Across Europe, second tiers are notoriously difficult to get out of. In England, the Championship is renowned for the oft-cited fact that ‘anyone can beat anyone on their day,’ the banality of the cliché somewhat justified when the general unpredictability of the league is taken into account. In Italy, even fallen giants such as Sampdoria have to fight hard to regain their spot in the top flight, and the number of big teams dropping into the 2. Bundesliga has led to the second step in Germany becoming as tight as any more prestigious tournament. In Scotland, a single promotion spot makes it almost impossible to escape.
In Russia, the second tier has come in for criticism in recent times, most noticeably with regards with match-fixing, which many are convinced continues to go ahead despite a number of investigations and scandals being uncovered. When there are so many teams in a division who have no ambition of promotions, the financial incentive to roll over for title challengers is high, and the precedent suggests a minimal risk. Equally, refereeing standards remain low, and so there is little to distinguish a dubious penalty decision from a pre-paid gift.
Today, following Shinnik Yaroslavl’s game against SKA-Energia Khabarovsk, the First Division will begin its traditional winter break, the teams not stirring for competitive action until midway through March, giving fans little to do except follow their local ice hockey teams. The smaller Premier League may continue its schedule until the middle of December, but given the amount of teams struggling financially in the second tier, the cost of ground maintenance over the winter is too great to consider playing games.
Finances are a constant issue in the division, a fact which goes hand in hand with the corruption alleged to be rife throughout the league. Never has this been clearer than over the past 18 months, a period which began with the midseason withdrawal from competition of Zhemchuzhina Sochi, and ends with a 20 team competition reduced to 17 teams courtesy of a chaotic few weeks prior to the 2012-13 kick-off. Russian football’s image as morally questionable and financially malleable has hardly been brought into doubt by this year’s events.
The reduction in league size was, as you might expect, unplanned. the following season allowed for five relegations spots, one already accounted for by Zhemchuzhina, with the five regional champions gaining the right to compete in the First Division. Almost immediately after the season-ending promotion play-offs, the future of FC Nizhny Novgorod was in jeopardy, their financial worries well documented over the previous season and their promotion bid failed after defeat to city rivals Volga. They would never last long, and so the second tier could say goodbye to a sixth club.
Even then, that announcement did not come until late on, and the chaos continued to build. KamAZ Naberezhnye Chelny revealed an inability to pay their way and opted for voluntary relegation to the Ural/Volga zone of the Second Division. Immediately into the breach stepped upstarts FC Ufa, who had missed out on promotion despite finished level on points with the regional champions. However, there would be no ready-made replacement for Dinamo Bryansk – a club forced to close in somewhat unusual financial circumstances – Torpedo Vladimir – the ownership effectively gave up on the team – or Nizhny Novgorod, who simply merged with Volga and have since been reborn. With just days to go before the start of the campaign, nothing could be done except start short-handed.
Even with three less away trips to make, finances have remained a talking point. Tom Tomsk lead the table after 21 rounds, and with a double figure lead after 3rd place look set for a return to the Premier League. However, it has not been plain sailing – less than a year after being bailed out for the second time by the Russian authorities, the Siberian side are again running out of money. No doubt there will be another saviour waiting, but the pattern cannot continue forever. Tom are by no means the only club struggling to make ends meet, although they are the most high profile.
Two of the sides may be dropping out of the competition for sporting reasons as well as financial. Khimki sit at the foot of the table, although they have shown some improvement since dismissing Omari Tetradze from the manager’s post, whilst newly-promoted Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Salyut Belgorod are two of four teams tied on 18 points, flirting dangerously with the second automatic relegation spot. Shinnik, last year’s other play-off losers, are also in the group, their budget slashed by the local government and results on the field suffering accordingly.
If there are positives to be taken from what has been a rather undignified season so far, it is that the impact of World Cup can already be seen in some teams. Those teams granted additional funds by the authorities for infrastructural development have, for the most part, made strong ground in a difficult league – Baltika Kaliningrad, last year a real contender for relegation, and newly-promoted Rotor Volgograd are both within touching distance of the play-off position. Ural Ekaterinburg, a club which has always had one of the division’s higher budgets and will also host games in 2018, are just four points behind Tom in 2nd.
However, that money speaks so clearly in terms of results – well-backed Ufa are also in the promotion hunt – has not led to greater quality on the field. Managers continue to be dispensable items, with reputation overriding ability in many cases, whilst trouble in the stands has made more headlines than spectacular play. A comparison of goals per game across Europe makes poor reading for the Russians – the First Division’s average match sees 2.1 goals, compared to 2.9 in the Championship, 2.6 in Germany and the Spanish Segunda Liga, and 2.5 in notoriously defensive Italy’s Serie B. For fans in Volgograd, Nalchik and Krasnoyarsk in particular, entertainment has not been the name of the game.
In simple terms, the Russian Football Union, the First Division clubs and the fans need to use this lengthy break to take a long, hard look at themselves and establish exactly the purpose of their competition. At the moment, the second tier of the game is poor preparation for the top flight, unsustainable for a large number of provincial clubs, and riddled with questionable dealings. It may make for an interesting read from afar, but for those involved, overseas interest is of little importance.