The calm before the collapse in Schyolkovo

Spartak Schyolkovo vs FK Reutov. A Russian Cup clash from the early rounds of the 2008-2009 competition, played out in Moscow Region between two teams from the third tier of Russian pro football. As a game, Spartak’s 3-1 win was unremarkable. That was May 18, 2008. By the end of August 2009, neither team was in existence.

The refurbished Podmoskovye stadium, Schyolkovo.

It was blamed on the global financial crisis that bared its teeth in 2009. Bigger clubs than these felt the strain and ultimately two top-flight Russian teams, FK Moskva and Saturn Ramenskoye, also bit the dust. They were joined by the short-lived second-tier team FK MVD, an interior ministry team that briefly had ambitions of making it into Europe. Countless lower-league teams either disappeared or restructured as amateur outfits.

So what went wrong? The evidence of a trip to Schyolkovo on a sunny spring afternoon when oil prices were high and the word ‘crisis’ was far from the headlines told its own story.

Schyolkovo is a perfectly ordinary Moscow Region town with a perfectly ordinary team. It’s far enough from the capital to preserve its own identity, but too small to have much of an identity to preserve. Playing in the ‘West’ division of the third tier suggests a nice, regionalised competition with minimal travel expenses but closer inspection reveals costly away trips to places like Murmansk, north of the Arctic circle, and Pskov, close to the Estonian border. FC Reutov faced a similar schedule and ran into similar problems; the team folded and the amateurs of Prialit emerged.

And yet the club apparently sought no serious matchday income. Tickets? No, free admission to the stadium. Programme? Yes, for 5 roubles (about 10p at the exchange rate of the day). A shashlik stall was doing a lively trade in selling grilled meat, but it wasn’t clear whether the club saw much of the profit from that. Crucially it was entirely possible for anyone to watch the game without Spartak seeing a kopeck of their money. The crowd was decent – a few hundred, certainly respectable for this level of football – but the matchday revenue was going to be close to zero. In the club’s death throes, early the following season, Spartak’s president Rafutdin Balashov thanked the 700 or so fans who came out to what proved to be the last ever game, a 1-0 win over Iskra. The problem wasn’t lack of support.

Instead it was the issue that affects almost all sporting clubs in Russia – a total reliance on a sponsor of some kind. In Schyolkovo’s case (and also in Saturn’s) it was the Moscow Region authorities. Both clubs benefited from significant investments of public money: Spartak renovated their stadium, developed a strong youth system and generally sought to make the club into the sporting focus of their town. Balashov described the set-up as ‘the envy of our opponents in the West division’ and he probably had a point when he visited opponents playing in concrete bowls that hadn’t seen a lick of paint since Brezhnev died. In the 90s the team even got through to the last 16 of the Russian Cup, a big achievement for a side that bounced around in mid-table in the third tier.

But when there was a change of priorities in the corridors of power all that counted for little. The budget evaporated and, with no means of earning its own keep, the club’s fate was inevitable. Elsewhere at this time, some teams successfully lobbied the national government for help and, in at least one or two cases, the Kremlin leaned on local authorities and local businesses to keep the likes of FC Tom or Anzhi Makhachkala afloat. Spartak had no such good fortune, and went to the wall.

camp footballer
A slightly camp Soviet footballer at the Podmoskovye sports complex, Schyolkovo.

All that seemed unlikely though as a 3-1 win took the team to the last 128 of the Russian Cup (and a 2-0 home defeat against Torpedo Vladimir). The sun shone. The slightly camp Soviet footballing statue looked smart and new. A loud group of kids tried valiantly to adapt Spartak Moscow chants for their local team, struggling with a way to replace ‘Moskva’ was ‘Schyolkovo’ and still make it scan. But Russia’s sporting life is often a precarious one, and that was very much the case for this lesser-known Spartak and its opponent.

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