How Saint Petersburg’s second team moved 2,300km to Sochi … and now look set for top-flight promotion

How Saint Petersburg’s second team moved 2,300km to Sochi … and now look set for top-flight promotion

In a 2007 speech to the International Olympic Committee, Vladimir Putin described Sochi as a “unique place”, where “on the seashore you can enjoy a fine spring day, but up in the mountains it’s winter”. Sochi is indeed unique. A city of contrast, caught between cultures and climates. The city’s area stretches from the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains to the edges of the Black Sea. On the boardwalk which lines its coast, nightclubs can be heard blasting tunes throughout holiday season. Nearby, the Agura Valley offers natural beauty in the form of waterfalls, hiking trails and forestry. The Olympic Village, over an hour’s journey from the centre of Sochi, borders the Abkhazia region of Georgia. 

This is a city post-transformation. Before the Winter Olympics graced Sochi’s shores, it was most famous for its role as a seaside holiday destination, Russia’s answer to the Algarve, and especially popular in the 1960s. In the name of the Winter Games, an estimated $51bn was poured into Sochi. 

With a population of just over 400,000, it had little need for a 48,000-capacity stadium an hour to the east of it – the largest stadium in the city pre-Games had a capacity of around 10,000, and it was rarely full. That the Fisht Stadium fell out of use following the 2014 Olympics, then, should be no surprise, especially given the tumultuous history of football in Sochi. The seaside resort has been something of a poisoned chalice for owners wishing to take a sip of professional football. 

Their first post-USSR football club came in 1991, when the tongue-twisting Zhemchuzhina Sochi were established. Though they graced the Russian Premier League for several years, they folded in 2004 and again in 2011. FC Sochi 04 replaced them in 2004 but collapsed in 2009. Sporting the same name format, FC Sochi 2013 arose but in 2017 decided to take a break in order to administer refurbishments, a break that seems to be indefinite. 

PFC Sochi is the fourth Sochi-based football club to spring into existence in the last 15 years. While their on-field performances have been impressive – Sochi are the division’s top scorers – it’s perhaps the circumstances surrounding their foundation that are most intriguing. In July 2018, billionaire owner Boris Rotenberg moved his club Dinamo St. Petersburg over 2,300km to Sochi. Using the resources, funds and players of Dinamo, PFC Sochi was born. 

“You can congratulate us. We are continuing our existence in Sochi,” said Dinamo St Petersburg team director Dmitry Rubashko upon the announcement of the move. Dinamo had endured a troubled existence to say the least. After dissolving in 2010, and again in 2012, their future was unsteady. Some would argue, though, that moving a club over 2,300km is not an ideal solution, especially as Dinamo came sixth in the second tier in 2016, their first year in the league after being promoted. 

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Distance is not the only questionable circumstance surrounding the move. Whilst there have been many attempts to build a successful club in Sochi – even talk of moving others such as Krasnodar there – Sochi has failed as a footballing city for a number of reasons. Its’ status as a vacation town means that many of its residents are not there year-round. Furthermore, Sochi citizens seem to be more interested in other sporting pursuits; their local ice hockey team regularly draws crowds that nearly double those attending the Fisht, which is an hour’s drive from the city. 

Rotenberg’s past involvement in Russian football doesn’t inspire confidence either. The oligarch’s tenure as president of Dinamo Moscow spanned from July 2013 to July 2015 and was blighted by mismanagement of finances and underwhelming on-pitch achievements. In the summer of 2015, the club were found guilty of breaching Financial Fair Play rules. They were stripped of their Europa League place, and Rotenberg was booted out of the club by owners and primary sponsor VTB Bank. 

Outside of football, Rotenberg is known for being a close friend of Putin. Boris and his brother Arkady instructed a young Putin in Sambo, the choice martial art of the Soviet army. A few decades later, the pair remain close to Putin and feature heavily in his inner circle. The three of them founded a judo club together in 1998 and Arkady regularly frequents lists celebrating those who win most state contracts.

In Sochi, rubble led to Rubles for the Rotenbergs as companies owned by the brothers won Olympics infrastructure contracts worth over $7.3bn. In 2014, the US placed the pair under sanctions for benefiting from “Putin’s pet projects”; their combined wealth increased by over $2.5bn between 2012 and 2014, during which time they also managed to snag a feature in the Panama Papers. Widespread accusations of corruption surrounding the awarding of Olympics contracts were swept under the rug by the Kremlin. 


The importance of used stadiums


Stadiums are the most visceral reminder of a failed sports event. One only has to visit Greece or Rio de Janeiro to understand the effect unused, empty stadiums have on a cityscape. Citizens worldwide have justifiably expressed displeasure at such installations, given the exorbitant cost of upkeep – for example, the Samara Arena’s operating costs are about $8m a year. 

Perhaps more notably, however, international tournaments which fail to construct a legacy of usage can lead to loss of international prestige, and to a tarnished domestic reputation. National governments are presented as wasteful and short-sighted by international press, neglecting the immediate needs of their citizens in favour of grandiose spectacles, of which the benefits are usually intangible. 

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This potential for negative spin is something the Kremlin is very aware of, as was apparent during the run-up to both the Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. A significant chunk of government rhetoric prior to the Games focussed on facility reuse – this serves to justify the government’s expenditure to citizens whilst ensuring reputation remains intact internationally. The bid book for the 2014 Olympics was only the second to have a section devoted to legacy (London 2012 was the first). 

In a Russia which constantly seeks to contradict Western narratives regarding government corruption, authoritarianism and negative stereotypes, easy ammo such as empty multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects are less than desirable. Moreover, reused venues reinforce the narrative that investments such as the Olympics and the World Cup are for the people. Sergei Ivanov, Russian President Representative on the Issues of Environmental Activities, Environment and Transport, when discussing government expenditure in 2014, stated: “It is true that we have spent a lot of money, above all on building the sports facilities … a large part of the money was spent on developing the transport infrastructure, the roads, railway, tunnels and bridges, and all of this will serve Russia’s people for centuries to come.”

Putin himself reinforced this, stating on a radio phone-in that stadiums must “work first and foremost for the development of sport”, and that regional leaders “cannot allow these venues to suddenly turn into some sort of markets like those in the mid 1990s”. Prior to the 2014 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, exorbitant government expenditure was framed as beneficial for Russian citizens; the slogan of the tournament was ‘Hot. Cool. Yours.’, the last word showing, according to organisers, that “the game belongs to the athletes and the public”. 


Why move cross-country?


It is perhaps to substantiate these narratives that Rotenberg upended Dinamo and made the cross-country trip to Sochi. Fisht Olympic Stadium, the centrepiece of the 2014 Games and host of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2018 World Cup, is too big a standout to remain empty every weekend. It forms an important piece of the Olympics legacy puzzle for Putin. 

Elsewhere in Sochi, there are visible efforts to make use of Olympic facilities. Sochi Autodrom, which trails around the Olympics Park, hosted its first Formula One grand prix in 2014, the start of a seven-year contract. Generally, efforts to reuse facilities have had mixed success. The Adler skating centre was transformed into a tennis centre, whilst the International Broadcast Centre remains unused. 

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Efforts to increase tourism figures have been reasonably successful, though. Whilst once a single-season holiday destination, Sochi now welcomes visitors all year round – keen skiers flock to the state-of-the-art skiing facilities in the Caucasus mountains during winter, whilst the usual crowds adorn the beaches in summer – Putin’s expensive attempt to place Sochi at the forefront of Russian holidaymakers’ minds seem to have been successful, though the depreciation of the Ruble and (now lifted) bans on flights to Egypt and Turkey have encouraged domestic travel. During the World Cup, Sochi welcomed over 500,000 visitors, the third-most amongst host cities.  

Regardless, the move rightly angered many Dinamo fans. This is a club that’s existed since 1922, with a rich history. The displacement of the club, deserting hundreds of fans in Saint Petersburg, to a stadium which in part caused the displacement of 2,000 Sochi locals, is somewhat ironic. Rotenberg, involved in 20 construction projects for the Winter Olympics, seems to have no care for urban stability. 

Sadly, this is another victory for the oligarchs. Despite the petition protesting the move reaching only 400 signatures, those with any interest in the city’s sporting history can’t be happy. The lead of Dinamo St. Petersburg’s ultras stated they were “surprised and worried” and didn’t “understand the point of the move”. Dynamo’s protests were ignored, and the relocation was actioned swiftly. 

Whether Rotenberg was tasked by Putin with creating a club for the Fisht remains unclear. It’s certainly a situation that plays out for the president, though, and the government’s decision to earmark $190m for World Cup stadium operation costs is a convenient one for Rotenberg. 

PFC Sochi are currently in second place in the second tier, poised for promotion. If they’re successful despite Boris Rotenberg’s involvement, the morally murky circumstances surrounding their conception will likely be forgotten by all but a few hundred fans in Saint Petersburg. 

However, on 15 April, FC LAZ Luga, who compete in the regional Saint Petersburg Championship – Russia’s fifth tier – released a statement noting that they’ve embraced “a unique opportunity to be part of a great club on the banks of the Neva”. Dinamo are once more reborn, such is the tumultuous nature of the Russian lower leagues. Whether dipping their toes in the Black Sea or marvelling at the Neva, fans will be hoping their clubs can stick around for a little longer this time. 

By Ewan Morgan @ewan_morgan

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