Sergey Pryadkin on Reforming the Russian Football Premier League

Sergey Pryadkin in discussion with Vitaly Mutko, President of the RFU. Photo: Sport-Express. 

The president of the Russian Football Premier League (RFPL) and vice-president of the Russian Football Union (RFU), Sergey Pryadkin, in an interview with Russian news agency TASS has weighed his rather heavy opinion on how the new Premier League season is undertaking and insights into new regulations on the prospective foreigner limit, salary caps and much more.


On the Russian Cup

While discussing the current Premier League season, Pryadkin expressed his “dismay at the RPL clubs’ bad performance in the Cup – ten teams have crashed out already”, the second most at this stage since twelve teams were dumped out in 2009. Pryadkin adds that he does understand that reform of the Russian Cup is necessary to benefit both big and smaller teams;

Cup reform is necessary to increase the competitiveness of the tournament and the responsibility of the clubs. We’ve been discussing that question with the representatives of other European leagues, for instance, to give the Cup winner a place in the Champions League. Right now, it’s only a dream, but some European league and club officials did talk about that. Also, we need to think about commercial attractiveness, how to make the RPL clubs use their strongest line-ups. We do understand that the calendar is quite intensive, there are many important matches, but still, we want to increase the Cup’s level.

The Cup must be reformed, as it stands the current format that all RFPL clubs that enter in the 1/16 stage must play away from home aids the lower-league clubs, but does offset them financially, and is arguably too harsh on teams like Anzhi, SKA, Tosno and Arsenal Tula who aren’t that far ahead of leading FNL clubs. It allows, Yenisey for example, advance far in the Cup but if they lose in the 1/16 round they won’t receive the financial boost that playing at the Otkrytiye, Krestovsky, VEB et al would provide. A return to the two-leg format has also been discussed, as has decreased the percentages of game receipts given to European teams. One necessary development, however, is to increase the financial rewards throughout the competition and thus increasing interest.


On Video Assistant Referees (VARs)

The President of the RFPL also spoke positively about the possibility of seeing VARs introduced in Russia, a matter currently heavy in the public eye after a mixed response during the Confederations’ Cup, and then again when Yuri Semin claimed they are necessary after losing in the Supercup.

Considering Yuri Pavlovich’s emotional state, I can fully understand him. This is a rather complicated process. It might make the decision-making process easier and soften some sharp angles during the game. But we recently visited a UEFA congress, and before that, me and Alexander Alaev [current RFU General Director] visited the national federations’ assembly, where refereeing was discussed. It’s very difficult. Installing the system is one thing. I think some of our clubs would gladly install it, especially Krasnodar. Spartak and Zenit probably can install it too at their stadiums. CSKA too, and probably many other clubs. We will get all necessary licenses, but we also need to prepare enough referees: at least two active referees should man the system during the match. We’ll play some test games with the system, that’s for sure.

We also need goal-line technology: there were already several episodes that affected the matches’ outcome during the season. The video assistance systems has the support of 90% of clubs.

Upon being asked whether or not we will see VARs in the current RFPL season, Pryadkin added;

I can’t tell for sure, perhaps in a test mode. The clubs do support the idea, but I’ll reiterate: we need money and human resources. The RFU President [Mutko] gave us the task, we have a working group studying the issue. There are several companies that can provide and support such systems.

I’ve got a document before me: delivery, installation and setup for one stadium will cost €1.2 million. The cost of yearly support is €100,000.

Although I personally disagree with VARs from a fundamental level – it will hand way too much power into the hands of television officials and companies such as Match TV and Sky Sports – it will aid both referees and clubs in respectively making and suffering fairer, and ethical decisions. However, can this be implemented nationwide? Grassroots semi-professional clubs in England would suffer, yet, in Russia even Premier League teams. When SKA Khabarovsk have to travel ~180,000 km this season with the average flight costing ~4,500 Rb, they can scarcely afford to install such costly technology. However, as is the case with twenty-first-century football, it is largely only ever the elite (where the money accumulates) who are ever considered.


On Structural Reform

Expansion to the league was discussed with Pryadkin, but he, unfortunately, claims none is to be expected. A shame, considering the desperate need for reform in the Trans-Siberian Football League, the FNL;

No. I would like to have more teams in the RPL, but, sadly, there are too few stable clubs, and the league doesn’t earn as much as it would like to. Of course, it would be great to earn at least $200 million from the broadcasting rights – this would allow us to give 7 to 10 millions to each of the lower table clubs, that’s about half of [some of] their budgets. The Western leagues earn the bulk of their money through TV rights, the second-biggest revenue source is supporters’ money, and then sponsorship. Our model is different: we get most money from sponsors, then from TV rights, then from the supporters.

Still, when the clubs built new stadiums, the situation changed. Look at Zenit, Spartak, CSKA, Rubin. Top matches attract 20 to 40 thousand people. It’s good money.

He did, thankfully, deny any possibility of introducing a closed league system;

It’s impossible. Primarily because of the football power hierarchy: we have FIFA and UEFA. Football is unique in this regard: we have a very rigid vertical of football laws, thanks to Sepp Blatter. And UEFA doesn’t recognize any closed leagues. There were some offers to decrease the number of teams, buy time for stabilization and infrastructure renovation. But sporting principle now prevails.

It is a deep shame that no reform is up and coming. The RFU will only ever reform the FNL after the RFPL is, and the only reform that is needed high up in terms of the league structure is an increase in teams participating. However, adding two clubs – stable teams like the new Dinamo SPb, Krylia or Yenisey – who are financially strong could pave the way for lower league reform. He did in the piece confirm that no “Unified Football League” would ever be considered due to UEFA’s “weariness” on the matter, but does admit he finds the prospect “entertaining and interesting”.

READ MORE: Problems with the Trans-Siberian Football League


On the Foreigner Limit

The most important reform discussed by Pryadkin, however, was the future of the foreigner limit. He had this to say on the matter;

It’s hard to say [which foreigner limit will be introduced]. The RFU workgroup proposed the “maximum of 10 foreigners + 15 Russians registered” variant. Some support the “9+16” or “8+17” variants. The work is still ongoing. Of course, the main role will be played by the RFU officials, but our committee will make our position known too. Before the presidential council [after which, as Vitaly Mutko said earlier, there’ll be a meeting of the RFU executive committee] we’ll state our position.

The abolition of the foreigner limit was never discussed.

The criteria will be rather strict. It’s hard to give a definitive list now: international caps, European cups participations, national team ratings. There’s almost a dozen possible criteria, but we’ll use three or four.

The foreigner limit is the one piece of legislation imposed by the RFU that is holding back both the RFPL and Russian football as a whole more than any other. The ridiculous “6+5” (tightened from “7+4” in 2014) imposes a manufactured limit upon foreigners in the first team, with only six allowed to start alongside five Russians. As a result, players have been stockpiled in different positions. The Russian goalkeepers right now are arguably in its healthiest position in over a decade, yet there are very few, young and truly exciting Russian central defenders coming up. In week eleven of the RFPL – the weekend when the squad was announced, only one of the defenders named in Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad for the upcoming friendlies started (Fyodor Kudryashov). In the top ten at the time, only nine Russian central defenders started in the league as a whole. Four of these were over the age of 30 and retired (the Berezutskiy brothers,  Sergei Ignashevich and Dmitri Belorukov) and three were uncapped (Denis Tumasyan, Pavel Alikin and Nikolai Zaitsev) leaving Andrey Semonov the only capped player available for selection who did start, aside from the selected Kudryashov.

His comment that abolition of the limit has never been considered is deeply disappointing. However, a less stringent limit such as the “10+15” to be imposed on the squad as a whole is much more manageable. Even a homegrown quota as seen in England likewise inflates the prices of young players from their respective country. Abolition of the rule and a focus on reforming the league format, academy system and financial setup in the country would’ve been much more successful in the lead-up to the World Cup. I fear now, with such changes way too late, the whole impetus for such change may all but disappear once the World Cup Final in 2018 passes by.


On a Salary Cap

He was later asked about the possibility of a salary cap being introduced into Russia. Although he did not either deny nor confirm a cap for senior players, he did speak of introducing one for younger professionals;

Maybe we’ll limit the wages of young players, say, U21 or U23. Or perhaps, we’ll limit the total wages, and the club will have to work within this budget. Or we’ll limit the maximum possible wage. There are many possible options. A number of clubs say that it’s wrong and impossible. If you ask for my opinion, I’m supporting the wage limit for new players. The guys should grow and fight for their place in the first team.

In reading these comments, it is likely an individual senior salary cap has never even crossed the minds of the power brokers within the RFU. However, the possibility of a shared cap could be an effective inclusion, in order to stop clubs spending beyond their means like Anzhi, Dinamo Moscow and Alania Vladikavkaz have in the past and subsequently suffered as a result.

Limiting younger players’ wages individually would likely be a shrewd decision as well. It would two-fold allow younger players to focus on their football alone ahead of the lifestyle, while also promoting promising youngsters to move abroad when the opportunity arises. Aleksandr Kokorin”s stalled career springs to mind, although the Zenit striker is finally not only achieving his potential but impressively surpassing it both domestically and in Europe.


On Fans and Financial Fair Play (FFP)

Pryadkin was also asked about other aspects of the RFPL and Russian football away from reform.

One key topic was the aggression in the stands during this season’s RFPL calendar, such as when some fans attempted to assault Roman Zobnin during Dinamo – Spartak, the Zenit fans’ behaviour at the Krasnodar Stadium last month, and the flare gun incident by Spartak fans at Maribor in the Champions League. Typically, Pryadkin replied both calmly and confidently, claiming;

Yes, but these are isolated cases. Look, in the first eight rounds, pyrotechnics were used only once; last season, they were used eleven times. Offensive chants and obscene language; last season – five cases, this season – only two. Throwing things on the pitch – zero cases. Running to the pitch – zero cases. I visited two games of the eleventh round. Both Dinamo – CSKA and Spartak – Anzhi matches were quite peaceful.

Granted, he is correct in claiming these cases are very rare and overall the state of matters has increased, it is a typical response in the digital Cold War with the West in which anything of substance is taken and blown out of proportion. It would go much farther for Pryadkin to merely denounce these singular events, before then – correctly – admitting that fan behaviour has indeed improved.

Another interesting tidbit from the interview was the discussion of FIFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, and how they are affecting clubs in the RFPL. He confirmed Roman Babaev’s recent comments that CSKA was the only club without FFP troubles who “passed the audit without a hitch”, and later discussed the threat of Russian clubs’ being excluded by UEFA from Europe for rule violations;

The clubs who’d been playing in the European competitions for a number of years know all the rules. Dinamo were the only ones who suffered greatly. Some clubs were punished, but they managed to rectify the situation, they have good managers. I don’t think there’ll be problems.

Pryadkin also raised to UEFA the unfairness of the system, suggesting that it is skewed in favour of the top leagues and players;

Many at the EPL supported me. Yes, the top leagues can solve any problems with their TV rights money, but everyone else is concerned with fairness and survival. UEFA have started to listen to us; they understand how much money we get from advertisers, the differences paid between television in England and Russia, Croatia, Macedonia or Belarus. The situations are very different. There were no concrete steps yet, but UEFA seems to have become more flexible. We’ll raise the question again. Now UEFA has a new president, Aleksander Čeferin from Slovenia, we have a good relationship. Still, our clubs are complying with the financial fair play rules even now.

Aleksander Čeferin, the former Head of the Slovenian FA is now the new UEFA President. Photo: Jure Makovec/Getty.

Here he raises a rational point and one that UEFA themselves either did not realise or simply chose to ignore in the past. The FFP rules are skewed in favour of the elite teams dominating the elite leagues within the elite governing body. It is no surprise that Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City were reprimanded very lightly for contravening the rules, while Dinamo – whose own crimes pale in comparison – were kicked out of Europe at the drop of a hat. Hopefully, with Aleksander Čeferin installed as the successor to Gianni Infantino as the President of UEFA, the European governing body seemingly (finally) has a progressive, astute and above all, transparent facilitator at its head. He has already discussed sweeping changes, the sort designed to cease the inexorable accumulation of power towards the European elite, and is irrevocably against the chronic threat of a continental super league.

Pryadkin is a very controversial figure, both for the controversies surrounding him and his poor decisions alongside Vitaly Mutko, but his interview is arguably much more forward-thinking than we’ve heard in Russia for a long while. Of course, none of the aforementioned reforms and quotes is set in stone just yet, but hopefully, this is just the start of a long road towards solving the ailments that have haunted the country since the very inception of the Russian Federation.

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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