As war rages, Zenit become Russian champions

ZENIT ST. Petersburg recently clinched the Russian Premier League for the fourth consecutive season, making their coach, Sergei Semak, one of the most successful in Europe over the past five years. At the same time, Ukrainian football was suspended and some stadiums had come under fire from Russian armed forces.

Zenit beat Lokomotiv Moscow 3-1 on April 30 to become champions once more, losing just two league games up to May 11. The Gazprom-owned club were comfortable winners and there is currently a 12-point margin between them and second and third placed Dynamo Moscow and Sochi with two matchdays to go.

Zenit, owned by Russian energy company Gazprom, have lost just two league games this season. Gazprom’s chairman, Alexey Miller, was ecstatic when congratulating the players and management: “The capital of football continues to grow and expand.”

However, Zenit showed a distinct lack of class in trolling Manchester United on social media after winning the league, picturing defender Danil Krugovoy holding the trophy. “This is how you win the Premier League,” they posted. The club recently announced that they had become the first Russian football club to generate over 5.5 million followers across social networks.

While the ebullient Zenit faithful celebrated their title win in typical style, casualties from the war in Ukraine were mounting. The Russian state may be selective in the dissemination of news from the front line, but the harsh reality of the conflict cannot be hidden. Russia is at war and life is trying to get on as normal. As seen on TV, opposition to the war is invariably treated with aggression.

While there is no doubting their domestic domination, Zenit continue to fall short in European competition. They finished third in their Champions League group and switched over to the Europa League but crashed out to Real Betis in the last 16. Likewise, Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow fell short in the Europa League. Zenit’s place in the Champions League in 2022-23 will be taken by the Scottish champions.

The invasion of Ukraine has made life uncomfortable for foreign players in the Russian Premier League. Some, such as Anders Dreyer, Rubin Kazan’s Danish winger, have left Russia. Dreyer has returned to his old club, Midtjylland, until the end of June 2022. Others, like Victor Moses (Spartak), Malcom and Wendel (both Zenit) are still playing for their clubs. FIFA has said that Russia-based foreign players can leave their clubs until the end of the season.

The Russian invasion has also been the catalyst for the severing of some business relationships. UEFA, for example, have ended their long-standing and very lucrative sponsorship arrangements with Gazprom and their rather sinister animated advertising that filled TV intervals during Champions League screenings. Schalke 04 have also cut their ties with Gazprom while Manchester United ended its partnership with Aeroflot. Daniel Farke, the former manager of Norwich City, left Krasnodar before he had managed a single game for the club, while his compatriot, ex-Köln coach Markus Gisdol, walked away from Lokomotiv Moscow after just a dozen fixtures.

Russian football was not in a good place before the country’s armed forces invaded Ukraine, so the decline will surely only continue.

Russia’s economy has been destabilised by the sanctions implemented by the west and factories have been closed and inflation has reached its highest level in decades.  Analysts estimate the economy could contract by as much as 20% in 2022. A number of oligarchs have lost a lot of money. Leonid Fedun, owner of Spartak Moscow, has lost some 15% of his wealth. Needless to say, this will affect football club finances, which are invariably precarious at the best of times. The story of Anzhi Makhachkala has almost been brushed under the carpet, a short-lived gold rush involving billionaire Suleiman Kerimovm, who also invested in Uralkali, a leading producer of fertiliser. Big-name hired hands were brought in – Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos among them – but the price of potash crashed and Anzhi are now in the third tier of Russian football and largely forgotten.

Over half of the Russian Premier is state-owned or backed by the local authorities. The CSKA Moscow was 22% owned by a UK company called Bluecastle Enteprises as well as state development bank, VEB. CSKA, who have been linked to former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, reported that some of their employees had returned home when the war broke out, for “family and personal reasons related to the current situation”.

The rest of the league seems to benefit from some sort of corporate sponsorship or are owned by wealthy businessmen. The league is sponsored by Tinkoff, a Russian bank owned by Oleg Tinkov, who has spoken out about the futility of the war. He sees no beneficiary emerging from the ongoing troubles and accuses Russia of being “mired in nepotism and servility”.

Russian football was not in a good place before the country invaded Ukraine, so the decline may steepen in the next few years. Given the size of the country, it is still something of a mystery why Russia has struggled to produce a consistently competitive club, although CSKA and Zenit won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Zenit have the potential to become more prominent with their strong support and excellent stadium. They were ranked 19th in Deloitte’s Football Money League for 2022, with total revenues of more than € 200 million, but if Russia becomes an international pariah, it will difficult for the club to make progress in the short-term.

As it stands, Russia is likely to become more isolated than it has at any point since the Soviet Union split apart and from a footballing perspective, we are unlikely to see their clubs in European competition for some time. The state has used sport to ingratiate itself, and as it turns out, the protests and the fears were more than justified. As academic David Golblatt said in his piece for Open Democracy, Russia’s exclusion from world football will make little difference to the Kremlin. “Football has already done its work, helping to conjure up the illusion of Putin’s Russia as a pacific member of the global community, for which many were handsomely rewarded.” And people still wonder why there is still some discomfort over Qatar being awarded the World Cup…

Russian football’s soul doesn’t need to be in a dark place 

OVER the past couple of weeks, Russia’s Spartak Moscow were ushered out of the UEFA Champions League and Sochi and Rubin Kazan eliminated from the UEFA Conference League. While Spartak are able to seek refuge in the Europa League, the others go back to their domestic football programme to consider what might have been. Meanwhile, 2021 champions Zenit are still in the Champions League and Moscow’s Lokomotiv will compete in the Europe alongside Spartak.

For a country that is the world’s largest, with 145 million people, Russia’s football seems pretty dismal. True, Zenit are Champions League regulars, but they do have the mighty Gazprom behind them. Of the current Premier League constitution, 10 clubs have some form of state-ownership and six are privately-owned (CSKA, Spartak, Rubin, Sochi, Dynamo and Krasnodar). Some clubs are still burdened by the Soviet legacy of local government control, which brings with it financial and bureaucratic hurdles. It is such a varied mix that nobody ever talks about even playing fields in Russia, it is the survival of the fittest and at the moment, Russian football doesn’t look healthy. 

There is, of course, a cloud hanging over Russian sport in the form of a ban that will prevent the nation from playing in the 2022 World Cup under their own name. If they do manage to qualify, and it is by no means a certainty, then they will have to play under a neutral flag, whatever that means. Russia are currently 41st in the FIFA rankings. In July, they appointed Valery Karpin as their coach in a bid to secure a place in Qatar in some shape or form. If he fails, he may not be in the job for long.

Russian clubs, in terms of financial strength, should be in better shape. In 2019-20, the combined income of Russia’s clubs totalled € 877 million, which was more than Turkey, Netherlands and Portugal, the other leading leagues outside the big five. It should also be noted Russia’s economy is the fifth largest in Europe.

Like many leagues, the gambling industry has shown a liking for Russian football and around half the clubs in the Russian Premier League have some connection with betting companies. Others are sponsored by the oil or gas sector or financial services, such as Dynamo Moscow (VTB Bank).

The new president of the Russian Football Union, Aleksandr Dyukov, has a nine-year plan to energise Russian football. He talks of better club participation in Europe and improved rankings for the national team. But the problems surrounding Russia are manifold, not least the very restrictive foreign player limits, which might have had honourable intentions but merely make Russian teams uncompetitive. Dyukov is not an advocate of the limit, which currently allows clubs to have eight foreigners in their squad. 

Removing the limit will bring Russia more in line with the rest of Europe, but clubs also need to benefit from overseas investment and move away from state ownership. Furthermore, they need to monetise their academies to produce a conveyor belt of talent that can be developed at home for their own teams – thus avoiding expensive transfer fees – or sold in the market. Many clubs across Europe, notably in Portugal and the Netherlands, have become very adept at player trading – Russia is in the same bracket as these countries and could become a major nursery for training and nurturing young talent. At present there are fewer than a dozen Russian players in the top five European leagues, while most of their exports go to Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan. In total, there are under 200 Russians playing abroad, lower than countries like Ukraine and Croatia.

There is an argument that the globalisation of football has created so many imbalances, but it is either a case of join the party or be left out in the cold. At present, Russia is trailing behind, but it has the raw materials to become a force in football, as the old Soviet Union was when it was at its peak. But it will surely need nine years to get it right, for huge units take their time to turn. With its vast population, enthusiasm for football and strong heritage, Russian football should be in a far better place. Will anyone be patient enough for the long haul?