With top flight attendances meekly struggling into five figures, Russian football could probably benefit from a World Cup more than most. No doubt FIFA will want to see the numbers first though. Domm Norris looks at catch 22.
There are various aspects of Russian football which are expanding and improving, including the quality of players and the standard of football on show. However, there are also aspects of the game which still require a great deal of thought and debate - from the powers at be - to bring the Russian Premier League in line with the likes of Europe's other significant league structures. The instability of the ownership of various Russian football clubs has been an issue that has required a great deal of attention for some time, especially since the demise of Torpedo Moscow, which saw the once great club ply their trade in amateur leagues last season. However, to tackle such an issue would require reconstruction of the laws of ownership which could take some time to reap visible rewards. Therefore, one of the more manageable issues that faces Russian football is that of attendances or lack of them as the case may be.
The average attendance of a Russian Premier League match, this season, stands at around the 12,700 mark, which incidentally is almost 1.5% stronger than the previous season. In 2008 the Russian Premier League had average attendance figures that lay just ahead of the Liga Indonesia and the Iranian Premier League, while trailing behind the Scottish Premier League and Major League Soccer. For a European league, which is becoming increasingly competitive on a continental level, to be placed amongst such company can not be viewed as a positive statement of intent. It is, therefore, key to assess what the main problems facing the league are and where action can be taken in order for improvements to have a visible effect.
The infrastructure of Russia can be said to leave a lot to be desired. The nation has faced severe financial obstacles in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the more recent destabilisation of the global economy, which have consequently resulted in many infrastructural improvements being placed on the back burner. The Russian government has begun to show signs that it recognises that action must be taken in order to help the country progress and overturn the many serious problems that it faces, however. In the aftermath of the disastrous Sayano-Shushenskaya, hydroelectric power station incident in 2009, where 75 workers lost their lives, the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, claimed that the government had to take immediate action in order to drag the nation's creaking infrastructure in line with many of its western counterparts.
"Safety-control systems and the infrastructure of Russian enterprises in general, require utmost attention now. In some cases, infrastructure is inefficient and needs immediate modernization or we will pay a very heavy price."
The President's words would appear to be the first step in bringing Russia to a point where the Soviet era can be regarded as a significant segment of history, not something that millions of people experience each and every day. However, it appears that talk can be particularly cheap where Russian politics is concerned. The government has continually struggled to maintain a consistent plan of building new infrastructure or simply regenerating existing parts of the nation. The level of road and railway construction has been unsubstantial since the late 1980's, which has placed strain upon the roads that existed previously in an era where the modern form of transportation was not nearly as prevalent as can be witnessed today.
The issue of transportation accessibility is a key aspect in attempting to define why Russian football attendances remain at such a poor level. For many fans travelling to see their club in an away fixture is virtually impossible as the sheer scale of distance between football clubs can often be thousands of miles apart, which, accompanied by poor standards of transportation links makes the journey a significant effort. For Muscovites to travel to the southern parts of the country would result in travelling some 2000km in order to watch their beloved team, and even free tickets on the door does not make such a journey particularly appealing.
The introduction of an improved road system could well be a significant blessing for football due to the fact that it is hoped that through improvements the Russian economy will receive a significant boost. The effect of which would mean that, because they are permitted greater mobility, the average citizen will be capable of earning a more sizeable income thus improving the levels of disposable income. With a sizeable shift in fortune for the Russian economy, football clubs would hope to witness a rise in attendances as the price of matches begins to look all the more affordable. Clubs have contemplated slashing ticket prices however; the financial implications of significantly dropping the price across the board could damage clubs who are already in situation where they are financially unstable.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has also caused problems for the development of the game and the Russian Premier League. The offshoot nations that appeared as a consequence of the Union being broken apart consequently meant that the Soviet Top League faced the same fate. During the 1980's the Top League was considered one of the most prestigious in Europe as the likes of Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Tblisi and Ararat Yerevan competed with the many clubs from Moscow in a tournament which provided the sorts of thrills which we will be fortunate to witness again in the area. The credibility of the Russian Premier League, while significant and expanding is still far from close to emulating the success of the Soviet Top League. It can be said that until the league is able to offer a connection with the public, that was so prevalent during the Soviet era, then the league will continue to be viewed as that competition's weaker sibling.
The possibility of the World Cup arriving on Russian soil could well kick start the necessary improvements needed to improve the levels of attendances within the Russian Premier League. Improved stadia, transportation links and more levelled distribution of employment could all serve to aid the nation's number one league. What could also be significant is that 2018 could be the year where the nation witnesses a love affair with the game that can provide lasting change to dwindling attendance figures throughout the nation.
Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent excellent football ramblings.