Saturday, October 6, 2012

Another universe on its own, although of a higher order, was the Second Division. One of the 'ideological' ideas when the division was founded, was to prepare strong teams for first division. Not only to be supplier of players for the top clubs, but competitive teams as well. Against this idea Second Division was kind of measured year after year and critically too , for the second tier of Soviet football was falling short of expectation. Of course, it was supplier of promising talent to first division clubs to much larger extend than the rest of lower Soviet football, but it was not so in terms of providing strong newcomers, making First Division stronger and, thus, elevating the whole Soviet football to new heights. Reality was different: up and down between first and second division moved a bunch of clubs with only one quality – they were too strong for second and too weak for first division. Kairat (Alma-ata), Neftchi (Baku), Lokomotiv (Moscow), Krylya Sovetov (Kuybishev), SKA (Rostov-on-Don), Pakhtakor (Tashkent), Dinamo (Minsk). They practically exchanged places every season – in 1977, SKA, Pakhtakor, and Dinamo (Minsk) happened to be in Second Division; the rest – in the First. They were the usual candidates for promotion, but Second Division was 20-club strong and provided plenty of room for clubs of different kind: strong enough to feel secure in Second Division, without ambitions for higher elevation. These were also constant: Nistru (Kishinev), Shinnik (Yaroslavl), Pamir (Dushanbe), Torpedo (Kutaisi), Kuzbass (Kemerovo), Spartak (Ordzhonikidze), Spartak (Ivano-Frankovsk), Uralmash (Sverdlovsk), and increasingly Tavria (Simferopol). They varied little – normally, occupying the upper half of table, occasionally slipping down near relegation zone, rarely building strength for a brief foray to first division, only to return back the very next season. Lastly, there were really weak clubs, fighting for survival and knowing no better. Newcomers from third division usually fell into that category, more often than not returning quickly to the zonal leagues. Thus, for many a club life was rather comfortable, mellow and without risk. Second division habitual inhabitants were usually criticized for their lack of ambition and unsatisfactory work, but they did not change. Rumours went around for some corruption, but as far as not a single club was investigated, found guilty, and expelled or otherwise punished, rumours were just rumours. Apparently, the middle group of clubs were the main participants in corrupt practices, but... 'no prove'. The situation irritated football commentators and even officials, but criticism was somewhat misaddressed: usually it was the general lack of improvement, lack of ambition, neglected work, leading to missed opportunities, and various stubborn ways when it came to violence. Second division provided objective obstacle for one particular reform, a problem which hardly ever surfaced to the press: the Soviet Federation often thought of changing the championship to the usual autumn-spring format (in 1976 most recently), and here second division was the problem: larger than the first, it covered more of the Soviet territory, and there were clubs located in especially harsh climate. The Siberian clubs were the prime example. It was impossible to convert second division to the European format, but running championships on entirely different schedules made impossible promotion-relegation. So Soviet football stayed on spring-autumn format, playing a lot in the summer. Apart from that, second division was no different than second divisions across the world: clearly lower quality than the top division, teams consisting of more or less sturdy, but not greatly skilful players, who stayed precisely in second division for their entire careers. Some local heroes, naturally, but no stars on larger scale. Occasional former star joined second division at the end of his playing days, various failures at the top finding better environment down in the second, young talent moving up to first division quickly. Second division has its own heroes, of course, but it seems the Soviets failed to recognize the specifics of second division: it is essentially transitional league. Good teams and good players don't stay there long enough to establish records. Anyhow, seasons go on, so back to this one.

To a point, it signified the general crisis of Soviet football at that time: one of the mightiest Soviet clubs, Spartak (Moscow) was relegated and joined Second Division. Along with Dinamo (Minsk), which was promoted to First Division in 1975. The other possible candidates for winning the championship were those recently relegated from the First: Pakhtakor (Tashkent), SKA (Rostov-on-Don), may be Nistru (Kishinev). During the season some of the usual ever-present clubs sparked some hope of sudden change, alas nothing unusual happened: Tavria (Simferopol) finished 3rd, Pamir (Dushanbe) – 5th, Kuzbass (Kemerovo) – 6th, Shinnik (Yaroslavl) – 8th. Pamir was analyzed a bit, for they were building good team for a few years now, but the conclusion was that the club missed the right moment for really attacking promotion: the building went for too long somewhat, and in 1977 the team was... already old. Dynamo (Minsk) preserved its squad from the year before, but was not really in the race for returning to First Division, finishing at 4th place. About the Belarussians something should be said: Oleg Bazilevich was their coach, the one, who co-coached with Lobanovsky Dynamo (Kiev) to their European success in 1975. The team was experienced, consisting of fairly well known players, plus two interesting names – the former national team striker Baydachny and a young defender named Borovsky. After 5 years this guy will play at World Cup finals, but for now he was to stay in second division. Here and there other more or less familiar names appeared in the squads, but generally the well-rounded teams were rare and lonely 'star' was more likely to play just for good money, not for bettering a team. The bulk was dull. Conclusion: second league football was not improving.

As a novelty of a kind, there was a club of quite a great past, which so much faded away, that by now it was happy to reach and stay in Second Division – Dynamo (Leningrad). They succeeded, finishing 13th, but nobody even mentioned them, for good or bad. In retrospect, Dynamo must be mentioned: two former Zenit (Leningrad) players played for Dynamo by now – Khromchenkov and Zinchenko, both strikers and not so long ago not only well known, but ranked among the best Soviet players and considered for the national team. There was one more striker – Larionov – who eventually made it to the national team, but in 1977 he was just 18-years old hopeful. Zinchenko is the most important here: he became the first Soviet player allowed to play as professional abroad. From second division to foreign lands, quite something. Well, nobody even dreamed of that in 1977 – he was seen as fading star, falling out of grace.

Faces and names are not exactly the strong side of second division history, but just a glimpse of the 'bulk':

Murky, eh? This is Krivbass (Krivoy Rog), unlucky boys finishing 18th and relegated.

On a brighter side of things, there was significant record made in 1977 – for the first time there was a player, who scored more than 100 goals in second division. Vitaly Razdaev (Kuzbass) was the best goalscorer of the season with 19 goals – he shared the top place with Zinchenko (Dynamo Leningrad) and Nadein (Nistru Kishinev) – but his goals added to his former ones made him the top all-time scorer of Second Division and the first and only one achieving 100. In fact – 103.

Number one – Vitaly Razdaev.

The record was greeted without enthusiasm, if not with outright criticism. 19 goals in 38 matches is not all that great – where are scorers! And again, where are the scorers? Look at the top ones: none young and promising. Oldish, fading stars and failures instead, meaning Zinchenko and Nadein, who played two-three seasons in First Division without success. The next in line – Georgy Yartzev , with 17 goals – was not only old, but entirely obscure. Second Division was the highest achievement so far for him. Where Spartak (Moscow) found such a crow, thought skeptics. As for Razdaev, he was consistent top scorer, yet, already 31-years old and more or less are failure – he played only 8 games in First division for CSKA (Moscow) in the long forgotten 1965. However, Razdaev was already something of a legend, for he was around since 1964, playing for his Kuzbass. Only military service moved him briefly to SKA (Habarovsk), and eventualy he was snatched from their to the 'mother club' CSKA. Yet, in a way, he was failure... what else, if unable to establish himself in First division? But a record maker... for Razdaev there will be more later, for he was to play for many, many more years and brake new records. For now, it was critically mentioned that his 19 goals during the season were exactly half of the goals Shepel scored in 1973. It was acidly added that Zinchenko scored 10 of his 19 goals from penalty-kicks. It was icily predicted that nobody will reach another 100-goal mark anytime soon – the top ten all-time scorers were presented as evidence: three of list, including the second-placed were no longer playing in Second division. Anatoly Shepel, 4th overall with 68 goals, scored half of them in a single season, 38 in 1973 and moved up to First Division right after that. Twenty goals divided Razdaev from his nearest rival – as the things were going, an impassable chasm. And since Razdaev was already over thirty years of age, not much hope existed he himself would bring the record higher. What the commentators kind of forgot, was the reality of second division football: all-time goalscorers are not that great in them precisely because they move to upper level. People like Razdaev were and are few.

And a final novelty:
Rubin (Kazan) finished last. Relegation further down... if somebody predicted in 1977 that this very club will play in the European Champions League one day, such person would have been considered entirely crazy.