Rostov is a proud city. Sitting on the Don River, famous for its rich Cossack history and Soviet canal, the gateway to the Sea of Azov and just a few miles from the Ukrainian border, it has played its role in Russian history as a military base, a naval stronghold, cultural centre and now a modern business city experiencing growth so impressive that neighbouring cities have been swallowed up by its sprawl. It is a city that prides itself on being able to look both forwards and back, paying homage to its legacy and yet constantly looking to plot a way through the mists of the future.
It is not, however, a great sporting city. It will play host to the 2018 World Cup, a new 43,000 seater stadium to be built on the banks of the famous river, but the Premier League team that will occupy it are far from the glamorous names at the top of the footballing tree. Rostov have for some years found themselves slowly slipping down the top flight table, occasionally drifting into limbo between the top two tiers but always finding enough to hold on to elite status, whether by winning play-offs or scraping enough points. In terms of entertainment they contribute very little to the league, in terms of news there is nothing from Rostov that ever makes the papers – David Bentley’s brief loan aside – and whilst the locals would certainly question it, there would be few outside the city would minded too much if FC Rostov disappeared from the Premier League.
There is no rich pedigree in other sports either. Traditionally Russia’s ice hockey powerhouses come from either Moscow or the east, the likes of Kazan, Ufa and Omsk competing with the Dinamos of this world for the national title, whilst the capital dominated in the Soviet period. Rostov is too far south to have really stood a chance when it comes to producing champions at biathlon, another favourite Russian endeavour, whilst it sits too far north of the Caucasus to have benefited from the region’s prolific production of Olympic wrestlers. On the sporting front, it occupies a no man’s land which is envied by very few.
The one claim to sporting achievement they do have lies with the city’s second team, army club SKA. In the Soviet era, SKA joined the powerful army society to become one of the stronger clubs in the USSR, finishing runners-up to Dynamo Kyiv in the 1966 Top League season and reaching three Soviet Cup finals, victors over Spartak Moscow in the 1981 having twice fallen at the last hurdle. The end of the Soviet period was less kind to SKA however, even the likes of Oleg Veretennikov unable to stop them plummeting into the regional leagues, and it is there that they have stayed, the odd foray into the First Division never lasting more than a season or two as they cemented their position as Second Division stalwarts. In many ways the old men of the southern region, they remain as a reminder of what Rostov can achieve, a nostalgic glimpse into a past which surpasses future prospects.
At least, they did. With financial difficulties already taking their toll on the club – a key reason behind their inability to progress beyond the regional level – a limited squad was registered at the start of the current season, and thus far they have failed according to every measurement. From their 20 games so far they have managed just two wins, eight goals and nine points, sitting dead last and facing the prospect of relegation to the amateur divisions.
Their problems have not been restricted to performances on the pitch, but also in the stands and on the balance sheet, the two of which have proved inextricably linked. A crucial factor in the SKA’s financial mess is the contribution towards their oversized and outdated home at SKA SKVO, a 27,000 seater 1970s monolith completely unnecessary for a club which cannot boast the biggest crowd in a localised league. With Rostov’s natives preferring the Premier League to the Second Division, the takings on the gate have been nothing short of abysmal – SKA’s average crowd this season numbers less than 800 people, a figure smaller than the equivalents at local ‘rivals’ in Novocherkassk and Taganrog, cities which have effectively become part of the Rostov conglomeration.
With no cash coming in and plenty leaving the coffers, the club’s management began to run out of places to turn to. With poignant timing – in the middle of European ties featuring millions of pounds of expensive foreign stars at Russian clubs – SKA voluntarily withdrew from the Second Division, their finances simply unable to stretch to the end of the season. It is unclear what the next step will be for the historic club. When Zhemchuzhina Sochi pulled out of the First Division last season, it was expected that they would automatically relegate and begin afresh. This never materialised. In the same way, for all intents and purposes, SKA Rostov-on-Don do not exist.
An emergency committee has been formed, with the usual process of handing the club over to the regional authorities in a desperate last-ditch attempt for salvation well underway, but it is more than likely that the Don region’s most successful club will simply fade into oblivion. The sadness lies not in the circumstances, but in the reaction.
So far, the clubs that have paid the ultimate penalty for financial woes have been either new upstarts or regional sides with little history to their name – Saturn Ramenskoye, FC Moscow, Dinamo Bryansk. For a brief moment, SKA’s demise had the potential to be the catalyst for a new awareness of old clubs in danger and cities losing more than just a football team. In England, fans club together to buy sides like Portsmouth, in Spain the likes of Real Oviedo can draw support from all corners of the globe. In Russia however, SKA’s withdrawal failed even to make the website of the other club in their city, whilst the millionaires in Europe continue to play. Whilst new money and new opportunities continue to present themselves with the World Cup round the corner, Russia would be mad not to take them. However, as other nations have proved so often , there is plenty of value in maintaining history – this is something Russia is yet to discover.