FIFA president Sepp Blatter has dismissed out of hand the idea of a creating a new Soviet-style league consisting of clubs from Russia and its neighbouring states. But his dismissal of the concept could have wider consequences elsewhere.
“It’s impossible,” Blatter said on a visit to St Petersburg last week. “It goes against the principles of FIFA, therefore FIFA would never support such idea. It’s the policy of FIFA and the whole world football family. We will never reconsider the boundaries of national leagues.”
The revival of the Soviet-style league, encompassing countries in the Russian Commonwealth (CIS) was raised last month by the Kremlin and supported by Gazprom, sponsors of defending champions Zenit St Petersburg. It would be based on seven Russian clubs, four or five from Ukraine, plus others from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Although success on the European stage remained elusive for its clubs, the former Soviet league was considered one of the strongest in Europe through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
‘The domestic football league of the old USSR was a vast, vibrant, and powerful competition, containing as it did clubs such as the Moscow giants Dynamo, Spartak, CSKA – and occasionally Torpedo – as well as influential teams from the republics, like the Dynamos of Kiev, Tbilisi, and Minsk,’ records Luke Ginnell in this wonderful article recalling the old league.
“We all know how strong the old Soviet league was. It was one of the strongest in Europe,” CSKA Moscow president Yevgeny Giner was quoted last month. “The attendances would increase several times and clubs could make much more money from television.”
But the mooted revival attracted immediate hostility, with the Russian sport minister (and FIFA Exco member) Vitaly Mutko describing it as a “false goal.” Mutko was probably wise to FIFA’s inevitable response.
What now looks like a doomed attempt to revive an ailing league will have wider consequences. Holland-Belgium, the Czech and Slovak Republics, the Balkan countries have all discussed the possibilities of transnational leagues. Ten years ago, an attempt to form an ‘Atlantic League’ involving teams from Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Netherlands also failed when Uefa warned that the winners would not be able to play in European competitions.
While FIFA would be correct in opposing the long-mooted European Super League - which would be ruinous for domestic football - the decline of the game in all these ‘second tier’ football countries is also worthy of consideration. The influx of Champions League cash to those at the top of the table creates an impregnable elite, but the weakness of the domestic league does not generate enough revenue for these same clubs to seriously compete in European competition. In the Belgiums, the Slovak republics and Scotlands of this world there is a danger of stagnation which the creation of a regional super league could do something to address. Perhaps it’s an idea that requires a second thought?