Bold and bullish, Russia prepares to open the gates

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.


Photo: PA



It’s not a science – the way we pick our football teams

YOU’VE heard the old joke that you can change your wife but you never switch your football team. It’s a wisecrack that belongs to the past, but there is some truth in it. Football commands a sense of loyalty that creates a lifelong bond between supporter and club. Even when the passion fades or youthful (and myopic) devotion gives way to a more measured relationship, that link is rarely, if ever, broken.

The traditional route to allegiance has followed a number of paths. Geography is a primary influence, resulting in you attaching yourself to the local club, be it a humble, non-league team, or your most accessible Football League outfit. In some cases, being close to a major metropolis may have swung your vote, especially if you were attracted by shiny things. For example, supporters from the many football towns around Manchester may be drawn to United or City rather than Rochdale, Oldham or Preston. Similarly, living on the edge or just outside London undoubtedly takes people into the catchment area of major clubs from the capital as opposed to suburban, smaller teams.

Only recently I visited Salford City and it was pretty clear that some fans were really exiled Manchester United supporters perhaps drawn to League Two football by the very agreeable pricing structure at the Peninsula Stadium.

In well-defined cities and towns, it is often easier to find yourself following the club on the corner. A club can represent that town and become part of its social structure and identity. Hence, some local authorities have realised that a football club can act as a form of ambassador for the town. Stevenage was one such club that benefitted from strong support from the council.

It’s not quite like the days when 10-20% of the population turned out every fortnight to see the local “United”, “Town” or “Athletic”, but in many places, the football club is still the only place where there is a large gathering of people at any one time.

Geography aside, a potential fan might adopt the family colours. In other words, if it’s in the family, the next generation automatically takes up the challenge. It helps if the father or grandfather (or indeed mother and grandmother) takes little Johnny along to, for example, Elland Road or Ewood Park as a rite of passage. Invariably, you support the same club that your Dad followed, although in some cases, that’s just not possible. My Dad, for instance, had no interest in football, although admitted that he watched KB Copenhagen a few times as a kid in 1930s Denmark.

People have written – too many books – about the subject, starting with Nick Hornby and then a legion of wannabees who want to tell everyone about their “unique relationship” with their club. How did I become a Chelsea fan? It was via that other main influence, “accident”. It was the day of the 1967 FA Cup final, Chelsea v Tottenham. I was bound for a cub scout jamboree in, of all places, West Tilbury. We boarded a double-decker bus and the lower deck was to sing for Chelsea, the upper Tottenham. Given I hadn’t really heard of either, I was happy to sing for Chelsea, especially as I found out they played in blue.

Cubs from all over Thurrock and beyond were reading maps, putting their First Aid skills to good use and awaiting the big event of the day – the screening of the FA Cup final. There were no big TVs in those days and the set in the huge marquee was no more than 20 inches. I was so detached from the action that when Chelsea scored late on, I thought it was the first of the game, not the consolation. I assumed Bobby Tambling had won the cup for the Blues! It was only at the rumoured final whistle that I realized Tottenham had won 2-1. I was strangely disappointed but that’s where it started.

Today, I consider myself something of a “portfolio fan” and that includes Chelsea, Ajax, Ferencvaros, Rapid Vienna and Fulham, not to mention my local non-league club. I find it hard to allow myself to let my emotional well-being become tied to the performances of a team. I like to be entertained, I enjoy the spectacle, the skill and the passion of the fans at both ends. It’s a strange place to be given that today’s game is so intense, but I will leave fanaticism to the next generation.


This article appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.