Why the joint Russian-Ukrainian league is a bad idea

Late last year a group of big Russian clubs and everybody’s favourite gas extracting monolith, Gazprom, held a press conference at which they announced plans for a joint Russo-Ukrainian championship. They didn’t know when it would start, hadn’t planned how it would work in practice, and – perhaps most crucially – had only talked about it to their Ukrainian counterparts over the telephone. Fans in both countries mocked the idea – and though there was some support from Russian clubs, very few Ukrainian sides supported it. One top coach, Metalist Kharkiv’s Myron Markevich, said he would stop working in Ukrainian football if the joint league happened, and Sepp Blatter said it would not be possible under the auspices of FIFA.

An idea dead in the water, therefore? No. The joint league concept has rumbled on, and its organisers are not cooperating with the current football organisations in either country, the Russian Football Union (RFU) and Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU). The original announcement last November was seen as a slight at the RFU, and its president Nikolay Tolstykh – not a man who dances to the tune of the big clubs. In August this year leading FFU figures said that they hadn’t even spoken about the competition to anyone from its organising committee, and were disdainful of the idea of travelling to Moscow for an official presentation: ‘In what capacity would we be there? Guests? Partners?’ said Anatoliy Popov, FFU First Vice-President. ‘As I understand things, a partner should work on a project right from its concept, or as a minimum know what the other side is thinking.’

Similar muddled thinking haunts the proposed league structure. Valeriy Gazzaev, the public face of the joint championship’s organising committee – who has managed sides in both Russia and Ukraine – recently set out a bizarre-sounding concept in an attempt to explain how the league would work to ensure both countries were represented fairly. ‘There will be national quotas in the league – nine Russian and nine Ukrainian teams,’ said Gazzaev. ‘This quota will remain in place at all time. Promotion and relegation between the Premier League and (joint) first division will be done on the basis of retaining national quotas.’ I may be missing something, but this sounds faintly ridiculous. If two teams were to be relegated every season (one Russian and one Ukrainian), this could mean a side finishing in ninth place going down. That is an extreme example, but what’s likely is a side not finishing in the bottom two being relegated.

Appearances in UEFA competitions will also fall victim to this muddled concept. ‘National quotas for appearing in European competitions will remain as they are,’ explained Gazzaev. ‘National sides will continue to compete under their national flags.’ At present both Russian and Ukraine have six European places – so two-thirds of the league will be competing in Europe, but not necessarily the top two-thirds. This might seem a positive idea to ensure the league remains equal, but I imagine fans in either country would rather the league was decided exclusively on points scored – even if that meant their homeland getting the sharp end.

Gazzaev recently stated that 14 out of 16 clubs in the Russian top flight are in favour of the joint league (of those not in favour, Terek Groznyy are known to be one), and went on to outline three key reasons why the joint league will work. The first is the increase in the standard of football, about which he is probably right – the majority of the league will comprise of strong teams from both Russia and Ukraine. Though whether it’ll be as strong as he expects is another matter. Both countries will still struggle to attract the very best talent from abroad on any sustainable level: due largely to cultural, linguistic and geographical factors rather than anything to do with football.

Gazzaev’s second reason is the entertainment factor. As a current spectator of both Russian and Ukrainian leagues, I can confirm they are both already entertaining and don’t need to be joined for this reason. The nostalgia factor is one that can be linked to this argument, but nostalgia is a good reason to do something for an afternoon – not to change forever the way you do something. CSKA Moscow vs Shakhtar Donetsk does sound good as a regular fixture, but does Lokomotiv Moscow vs Choromorets Odessa set the pulses racing more than the current league fixtures (let alone Zorya Luhansk vs Rubin Kazan’ – the two sides currently in ninth place in their leagues)? The entertainment factor might even be somewhat dulled by the increased distances both teams and fans have to travel for away matches.

The third reason Gazzaev gives in favour of the joint league is financial stability for football clubs, which would be welcome in both countries if it were true – the only financially stable clubs are those relying on the funds of wealthy (and faithful) backers. Nobody has quite set out where the financial stability will come from, though perhaps the expectation is that a higher standard league will lead to more spectators both in stadiums and at home. But it’s unlikely there will be a huge impact from this – if the expectation is that other European countries will buy into the league in a big way, then it’s misguided. And, of course, what Gazzaev doesn’t mention is the negative impact the joint league would have on clubs outside its structure in either country. Already struggling, it’s highly likely that professional football in the lower reaches of the second and third tiers would die out – or else move ever further into the grip of match fixers.

Though Russian clubs are apparently in favour, elsewhere – including the fans in both countries – there seems to be little support for a league which has an unclear financial plan, in which relegation/European places will be decided partly by geography, which will make away fans even less populous than they currently are, and which will all but kill off football at lower levels. There won’t even be many convenient kick-off times – the demands of television will make sure games are staggered and follow each other almost consecutively.

But Gazzaev, big football clubs and Gazprom are more powerful than any of us – and if they want this to happen, it probably will….

Saul Pope is a Russian/Ukrainian football blogger and contributor to ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @saulpope

Video: the combined tournament – a series of friendly games before the 2013-14 season started that involved Zenit St. Petersburg, Spartak Moscow, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Kyiv. Decent games and well-attended – but not a reason to unite the two leagues…

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