Thursday

Remembering Yalta

By Rob O'Connor  |  19 Feb 2015

It’s February 5th, 2015 and Alexander Gaydash is visibly put out. As Director General of Russian Second League club TSC Simferopol he’s had a lot on his plate these past three months, wondering exactly where, if at all, his club will be playing its football for the foreseeable future. “Absurd,” he answers when pushed for his summation of the impasse at which Simferopol and their fellow Crimean outfits find themselves during the current winter break; as an official trying to run a football club Gaydash’s position is, at best, unenviable.

This month marks 70 years since the three most powerful figures in the world descended on neighbouring Yalta to try and make sense of Europe as the dusts of war settled. And how Gaydash must now long for someone to come and unpick the chaos currently engulfing football in the Crimea, seven decades on. His fellow directors over at SKCF Sevastopol certainly do. “Nobody from UEFA has had any contact with us,” complained club spokesman Maxim Karataev, days after an indefinite ban on Crimean clubs participating in Russian-sanctioned competitions came into effect, leaving both clubs – as well as FC Zhemchuzhyna, from Yalta itself – facing desperately uncertain futures.

That ban, effective as of January 1st, has left the Crimean clubs without a league to play in once the current off-period ends in March, despite the fact that all three are midway through campaigns in the Second League, Russia’s third tier. UEFA have tentatively floated the possibility of a Crimean league, but have been less than direct on the subject of its structuring and, crucially, where the money will come from to fund it.

On January 23rd Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko announced he had received assurance from the governing body that they would back an independent football league in Crimea, echoing UEFA secretary Gianni Infantino’s suggestion a month earlier that Nyon was prepared to put its money where its mouth is over the breakaway peninsula. “We do not want to ban football in the Crimea,” said Infantino. “We want to develop it and we will finance them.”

Barely a week later, however, there was a volte-face; word filtered down via the Ministry for Sport that UEFA would not in fact be rendering financial backing to the new league. Crimean Federation (RFFC) vice chairman Alexander Malinevsky was again left lamenting that nobody from the organisation had been in contact with the football authorities to make the situation clear. Amid the uncertainty, the RFFC are still working with the Russian Football Union (RFU) to try and cobble together the outline of a plan for a tournament that can begin in the spring, but it still leaves three professional clubs with little to no idea as to what the future holds. As was the case at Yalta 70 years ago, Europe is in danger of being pulled in two, and the football clubs of the Crimea are falling unnoticed through the cracks.

To get to the core of what is really going on in the peninsula, and with the anniversary lingering in the air, Yalta seems an appropriate place to begin digging. FC Zhemchuzhyna – the Pearl, as they are known locally – began life in 2010 when FC Feniks-Illichovets were moved 100 miles from Kalinine under conditions imposed by investors to prevent the club from financial collapse. No sooner had the new club been granted a professional license to play in the Ukrainian Second League, however, than the wheels began to fall off.

The first sign of trouble came in September 2012, when the first team squad refused to play in a home match against Dnieper Steel, pointing to two months’ worth of unpaid wages. It was left to then-manager Ivan Maruschak to reassure fans that the matter was in hand and that the team would be able to honour its upcoming fixture with Dnieper; club captain Dadash Kazikhanov followed this up by apologising half-heartedly for the no-show, but made sure to mention that a portion of the unpaid salaries were still outstanding.

Then everything went quiet on the Black Sea coast until April 2013, when mutterings began to circulate that the club’s debts were reaching critical mass. The rumours prompted General Director Anatoly Nikolaichuk to publicly declare that “the club has paid off all debts to sport structures, but the problem of debts to the players remains to be solved. We continue to work on the creation of a board of trustees, which we hope will include influential people in the Crimea.” The bid to attract beneficiaries took a backward step when the Pearl took the bizarre decision to hold open trials as a way of finding replacements for the first team players that were beginning to abandon the sinking ship.

And then, on June 14th, the axe finally fell. The Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) announced that the club was to have its competitive licence revoked, owing to “numerous debts to players, staff and private institutions, as well as systematic non-enforcement of football justice.” The last clause was clarified by Miletus Balchos, the league president, who called the club’s financial accounts “pure fraud” and accused the board of being “working crooks.” The decision to exclude the Pearl was upheld and competitive professional football in Yalta ceased.

Fast-forward 18 months and a lot has changed in the Crimea, but Zhemchuzhyna remain crippled by financial difficulties. The club were absorbed into the Russian Professional League after Moscow annexed Crimea last year, but in September the team failed to fulfil a league fixture against Novokubansky before yet more stories of unpaid salaries emerged. Pearl midfielder Yuri Kulikov gave an insight into the realities of life at the stricken club: “After the match [with FC Vityaz] the coach walked into the locker room, complimented us for a good game and gave us all the money he had. He told us to go somewhere and have a drink on him – we deserved it for showing character.”

That coach was Vyacheslav Zhigaylov. In an interview with the Pearl’s fan-maintained website Vkontakte he shifted the focus from the struggling football club to the working men that comprise its payroll: “It’s been three months and nobody has received a single rouble, nothing. These guys have shown such character when for three days we’ve had nothing; no money, no food. We’re humans with families and children to support. I personally have three.”

And that’s where the story becomes reflective of the situation in the Crimea at large. With Zhemchuzhyna, TSC and SKCF orphaned from the Ukrainian authorities and expelled from the RFU, the peninsula desperately needs someone to move in and take charge of where and on what terms the clubs can continue to compete. That will involve a substantial cash injection if professional football in the region is to survive.

Further north in Simferopol, Gaydash fears for the future of Crimean football – even if the new league goes ahead. TSC joined the Russian Second League in the summer after moving from the Ukrainian Premier League, where they had competed under the name Tavriya. There, they were used to games against Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk; heavyweight opposition with pedigree and, just as importantly, professional organisation.

“We’ve noticed a real difference playing in the Second League, having been used to the Premier,” said Gaydash. “Organisationally it’s totally different.” After wires were crossed earlier in the season, TSC were turned away from the ferry crossing at Kerch en route to an away game in Sochi, and forced back to Simferopol to try again by plane. In what would be a predominantly amateur Crimean domestic league the level of organisation would be almost certain to deteriorate further, with diminished crowds and financial imbalance likely to render the tournament as polarised in the accountant’s ledger as it would be on the pitch.

The day the ban on Crimean clubs competing under the auspices of the RFU was announced, UEFA released a seven point doctrine outlining the terms of exclusion and provisions for moving forward. Most interestingly among them were the assertions that “Crimea should be considered as a ‘special area’ for football purposes until further notice” and that “UEFA will financially assist youth football and [the] football infrastructure of Crimea.” Football infrastructure is a handily loose term which was left undefined during the period between December 4th and January 29th, when it was at least made clear that this didn’t extend to backing the professional league with funding. Beyond this, however, it remains vague. So far, UEFA’s ‘special area’ appears to be little more than one in which football is subject to intolerable limitations that choke off its vital resources.

There may or may not be a league kicking off in the Crimea in the spring. What is certain, though, is that the scheduled match between the Pearl and Krasnodar II in the Second League on March 21st will go unplayed, probably forever. The club’s final match of 2014, a 6-0 drubbing away at FC Afips, is likely to be their last on Russian soil for some time. But if anyone from the Crimea is kicking a ball in anger come March, Alexander Gaydash and his peers will be counting their blessings.

Rob O'Connor is a football writer for World Soccer and TwentyFour7, among others.
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