Rotor Volgograd are in trouble once again. At the end of the 2013-14 Russian First Division campaign, the side left it late to ensure their survival, a 90th-minute Dmitri Kabutov goal sealing an emotional 1-0 win over Yenisei Krasnoyarsk in the final game to be played at the iconic Tsentralnyi Stadium – the monolithic venue with the famous statue of Mother Russia looming large on the horizon. After a season of doubts, Rotor were safe.
But the club’s bank balance was in no fit state to continue competing on the national stage. Faced with debts approaching 100 million roubles, it was announced that, not for the first time in their turbulent history, Rotor would leave the First Division for the Second, taking a voluntary relegation and beginning again with an all-new squad, focusing on the development of their youth players and a new, sustainable club.
However, despite being placed in the more compact of the two Second Division South groups – the three controversial Crimean clubs being placed in the other group of 11 – midway through the season the same issue has arisen. Despite boasting an almost entirely locally-bred squad, with 14 of their registered 25 players aged 21 or under, and by no means overspending in a bid to race back to the First Division – Rotor sit 6th at the midseason break – the news has broken that the proud old club are on the brink of bankruptcy.
On the one hand, this should not be news that surprises those familiar with the lower reaches of the Russian game. When established Premier League clubs such as Kuban, Amkar and Rostov can struggle to pay their players – not to mention the past demises of the likes of Saturn and FC Moscow – and the First Division varies in size each year to accommodate late withdrawals, midseason withdrawals and refused promotions, it is little surprise to learn that clubs in Rotor’s position regularly dis- and re-appear, only to return to their original position and resume the cycle. Even in the relatively small sample of the Second Division South, Rotor are joined by Dinamo Stavropol, Spartak Nalchik, Alania Vladikavkaz, FC Sochi, Angusht Nazran and Torpedo Armavir in having been restructured in one form or another in the past decade. Bankruptcy in itself is no rarity.
On the other, the club at hand is Rotor Volgograd. This is the club which attracted almost 10,000 fans per match when in the third tier, the club which so famously knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Cup in 1995, the club which came so close to breaking Spartak Moscow’s domination of the Russian game in the 1990s. It is the club of Oleg Veretennikov, Valeri Yesipov, Vladimir Niedergaus and Anatoli Zinchenko, the first Soviet footballer to ply his trade abroad. Perhaps more importantly, the city of Volgograd is one of the symbols of Russian strength and patriotism. Forever linked with the heroic defence of Stalingrad, as it was then called, during the Great Patriotic War, the city is a living memorial to Russian military might. Tram stops bear the name of barricades, the lengthy Volga embankment is named in honour of the Soviet 62nd Army, while major roads carry other legends of old – Georgi Zhukov, German Titov, the 39th Guards Division – all honoured individually and in the central Alley of Heroes. St Petersburg’s collective memory of the three-year Leningrad Blockade could produce an argument, but no other Russian city is so closely linked to the national wartime memory.
It is this, as much as anything, which appears to have inspired one of the first social media campaigns to really take off in the Russian football sphere. Since the news broke of Rotor’s likely demise, pictures of people – from the everyday to the sporting stars – holding a placard bearing the phrase #СпаситеРотор – Save Rotor – have been popping up all over Twitter, Instagram and vKontakte. Among the supporters thus far have been the aforementioned Niedergaus and Yesipov, former Rotor youngster Roman Pavlyuchenko, Spartak Moscow goalkeeper Artem Rebrov, and the entire squads of clubs such as Shinnik Yaroslavl, Baltika Kaliningrad and the recently-reformed Saturn Ramenskoye. The Russian footballing fraternity appears to have rallied around their colleagues, but whether any difference will be made is as yet unclear.
Money lies at the heart of the issue, with neither the club’s leadership – Sergei Nechai and Rokhus Shokh – nor the regional government, which owns the team, able to explain the reason for the 100 million rouble debt or suggest a way it might be brought under control. Sponsorship would be one way of bridging the gap, but no company in its right mind would agree a six-figure deal to prop up a third tier football club, let alone one with severe financial problems. The local government claims it has held up its end of the bargain in providing a 40 million rouble budget for the squad, Shokh and Nechai argue otherwise. The local authority, led by Andrei Bocharov, says more than 60 million roubles can be accounted for in salaries, which are bloated – the club claims players and staff have not received wages in months.
Whether the problem has been caused by corruption, embezzlement or just shocking financial mismanagement, it would be a crying shame to see a team as steeped in history as Rotor disappear for what today amounts to just over £1 million – a sum earned in a matter of weeks by some of the game’s higher-paid stars. When Spanish club Real Oviedo looked to be suffering a similar fate in November 2012, alumni such as Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata contributed to a globally-raised fund which spectacularly surpassed the €2 million needed. Ultimately, the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, took a controlling €2.5 million stake, with thousands of football fans the world over buying shares in the club to keep it afloat. The English journalist Sid Lowe helped take the #saverealoviedo hashtag to a global audience, and a similar intervention will now be needed if #СпаситеРотор is to take off in the same way. Even if the hashtag were to trend globally, there is little evidence so far that the club has any way of accepting donations.
It would be easy to level the blame at the club’s upper echelons of management – both at regional government and internal levels – for Rotor’s fall from grace, but the issue is not a new one, with the club first suffering immediately after their relegation from the top flight in 2004. Other clubs around them have gone through similar tribulations with varying results, and have not felt able to call on the Pavlyuchenkos of this world to bail them out. If the financial implications of a football club in Volgograd are incompatible with the level at which Rotor hope to compete, would it not be better to simply focus on what the club has done best in recent years – developing young, local players?
Yet there is something special about Rotor, and about Volgograd. Despite their fall from grace, until the current season the club still attracted more fans than most of the First Division sides, and even some Premier League clubs. In the same way that the war is entrenched in the spirit of the city, so too is an appetite for football, with Rotor attracting thousands to a level of football more usually watched by hundreds. What’s more, with the famous old stadium being overhauled to make it a venue fit to host World Cup matches in 2018, there would be something tragic about another stadium – Sochi’s looks likely to suffer the same fate – being left without a team to host following the tournament.
On a purely pragmatic level, the #СпаситеРотор hashtag represents an attempt to cling to history by people clearly unfit to run a football club which will never be able to survive without outside intervention – the most sensible and viable option would be to either operate solely as an academy, or for a new club to start up with new management, no ties to government, and more modest ambitions.
However, with everything else taken into account, it is clear why it is that the campaign has captured the hearts of so many on social media in Russia. In a country so often indifferent to the fortunes of its footballers, Rotor strikes a chord. The history, the emotional ties to a city alive with memories of heroism and patriotic fervour, the perseverance and the people all demand football in Volgograd under the Rotor banner, whether at the highest level or the regional. In Russia of all places, where financial viability has never stood in the way of an unlikely sporting story and where clubs can be propped up or torn down at the whim of politicians, Rotor deserves every chance to make yet another fist of it. It may seem futile, it may be nothing more than a romantic act of symbolism, but I would urge any fan of football – #СпаситеРотор!