Andrew Flint –
As the thirteenth player left the club this weekend, misty-eyed memories of the famous 3-2 win over European powerhouses Bayern München seem very distant right now for FC Rostov. The fairytale adventure that took the unfashionable southern club to within a whisker of the league championship last summer – one goal on the final day would have handed them the title – and then onto the glamorous European odyssey through Bavaria, Holland, Madrid, Manchester and Prague is, unfortunately, morphing into the worst kind of nightmare.
In the summer transfer window they have lost almost their entire first-choice starting XI from the recently ended campaign, but perhaps more crucially the tactical mastermind behind the remarkable few years, Kurban Berdyev, has also departed. Barely six months go by without reports of wages going unpaid or of transfer bans being imposed, and with only around £2 million from incoming transfer fees so far there isn’t even the bonus of cash to spend on rebuilding.
To understand how this point has been reached, one needs to look back to a few years ago and brighter times off the pitch. Locally-educated businessman Ivan Savvidis, a close confidante of President Vladimir Putin, is rated as the 30th wealthiest man in Russia, and served as FC Rostov’s president from 2002 until 2005. He bought Greek club PAOK Salonika – and this year bought the entire port of Thessaloniki – but his company Agrocom had helped fund chronic shortages in player salaries at Rostov on numerous occasions over the past few years.
Finances Have Always Been a Problem for FC Rostov
With Savvidis in tow, the lack of funding from the Rostov Oblast regional government had been a surmountable obstacle, but in December last year, Agrocom pulled out of backing the endless shortfalls in club finances. While the club’s debt officially stands at around just €6 million, it is enough to put the payment of club employees into jeopardy. To put that figure in context, that is more than the total annual operating budget of most second-tier FNL clubs. On top of that, with the construction of the World Cup stadium in progress, it is impossible to see any increase in funds being made available to the club.
On that backdrop of economic uncertainty that not even Champions League and Europa League riches could resolve, it is hardly surprising that the biggest names would depart. The cosmetic changes at the club can all be traced back to last summer, however. Kurban Berdyev had revolutionised the fortunes of the club on the pitch by employing his trusted lieutenants such as Alexander Bukharov, Sardar Azmoun, Cesar Navas, Christian Noboa – all of whom played under him during his hugely successful time as Rubin Kazan boss – in a now-commonplace 3-5-2 system.
Loyalty to Berdyev, as opposed to loyalty to the club, seems to be an explicit component of this tragic twist in the Rostov tale. Iranian wunderkind Azmoun was given his senior debut by Berdyev as a teenager in Kazan, but within six months of his manager leaving he had joined his mentor on loan. Last summer, having spent 18 months temporarily as an FC Rostov player he went AWOL from Rubin training in an apparent attempt to force through a permanent move. Both clubs claimed to have a legally binding contract with the player in a row that involved the Court of Arbitration for Sport and FIFA and ended with Azmoun starring in bursts on the pitch.
Berdyev has now Returned to Kazan
Berdyev has now returned to Kazan, and Azmoun himself has been taking part in Rubin training sessions. Although he has not officially signed terms, it seems only a matter of time before he rejoins Navas – who is also taking part in Rubin’s pre-season training camp – Soslan Dzhanayev, Vladimir Granat and Fyodor Kudryashov formally.
Zenit Saint Petersburg have been extremely active in the window so far after bringing in Roberto Mancini to replace Mircea Lucescu in the hot seat, with a seemingly increased willingness to spend more than last summer. The transfer funds from the sale of Hulk and Axel Witsel were considerable last summer, but they have raided Rostov to sign Dmitry Poloz, Alexander Erokhin, Denis Terentyev and Christian Noboa. The first three will satisfy the stringent foreigner’s limitations, but only Poloz and Noboa can be hopeful of a starting place.
Nevertheless, FC Rostov cannot compete with any club offering a reasonable contract to their players – just removing a salary off their books is a financial boost at the moment. Incoming transfers have a distinctly underwhelming feel to them, with many either castoffs from other Russian clubs, or lesser-known names from abroad. Saeed Ezzatolahi and Moussa Doumbia return from highly promising loan spells and can go some way towards replacing the loss of Erokhin and Noboa, but the overall momentum is negative.
With substantial reinforcements being made at the likes of Lokomotiv Moscow and Rubin Kazan, not to mention the strength in depth of last season’s top two – Zenit and Spartak Moscow – it is hard to see FC Rostov challenging for European football. Much more likely is a battle to keep their head above the water; the fate of their season rests heavily on the business they conduct over the next two months before the Russian transfer window slams shut. Losing the heart of the first XI has been bad enough, worse still to have no secure long-term funding in place; the biggest loss by far, however, is Berdyev.
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.