THE FIRST step for many countries was to set a date for the return of their domestic league, albeit behind closed doors. Cardboard cut-out fans, piped atmosphere, video camera images of fans and TV cameras. Russia, among others, is taking it a stage further by allowing a limited number of fans in their stadiums.
The Russian Premier League will allow 10% of ground capacity once they resume on June 20. It sounds like a sensible way to test the water, for example, Zenit St. Petersburg’s ground holds more than 67,000 so their permitted total will 6,780 which allows scope for quite extravagant social distancing.
Is Russia really ready for this move, which will set a precedent for other activities? Football can act as a morale booster – as Russian Deputy Prime Minister said, they are aiming to bring back “the special emotional component of football”. Initially, games were going to be played behind closed doors.
Football has often provided a distraction for the masses when the economy has stumbled, which is a fairly regular state of affairs in the modern history of Russia – the last crisis was in 2014-17. Market watchers were expecting a recession in 2020 in Russia before the coronavirus locked down the world, but the World Bank is now predicting a 6% fall in GDP, which seems quite conservative given the circumstances. Oil prices have fallen by a third in 2020 and the Russian economy was heavily aligned to it – the ruble has been stabilised and the government has tried to make the country’s finances less reliant on oil.
However, the Russian Central Bank’s Alexander Morozov has forecast Russia’s slump will not be v-shaped and will take time to turn around. Indeed, Sberbank’s Oleg Zamulin expects a long and tedious recovery that may run into years. And as for victims of the coronavirus, Russia’s cases are currently numbering over half a million with a mortality rate of 1.3%. Sceptics have suggested Russia’s figures are not to be trusted, but that same criticism could be aimed at almost any country.
The suspension of Russian football came at a time when crowds were at their best levels for some years, up 3.4% to an average of 17,294. Russian Premier clubs are said to be losing a combined total of one billion rubles a week (£ 11.5 million – for example, Spartak Moscow are losing 125 million rubles (£ 1.4 million) every seven days and hence, their squad has taken a 40% pay cut. The Russian Football Union has asked UEFA to extend the summer transfer window by four weeks to make life a little easier in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the Russian Premier League is set to vote on a proposal to expand the league from 16 to 18 clubs. Not everyone is enthused about the prospect, notably Lokomotiv Moscow’s chairman, who believes the increased division may put pressure on resources and eventually fall victim to Russia’s harsh climate. He asked: “Do we have 18 financially stable clubs and the pitches that won’t cause players to tear their ligaments?”.
According to Deloitte’s review of football finance, Russia is the sixth wealthiest football league. The average total revenues per club in the Russian top flight is € 752 million, of which 76% is derived from commercial activity. Russia doesn’t have the same type of broadcasting deal as some major European countries and consequently, only 17% of income comes from media. Russia not only trails the “big five” leagues, but also has a smaller TV deal than Turkey, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal. The wage-to-income ratio in the Russian Premier League is an unhealthy 70%.
There’s a dark cloud on the horizon for Russian football following the doping scandals around athletics and the Olympics. Apparently, there is evidence of football doping and FIFA are expecting to receive some evidence that will probably further damage Russian sport’s reputation.
Vladimir Putin, who has only just been seen in public for the first time in months, has said that experts have told him the peak has passed. A convenient time to ease restrictions, it would seem, as Russia is hosting a parade on June 24 to mark Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
If the limited crowd involvement works, it could trigger off similar moves in other countries. If it fails, it will send the football world back two steps. Nobody really knows if the timing is right, but at some point, we are going to have to go back in the water. Good luck Russia.