A club's sudden demise has left many fans angry, or worse, suspicious. Saul Pope sheds some light on events in Russia's capital

At this year’s New Year celebrations, FC Moscow fans toasting their side would have been looking forward to the new season. The club had finished in the top six the previous year, was in the semi-final of the Russian Cup and had a promising young manager in Montenegrin Miodrag Božović. But in early February they suddenly found themselves without a club after their main investor announced they were stopping sponsorship and removing the club from the league. This sponsor is Norilsk Nickel, the world’s biggest producer of nickel, based in Taimyr, a peninsula 6,500 kilometres from Moscow.

It is perhaps understandable, in difficult economic times, that Norilsk Nickel may want to sell the club and fund projects closer to home. However, some football figures, including former manager Leonid Slutsky (now of CSKA Moscow), have suggested there is a more sinister motivation behind the decision – to ensure that its place in the top flight was vacated.

This theory is lent weight by the fact that Norilsk Nickel continues to sponsor CSKA Moscow’s basketball and hockey teams. One company interested in taking over sponsorship has also stated that Norilsk Nickel was unwilling to get involved with takeover talks. There seems to be more than a hint that Norilsk Nickel did not do everything within its power to prevent the club from going under.

Former manager Božović has gone even further, hinting that the decision to remove FC Moscow was “100 per cent political” and came from the Kremlin. This argument gathers strength when FC Moscow’s demise is compared to how another club, Krilya Sovetov Samara, have been allowed to limp to the start of the new season with huge debts.

Neither the Moscow city government (whose name the club has officially carried since 2004) nor the Kremlin reacted to the club’s problems, but Krilya were discussed at a high-level meeting involving prime minister Vladimir Putin, after which a list of potential sponsors and shareholders was created. Putin described the companies involved as needing to “look at this undertaking as a serious task with a social character”. Although Krilya Sovetov is undoubtedly a better supported club with longer traditions, the disparity between how two clubs in difficulty have been treated seems odd.

Some have pointed to the involvement of one of the major beneficiaries of FC Moscow’s demise, first division Alania Vladikavkaz. Alania spent much of last season in the promotion places but faltered and finished third. A club with a big following and league champions in 1995, they have been in decline and desperate to regain their former status. Sport Express reporter Alexandr Martanov suggested that Alania “would have been ready to do a lot” to get back in the Premier League.

The official FC Moscow supporters’ site draws a political link between the clubs – a former director of Norilsk Nickel, Alexandr Khloponin, has just been made governmental special envoy to the region in which Alania play their football. Insinuation alone appears to link Alania, though the club may have been ready for the bonus promotion as early as December. In a Sport Express interview former manager Valery Gazzaev hinted that “problems” at FC Moscow or Krilya Sovetov might mean that “fighting for third place hadn’t been in vain”.

Most former FC Moscow players quickly found new top flight clubs but the fans have a more difficult choice. Some seem to be opting for second division Torpedo Moscow, the club Torpedo-ZIL (later to become FC Moscow) splintered from in 1997 in an effort to retain football traditions at the ZIL automobile plant. Another option is Torpedo-ZIL 2009, a club “made by the fans and for the fans”, with the aim of “uniting all fans of the legendary name Torpedo”. They also play in the second division, though they are based a long way from the traditional ZIL heartland. Fans wishing to continue following FC Moscow will have to do so at an amateur level.Despite initial promises from Norilsk Nickel that the club would retain their professional status, it now appears that they will be reincarnated at the fourth tier.

Fans of other Russian teams, even those within Moscow, have generally been sympathetic to the club’s plight, calling it a “disgrace” for Russian football and worried that it may set a precedent. Others have been less concerned, pointing out Moscow’s “artificiality” and that despite claiming to keep the ZIL traditions, these were “destroyed” when the club was renamed in 2003.

At best, everyone who could have saved FC Moscow has looked the other way. At worst, someone has decided that they are no longer needed. With sponsorship and Champions League money further estranging the big clubs from the rest, it is plausible that over the next couple of years another smaller side with mid-table ambitions will find that nobody apart from their fans cares enough to keep it running.

From WSC 279 May 2010

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