By Manuel Veth –
On February 25 Futbolgrad ran a Gazeta story on the possible take over of the Serbian SuperLiga football club FK Vojvodina Novi Sad by Shakhtar Donetsk owner Rinat Akhmetov. At the time it was understood that Akhmetov was trying to increase his portfolio of football clubs due to the ongoing conflict in the Donbass.
There are several examples in the post-Soviet space of oligarchs who own several clubs. One is Ihor Kolomoyskyi’s football network in Ukraine, another is Oleg Mkrtchyan’s international network of football clubs that includes teams in Armenia, Russia, and Ukraine; and then there is Roman Abramovich’s network built for his prime asset Chelsea FC, which includes the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.
The Serbian Football Market – A New Frontier for Post-Soviet Oligarchs and Companies
The Serbian market has been on the radar of individuals, as well as organizations from the post-Soviet space for quite some time. The Russian state corporation Gazprom, for example—which has sponsored Red Star Belgrade since 2010—is also considering increasing its investment at Red Star with the outlook of potentially becoming the owner of the club.
Teams from the Serbian SuperLiga are especially attractive for individuals such as Rinat Akhmetov, or companies such as Gazprom because clubs from Serbia are renowned for their outstanding youth academies. Also, Russia, and Serbia have strong political connections, and some clubs even have fan connections with clubs in Russia, which means that fans on both sides would look kindly on a take over. Furthermore, Red Star is facing huge financial problems, and has recently been bailed out by a new sponsorship agreement with Gazprom, in which Gazprom will pay the Serbian club €20 million over five years.
By purchasing Red Star Belgrade, Gazprom hopes to gain access to the club’s excellent youth academy and first options on transfers that could benefit Zenit Sankt Petersburg. Gazprom has already built a superb network for its flagship club Zenit Sankt Petersburg, which has a partnership agreement with the German club FC Schalke 04—a club sponsored by Gazprom and considered the most important piece in the Gazprom Empire next to Zenit—that includes an exchange of knowledge regarding football infrastructure, scouting, and expertise in youth training.
For Rinat Akhmetov the purchase of Vojvodina, on the other hand, would be a move that would allow Shakhtar Donetsk to loan out its most talented players to the Serbian SuperLiga. Shakhtar’s U-19 team were runners up in last season’s UEFA Youth League, and many players of that squad are now ready to make the next step. In the past, these players would have been loaned out to clubs that are close to Shakhtar Donetsk, but with many of these teams located in the Donbass, Shakhtar has started to look abroad to increase the reach of its football network.
State-Ownership Ownership as a Major Obstacle
One major obstacle to oligarchs, and companies from the post-Soviet space looking to purchase Serbian clubs is the fact that all clubs are, strictly speaking, owned by the state.
As the French sport portal Footbalski has pointed out on Twitter: “clubs are state owned with the exception of Cukaricki, [which is already privately owned]. The remaining clubs are supposed to [be] privatize[d] but still waiting for it.”
In fact, on April 12, 2011 a law was introduced by the Serbian parliament that was intended to facilitate the privatization of clubs, however, the clubs’ boards have been reluctant to privatize, and have used the constitutional right to freedom of association to slow down the privatization process. Board members have been blocking this process, because they fear losing their political influence over club management. It was expected that new legislation designed to enforce privatization would finally be pushed through in June 2015, but very little progress has been made toward this goal.
Many clubs in Serbia have structures that have been called mafia-like, in which owners are linked to various criminal activities, including money laundering and corruption, as well as third-party ownership of player contracts. Despite this situation “authorities have done little to investigate these allegations and combat corruption in teams or fan clubs”, it was said in an article published by WikiLeaks.
Reform as a Door Opener for Post-Soviet Investment in Serbia?
On July 30, Inside World Football reported that Serbian Members of Parliament (MPs) have discussed solutions to the ongoing problem of matchfixing in the country. It is thought that one answer to the problem could be the privatization of state-owned clubs.
Speaking to Inside World Football, the head of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Zoran Babić said; “I think that privatisation is the solution. The entrance of proper, healthy capital into the clubs will improve their performance and enhance the quality of matches.”
In March, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić spoke to the Serbian news service b92 about the financial difficulties of Serbian clubs—in particular the big two clubs Red Star Belgrade, and Partizan Belgrade—and reiterated that the only solution to clubs’ financial problems was to go private. Furthermore, he believes that privatization is the only way to break the ties to organized crime that influence the operation of many clubs.
He also pointed out that several clubs are now under investigation for misappropriation of funds: “Was there thievery there? You bet there was. That’s no big secret. Of course there was. Did they steal a lot? Nobody can establish who the owner is over there [at the clubs], so I’m also giving up on that,” said Vučić. Asked when an investigation can be expected that would show “how much was stolen and who was stealing money from the clubs,” the prime minister replied: “They are under investigation, and a working group was working and arrived at certain results. You can expect these results soon.” Vučić also stated that there have been serious financial offers from investors for some clubs in Serbia, and it is now understood that these offers came from Gazprom (for Red Star), and Akhmetov (for Vojvodina).
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Serbian government can push through legislation that would allow foreign investment into Serbia’s struggling football economy. As one expert on Serbian football told me in February: “with Serbia you never know”. Another serious question is whether investment from the post-Soviet space would help to fix all the problems that Serbian club football is experiencing at the moment. While Gazprom, and oligarchs, can provide financial stability for Serbian clubs, these same clubs would then be expected to become farm teams for clubs in Russia, and Ukraine, which would do little to restore the sporting might of teams such as Partizan or Red Star.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.