatullin, Anton Zabolotnyi, Evgeni Markov and Aleksandr Makarov (on loan), who all played large roles in their promotion last season. This summer, FortGroup and Khomenko have financed the arrival of sixteen new players including high profile signings David Yurchenko, Anderson Carvalho, Vladimir Bystrov, Aleksandr Karnitsky, and Denis Kutin and Gerogi Melkadze on loan from Spartak Moscow. As such, Tosno has been well prepared to compete in the RFPL this season, unlike Tom Tomsk who last winter committed footballing suicide, selling off all high profile players and essentially gave up due to their fiscal instability.

SKA Khabarovsk’s miraculous promotion was in part due to privatisation, but also the aforementioned agreement with CSKA, that Luch-Energiya, Tom Tomsk et al do not benefit from. Although SKA did finish in the playoffs in 2013, they ultimately lost out and didn’t come close again before last season’s promotion.

SKA is owned and funded by their local Khabarovsk Oblast regional administration, as is the case with most FNL and bottom-half RFPL teams, but also gain some private funding from HydroRus, a government-owned electricity company and the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association. The club was rebranded at the start of last season from SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk to their current, traditional, name. This rebrand and the impetus of both privatisation and cooperation with CSKA has been the catalyst for their promotion, allowing SKA to buck the trend of teams in the Far East and remote Siberia struggling in the FNL. Since the signing of the cooperation agreement, SKA won eight and lost only four matches, leading to promotion. By contrast, they started last season poorly, without a victory in their opening five games of the season, losing four. Although CSKA did not actively aid with player development, the financial gain through this arrangement would have surely paid for their travel costs in the latter half of the season. SKA will hope this fiscal backing continues throughout their maiden season in the RFPL, as they have a daunting ~180,818 kilometres of travelling to endure over the course of their 30-game season.

Although in theory privatising all Russian teams would solve many of the financial problems throughout the division, Dinamo Moscow is one example of financial mismanagement by a corporation or person as opposed to regional governments. They spent too much, were heavily limited by FIFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) ruling and the subsequent cost cutting led to their first relegation in their history.

Furthermore, to assume that the smaller Russian clubs were to attract enough interest from any prospective businessman is very presumptive, as only the country’s top or historic clubs are privately owned. FC Rostov are evidential of this, not only are the Selmashi privately owned by the Rostov Oblast, they don’t even have a single shirt sponsor this season due to a lack of interest. In cases like this, the aforementioned membership structure may provide financial stability and lessen the likelihood of private magnates such as Boris Rotenberg at Dinamo deciding to pull the plug amidst lacking interest, mounting debts or other reasons.

Even with private backing, teams like SKA may still return straight back to the FNL purely due to their location, but Tom Tomsk will have a better chance of competing in the RFPL should they be privatised and ran in the western style. Although they are currently languishing in mid-table in the FNL, a private ownership scheme would, in theory, provide the club with enough cash injection to stabilise finances, regularly meet payments each month and attempt to push for a profit – although falling attendances and ludicrously low ticket prices make this difficult. The privatisation or membership structures as seen in Western Europe must be applied in Russia as soon as possible.

Academy Structure

The typical western academy structure is not often seen in Russia, but two clubs in the RFPL and PFL respectively have shown the way for other clubs to follow. As we have previously explored on the site, both FC Krasnodar and Chertanovo Moscow put great faith into their respective academies, with vastly differing philosophies.

The majority of larger Russian teams prefer to buy their talent from elsewhere at the cost of massive sums of money, meanwhile, most smaller teams pick apart the larger clubs’ academies and reserve sides for free transfers and loans. Although all teams do develop players from a young age, even Tom Tomsk, very few see the fruits of their own labour. Analysing the recent links between Spartak Moscow and Amkar Perm prove this, through the transfers of Georgi Dzhikiya and Aleksandr Selikhov last winter. Both players moved to Spartak for what the Lukoil-funded giant would consider nominal fees, whereas Amkar would consider reported fees of €3-5m both a coup and an effective financial injection. Amkar did not develop these players but signed both for free when they were released from Lokomotiv Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg respectively – although Selikhov had a spell at FC Oryol between the two. None of these clubs’ academies benefitted from the players being shipped from a big team, down to the lower leagues or lower positioned teams then back up to the elite, as transfers like this are just typical in Russia. Krasnodar and Chertanovo are two of the first teams to bring club academies to the same level of importance they are held at in western Europe.

One of Chertanovo’s Indoor Football Pitches. Source: chertanovo-football.ru

These two are thus far the only clubs to put such faith in the western academy system, as currently, academies in Russia are generally only concerned with victory in youth competitions rather than the actual development of first team players. Toke Theilade pointed this out in our most recent podcast, after a trip to the Lokomotiv Academy with fellow RFN writer Ilya Sokolov.

The Yuri Konoplev Academy paved the way for Krasnodar and Chertanovo to follow, and directly influenced Sergei Galitskiy himself. This is a private institution first founded in Togliatti in 2003 devoted to the development of football in Russia and has been funded heavily by Roman Abramovich’s National Football Academy. Alan Dzagoev is the best-known graduate, but alumni also include Roman Zobnin, Ilya Kutepov, Stanislav Kristyuk and Artur Yusupov. Konoplev himself tragically died in 2006 and thus has been unable to see the fruits of his labour, investing $30m in the academy on hiring over 200 of the country’s best youth coaches, indoor and outdoor training pitches and facilities, a school for students as well as extra curricular activities. Igor Gorbantenko, current-Arsenal Tula player and the first Academy graduate to be sold on, was bought by Spartak Moscow in 2008, and shortly after highly praised Konoplev in an interview with the Guardian;

“Konoplev was a perfectionist, he always told his assistants, ‘If you do something only well, you will not work tomorrow. You must do everything excellently, at a world-class level.’ In every area of academy life he imposed an iron order. The security was like a secret military base. It was very hard to get to us. When somebody told him his academy was no worse than that of Ajax or Chelsea, he would always snap back that it wasn’t ‘not worse’, it was ‘better’. He was right. When specialists came to see our artificial pitches or the three grass ones, they always said that there was nothing to compare to them anywhere. Often the parents of new talent were unwilling to leave their son many thousands of kilometres from home in Togliatti, but then they would be invited there, and once they had seen the facilities, their objections would melt away”.

Konoplev it seems genuinely wanted to develop the players, and not just see the venture as a way to make money. Foreign club’s such as Barcelona have since set-up their own academies in Russia, but with the succinct aim to make money due to the extortionate prices they charge youngsters to attend. These are nothing more than ways to appease the children of the rich Muscovite oligarchy and social circles.

Gorbatenko’s words come as no surprise when looking at the list of graduates from Togliatti, and although it a private institution, proves emphatically the way forward for Russian clubs looking to develop youth talent instead of just constantly spending money and teetering upon the edge of FFP, and Krasnodar has perfected the balance in their short nine-year existence.

2013 Unified Football League Proposals

The call for reform has increased exponentially over the last few years. Former Russian National Team manager and winner of the RFPL as manager of FC Aliana Vladikavkaz in 1995, Valery Gazzaev headed the “Unified Football League” proposal in 2013. This was an initial proposal to reform the Russian footballing pyramid to reform the old Soviet Top Division, based upon President of the Football Federation of the USSR Vyacheslav Koloskov’s proposals following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These plans include forming a championship of clubs from throughout the former Soviet Republics’ including those from Transnistria and South Ossetia, alike to the Kontinental Hockey League in Ice Hockey.

Gazzaev’s proposals included 18 teams; nine from Russia and nine from Ukraine. He also set out financial plans in which each team would receive €22m at the start of the season and the winner would claim €90m, with other winnings scaled down according to league position. Aleksei Miller, the President of Gazprom offered €1b in prize money for the follow-through of this league.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was hesitant to allow the changes to the league, and the Ukrainian clubs ultimately denied the proposals. Gazprom’s involvement in the proposals would bring ethics into account, with them being principal sponsors of Zenit Saint Petersburg, the proposed league and the Champions League. Yet this is something the RFU have in the past seemed wholly acceptable. Although awarding more money to Russian teams is a good development, the geopolitical relations required to form such a league will be impossible due to current Russo-Ukrainian relations since the annexation of Crimea, Maidan Revolution and Civil War in the Donbass which still rages today.

Valeriy Gazzaev’s Regional Proposals

Gazzaev once again spoke out in favour of reforming the FNL in an interview with Championat in September 2014, claiming;

“I have repeatedly advocated to increase the number of Premier League teams from 16 to 18. Therefore, I fully support the idea of expanding the Premier League, and I consider it necessary to extend the first league (FNL) to 36 clubs and divide it geographically into three divisions in order to reduce transport costs. This new league system would bring about, on average, a 52% reduction to the current travel expenditures. In addition, the division of the first league into regional divisions would allow the growth of professional and youth football in the Far East, Siberia, and the Urals”.

Gazzaev does not propose how the extra clubs will be chosen from the lower leagues, and also presumes the RFU can afford to cover these costs. The RFU, at this time, was in debt to numerous creditors (including Oligarch Alisher Usmanov) amounting up to $25m. Presumably, this would involve asking the Oligarch’s to once again intervene in footballing matters just as Usmanov, Abramovich and Mkrtchyan have all done in the past with Zenit, the RFU and Torpedo Armavir respectively. However, he does propose the full Russian pyramid should be brought under one governing body; a new Russian Football League (RFL).

Despite problems with the proposal, it would save those clubs like Luch, Baltika and Torpedo Moscow from liquidating. As Gazzaev points out the formation of an extended Premier League and regionalised FNL would allow “a high-quality performance for 54 professional teams than to struggle to maintain the survival of over 100”.

2016 Soviet Regionalisation Proposal

Jaudat Abdullin, a columnist for Business Online’s sports section looks back to the past in shaping the future of the FNL, to the same format as the old Soviet First League, but including only the lower-league Russian teams, unlike the Unified league Proposal. The Soviet First League was regionalised into six differing zones, which changed over time depending upon the incumbents, due to the sheer size of the USSR as the league itself encompassed fifteen different Soviet Republics from Tallinn to Bishkek and Sakhalin to Kaliningrad, an area of 17,110.6km2.

Abdullin’s proposal would involve three teams gaining promotion to the RFPL, which differs from the old Soviet system which saw only one team promoted to the Top League – which was more often than not Krylia Sovetov, who won the First League a record five times. The old First League consisted of eighteen teams in the Top League, 22 in the First and 196 in the Second, the latter two of which were both regionalised. Right now, Russia has only 101 professional teams including 16 in the RFPL, 20 in the FNL and the rest in the PFL, of course, the key reason for the fatal loss of teams is the breakup of the Soviet Union, as the whole post-Soviet space today consists of 236 teams. 101 professional clubs – including the ten “2” teams throughout the FNL and RPL is nowhere near enough teams for a country the size of Russia. By way of comparison, there are 92 clubs in the English Football League, and many of the teams in the National League are professional too. The United Kingdom is 70 times smaller than Russia, yet England alone (bar Swansea and Cardiff, which are both located in Wales) has more independent professional clubs.

Although more clubs can only be born out of increased interest and funding, Abdullin has suggested a regional structure for the FNL, dividing the league into six zones; South, Moscow-Mosoblast, Moscow, Center, Ural-Volga and East. This will severely reduce the travel distance for all clubs, including those in the east. Gazzaev’s proposal included FC Ufa and FC Zenit-Izhevsk in the eastern league with Luch, SKA and Sakhalin Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. This would result in the respective teams facing trips of well over 5500km, not much different to the current 7000km plus Kaliningrad-Vladivostok trips. This proposal would take the six current Eastern regional division teams (Sakhalin, Zenit Irkutsk, Dinamo Barnaul, Chita, Smena Komsomolsk, Irtysh) along with Luch, Yenisey, Sibir, Tyumen and SKA, making an eleven-team division with the longest trip of 4,900km between Tyumen and Sakhalin. Although Tom would now take the place of SKA due to their respective relegation and promotion, essentially creating an East and West within the eastern division itself. The logistical distance is still very high, but by virtue of circadian advantage, this may be an unavoidable problem in ensuring the eastern teams to survive. After all, they will only encounter nationwide distances if they get promoted anyway, and no country can afford to have its top division regionalised.

In this system the FNL and PFL would be connected, leaving the RFPL’s sixteen teams unhindered and alone in the only nationwide professional division in the country.

Aeroflot flight schedule in Voronezh airport, 1975. Source: LiveJournal

Denouement

Gazzaev’s regional proposals would still leave the eastern division way too big, and further reform must be enacted than just structural. The 6-zone, Soviet system suggested would be a good system to follow, however, avoiding the Soviet ability to restructure the zones often and rather ludicrously must be avoided. The Soviet authorities bizarrely regionalised the leagues, lumping together teams in the Central Asian Republics with the Far East, and resulted in situations like in 1991 when Okean Nakhodka (Primorsky Krai, by the North Korean border) and Köpetdag Aşgabat (Turkmenistan) faced off against each other; a distance of 6,200km. If organised correctly, the logistics of the leagues will be much easier to navigate for struggling teams, and away fans will be a much more regular feature at games. It is not out of a lack of interest in football, but because of the huge distances and cost of travelling that keeps the fans away. Long gone are the days of cheap flight travel in giant, state-funded Soviet passenger planes, a flight from Voronezh to Vladivostok in 1975 cost just 134 rubles, today it costs about Rb 4,500.

As our Editor-in-Chief, Toke Thielade, recently pointed out after the Confederations Cup, the problems within Russian football are systemic – and this is across the board, not just with the Sbornaya. Structural change to the FNL must be enacted now in order to ease the massive burden upon clubs within the league, especially in the east, however, further reform must follow.

Privatisation of clubs and the westernisation of their academies provide the step forward. No longer can state-funded club’s with minimal academies compete, and this has allowed a Moscow-Petersburg axis control Russian football for too long. The RFU, and particularly Vitaly Mutko, can no longer merely apply a plaster to the systemic problems and must remove the breakfast-laden controversial figurehead. Only then can they generate a long-term plan along the lines of that the DFB formulated in Germany with Jürgen Klinsmann. Systemic change is necessary to both reform the Trans-Siberian Football League, and, more importantly, pave the way for the future of a sustainable, thriving world of Russian football.

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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