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Winter football in Russia: Who screws whom?

Winter football in Russia: Who screws whom?

James Appell on 16 September 2010

On Monday, Russia's footballing authorities unveiled finalised plans for a switch from their current summer footballing calendar to a so-called "autumn-spring" system. But why, and who is going to benefit?

In this, the first week of Champions League group matches, I found myself casting my mind back to the first game of football I ever attended in Russia.

On the 24th February 2004, at their brand new stadium at Cherkizovo, Lokomotiv Moscow hosted AS Monaco in the Champions League first knockout round.

The game ended 2-1 to the home side, with a sprightly 21-year-old winger named Marat Izmaylov the star of the show. Izmaylov scored a superb opening goal and looked a gem in the making. He has since gone on to fulfill a modicum of his potential, currently playing club football for Sporting Lisbon.

Above all else, though, the thing I remember that night for was the bitter cold it was played in.

Monaco, who eventually reached the final that year only to lose to Jose Mourinho’s Porto, were playing against a twelfth man in the weather - and were dressed for the occasion in the obligatory gloves and stockings. And standing watching the game, I was fighting my own (losing) battle with the Moscow frost.

In short, I concluded at the time, February is not a month to be playing or watching football in Moscow, when average daily temperatures are nearly seven degrees below zero.

Funny - because years on from that night in Lokomotiv Stadium I’m having to contemplate the prospect of reliving that experience on a regular basis.

That’s because on Monday Russia’s footballing authorities unveiled finalised plans for a switch from their current summer footballing calendar to a so-called “autumn-spring” system.

At the moment across Russia’s three professional divisions football is played between February and November, with a summer break for international tournaments. From 2012, however, the Russian season will be brought into line with the big leagues of Europe, beginning in August and ending in May.

Changes will actually be introduced starting from next season, when Premier League clubs will play a marathon 44 game season stretching from February 2011 to May 2012. From thereon Russians will have to get used to a heavy dose of winter football.

For most clubs this is going to necessitate the construction of new stadiums with covered stands, pitches able to cope with ice and snowfall (dreaded astro-turf in other words), indoor training facilities and much else besides.

This all costs money. Russian football’s governing body, the Russian Football Union (RFU), are pouring 800 million rubles (about £16 million) into building projects among its football clubs. But that’s small beer compared with the cost of getting all of Russia’s professional teams up to standard, and the shortfall will have to be made up by private enterprise and the clubs themselves.

“What’s the point of the change?” I hear you ask.

Allow me to digress a little. Back in the 1920s Lenin, the architect of the Russian Revolution, coined the phrase “Who whom?” (“Kto kogo?”), to describe social relations. To Lenin’s mind, all interaction between people and groups in society could be boiled down to this single question.

There was no verb because Leninism, given its rather belligerent take on social affairs, had no use of one, as there was only ever one verb that counted as far as the Bolsheviks were concerned - what Lenin was getting at was: “Who screws whom?”.

It’s appropriate, given this revolution in Russia’s footballing landscape, to ask the same question.

And the answer in many quarters is that a minority of Russia’s richest and most successful clubs are summarily screwing over the rest. They are able to do so because they have both money and political power on their side.

As sports agent Vladimir Abramov said of Monday’s decision in an interview with Sovetsky Sport this week: “Congratulations to the clubs - all six of them - who represent state monopoly capital.”

The likes of Zenit St Petersburg, owned by state energy giant Gazprom, Spartak Moscow, owned by oil company LUKoil, and Rubin Kazan, swimming in the billions generated by Tatarstan’s natural resource-rich regional government, are the key lobbyists for the move.

They see an autumn-spring season benefiting their tilt at European honours, while their cash reserves mean that they can afford the changes to their infrastructure needed for a winter campaign.

Perhaps as importantly, they can run their clubs without relying on gate receipts. That means the decision to switch to an autumn-spring season was made without having to consult with fans - if they don’t buy tickets for winter matches it won’t matter.

The rest have been bullied into submission. Of the 31 members of the RFU executive committee who voted on the proposal, 29 voted in favour with only a single dissenting voice - Nikolay Tolstykh, head of the PFL, the body which governs clubs in Russia’s First and Second Divisions.

“Unfortunately the opinion of clubs from the First and Second Divisions of Russian football, representing 54 regions of this country, which the PFL addressed to the RFU, did not draw a response,” Tolstykh said in a tetchy statement after the vote was carried out.

Players are equally unhappy with the idea, with former Russia international striker Roman Adamov, now at FK Rostov, calling the idea “a complete joke”.

But perhaps it’s the opinion of the fans, who will have to pay to endure the cold for the love of their team, which deserves the most attention. Supporters of First Division Luch-Energiya Vladivostok have sent a letter to President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asking them to intervene in the matter for the sake of their club. The full text can be read in English translation here.

But such a letter is always going to be in vain. The powerful clubs already have Medvedev and Putin on side. And two other men who could act to stop the change - RFU President Sergey Fursenko and Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko - share one important thing in common which marks their cards: both have sat on the board of Zenit St Petersburg.

In summation - the autumn-spring season will be reality from 2012, whether Russian fans like it or not. Best start saving up for some new thermals then.


James Appell is a respected member of ITV.com's football writing team and has a penchant for all things Eastern European.

Comments

Interesting and well-written piece.
by Boston MIke on 16 September 2010 at 04:01 PM

Excellent piece, always intrigued by Russian football
by Ciderbob on 16 September 2010 at 04:27 PM

Great article.

Does FIFA permit skates in a team's kit?
by Canolli on 16 September 2010 at 06:21 PM

Really well written piece, yet more depressing news about the insanity of a corporate-governed world...
by kam1nsk1 on 17 September 2010 at 04:34 AM

"The change of the championship to the 'autumn-spring' format will allow the Premier League to determine the national champion at the same time as the majority of European countries," Fursenko added.

So what!?!
by Canolli on 17 September 2010 at 05:11 AM

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