The Soviet Top league was considered one of the best domestic competitions in Europe when it existed; its highest ranking was 2nd, a far cry from what followed in Eastern European football at the Cold Wars end. The league boasted teams from republics all over the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and more. Some were more successful than others as Russia and Ukraine dominated the league, Russian teams won the league 34 times, while Ukrainian teams won it 16 times.
The most successful team in the leagues 55 year existence was Dynamo Kiev who managed to champion 13 titles, followed by the much-fancied teams from Moscow – 33 titles went to four Moscow sides; Spartak, Dynamo, CSKA and Torpedo. So it’s no wonder that when talks of a league merger between the Russian and Ukrainian leagues started up again in November 2012, they picked these two countries and largely ignored the rest. Both had notably successful teams during the Soviet Top league and both Premier League’s are strong and highly regarded in Europe, Ukraine were ranked 7th in the UEFA rankings last season and Russia were 8th. The reality is, with growth palpable, these ranking are likely to increase even if a merger is never successfully completed.
Talks of the merger started up (again) after Zenit threatened to quit the Russian Premier League if they were punished too severely as a result of the incident that occurred during their clash with Dynamo Moscow where Anton Shunin was hit by a smoke bomb; the smoke bomb was thrown by Zenit supporters. Zenit were indeed punished despite their threats and were given a 3-0 defeat and forced to play two games behind closed doors. By the end of November, Russian Premier League chief Sergei Pryadkin revealed that a number of leading national clubs approached him about the possibility of a new league.
The league has received a wealth (literally) of backing since the idea was first incepted. Sergei Ivanov, the head of President Vladimir Putin’s administration has said, “Such a championship, where the best clubs of three to five CIS countries would play, would be by definition a stronger and more exciting league than any national championship.” UEFA have also backed the idea – back in December a UEFA official told R-Sport that they thought the idea was interesting and one that should be looked at.
Despite the support there have been those who are vehemently against the league, perennial party-poopers FIFA being one of them. Sepp Blatter shot down the idea at the start of year, saying that it was impossible and that it went against the principles of FIFA. The idea for the new league also took another huge hit when Ukrainian Football Federation President Anatoliy Konkov said that the UFF wouldn’t sign off on the league, also stating that without the UFF signing off on the league, no Ukrainian clubs could participate. However in March this year it was reported that Ukraine were willing to discuss the idea, but only when the idea was given the green light from FIFA.
So what is the aim of the Unified Football Championship? There are hopes that the new league will attract bigger sponsorship deals from around the world. They’re also looking to gain bigger television revenues and audiences thus helping clubs meet the requirements of the UEFA Financial Fair rules. As to the structure of the league it was originally believed to be two divisions with 18 teams each, however recently it was reported that the championship will have 80 clubs spread out across four divisions. They are also looking to the Championship from the 2014/15 season; if things go well they will then look to expand the league to other post-Soviet countries.
It’s clear that a Russia-Ukraine league would a fantastic development for European football. One of the clear positives this new league would bring is lots of high profile teams playing on a weekly basis; it will be a joy to be able to watch teams like Zenit, CSKA Moscow, Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev battling it out for the title along with others teams such as Anzhi and Spartak Moscow. The competition for the top spot will be highly competitive and it should represent one of the great challenges in domestic league football anywhere in the world.
Another positive of the new league would be boosted attendances; obviously this is just guess work but with the oodles of quality in the league and the standard of football, attendances should increase, something traditionally lacking in both the Russian and Ukrainian league. The average home attendance for the Russian league last season was 13,140 while in Ukraine the figure was 12,588.
Some have suggested travel may pose a threat to the leagues creation however most Russian teams already travel a long way to play their games and playing teams in Ukraine would be a similar distance; in some cases is will be shorter than travelling east to play Siberian teams.
Looking ahead, the championship would grow yet further with the introduction of other former Soviet states joining the party. Again it would add greater competition and depth while also merging various playing styles and cultures. Some clubs haven’t been able to maintain their success from the Soviet Top League era; clubs such as Torpedo Moscow who won the league three times are currently playing in the Russian second division. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk have failed to win anything since the fall of the USSR and the Soviet Top League, a team that won the title twice and the cup once.
Other teams have managed to still win things but on a much smaller scale; clubs like Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan have both won the Soviet Top League – both now playing in their national league without the ability to attract top stars and with diminishing local support. The new league could see the rise of these teams as finance is more evenly spread. Competing against some of the biggest clubs in Europe regularly is something I’m sure their supporters would love to see in their stadiums once again.
There are still rafts of problems that need solutions prior to any genuine inception but as a fan of Russian football, you can safely say I’m supporting this idea. The Russian league is developing, the Ukrainian league likewise, but a new Super league if you can call it that, is surely too good to turn down.
Article for thesefootballtimes.