Saturday 6th August was a dark day for football in Sochi.
Zhemchuzhina’s official website published a statement on 29th July claiming that, contrary to reports in the press, everything at the club was fine:
“Today many media sources reported the exclusion of Zhemchuzhina Sochi from the Football Championship of the National League [First Division]. These reports are wide of the mark. The team continues in Sochi, and will train tomorrow as planned with manager Stanislav Cherchesov.”
However, giving credence to the notion that there is no smoke without fire, another statement appeared on the same day, which ended as follows:
“Meanwhile, contrary to printed documents, no instructions concerning preparation of legal documents regarding the exclusion of Zhemchuzhina Sochi from the Football Championship of the National League has been received by club employees.
On 6th August a meeting between the club’s management and the the team is planned, and here the above issues will be addressed.”
On 2nd August another news item was released, noting the transfer of six players away from the club, including the return to Spartak Moscow of loanee Alexander Zotov. With no new signings announced, immediate cost-cutting looked to be the aim.
On the day of the meeting, the inevitable was announced. The title read ‘Zhemchuzhina Sochi will not participate in the Football Championship of the National League,’ and the article declared that all creditors would be paid in full and the club itself would continue to exist. Although no confirmation was made at the time, participation in the Second Division for the 2012/13 season has since been announced.
Following the demise of Saturn Ramenskoye in January, Russian football has been forced to take a long hard look at its financial status. Whilst elite sides such as Zenit, CSKA and Spartak are supported by lucrative sponsorship deals and clubs such as Anzhi bankrolled by huge personal fortunes, teams lower down the food chain are very much at risk. Premier Minister Vladimir Putin was forced to intervene so that Siberian side Tom Tomsk could find sponsors for the current season, and outside of the Premier Division the situation is even worse.
Although FC Krasnodar were handed promotion on the grounds of financial, rather than footballing, performances, the number of teams who are suffering to the point of bankruptcy is on the rise. FC and Torpedo Moscow both suffered as a result of competition for support in the capital, whilst former giants Rotor Volgograd now find themselves in the Second Division, having folded in 2009 and been relegated in their phoenix club’s first attempt back in the national league.
Zhemchuzhina have now joined the list. Despite inital successes after being founded in 1991, the club suffered back-to-back relegations in 2000 and 2001 and lasted just three years in the regional leagues before disbanding due to financial difficulties. Sochi-04 sprang up in their place, but quickly disappeared after being denied a professional license.
Zhemchuzhina reappeared in 2007, and secured two promotions in three years before securing an 8th-place finish in the First DIvision last season. With another midtable finish on the cards this season, financial disaster struck at the midway point.
The reasons for the club’s misfortune is largely unknown. Attendances were healthy compared to many of their direct competitors, and with the Russian government throwing money at the city in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2014, it is difficult to imagine the club failing to receive some sort of subsidy from the local authorities.
Whatever the reason, it is a big blow for the city of Sochi and for Russian football. Sochi is being reinvented as a city of sport with world class facilities, yet appears unable to sustain a team in one of the country’s richest and most popular sports. Elsewhere, the demise of a club and their likely replacement by a side from the regional leagues next season have resulted in a loss of matchday revenue and hasty rearrangement of travel plans for other sides in the division.
Furthermore, Sochi’s financial worries are a flashing neon warning sign to the rest of the league. If the government are unwilling to intervene and save a club in one of its flagship sporting centres, what hope is there for the many other sides who operate at a loss, play in front of empty, crumbling stadia and are increasingly forced to look to their own youth teams for players, simply to avoid paying the transfer fees and wages of more experienced, talented professionals?
Much like the rest of Russia, its football seems to be a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Even if teams are able to draw in the crowds, ticket prices are simply too low for the income to make a difference. Unless they are able to find private investment or state sponsorship, as so many of the top teams have managed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine anything other than a long struggle to survive for the clubs outside Russia’s elite.