The FNL Cup – And Why It Matters

fnl cup trophy

While fans back home shiver in temperatures well below freezing, the traditional winter break tournament featuring the majority of Russia’s second tier teams, the FNL Cup, kicked off today in the mild Cypriot sunshine. For most participants, it is their second or even third warm-weather training camp as they gear up towards the resumption of domestic league duty in March, and the 16-team event is ever so gradually edging into more than just a relaxing holiday.

It is far from the finished product though, according to RT columnist Alan Moore. “It’s just a warm weather training camp, nothing more,” he told RFN. “It has no bearing on what happens at home really, though at least it’s semi-competitive and in-house.” Four groups of four play each other before playing at least one more playoff match to determine the final standings, with teams loosely seeded to ensure a level playing field. The precise format changes most years, with last year’s group stage only consisting of two matches, but this year teams will play at least four matches.

One of the perennial problem for Russian clubs is the length of the weather-enforced pause in the season, and how to use the time effectively. Three and a half months is the longest mid-season gap in any European calendar, but since 2012 the Football National League (FNL) has organised their own informal competition to stave off the effects of Russia’s cruelest season. Given that most of their member clubs spend some time in Cyprus – where there are a number of purpose-built training camp resorts, not to mention a sizeable Russian expat community – this is where the FNL Cup has found its home.

Heading the bill this year are the feeder teams of Spartak Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg for whom the supposed cream of Russia’s crop are eager to show their worth. Although Spartak goalkeeper Aleksandr Selikhov was recently told he’d be spending the first few months of his big move to the capital with this group instead of challenging Artyom Rebrov for the number one shirt on the first team, he hasn’t travelled with his new younger teammates. Georgi Melkadze, long touted as one of Myaso’s top youth products, is sure to catch the eye.

As has been the case in most editions, though, not all entrants are from the FNL itself. RFPL side and two-time FNL Cup winners Ural will submit a team, as will Dinamo St. Petersburg, Chertanovo and Krasnodar-II from the third-tier PFL. Herein lies the first major advantage; for players at the lower-ranked clubs, it is a perfect chance to showcase their talent to bigger clubs in a country that poses obvious geographical problems for thorough scouting throughout the lower leagues. Given the unofficial status of these matches, players often turn out as trialists in what is their best opportunity to make the move to a higher level.

The commitment clubs put into the fixtures themselves varied from club to club, but on the whole they have a little extra edge to them than standard winter friendlies. Ural played Romanian side Astra a few days ago and were soundly beaten 4-2 amid decidedly suspicious officiating; the referees were thought to have been Bulgarian, but turned out to be unlicensed Romanian officials who were investigated by international gambling watchdog Federbet. Betting scandals seem to be the only thing taken seriously in these non-entity matches.

Of course playing your direct domestic competitors has its own obvious element of rivalry. Dinamo Moscow and Tosno are the runaway top two in the division and are both absent, leaving those sides battling it out for a playoff spot – or to avoid relegation – will square off just weeks ahead of resuming the fight for real. The FNL league table is incredibly tight as things stand, with just ten points separating the relegation places with the promotion playoff spots, so although the result of this tournament is in one sense meaningless by comparison, it is still a small chance to gauge the mental and physical state of opponents.

For the inaugural edition, there was a total prize fund of around $50,000, which would have barely covered the expenses of the winners. In one sense this shouldn’t matter as almost all clubs would be in Cyprus or Turkey anyway for training camps, so it’s not as if they are being dragged out to the Mediterranean and incurring substantial costs against their will. With proper investment to offer a measure of incentive, the prospect of the trophy gaining traction would become a step closer, but as of yet no private investment has been sought.

The backing of wealthy oligarchs would be one simple solution to whet the appetite of clubs, but their willingness to do so – or the league’s reluctance to approach them – has not allowed that avenue to be explored. “It would make sense,” Moore continued, “but they would rather spend $100,000 on a gift for a politician as it keeps them safe. Football – and sport in general – is so undervalued in terms of what it can do in the public image.”

It is not only the second tier that has had a friendly tournament. Back when the season ran from spring till autumn, the third-tier PFL ran their own version staged in Moscow between the winners of the regional leagues in their structure. It is now defunct after a string of issues, despite offering a streamlined version of it’s senior equivalent. “This was the problem, it was when money was scarce that it was dropped,” Moore explained. “I do remember [PFL board member] Sergey Kuzmin speaking up for it in his election bid, but the RFU [Russian Football Union] were in trouble and putting money into the World Cup bid.”

The chance to play on the historic stage of the Luzhniki Stadium and against teams they would not have experienced much but would soon be facing in the FNL was an appealing one, but finances dictated the fate of the tournament. Oddly, foreign trialists were not allowed to play (as they are banned from appearing for PFL sides), leaving a limited opportunity to stage recruitment of overseas talent.

So what is the future of the FNL Cup? In its sixth year already, it has become a tradition that teams have, on the whole, embraced, and offers the best compromise so far between friendlies and competitive action. With a little extra financial backing, and perhaps a competitive incentive (such as a bye to the next round of the Russian Cup the following season), it has the basic elements to prepare sides well for the second half of the season, while legitimising it further under the auspices of the RFU could (in theory) protect it further from possible corruption.

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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