sports blog by andy shenk

Murky Days Ahead

In Russian Football on March 30, 2013 at 4:40 PM

My first article for Russian Football News, a new website dedicated to covering Russia’s number one sport. This piece sums up the latest developments in the political maneuvering that may shape football’s future in Russia. To read the entire piece click here or on the link provided at the end of the article.

Russian football’s stability, uncertain in the best of times, looks even more suspect this weekend. One can’t help but pity Nikolay Tolstykh, Russian Football Union (RFU) president, as he tries to tackle the proposed Russian-Ukrainian United Championship, mounting debt, widespread corruption allegations and agent excesses.

On Wednesday, the RFU reported that it had written to Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy giant, to ask if the company plans to resume its financial support for the organization since cutting off funds last November.

It’s further proof of the complicated relations between Mr. Tolstykh’s organization and Gazprom, which controls Zenit St. Petersburg and would be the primary sponsor of the proposed Russian-Ukrainian football league. The RFU remains coy with regard to the United Championship, explaining that without any official documents from organizers there’s little to comment on. But the organization is no doubt struggling to formulate a proper response, given its own financial ties to Gazprom.

If approved, the league would, at best, reduce the RFU’s control over elite Russian clubs. At worst, the billion-euro competition might render the debt-saddled RFU irrelevant, apart from maintaining oversight of the national team and lower divisions.

It’s the battle for control over Russia’s top clubs, and with it the thorny issues of match-fixing, agents’ roles, money, and the limit on foreign players, that’s threatening a major overhaul in the domestic game. Tolstykh, though fairly popular with the public for his hardline approach to the sport’s murky side, appears to be getting boxed in by Gazprom. The suspension of financial support, after all, came about the same time that Gazprom chairman and Zenit owner Alexey Miller first proposed uniting Russian and Ukrainian football.

At any rate, Sport-Express reports that RFU finances are bad enough that national team manager Fabio Capello had to use his credit card as a guarantee for the squad during its stay in a Spanish hotel prior to February’s friendly with Iceland. Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko has also been said to be scrambling to find money to pay Capello’s assistants.

It’s not all Tolstykh’s fault. After beating out Russian Premier League president Sergey Pryadkin in RFU elections in September, the former Dinamo Moscow midfielder inherited an 800-million ruble (approximately $27 million) debt left by Sergey Fursenko’s administration.

But Tolstykh has been unable to make peace with the men who might be able to bail him out: first and foremost, Gazprom’s Aleksei Miller, as well as Anzhi owner Suleiman Kerimov and CSKA president Evgeny Giner, all of whom backed Pryadkin and are leading proponents of the United Championship.

Asked to comment on the RFU’s financial woes, United Championship executive Valery Gazzaev rubbed salt in the wound. “The United Championship will pay 5% of its budget to the RFU and FFU (Football Federation of Ukraine). That’s an enormous sum of 50 million euros. In the history of the RFU there’s never been a budget like that,” Gazzaev told Interfax on Thursday.

Continue reading at Russian Football News.

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