20 January ~ Another close season, and another team is forced to quit the Russian Premier League. Last year it was the turn of FC Moscow to be disbanded and on December 30 it was announced that FC Saturn of Moscow Region would follow suit.The club hadn't paid its staff and players for six months, and had debts of just over 800 million roubles (£17m). The situation is mysterious, not least because Saturn was run not by a shady owner out for a fast buck but the Moscow Regional Government. The official version is that, after initially trying to merge Saturn with FC Khimki, the government was forced into desperate action after a major sponsor couldn't be found. However, not many seem to agree with this version.
Former Benfica and Russia midfielder Andrei Karyaka, who joined Saturn in 2007, heard about what had happened on the internet. Having been told at the end of the season that everything would be OK, even without a sponsor, he questions where such huge debts came from in such a short space of time and, if they existed at the start of last season, why appropriate measures weren't taken. Other sources reported that a deal was close to being struck with the Mexican makers of Corona beer. One of their stipulations was that the regional government met their debts to players and staff for 2010 – when the government refused, the deal was off.
As was the case with FC Moscow, it seems that nobody in authority tried very hard to save the club, allowing other more favoured football clubs to benefit. In Moscow's case it was well-supported FC Alania Vladikavkaz who, as the third-placed team in the First Division, took their Premier League place. Some fans see Saturn's resignation from the Premier League as the chance to get FC Zhemchuzhina-Sochi closer to the top flight before the city hosts the Winter Olympics in 2014 and World Cup games in 2018.
Zhemchuzhina fell on hard times in the 1990s and were disbanded several years ago, but last year returned to the first division and finished eighth. Russian league rules mean that the extra Premier League place will be offered to the third-placed team, and if they refuse the offer moves down the league until someone accepts. The teams above Zhemchuzhina may well refuse, given the vast amounts of money needed to survive in the top flight nowadays but they, with a 45,000 capacity new stadium on the way, wouldn't.
There are hopes from fans and players alike that Saturn will continue to play in some form at the small but modern Saturn Stadium. However, the vultures are already hovering. A stadium is needed in Moscow Region for the World Cup – it looks like the authorities have just found one that comes complete with training facilities for the national team. Vultures are also hovering at another small but solid top-flight side with big debts, Amkar Perm , who are on the verge of leaving the Premier League. They were not chosen as a 2018 host city, so their stadium won't be much use. However, it would make Zhemchuzhina's passage into the top flight that little bit easier. Saul Pope