Saul Pope explains the monetary chaos, calendar change and political factors affecting the Russian Premier League

The new Russian Premier League season will be different, but not in a way many fans hope. With the gulf between the big boys and the rest growing ever wider, the league is getting more predictable – the top places will go to Zenit St Petersburg, CSKA Moscow, Rubin Kazan and Spartak Moscow. The difference is in the length – 2011-12 is to be a transition season of 18 months' duration, with the season that follows swapping from the current spring-autumn calendar to, like much of Europe, an autumn-spring calendar.

The decision to do this has been taken with an eye on sides doing better in the Champions League. The Russian league has improved in recent years to the extent that it is ranked seventh by UEFA and can attract relatively big names like Aiden McGeady and Bruno Alves, but the big teams have not got close to winning the biggest European trophy. Russian sides are typically rusty when the competition resumes every February but face teams in the middle of their own seasons; it will be hoped that the change will remedy this.

Although more winter football seems unpopular with fans, some are less worried about attending matches when it's minus 15 than whether they'll have a team to follow at all. This time last year FC Moscow were disbanded, having finished sixth in 2009. This close season has seen FC Saturn resign from the league, having finished tenth last year but amassing debts of £17 million in the process. Another middle-sized club, FC Amkar Perm – a recent opponent of Fulham in the Europa League – were saved at the 11th hour after initially resigning.

The key problem facing Russian clubs is that they do not make money; with small crowds and little merchandising revenue, they tend to lose heavily. In 2010 only two clubs (Zenit and Spartak) averaged gates of over 20,000 – Amkar had just over 10,000 and Saturn around 6,000. Though revenue is low, transfer fees and wages are high – Russian newspaper Kommersant recently revealed that Saturn player Andrey Karyaka was awarded a contract for 69.7m roubles (£1.5m) for 2010, with his team-mates averaging around 30m.

So where does the money come from? A handful of Russian clubs – Zenit and the big Moscow sides – are privately owned or funded by state corporations, rich owners whose outlay is repaid through association with the club. For the rest, however, it's a matter of relying on money from local government budgets. With financial cuts biting in Russia, it has become a moral question as to how much state money should be spent on footballers. As Evgeniy Dzichkovskiy put it in Sport-Express: "The pension fund, healthcare, science, education, wretched social housing, insane public transport systems...all of this could be absorbed into the money currently lavished by the wand of civil servants on mad football spending."

Cynics have suggested the state model only works when the civil servants get to make some money on the side, or when there is political capital to be gained from the club's existence. Big money recently invested by the Republic of Tatarstan has helped raise its profile both at home and abroad as FC Rubin won two league titles and became Champions League regulars. The newest of the nouveau riche are Chechen side Terek Grozny, who recently appointed Ruud Gullit as manager. The region remains troubled and while Terek now play their home games in Grozny after years of exile, security concerns mean they still train outside Chechnya. The republic was described by the Guardian as "plagued by a volatile and worsening security situation", separatists regularly battle with government forces and Islamists harass in the capital's streets women they consider to be inappropriately dressed. While the success of Terek remains one of the few positives in the region, big government funding will continue to roll in.

So what of the future? UEFA's new financial rules may make a difference from 2014, but by then other medium-sized clubs will almost certainly have gone the way of Saturn and Moscow. It won't be easy for the authorities to find replacements for them from the first division – fifth-placed Krasnodar have just taken Saturn's berth after the third and fourth-placed sides refused to be promoted due to the financial commitment needed. It is possible that by the middle of the decade the Premier League will be reduced in size to ten or 12 – otherwise promotion could become a mockery that depends on being rich enough and finishing vaguely near the top of Division One.

Changing to an autumn-spring season may make life easier for the big Russian teams competing in the Champions League, with the knock-on effect of making them even richer. The wealth of one or two others will depend on there being political capital in their success. Beyond this, the future looks murky. It's too much to hope that a new model that's less dependent on the state will be introduced in 2011-12 – for some, the focus will just be on surviving the season.

From WSC 289 March 2011

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