In the footballing system of most countries, the second tier is a desperate struggle, either to maintain their position on the cusp of the sporting elite, or to push onwards and upwards into the promised land of top flight football with all its riches, glamour and prestige. As a result, the feeder leagues are often unpredictable, highly competitive, and a nightmare for fans simply unable to know what to expect from their team.
In Russia, the First Division is no different. One of just two nationally-organised leagues – the Second Division consists of five regional sub-leagues – the second tier comes not only with the promise of Premier League football in the distance, but with a turnover of clubs which many league systems deem unsustainable. The current depleted season notwithstanding, the introduction of a promotion play-off and the need to create space for five regional champions means that, if the stars were to align, up to nine of the usual 20 teams could be leaving the league each year.
The current campaign consists of just 17 sides, thanks to the last-minutes withdrawals of a number of clubs which served only to highlight the financial burden faced by clubs in the First Division. In just the last two years, the names of Zhemchuzhina Sochi, Torpedo Vladimir, FC Nizhny Novgorod, Dinamo Bryansk and KamAZ Naberezhnye Chelny have become a poignant reminder that the risk of striving for national-level success can often outstrip the rewards on offer.
Finances are something of a talking point in the Russian game for a variety of reasons, and the subject has been thrown back into the public spotlight thanks to the free spending of Gazprom-backed Zenit and the seemingly limitless resources of Anzhi. With a World Cup on the horizon, the contrast between the millions of pounds spent on the likes of Hulk and Lacina Traore and the liquidation of some of Russia’s provincial sides has shown that there is plenty of work to be done before football can become a truly national game in the way that it is across Europe.
One of the most obvious problems is travel, and perhaps the biggest change for teams emerging from the regional divisions into the second tier. Dividing Russia into regions, even five of them, still results in huge geographical areas – the eastern league encompasses most of Siberia as well as the island of Sakhalin, whilst the the Ural/Volga zone encompasses cities as diverse as Perm, Togliatti and Tyumen – and plenty of lengthy journeys, but that is nothing compared to the distances required on the national scale.
This season, the western- and eastern-most sides in the league are Baltika Kaliningrad and SKA-Energia Khabarovsk, a straight-line journey of over 4,000 miles, with fans wishing to make the journey by road and rail adding half as far again to their total distance. Baltika themselves face the unique situation of having to cross the territory of other nations to reach every away game, whilst in the absence of their ‘neighbours’ from Vladivostok, SKA-Energia face a minimum 2,000 mile trip for their away days.
Whilst this is the oft-cited problem in terms of finances, it is undoubtedly exacerbated by the way in which many Russian teams are set up. Whilst English fans may not bat an eyelid at paying £15 for a game at non-league level, such a price is barely imaginable in Russia outside of the elite clubs. In Yaroslavl for example, tickets for Shinnik home games is a mere 100 roubles – just over £2.
Low attendances are indeed something of a blight on the Russian game, but in terms of supporting the clubs, it is almost a footnote. Clubs such as Shinnik may be used to playing their games in front of half-empty, oversized stadiums, but the fact of the matter is that even an extra 5,000 fans each week is unlikely to make too much of a difference when it comes to keeping sides afloat. The vast majority of Russian teams are still run on a model left behind from the Soviet system. Rather than the central hubs of Dinamo, Spartak and CSKA handing out the cash, clubs are left to the mercy of their regional governments and administrations, meaning that annual budgets are almost entirely arbitrary, and sides depend far more on political backing than the fans in the stands.
In this respect, it is not just the fans who suffer, but the managers. Using Shinnik as an example again, their regional government slashed the playing budget by over 50% after the club’s defeat in the play-offs last season, meaning that a second attempt at promotion was realistically beyond them. By putting all their eggs in one basket, the Yaroslavl club raised expectations before removing the resources to meet them. With the club struggling at the wrong end of the table this year, manager Yuri Gazzaev was dismissed before the midseason break. That the favourite to succeed him is his predecessor, Alexander Pobegalov, speaks volumes.
With budgets and expectations rarely linked due to their fluid nature, managers have bitten the dust with remarkable regularity in the current campaign. Along with Gazzaev, basement dweller Khimki have handed Omari Tetradze his notice, whilst SKA-Energia Khabarovsk have sacked manager Alexander Grigoryan despite having the club in 3rd place, a great achievement for the usual midtable makeweights. Sibir Novosibirsk could part ways with their manager due to financial troubles, whilst it would be a surprise if Spartak Nalchik made it through the year unscathed thanks to their lowly position.
In the top flight, fear of relegation is constant – so far, Mordovia, Alania and Krylya Sovetov have all fired the men in charge, whilst Volga could soon find themselves in search of a new leader after the Samara side showed an interest in boss Gadzhi Gadzhiev. Fear of once again finding themselves once again in the graveyard that is the First Division ensures that the lower reaches of the Premier League are a never-ending managerial merry-go-round, with a whole host of journeyman coaches waiting for their next chance to battle relegation.
What remains at the root of the problem is the governmental system which is unlikely to be changed except in unusual circumstances – whilst the country’s elite clubs have their billionaire oligarchs, it is far more likely for a First Division side to fold than to find their own financial saviour. Without major reform of how clubs are run, First Division sides will continue to struggle for money, and voluntary relegations may well become more commonplace to prevent liquidation. In the meantime, it is likely to be the fans and managers who suffer the consequences.