A few months ago, following an extraordinary incident in which Dinamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin was blinded by a flare thrown by Zenit fans, the reigning Russian champions threatened to withdraw from the Premier League if they were forced to forfeit the three points by the authorities. Despite their vociferous and numerous protestations, Dinamo were eventually awarded a 3-0 default win, and the St Petersburg club remain competing for the title they currently hold.
For now, that is. Backed by the significant financial muscle of primary sponsor Gazprom, with the blessing of the Kremlin and with a non-committal response from UEFA, Zenit began to explore the possibility of effectively recreating the old Soviet Top League, uniting top sides from across the former USSR under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States to compete for a unified league title. Russian media outlets rushed out to get the opinions of leading clubs in other states – Shakhtar Donetsk and BATE Borisov were found to be cautiously in favour of the idea without going so far as to possibly upset their own FAs, whilst the idea of extending the league into Central Asia was barely discussed. This would not be the whole CIS, just the western states.
However, as the winter freeze put all football in Eastern Europe on hold, the idea slowly disappeared from the back pages and media websites, the notion of a multi-national league spanning thousands of miles understandably put down to a knee-jerk reaction, the logistics of the idea realised to be folly – after all, the bulk of the Russian league is struggling enough financially to make the mere concept of regular international travel laughable.
So, when it emerged recently that the plan had not been shelved, rather refined and continued in more private settings before being unleashed on the world, people began to sit up and take notice. In addition to the financial muscle understood to be provided by Gazprom, Alexei Miller made the shrewd move of getting one of Russian football’s most prominent personalities on board. Not only is Valeri Gazzaev one of the nation’s most successful managers and therefore someone to pay attention to, his list of club affiliations – Dinamo, Alania, CSKA – made it perfectly clear to the cynics that the whole project was far from the act of a petulant child in a Zenit scarf.
Gazzaev holds the unusual position of director of an as-yet non-existent league, but his appointment has held sway. Furthermore, the idea of a CIS league was refined further, with the far more realistic – although still wildly ambitious – aim of uniting the Russian and Ukrainian leagues to former what would be CIS in name only. Intent to slowly expand, perhaps using the model of ice hockey’s KHL, which now spans seven countries, has rarely been mentioned, dulling talk of a new Top League.
Meetings took place, and will do again, with representatives of clubs in both top flights, currently separately but no doubt at some point as a collective meeting of the two nations, with finer details revealed to the clubs potentially involved. So far, the number of clubs actively voicing opposition to the proposals are few and far between – Spartak seemed to be taking a stand before owner Leonid Fedun emerged at the meeting – whilst of the remaining Russian sides, only Terek and Mordovia refused to attend.
Thus far, Ukrainian clubs have been less keen to commit to Miller and Gazzaev’s proposals – Tavria Simferopol attended the Russian meeting for reasons that few people understand – for the simple reason that their own authorities have voiced their opposition to the project. The Russian Football Union have added their collective voice to those standing in the way of the new competition, as have UEFA and FIFA, albeit with a small chance of reconciliation. Most Russians would agree that even a Russo-Ukrainian league would be nothing but madness and have no desire to change their current system, warts and all.
The appeal to the co-operative clubs is simple – Gazprom can pay its way. As Financial Fair Play takes its toll on a country which receives almost no money for its television rights and even less in gate receipts, the top sides face almost certain punishment and potential expulsion from Europe – Rubin have already felt UEFA’s firm hand on their shoulder in the first round of judgement.
In contrast, Gazprom’s calculation, whilst potentially misguided, are staggering. Based on a wild overestimation that the new united championship would generate more interest than even the Champions League, Gazprom are prepared to stump up the headline-grabbing sum of $1 billion to fund the new league. Each participant will take home $22m per season, and with cash on offer for every point, a $120m TV rights package divided according to finishing position, and further table-based incentives, there is little chance of any club ever spending beyond Gazprom’s means.
Of course, the system flies in the face of FFP – the notion being that clubs do not extend their spending beyond the income they generate, typically through player sales, matchday income and sponsorship – but that will not stop those participating from taking advantage of it. With the top nine sides from Russian and Ukraine making up the top flight and a further 18 sides dropping into the second tier, on a competitive level there is an argument to be made for Dynamo Kyiv, Shakhtar, Dnipro, Metalist and Chernomorets facing off against Zenit, CSKA and Spartak rather than Mordovia, Rostov and Volga. Old rivalries renewed with a higher standard of play and greater rewards on offer – on paper, the benefits are clear.
Beneath Gazprom’s millions however, there is a disturbing undercurrent of power politics. The sporting argument is rendered irrelevant when so little consideration has been given to the sides immediately below those making the headlines, and it is Miller’s direct line of confrontation with those in charge which causes worry. Having significantly financed the World Cup 2018 bid and been the main reason behind Zenit’s rise to prominence on the field and in the transfer market, Gazprom now appear to be trying to extend their reach.
Sponsorship of the Champions League, as well as of Schalke 04 and Red Star Belgrade, has raised the gas giant’s footballing profile to a new level, and to little obvious gain – after all, spectators cannot purchase their products. Instead, Gazprom appear to be buying influence on a political level, the state-owned company extending the arm of the Russian state into the lucrative football market. Miller was quick to seek the Kremlin’s approval before suggesting the new league, but the gesture is symbolic – it is unlikely they would ever act alone without Putin’s say-so.
By working towards a pan-CIS or even simply Russo-Ukrainian league system, Gazprom and Gazzaev, Miller and Putin, appear to be making a play for power to test the power of their money against not only Blatter and Platini, but also the accepted order of things. Gazprom’s billions could well bind Russia and Ukraine together in a strange sporting union, but the implications of such a move, both for the sport, and for the nations as a whole, could be far greater. In footballing terms, whilst the future of the league itself remains undecided, the heightened spectacle it would create at the top of the game is undeniable. That it would solve one problem is certain – that it would not create many, many more is equally so.