In news which will surprise very few who have been keeping an eye on the state of Russian football over the past few months, Rotor Volgograd have folded. After a lengthy period of negotiation, desperate attempts on social media, and blind faith in the club which so famously knocked Manchester United out of the old UEFA Cup so many years ago, the bankruptcy papers were signed and, as of April 9 2015, Rotor Volgograd ceased to exist.
In many respects, this is nothing new, neither for the Russian game nor for Rotor themselves. Just a decade ago the side which once challenged Spartak Moscow and Alania Vladikavkaz at the pinnacle of the top flight in the mid-90s lost its professional licence, being forced to drop down through the divisions. As a football club and a Russian institution, Rotor never fully recovered, and despite the hiring and firing of several ex-players and prominent supporters into positions of relative authority, the club have been unable to reach the heights of their past glories. Brief forays into the amateur Third Division, regular stints in the regional Second Division and the occasional glimpse of national league in the First Division. While crowds have always been amongst the highest in their respective league, performances on the field and financial acumen off it have been found wanting.
Earlier this year, there was a brief glimmer of hope that Rotor might be saved – this despite the tens of millions of roubles allegedly owed by the club and regional government. A social media campaign featured well-known and lesser names from around the Russian footballing fraternity was launched into action, but ultimately the fall-out was largely limited to the Russian-speaking internet and failed to find the investment or goodwill required for the Russian Football Union to make an exception to their rules. Nor should they have been expected to – as mentioned previously, this is not the first time that Rotor has had to step away from the professional arena after over-spending on its operations.
So, what comes next for one of the Russian games most storied clubs? Unsurprisingly, plans have already been put in place for a new Rotor to step into the most recent incarnation’s place at the start of next season. The new Rotor will once again be established by the government of Volgograd Oblast – the same administration which has been heavily criticised for failing the finance the current team – once again bear the historic Rotor name, and once again seek to make a home in the new, 45,000-seater Pobeda Stadium, which is scheduled to host several matches during the 2018 World Cup.
The new side will have to do so from a low starting point in the Third Division, but in reality this is likely to be a mere formality for an established name. Across Russia, ‘big’ clubs which go bankrupt are often reborn in the amateur ranks, only to breeze to promotion in their debut season and begin to work their way through the professional game. Those with the good fortune to have wealthy backers tend to do the same in the Second Division, but it is more likely that Rotor will spend a year or two in with the likes of Alania and Spartak Nalchik – other second-tier sides to have fallen foul of financial mismanagement – in the third tier before attempting a serious push to the national level.
It can easily be argued that it would be in the interests of the Russian footballing establishment to see Rotor back competing, if not at the highest level than at least on the national stage. The 2018 World Cup will be seen by many as something of a watershed moment for the sport in Russia – a chance for the nation to really put itself on the footballing map – and for a major city to be unable to support a team would not be a promising sign. With the 2014 Olympic stadium in Sochi also unlikely to be playing host to a decent professional outfit in the near future, the omens do not bode well for the health of the game in the south of Russia in general. While Sochi may be excused – its sporting story is relatively short and its historical significance comparatively minor – for such failings to hit Volgograd, a symbolic and significant city, serious questions would have to be asked.
So, even if the next edition of Rotor are to be given a helping hand, what can be realistically expected of them? Should fans of the club be preparing for a triumphant return to the Premier League – a level it last vacated in 2004 – or for further heartbreak later down the line? Is there likely to be a new broom that sweeps clean the old problems, or will the new club face the same issues which have plagued the Volgograd side for the last decade?
Unfortunately, for football fans in the city – and there are many, as crowds of nearly 10,000 in the second tier and 6,000 in the third can attest to – the new Rotor is likely to be every bit as troubled as the old Rotor. In the past few years the club has focused on young players from the local area, doing away with some of the higher-earning players who simply cannot be sustained on the budget the size of Rotor’s. At various points the financial situation has reached the stage where players, management and staff alike have not been paid for months at a time, and this in a period of financial austerity around the club. With overheads at a minimum, the club has still found itself at crisis point, and with few budgets left to cut.
If the new Rotor is to be a success, a new administration must be put in place that does not possess grandiose visions of the club’s place in the world. Rather than budgeting for the top flight, it must live within its means, look to the young talent coming through the club, and rule out competing on a national level until the side is financially viable – within the very Russian definition of being affordable to the regional government. Anything else will simply result in the same situation in two or three years’ time, and after a few more cycles it will be difficult to find any sympathy with those bemoaning the club’s lack of funds in the future.