sports blog by andy shenk

The CIS League: Political Football in the Soviet Union

In Russian Football on January 28, 2013 at 5:39 AM

This is an article I contributed to The False Nine football blog. To read the entire piece click here or at the bottom of this excerpt.

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 neighboring 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 organization 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 in fall 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.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

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