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Lessons Not Learned

For those familiar with the world of Russian football, the demise of FC Nizhny Novgorod will not have come as a surprise. At first galnce, the collapse of a team which came within a play-off win of a place in the Premier League may seem a shock, but the facts of the matter are clear – the club could not attract enough support in a city already struggling to support a top flight team, and even the First Division was stretching the finances of the Volga city’s second side.

Indeed, speculation that one of the two clubs would disappear were rife long before they clashed to determine which Nizhny Novgorod side would take their place amongst the Russian elite. Volga’s 2-1 victory over the two legs, the city’s biggest footballing clash in living memory, ensured that it was the existing top flight side who would continue to ply their trade. Before the new season began, the merger was completed, a number of the second tier side’s better players moving across the city and the old team formally dissolving. Volga now fly the banner for Nizhny Novgorod alone.

However, in a country which sees clubs disappear from the footballing map with alarming regularity, it is no great srretch of the imagination to picture fans of these deceased clubs wanting to revive them rather than switching their allegiance to a local rival. As a result, Russia’s lower leagues are littered with so-called phoenix clubs, rising from the ashes of former sides in a bid to recapture former glories. In some cases those successes are substantial – former Soviet champions Torpedo Moscow the clearest example – but in the majority of cases these are teams who overextended themselves in the pursuit of silverware.

The latest side to do so are none other than Nizhny Novgorod themselves, but whilst the enthusiasm of the fans involved in the resurrection is to be applauded – it would, after all, be far too convenient for them to transfer their support to the more successful club – any dreams of reaching the upper echelons of Russian football need to be tempered with words of caution.

On the one hand, the reborn club at least appear to be putting the right people in the right places behind the scenes. The headline name coming back to the city is that of Valeri Ovchinnikov, the 64-year old local legend who spent no less than 11 years in charge of the city’s Lokomotiv side during their most successful period. This time round, Ovchinnikov will not be taking a seat in the dugout – he last managed a club in 2004, and that Second Division Lukoil Chelyabinsk side would later go on to relocate to Nizhny Novgorod, such was their lack of success – but in the presidential seat, instantly providing the new club with credibility by bringing a respected figure back to his adopted home.

Nevertheless, the presence of Ovchinnikov alone is not enough to bring Nizhny Novgorod back to the national arena. Even to return to their previous position at the top end of the First Division they face a long and arduous journey – whilst some newly-formed teams are granted dispensation to start higher up the pyramid due to ‘special dispensation,’ usually the result of either a long and rich history or sufficient proof of exceptional finance, Nizhny Novgorod will begin their latest attempt at the very foot of the Russian system, competing against amateur sides within the city for a local championship before applying to join the uppermost ranks of amateur football.

A look into history does not bode well. Moving away from Nizhny Novgorod to the capital, Torpedo Moscow have gone through a variety of incarnations since the original club fell from grace, and even today there are doubts about the long-term financial stability of a team making up the numbers in the First Division. St Petersburg is experiencing a similar problem with Petrotrest and Dinamo, and further south the residents of Sochi and Volgograd are beginning to lose count of the number of new names their teams have worked their way through. With Zhemchuzhina no longer in existence and Rotor only recently beginning to bounce back after a miserable decade, the outlook is not as sunny as Ovchinnikov’s return may suggest.

Equally importantly for fans pinning their hopes on the new club, it is worth considering that all of Torpedo, Zhemchuzhina and Rotor were the beneficiaries of circumstances favourable to their return. The Muscovites’ history provided an excellent incentive for investors, and their location in the capital instantly gives the club the potential to draw in a large audience. Volgograd’s own history, both footballing and otherwise, made the Rotor name an attractive one, whilst its position as the only major club in a fiercely proud city ensured that the game would never truly disappear. Meanwhile, Sochi’s host status for the 2014 Winter Olympics and designation as a city of sport saw government funds flow into Zhemchuzhina – and even their riches eventually evaporated.

FC Nizhny Novgorod face further problems, in that the issues which plagued the previous manifestation have not gone away. The city may have been confirmed as a host venue for the 2018 World Cup, bringing with it substantial sporting investment and a brand new state-of-the-art stadium, but doubts over the city’s club future remain. With Volga already struggling with attendances – their average home gate of 6,700 is the lowest in the Premier League – even the most extensive backing from regional government cannot force locals to attend the matches of what will remain a secondary team for the foreseeable future. Without enough paying fans in the stands and songs from the terraces, new Nizhny Novgorod will find themselves unable to attract talent and capital. A repeat dissolution already seems inevitable.

Of course, there is still hope of a second side from the city making it into the elite. Nizhny Novgorod is one of Russia’s bigger cities, so there is an audience waiting to be reached. Money will be available at least in the short term due to the World Cup, and the city of Krasnodar has set a precedent in becoming to first city outside of Moscow to have two representatives in the top flight. However, whilst the initial enthusiasm may hit the headlines, the reality of the situation is that the reborn club have an awfully long way to go. Whether they ever make it is highly doubtful.

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