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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Football Season Kicks Off Amid Controversy

Itar-TassZenit forward Andrei Arshavin will be key to his side's progress this season.
Temperatures are hovering around the freezing point, wearing shorts outside seems more like an invitation to double pneumonia than anything that could be identified with fitness and the country's president has weighed in on the latest television deal. Welcome to the start of another Russian football season.

The Premier League kicks off its 16th post-Soviet season Saturday with more money than ever before, more teams with a shot at the title and the usual spattering of controversy on and off the pitch

The biggest controversy for fans looking forward to the new season flared on Tuesday, when the Premier League announced that it had sold the television rights for about 90 percent of its regular season matches to satellite television channel NTV Plus. Less than 1 percent of Russians have NTV Plus at home, and the decision sparked outrage from fans who are used to seeing a large number of games broadcast live on regular television for free.

"Soon they'll sell the rights to national team games to some stupid channel, which will only broadcast the games somewhere in Chukotka, and for so much money that only [billionaire Roman] Abramovich will be able to watch," wrote one fan on the Championat.ru web site. After the announcement, the site quickly filled with messages from angry fans threatening to protest and boycott stadiums, and looking for illicit ways to receive the satellite broadcasts for free.

The fan making the biggest noise turned out to be President Vladimir Putin.

"NTV Plus and the Russian Football Union want to deprive us, ordinary fans, of the chance to watch football matches for free," Putin said in comments on state television.

Putin made the comments at a government meeting to discuss the national projects which was attended by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom he ordered to discuss the new contract with Vitaly Mutko, head of the Russian Football Union. The union is the umbrella organization responsible for the game in Russia, including the Premier League.

The deal follows the example of the English Premiership, whose deal with BSkyB television brought it billions of pounds in revenues in the 1990s and spurred huge investment in the league. The league will receive close to $100 million dollars over four years for the television rights, said spokesman Georgy Cherdantsev.

The danger is that the deal might cost Russian teams, which have still yet to regain the affection they commanded in Soviet times, even more fans.

A mere 30 of the total 240 games are scheduled to be shown on regular television, although Mutko said the plans could still change.

"We will look through the document again and again, taking into consideration the president's remarks," Mayak radio quoted Mutko as saying Thursday. "We must, of course, do everything possible to make the transition smoother."


Igor Utkin / Itar-Tass
CSKA's Jo, left, and Ramon
Cherdantsev said the new deal was central to improving the quality of football the fans would have access to on television, as the money will be spent on equipment for games played outside the capital, at which coverage is often poor.

A subscription to the channel will cost 299 rubles, or about $11.50 per month, but subscribers will have to pay for the first 10 months upfront. The purchase and installation of the satellite dish needed will cost at least another 7,450 rubles, or just under $285, taking into account NTV's pledge to waive the dish's installation fee.

Even before the decision was announced, fans had complained that they couldn't see many games, as the Sport channel is broadcast to only 60 percent of the country. Readers regularly write to Futbol, Sovietsky Sport's weekly magazine, to push for expanded coverage.

If and when fans actually do get down to watching the games, the season will be crucial in determining where the Russian game -- domestically and internationally -- is heading.

The national team, coached by Dutchman Guus Hiddink, lost a friendly against Holland 4-1 last month. By the end of this year, the team will know whether it has earned a spot in the European Championships in 2008. The qualification trail continues with a match against Estonia in Tallinn on March 24, and will finish with Matches against England at London's Wembley Stadium on Sept. 12 and in Moscow on Oct. 17.

As for the Premier League, the title race is unlikely to bring any surprises as the country's top four clubs -- Moscow's CSKA, Spartak and Lokomotiv and St. Petersburg's Zenit -- have monopolized the top three spots in the standings over the last five years. But the competition among the four this year is fiercer and more expensive than ever.

CSKA, which plays Rubin, from Kazan, on Sunday, is the preseason favorite after adding another Brazilian player, 18-year-old Ramon, to their roster. People will also be keeping an eye on Zenit, which last won a league title during the Soviet era in 1984, but which flexed its wallet over the winter.

The club's purchase last week of Donetsk midfielder Anatoly Timoshchyuk for $20 million -- more than twice what Italy's Inter Milan paid for three-time world player of the year Ronaldo, as a number of local newspapers pointed out -- shocked a local football world that has grown used to big money transfer deals and player contracts. Dynamo bought Portuguese midfielder Maniche for 16 million euros in 2005, a record for the Russian transfer market.

CSKA, which won the league title in each of the last two years, partly due to the play of four Brazilians, sent six million euros to Sao Paulo's Corinthians for Ramon. He joins forwards Vagner Love and Jo and midfielders Daniel Carvalho and Dudu.

Spartak, which finished second last year, did not add any big names over the break. Anatoly Byshovets, who coached the Soviet team to its last international title -- the Olympic gold in 1988 -- has taken over as manager at Lokomotiv. Former manager Yury Syomin, who led the club to two league championships, has taken over as club president. Italian goalie Ivan Pelizzoli and Brazilian midfielder Rodolfo are among the players Lokomotiv has added.

It is exactly this influx of foreign players that is behind one of the new rules fans will see put in place this year. Only seven foreign players will be allowed on the field at one time, a rule introduced to counter concerns that Russian players were being squeezed out by imports. The final straw for many came last year, when all 11 players on the field for Dynamo at one point were imports. The league plans to lower the number of foreigners a team can play at one time to five by 2010.

Even with the support the rules offer to domestic players, this season may be the last in the Premier League for goalkeeper Igor Akinfeyev. Widely considered the best Russian at his position since Rinat Dasayev, who starred for Spartak and the Soviet national team in the 1980s, rumors have Akinfeyev headed to English side Arsenal at the end of the season.