On Saturday the 21st of May, Dynamo Moscow travelled to Zenit St. Petersburg knowing that only a win would see them preserve their status in the Russian Premier League. They duly succumbed to a 3-0 defeat, condemning the club to their first ever relegation.
Dynamo are the oldest Russian football club, having been founded in 1923, and has spent their entire 93 year history competing in the top flight of Soviet and later Russian football (the Soviet Top Division, then the Russian Premier League), making them the only team in Russia never to have been relegated. During this time, Dynamo won the Soviet Top Division eleven times, the Soviet Cup/Russian Cup seven times, and the Soviet Super Cup once. In terms of league title wins, Dynamo were the third most successful club of the Soviet era, only behind Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow.
So how could a team that is such an institution, with such large support, decent financial backing, and good infrastructure find itself facing a first relegation in 93 years?
The first issue concerns this financial backing that has allowed Dynamo in recent years to pack their squad with big names such as Alexandr Kokorin, once a rising star of Russian football. In 2015, UEFA investigated Dynamo’s finances and found that they were overspending. This led UEFA to ban Dynamo from European competitions this season, meaning that a large number of their big names left for other Russian clubs who had the draw of European football.
Without most of their big names, Dynamo have struggled badly this season. In 2014-15, before their stars abandoned them, they finished the season in fourth place. This season, they finished 15th out of 16.
Also challenging the club is the issue of declining attendances. Since the collapse of the USSR and the creation of the Russian Premier League to replace the Soviet Top Division, Dynamo have only challenged for the title properly once, coming second in 1994. This decline in fortunes, coupled with the club’s close ties to the state (when founded it was the sporting arm of the feared Soviet secret services, the KGB, and nowadays the club finds itself funded by a state-owned bank and controlled by a committee that includes the current day secret police) has led to a decline in fans coming through the turnstiles. As well as this, TV money in Russia is tiny compared to other European leagues, and the weakening state of the Russian currency, the Rouble, has meant that the costs of running the club have leapt whilst money from some sources has decreased.
This also contributed to the club hemorrhaging players. Between the European ban on the club and the tightening of financial pressure, players such as Mathieu Valbuena, Yuri Zhirkov and Balász Dzsudzsák all left the club this season. Only two players finished this season still at the club.
For those players still at the club, they have been the unfortunate recipients of some odd managerial decisions, including a regular rotation of goalkeepers and a rigidity of style that prevented the side from mixing up their game if plan A didn’t work for them. Ok the team has been effectively shorn of most of its key talent, but to then play players out of position, prevent consistency from being possible, and being too brittle tactically has done almost as much damage to the club.
Dynamo have also suffered the most from the unexpected success of a number of the Russian Premier League’s smaller clubs. The “Russian Leicester”, FC Rostov were a perennial also-ran of a club that this season missed out on the title by two points. Other smaller clubs like Terek Grozny and Ural Yekaterinburg have overperformed, making the failure of Dynamo more acute and ultimately damaging.
Worse news lies around the corner, too. Whilst in the English leagues, relegated teams are often able to keep hold a number of their players and then challenge again for promotion the following year, the finances are not there in the Russian National League (second division) for clubs to do this. Travel distances are long, attendances are likely to drop again, and sponsorship and TV money will be drastically reduced. Ok, Dynamo still enjoy wealthy benefactors who may bankroll the club’s return to the Russian Premier League, but this is by no means guaranteed.
Next season will be tough for the White-Blues. With sensible management and sensible investment in the squad, a return to the Russian Premier League is definitely possible. But for a club not used to playing at such a level, the culture shock may be something that is hard to adjust to, and fans will hope that the club doesn’t get complacent in believing it somehow deserves promotion simply because of its history.
I for one hope to see Dynamo back in the top flight as soon as possible. Whether or not the club is set up properly to deliver that is another matter…