Tuesday, 28 February 2017

In this post I take a look at the most geographically widespread national division in Europe and one of the smallest. From my forthcoming book 'CROWDED HOUSES.'


If any country has good reason to operate its second tier on a regional basis it’s Russia. Admirably though this level has operated nationally and before that USSR-wide since 1970 on all but a few occasions. The few pre-war seasons were the same but as the game expanded it became regionalised in 1946 and stayed that way, sometimes with as many as ten divisions, for almost a quarter of a century. Even shorn of the former Soviet republics the distances involved in travelling are vast. Stretching from Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Vladivostok, close to the Chinese border, it traverses over 4,500 miles. To give that some kind of perspective, those two cities are farther apart than London is from Nairobi, Mumbai or Minneapolis.

The initial Russian First League as it was then known was even more of a mess after the break-up of the USSR than the top flight as all existing second tier teams were ‘promoted’ to the top division. The first two seasons were regionalised (no crowd figures available) with clubs from what had been the third and fourth tiers in Soviet days taking part, before a national league was formed in 1994.

The effects of the break-up were apparent immediately. Although the final Soviet seasons had shown the same drop as the top flight nevertheless the set-up was strong enough to have produced an average of close to 12,000 in 1987. The first national post-Soviet season saw that fall to less than 4,000. Steady progress saw that number almost hit the 9,000 mark by the turn of the century before dropping to level out between 4-5,000.

The change in the season from calendar year to ‘western’ has been disastrous at this level. Gates in 2015-16 were only half the size of the first season after the changeover. Crowds can occasionally climb over 15,000 but many matches are watched by as few as 150. The occupancy rate is just 18.15%. This is another tier plagued by financial problems. Six of the 2014-15 participants withdrew or folded that season, including once big names Rotor Volgograd and Alania Vladikavkaz.

7367 (24.06) Fakel Voronezh
6524 (32.54) Arsenal Tula
‪4594 (31.23) Baltika Kaliningrad
‪3169 (20.77) Sokol Saratov
‪2751 (18.97) Tom Tomsk
‪2395 (48.38) Gazovik Orenburg
‪2218 (12.61) Volga Nizhniy Novgorod
2216 (14.58) SKA-Energiya
‪2129 (20.87) Luch-Energiya
‪2068 (9.19) Yenisey Krasnoyarsk
‪1987 (15.22) Tyumen
‪1861 (50.99) Torpedo Armavir
‪1695 (13.49) Sibir Novosibirsk
‪1600 (6.96) Shinnik Yaroslavl
‪1500 (8.57) Volgar Astrakhan
1050 (37.38) Tosno
993 (5.58) Raidan Baikal Irkutsk
‪863 (13.81) KAMAZ Naberezhnye Chelny
852 (30.05) Zenit 2
733 (27.15) Spartak Moscow 2

1978                 10523
1979                 11344
1980                 11761
1981                 9628
1982                 7571
1983                 7340
1984                 8535
1985                 6838
1986                 5712
1987                 11993
1988                 10388
1989                 8881
1990                 6562    
1991                 6481    
1994                 3724
1995                 4858
1996                 4718
1997                 5390
1998                 5907
1999                 8619
2000                 7279
2001                 8850
2002                 7373
2003                 6999
2004                 5130
2005                 5378
2006                 4523
2007                 4448
2008                 4259
2009                 4916
2010                 4423
2011-12             4881    
2012-13             3347
2013-14             3392
2014-15             2729
2015-16             2446

The third tier Russian Professional League is understandably split into five regions. Numbers fluctuate. There were sixty-two clubs in 2015 and while many played before crowds of less than 100 it’s still possible to see decent gates among the top teams with the occasional five-figure crowd recorded.

In 2015 the West division had a high of 7,800 and an average of 1,131. In Ural-Povolzhe it was 7,000 and 1,227 and in the East 5,100 and 1,834.

Best supported was the Centre division with a high of 11,500 and an average of 1,874 while the worst off was the South (also the largest number of teams), which had a high of 3,500 and an average of just 833.

Below that the pyramid extends to ten regional divisions in the Russian Amateur League, which despite the name contains a number of semi-professional outfits.

While Russia operates two national divisions that straddle continents, San Marino – with an area of not quite 25 square miles and a population a little over 30,000 – splits its league into two zones. Attendance information is non-existent other than for Sammarinese sides in UEFA tournaments and their solitary participant in Italian football. The Stadio Olimpico national stadium holds 5,115. The record attendance is 4,900 v England (NOT the famous match in which San Marino took the lead) in a World Cup qualifier in March 2013.

UEFA tournaments give an indication of how well supported Sammarinese clubs are in big matches but not domestically. In 2016-17 the three games played by the San Marino representatives Tre Penne (Champions League) and La Fiorita and Folgore/Falciano in the Europa League drew 743, 402 and 319 respectively.

One club – the imaginatively named San Marino – plays in Italian football. Currently in the fourth level Serie D, they have played in the third tier on several occasions, the last time being in 2014-15. Over the past decade their averages have varied between 303 and 438. As they are the only professional team in the country it’s safe to assume that domestic Sammarinese crowds will be well below this level.

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