The CIS League: Political Football in the Soviet Union


Think Russia has given up on all to do with the USSR? Think again. False Nine Russian correspondent, Andy Shenk, assesses the aims and implications of a proposed CIS league gaining popular support from leading Russian clubs and courting controversy with the RFS, most of Ukraine and a certain Sepp Blatter…

FIFA President Sepp Blatter dealt potential breakaway Russian clubs and their plans for a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) football league a harsh blow on January 20: “FIFA is not interested at all in this competition… Competitions between them [clubs] take place within the framework and under the control of the national associations, within the borders of their country and association. That is the fundamental principle.” Mr. Blatter’s statement came during a press conference held in St. Petersburg, in the midst of meetings with football association chiefs from the former Soviet republics. Joined by Russian Football Union President Nikolai Tolstykh, the FIFA chief recommended that he “remain committed to his league and forget about any other leagues.”

In late November, Zenit St. Petersburg owner Alexey Miller, with the support of CSKA Moscow and Anzhi Makhachkala, had proposed creating the transnational football league, thus uniting the top clubs in Ukraine and Russia, as well as select representatives from other neighbouring countries. The project would draw on the nostalgia of the Soviet league, which enjoyed great popularity before its collapse two decades ago, as well as offer the potential for increased revenue. On November 29, Sergey Pryadkin, President of the Russian Football Premier League (RFPL), announced that his organization would assume responsibility for the project: “A number of leading clubs in the Russian league came to me, requesting that the RFPL examine and work out a proposal for creating a CIS football league.”

RFPL involvement in the project came as little surprise to outside observers. Mr Pryadkin’s league, formed in 2002 to organize Russia’s top flight of professional football, was believed to be at odds with Nikolai Tolstykh and the Russian Football Union (RFS), after Mr. Tolstykh won election in September over the RFPL chief.  In the voting, Tolstykh had the support of the first and second division clubs, while most Premier League clubs sided with their commissioner.

This division between elite and second-tier clubs goes back decades.  Nikolai Tolstykh served as President of the Professional Football League (PFL) from 1992-2010, which oversaw the whole of the Russian professional game from 1992-2001, then continued organizing the lower divisions from 2002-2010 after the RFPL took over the top flight.  In December 2010, however, the PFL was disbanded by the RFS and then-president Sergey Fursenko because of Tolstykh’s opposition to the new autumn-spring calendar endorsed by the RFS and RFPL. Mr. Tolstykh’s organisation was replaced with the Football National League (FNL) and after 19 years of work in Russian football, Nikolai Tolstykh was out of a job.

His election to the RFS presidency at the end of 2012, despite the opposition of the RFPL, thus came as redemption of sorts. With many of Russia’s elite clubs disgruntled by his sudden return to power, however, this time as the overseer of the entire Russian game, he faced a stern task negotiating the conflicts and scandals certain to arise during his tenure.

When, in November, Zenit’s Alexey Miller, along with CSKA and Anzhi owners Evgeny Giner and Suleiman Kerimov, turned to the RFPL and, more specifically, to Sergey Pryadkin, it appeared his first major showdown had arrived. Russia’s football elite had twice before pulled the rug out from under Nikolai Tolstykh by creating the RFPL in 2002 and disbanding the PFL in 2010. Now they appeared interested in extricating their clubs from the control of the Russian Football Union and conceiving a new, transnational, commercially-viable football league to rival their teams’ own growing ambitions in Europe.

Indeed, talk of the CIS league suspiciously surfaced soon after Zenit were punished by the RFS Disciplinary Committee with a 3-0 technical defeat, multi-million ruble fine and two home games without spectators after a Zenit fan threw a flare onto the pitch, which landed next to home side goalie Anton Shunin, at a match in Moscow with Dynamo. Zenit vigorously protested their technical defeat, with General Director Maksim Mitrofanov ominously declaring on November 17 that a “decision may be made that Zenit will no longer participate in the Russian league.”

There were other issues at stake, however, apart from the controversial Zenit defeat in November and political in-fighting with Mr. Tolstykh and the RFS. During their first press conference, held on December 13, the organisers behind the CIS league discussed the financial benefits that would come from uniting former Soviet powers such as Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Kiev and recently-dominant Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk. As Konstantin Remchukov, chairman of Anzhi’s board of directors, explained, “What we’re discussing today is an entirely different marketing product. This is different money. This is a product that could conditionally be sold for a billion dollars.”

Those are enticing figures for clubs like Zenit, Anzhi and CSKA, as well as Ukrainian counterparts Dynamo and Shakhtar, who are inching ever closer to the 2014/2015 season, when UEFA’s financial Fair Play regulations will first be fully enforced. The Russian Premier League currently does not generate any television money, while merchandise and ticket revenues in Russia are a fraction of that earned in the top Western European leagues. With some budgets in the league well over $100 million, owners are scrambling for ways to generate profit.

The situation is similar in Ukraine. Shakhtar General Director Sergei Palkin expressed support for the joint league: “Where will our clubs get the revenue needed to compete at a high level and follow the Fair Play principles?” In his opinion, the Russian and Ukrainian leagues will never be able to support competitive clubs, unless drastic changes are made.

Weighing in on the debate: Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergey Ivanov, supports the formation of a CIS league

Weighing in on the debate: Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergey Ivanov, supports the formation of a CIS league

Another high-placed proponent, Sergey Ivanov, head of Vladimir Putin’s administration, also endorsed the league in late November for its business approach, “This league is essentially a commercial league and it should depend on attendance, ticket sales….This should be done, because it’s professional sport. I don’t agree with those who view football as a social project.”

Publicly, in any case, Remchukov, Pryadkin, CSKA owner Evgeny Giner and Zenit president Alexander Dyukov were careful to refute any claims that their league might be directed against the RFS. Pryadkin clarified that “Everything will be agreed upon with the national federations,” while Dyukov shared the group “wanted to act transparently and be in dialogue with all football organizations.”

Six days later, following a meeting of the RFS’s executive committee, Nikolai Tolstykh for his part only briefly commented on the proposed league, “We told the creators of this idea that they must follow the FIFA and UEFA charters scrupulously, as well as our charters and regulations. The primary motive should be the interests of Russian football.”

UEFA had offered mixed support for the idea earlier in the month. Gianni Infantino, UEFA General Secretary, shared that UEFA is “very open to discussing any projects of this kind,” while UEFA President Michel Platini came across a bit less enthusiastic, “I’ve already said that I’m open to transnational leagues. We’ve discussed the idea, and, I must say, the reaction has been mixed, with the negative outweighing the positive.”

On December 26, the project took another step forward with the formation of an organizing committee, to be headed by Alania Vladikavkaz president and head coach Valery Gazzaev. His appointment came as something of a surprise: Despite a formidable reputation in Russian football, thanks to his brilliant run as manager of CSKA Moscow in the mid-2000s, he currently directs one of the Russian Premier League’s more humble outfits. Indeed, Alania would likely be one of the clubs to suffer if the top half of the Russian PL fled to the proposed CIS league.

Gazzaev, nonetheless, laid out the plan of action for his committee clearly. Excited by the potential the league had to attract better players and more fans, he listed the many challenges ahead: “We need to get on the same page as the national federations, discuss the format of the new league, representation in European cups, the first division and youth championship. Only then will we present our idea to the national and international federations.”

Several weeks later, Gazzaev suggested the new project, might, indeed, be much bigger than initially projected, “We’re leaning toward two professional leagues with eight or nine teams from each country (Ukraine and Russia) in each league based on the results of the 2013/2014 season.” The committee had yet to resolve a promotion system between the CIS league and the lower divisions that would remain organized by national boundaries, but the new plan seemed likely gain greater support from the bottom half of the Russian and Ukrainian leagues.

Opposition, indeed, had been most fierce from provincial clubs in both countries. Terek Grozny vice-president Khaidar Alkhanov deemed it a “crazy idea” and “disrespectful of the Russian championship.” Krylia Sovetov coach Aleksandr Tsygankov took matters at face value, “Russia is a country and there should be a Russian championship. The top CIS clubs can meet in the Champions League or Europa League.” Chornomorets general director Sergei Kernitsky, whose Odessa club competes in the top flight of Ukrainian football, had plenty of questions, “What will the European quota be for the united league? What’s UEFA’s position on the matter? What will happen to the Ukrainian clubs in the Premier League that don’t make it into this elite society?”

Back off! FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, advocates the continuation of the independent Russian and Ukrainian leagues

Back off! FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, advocates the continuation of the independent Russian and Ukrainian leagues

While Russian skeptics tended to characterize the proposed league as simply a greedy power move by the elite that would damage Russian football as a whole, many Ukrainian observers questioned the broader political motives behind such a league. Chornomorets’s Kernitsky reacted harshly to an interview from Gennady Orlov, in which the famous Russian football commentator suggested that outside of the top four Ukrainian clubs, there’s not much value in Ukrainian football: “I’d suggest he visit some Russian cities, then visit us in Odessa in order to compare the football infrastructure in our countries.” Alexander Denisov, director of several cable football channels in Ukraine, shared his own concerns, “Why is Russia always trying to push this idea? It seems to me there are political goals at work here. Ukrainian clubs are very much needed for this project…But our clubs will always feel like guests in this league.” On the ground level, commenters on Ukrainian football forums have also been largely critical of the project, wary of Russian influence in their sport and the potential for the mega-league to damage grassroots Ukrainian football.

Ukrainian skepticism of the project, particularly outside of the pro-Russian regions in the eastern half of the country, will be difficult to eradicate, particularly with the Putin administration known to be sympathetic to the project.  Sergey Ivanov once again reiterated his sympathy for the project on January 18, arguing that the clubs must be able to generate revenue from television rights. Currently, he stated, “the clubs are required to pay 30 million rubles to the federation just to participate in the Russian league!”

So when Sepp Blatter’s blanket statement came down from St. Petersburg on January 20, “FIFA is not interested at all in this competition…” it served more as a rallying point for each of the entrenched camps rather than an ending point, as Mr. Blatter may have hoped. Nikolai Tolstykh, who had spent the entire weekend with the FIFA chief, chimed in first, expressing his gratitude for FIFA’s unequivocal position: “First of all, I’d like to thank Sepp Blatter…The RFS will adhere to the FIFA recommendations scrupulously.”

Ever the diplomat, Tolstykh left the gloating to his deputies. Nikita Simonyan, RFS vice-president, when asked what had motivated the organizers of the CIS league in the first place, pointed to the RFS Disciplinary Committee’s decision regarding the Dynamo–Zenit match, concluding more broadly, “Overall, just ambitions. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Former RFS president Vyacheslav Koloskov didn’t mince words, either, “Apparently, those who came up with the idea of a CIS league have this idea that everything can be accomplished with administrative resources, finances and big reputations. They shouldn’t forget, however, that FIFA and UEFA are two independent organizations that can’t be turned from the path that they’re on.”

Though Blatter’s pronouncement could hardly be misinterpreted, the CIS league organizing committee remained hopeful it was only a temporary setback. Remchukov, Anzhi chairman, blamed the committee’s inability to present more information about their project in a timely fashion, “That’s why conflicts arose….thanks to Blatter’s comments, which aren’t very helpful to the project’s reputation.” He added that people should wait for the fleshed-out project to be presented by the organizing committee before drawing conclusions and that Blatter’s reaction had been shaped by the “people surrounding Blatter, who shared their negative opinion of this idea,” a not-so-subtle dig at Nikolai Tolstykh and the Russian Football Union.

Valery Gazzaev had a similar response to the January 20 press conference. No nonsense about the many challenges facing the proposed league ever since coming on board in late December, the Alania president took the news in stride, “Blatter is highly respected in the football world. We respect his opinion, but we, nonetheless, don’t think that our idea…breaks any FIFA or UEFA laws. When our idea is fully developed, we’ll present our documents for examination and approval by all of the international and national federations.”

Remchukov got it right when he lamented the reputation hit that the CIS league took from Sepp Blatter’s comment. Many media outlets interpreted the FIFA statement as the last word on what many had viewed as a fanciful project from the beginning. No one in the CIS league camp, nonetheless, has admitted defeat and they seem likely to continue quietly developing an official proposal in the background. No one knows when it will be completed, but we can be certain that more political fireworks are still to come in Russian football. Nikolai Tolstykh has played his trump card and a mightily effective one at that, the opposition must concede, but Zenit, Anzhi and CSKA are not clubs that are accustomed to losing.

Follow Andy on Twitter: @AndyShenk

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