In Russia, it is far from uncommon for teams to disappear, most often due to the ever-increasing financial burdens of running a professional football club and occasionally with a hint of mismanagement. Lower down the divisions, it is almost always the former, whereas should a top flight team bite the dust, questions are more likely to be asked about those in charge. There are exceptions to the rule – Alania Vladikavkaz and Rotor Volgograd two recent examples which buck the trend – but in most cases it is the case that the bigger the team involved, the more spectacular the failings among those steering the ship.
For those convinced that the failings of Russian clubs are isolated incidents, however, there are several frightening statistics which would suggest a deeper problem. For more than a decade, at least one club per season has withdrawn from one of the top two tiers of the domestic game – leading to dubious promotions, fixture lists thrown into chaos, and seasons beginning with as many as three clubs fewer than anticipated. The causes have been well-documented – travel and wage costs, poor attendance, low ticket prices, the lack of a substantial TV deal, the model of local government ownership and others – and it has become increasingly clear that the regular cases cannot be dismissed as anomalous.
Looking back, it is difficult to determine exactly which of the many clubs to disappear has been the most high-profile. Alania have a case as the only Russian (as opposed to Soviet) champions, while Rotor could also claim the unwanted crown. Torpedo Moscow would be contenders due to their rich Soviet history, but perhaps miss out by virtue of being at best the fourth wheel on the Moscow wagon. FC Moscow’s withdrawal, while that of a relatively young and small team, had some of the most dramatic consequences, while the gradual and multiple demises of Zhemchuzhina Sochi have been subject to plenty of attention from the game’s governing authorities.
Another club that has disappeared from view in recent years may not have endured the biggest collapse, but perhaps one of the more surprising. Having been established at the end of the Second World War, local government-owned Saturn Ramenskoye – cursed with the full and cumbersome title of ‘State-Owned Enterprise of the Moscow Region Football Club ‘Saturn’ Moscow Region’ – had slowly worked their way through the divisions since the collapse of the USSR, moving from the Second League in 1992 to the First in 1996, finding the time to take a drop into the realms of the short-lived Third League in 1994. Consecutive second-place finishes were enough for promotion, and three seasons in the second tier were enough of a launch pad to take the ‘Aliens’ into the top flight.
Unlike many clubs who have broken through for the first time, Saturn defied the odds by staying put at Russia’s top table. In their 12 years in the Premier League, the club never dropped below the relative safety of 11th place, recording five top-half finishes and becoming an accepted member of the established elite. Among the talented players to ply their trade in Ramenskoye – admittedly often at the end of start of their careers – are Andrei Kanchelkis, Petr Bystrov, Viktor Onopko, Dmitri Loskov and Roman Shirokov. Less well-known stars include Kilmarnock’s Alexei Eremenko, Lokomotiv’s Jan Durica, and journeyman Costa Rican striker Winston Parks.
And yet, at the end of the 2010 season, the club were wound up, unable to meet an 800 million rouble demand from investment firm MOITK and arrange a sale to the controversial Lithuanian businessman and one-time Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov. Rumours of a merger with fellow Moscow Region side Khimki were shelved, and the club, which had impressed many with its ability to match some of the biggest names in the domestic game, went under. The reasons behind the financial collapse were never fully disclosed, but the rumours which swirled emphasised the lack of fiscal sense in the club’s planning – one included an end-of-season bonus payable to a single player which would have dwarfed the club’s entire annual income – with individuals in the Moscow Region government taking the flak. Within months, however, Saturn were gone, Krasnodar began their life in the Premier League, and the world moved on.
From then on, Saturn’s legacy has been limited to their old stadium in Ramenskoye, which has existed as an emergency stadium for Moscow clubs with stadium issues – Torpedo Moscow being semi-regular visitors – and the ‘home’ ground of Anzhi on their European adventures. As Khimki too slid down the leagues to their current position in the Second Division, the Moscow Region – as opposed to the city itself – suddenly found itself without representation in the top two tiers of the Russian game.
However, that may be able to change. A glance at the league table of the Second Division West sees Spartak’s reserves atop the pile, followed closely by the throwback pair of Khimki and Saturn. Just four points separates the two former top flight sides from a place in next year’s First Division, and it seems increasingly likely that one of them will again take their place on the national stage.
While other clubs – again, Rotor spring to mind – have suffered several cycles of boom and bust, Saturn’s re-emergence as a regional force is more promising. Many of Russia’s phoenix clubs emerge immediately, powering through the amateur ranks and the regional Second Division before floundering and falling apart in the second tier. This time, Saturn have seemingly chosen a more patient approach, biding their time in climbing back to the third tier in time for the current season. While the Russian game at the lower levels is anything but predictable, the impression given off by the new club is that if promotion is not achieved next year, there will be no crisis.
In the Moscow footballing landscape, Saturn are unusual in that they have largely kept away from the hooliganism of some of the city’s rivalries, and gained a reputation as being a club which, while dispensing with managers on a fairly regular basis, was a respected stepping stone for a number of players and coaches. Unlike Khimki, who rose briefly to the top amid allegation of financial doping and match-fixing, Saturn were deemed to have made it the ‘right’ way and few people rejoiced in their demise. Should they return to the national scene, they will have few detractors.
Conversely, their lengthy name, history of corporate sponsorship – the club was for a brief spell Saturn REN-TV – and apparent financial murkiness will always prevent them being endeared to the public in the same way as institutions such as Spartak and temporary tenants Torpedo. Their rivalries will always seem engineered, the fans’ passion superficial, and any success less significant than that achieved by older, more storied clubs.
Yet for Saturn, the fact that there is a new chapter at all is encouraging. That it is written in a style so opposed to the usual Russian club reborn is even more so, and the fact that there is no overt intention to return to the RPL at any cost again breeds hope. Saturn have a long way to go, but at first glance it appears those in charge are aware of the need for patience, willing to play the long game, and have a real awareness of how far the team has fallen. They may not be everyone’s favourite club in the area, but in time they may well prove to be one of the better run. Given their history, it would be quite the achievement.