In many ways, as is the case all across the footballing world, the game in any particular country accurately defines the social, cultural and economic status of that land. Russia is no different. The collapse of the USSR left the vast majority of the country poverty stricken. Those in the privileged positions of power – or crime – were fine but the rest suffered. Work was scarce, wages were low. Times were hard, football suffered as families struggled to cope financially. The financial crisis of 1998 was akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s, modern-day Russia, halfway between the derelict days of communism and the bright lights of capitalism, was a hard place to be for the man on the street.
Then came the oil money. The boom. According to Forbes magazine, in 2002 there were only five billionaires living in Moscow, by 2009 that number was approaching 100 – more than any other city in the world. Moscow’s status as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities was complete. Barring the weather, seeing the Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked outside designer boutiques and trendy cafes could resemble a scene somewhere in the Hollywood dream. Moscow was the hangout for the rich and famous, but that is quite a distorted view of things. The population of the city is estimated to be over 10 million. There are fewer than one hundred billionaires. The wealth distribution in the city, let alone the country, is absurdly unbalanced. A quarter of the whole countries wealth – 142million people spread across 17, 000, 000 km sq – was in the hands of under one hundred, well placed and well connected individuals. It is their Ferrari’s that adorn the streets of the boutique’s in which they shop. For the rest of the Muscovite’s, it’s business as usual, and the same applied to the football.
Whilst the top clubs, backed by their energy companies, banks and airlines, all prosper and do battle amongst each other, the ordinary folk are left to scrap it out between themselves, surviving on modest budgets – much like the working class populous of Moscow. In last season’s Russian Premier League, FC Moscow – the smallest, youngest and least known of the Moscow cartel – finished in a very respectable sixth place. This was only one spot behind CSKA, and two places above Dynamo, yet they will not be competing in this year’s competition. The reason? Their backers, Norilsk Nickel, have decided to pull the plug on their funding leaving the club without the income needed to operate or payback any of the debt they have accrued. The Citizens have been forced to drop out of the Premier League with their place being taken by Alania Vladikavkaz and their squad has now been ransacked by the rest of the division.
The club was only formed in 2004, rising from the ashes of another defunct outfit – Torpedo Moscow – and did little to upset the natural order of the illuminate, generally falling into line in the middle of the table. Their best finish was 4th in 2004, yet they finished just four points off the riches of European football last time out. After being unable to find alternative sponsorship to continue, they now face an anxious wait to see whether the club will cease to exist at all. Given the furore surrounding the potential winding-up of Portsmouth in the English Premier League, it gives a stark warning to clubs that too much reliance on one backer can end in an abrupt, bloodless death. In a similarly precarious financial state are one of Russia’s best-supported sides, Krylia Sovetov Samara, or the Soviet Wings as they are affectionately known by their eternally optimistic fans. Krylia have been a regular fixture in the Premier League, with a best placed finish of 3rd in 2004, but habitually hang around mid-table. With the new season just a few weeks away, Krylia’s pre-season preparations are in tatters, with a mountain of debt putting their participation in jeopardy. As in the case of FC Moscow, when the sponsors tighten the purse strings, the financial security of the club is put in grave danger. The nucleus of Krylia’s squad from last year have already departed, with Jiri Jarosik of ex-Chelsea, Birmingham and Celtic fame going to Real Zaragoza, and giant Czech striker Jan Koller off to AS Cannes. Wingers Timofei Kalachev and Vladislav Ignatyev have left on free transfers, and Roman Shishkin and Roman Adamov have returned to parent clubs after loan deals expired.
Given the drain in resources, replacements have been impossible to attain and to top it all off, the players who do remain at the club have not been paid for months and have threatened to approach the Russian Football Association to rescind their contracts if the situation is not resolved. Although attempts were being made to cobble a playing roster together, the unpaid debts of the club and inability to find donors to fund operations for the upcoming season meant there was a real danger Sovetov would have their wings clipped by demotion from the Premier League.
Then, at the eleventh hour, a saviour. Vladimir Putin. The Prime Minister personally took it upon himself to get involved to make sure Krylia did not go bust. The Wings have been provided with an operating budget by the Government to keep them going, with Deputy PM Igor Sechin being personally instructed by Putin to find alternative sponsorship for the club as well. Rosteknologii, a state-owned corporation, have come forward to offer support as the main backer to the club and keep them going for 2010. They face a race against time to put together a competitive squad for the new campaign, but at least they are breathing, thanks to Putin. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Especially in Russia.