Saul Pope –
The world’s largest league, Russia’s Football National League, started up again a few weeks ago. As is usually the case, it spans the entire country – from Baltika Kaliningrad in the west to Luch Energiya Vladivostok in the East (a distance of around 6500 miles). And, aside from a couple of teams, it’s difficult to predict what will happen. SKA Khabarovsk’s promotion last season was a surprise, as was Luch’s relegation – until a side refusing promotion saved them.
If you’re following the FNL this season, here’s what you should look out for:
Will every team finish the Football National League season?
It’s not uncommon for the FNL to complete the season a side light because the money runs out somewhere. In 2013-14 Alania Vladikavkaz were in the promotion places going into the winter break but didn’t resume the season as their sponsorship disappeared. A year later Dinamo Saint Petersburg completed the season, but, due to their financial issues, were barely able to raise a team. They won just two games all year.
This year sees four sides already struggling financially – all of them former top flight teams. Kuban Krasnodar have struggled to compete with the rise of well-funded FC Krasnodar. Ultimately, though, their downfall has been the move of Aleksandr Tkachev from the position of regional governor, which saw government funding dry up. The club has considerable debts and a shrinking fan base and seems more likely to drop down a league than return to the top flight.
Other struggling sides are Fakel Voronezh, Tom Tomsk and Luch. After a good season and a half, Fakel have a queue of players demanding unpaid wages; Tom are still recovering from last season’s debts and aren’t allowed to sign new players, and Luch have had bankruptcy procedures started against them. With five relegation spots in the FNL, expect at least two of these sides to be battling the drop until the very end of the season.
Will everyone play in their town?
Despite being from a city of five million, Dinamo Saint Petersburg are starting the season playing in Novgorod – apparently at the request of the police. The side that has stolen their berth at the Petrovskiy Stadium, Premier League side FC Tosno, ironically spent last season playing in Novgorod.
Dinamo aren’t the only ones. Olympiets Nizhniy Novgorod face a whole season playing away due to work on their home stadium ahead of next year’s World Cup. Shinnik Yaroslavl are similarly affected, though will likely be back home by the end of the summer. Rotor Volgograd’s stadium is currently not up to the standards required by the league, and so they are starting with nine consecutive away matches.
None of these cities is small, but there are no local arenas for the clubs to use. In a piece for championat.com, Anton Mikhashenok rightly points out that all three of the four above sides are either brand new (Olympiets) or else renewed (Dinamo and Rotor both went under in recent years and have risen from the flames). A fair comment, then, from Mikhashenok to suggest that each club should first have concentrated on “building the foundations before the roof”.
Will Dinamo Saint Petersburg continue to rise?
The new Dinamo seems a far cry from the version we’ve seen over the last decade – this incarnation is well-financed and seems stable (at least as long as Boris Rotenberg is involved) and was comfortably promoted from the third-tier Professional Football League last season.
Dinamo have one of the least expensive squads in the FNL (the second lowest cost in the division, according to transfermarkt.ru), and Rotenberg’s approach seems to be steady building rather than splurges on slightly past-it players in an attempt to quickly gain promotion. Their reinforcements include a couple of former Zenit players, Ivan Solovyev and Oleg Vlasov. Whereas Solovyev never quite made the grade at Zenit and is on his way back up, Vlasov played 51 times for the city neighbours and has a wealth of other top flight experience.
Dinamo have made a reasonably good start to the season, with three wins and a draw from five games. With one of the relegated sides destined to struggle rather than push for promotion and few other teams in the promotion mix, a play-off place is not out of the question for Dinamo.
Will the fans start coming back?
Despite there being a huge name in the 2016-17 Football National League (Dinamo Moscow), last season saw the division’s lowest average attendance in its six-year history. In an excellent piece on the subject for sports.ru, Stanislav Chudin shows how the league’s average attendance has declined year-on-year since 2011-12 (from 4881) to just 2251 in 2016-17.
Partly this can be blamed on the involvement of two ‘B’ teams in the league – Spartak-2 and Zenit-2 both averaged below 1200 last season. The inclusion of a new side with a small fan base – FC Tosno, who were playing home games in Novgorod – compounded the problem. But even of the more ‘traditional’ locations to find fans, Dinamo Moscow averaged only 4000. Most disappointing of all is that Kuban Krasnodar – not long ago Russia’s best-supported team -averaged just 3593.
A surge in attendance looks unlikely in the 2017-18 Football National League season. The stadium issues noted above will add to the problems, and possibly the biggest problem of all has not gone away. Chudin notes that FNL attendances dropped off when the league calendar changed from Spring-Autumn to Autumn-Spring. Change back, and more games during the warmest part of the year would surely be most welcome to the determined few.
Will Tikhonov or Alenichev come out on top?
In two or three seasons’ time, we might find ourselves talking about Andrew Tikhonov as a candidate for the Russian national team job – if he isn’t at one of the big Premier League sides already. Last season, his first in full-time professional football, he guided Yenisey Krasnoyarsk to within a whisker of the top flight (one more goal would have seen them through their playoff tie against Arsenal Tula). This was all the more impressive given that Yenisey had been relegated a year earlier, only to be reprieved when another team declined promotion from the PFL. In 2017-18 Tikhonov is managing promotion favourites Krilya Sovietov Samara – and if everything goes right, bigger clubs will surely be calling his agent in a year or two.
There will be obstacles in his way, though – and one of those will be Yenisey and their new manager, Dmitriy Alenichev. Alenichev has more pedigree than Tikhonov, having got Arsenal through two promotions and into the top flight – though he struggled there with both Arsenal and at the job that followed, at Spartak Moscow.
When it comes to Alenichev a lot of the talk is about ‘baggage’. But that is to ignore his experience of getting the promotion at this level and also the inspiration he will give players as a former Spartak legend who has played at the highest level, including scoring goals in both the UEFA Cup and Champions League finals.
And finally, some Football National League predictions
Krylia Sovietov and Yenisey are my tips for the top two spots. Dinamo St. Petersburg should have a chance of making the playoffs but could find one of Spartak 2 or Zenit 2 in the way. Their ineligibility for the playoffs would let a side like Tambov, Volgar or even Khimki in.
Other sides one might expect to be pushing for promotion or comfortably mid-table – Tom, Fakel, Kuban and Luch – will more likely be near the bottom. It will also be interesting to see whether Rotor Volgograd – one of the biggest sides of the nineties and conquerors of Manchester United in the UEFA Cup – can equip themselves at this level following several difficult years. There is a reasonable chance, with their long sequence of away games at the start of the year, that they will slip straight back down.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid-nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.