Wednesday, October 3, 2012

With the exception of England and possibly Brazil, lower divisions are quite a dark area everywhere in the world, including USSR. There is significant gap between the quality of the game in the First Division and the Second, which only widens when looking further own. As a result, information becomes scarce, for nobody is really interested to know and follow. This is a problem for football historian, for data is difficult to find, including pictures of teams and players names. The first three divisions are easily traceable in USSR – in terms of participants and tables – but what was under? Where exactly was the bottom of the structure? Bellow the national-wide leagues existed hardly ever mentioned 'republican' leagues; 'working collectives' championships; youth tournaments; city championships; army championships; and who knows what else. Some teams appeared in more than one tournament. Sometimes the Soviet Football Federation barred certain clubs from promotion, because they were too weak – such were those from Turkmenia (Turkmenistan), for instance. What was going on down in the really low regions is almost impossible to uncover. Third Division brings some pale light, though.

Third division was large: in 1977 128 clubs competed, divided geographically into 6 zones. Six leagues, but the number of participants differed - from 20 to 23 teams. The winners of the zones went to play a final tournament, competing for three promotions to Second Division. There was significant gap of quality between Second and Third Division: most often newcomers played no significant role in the upper level and almost immediately were relegated. No wonder many clubs just stayed 'safely' in mid-table position for years – in the large zonal leagues it was easy. But it was also strange – in small countries third level comes down almost to village football, teams without any means to attract good players. In the giant USSR third level was still domain of large towns, often industrial, with facilities and financial means. Yet, rarely some of those decided t to build ambitious team. Sometimes – but not in 1977 – there were two or three rival clubs of the same city in Third Division, all of them middle of the road – no merger occurred, replacing the mediocrities with one formidable club. Yet, scheming and corruption existed and one wonders why, since the whole idea was to play on this level. The flora and the fauna was interesting too – lower level clubs have no chance of keeping young talent anywhere in the world: it goes inevitably up and fast. Same with coaches. Normally, no one expects to see big names that low, and USSR was not exception. What filtered down was occasional star at the end of his playing days, coming home to play more for fun than anything else, or lured with money to provide some 'class'. Other players with experience if upper level football were those, who for whatever reason did not make it in better teams. Some traveled quite a lot, changing clubs like socks, but some found comfortable living and stayed for years. There were places where pay was even better than in some First Division clubs, and for relatively good, but not ambitious player staying down was just fine. Yet, the bulk of players were just belong to third division, never moving out of it. But there were rarities, thanks to the peculiar club 'families' in USSR – teams belonging to the Army (SKA), the Police (Dinamo), and those in the system of Spartak. Strong teams they had no chance of building, for they were suppliers of the higher-ups in the 'family', but they also received – sometime a good coach temporarily in disgrace; sometime young talent not strong yet for the top team, but needing playing time; sometime punished stars. And such clubs were relatively better-off in the Third Division, especially the Army clubs, and they were among the possible candidates for promotion. The trouble was such teams did not last long, thanks to their hierarchical dependency – up they went only to plummet down again.

So, who was down in Third Division in 1977? Some former quite strong clubs, once upon a time playing in First Division – Metallist (Kharkov), Daugava (Riga), and Zhalgiris (Kaunas). Spartak (Tbilisi) also played larger role in Soviet football, but so long ago, hardly even memories survived. Rotor (Volgograd) was perhaps the prime example of big, industrial cities, satisfied with mediocre football – such were practically the bulk of the Third Division, with the possible exception of 5th and 6th Zones, consisting of Far East clubs. Among those the Army clubs – SKA (Kiev), SKA (Lvov), SKA (Odessa), SKA (Khabarovsk) were more or less the obvious candidates for promotion – they often played in Second Division. Puffing and huffing, Third Division played its season, a universe on its own, of which little came to the knowledge of the general public: generally, scandals.

Scandals were frequent... thus, in 1977 it was observed that rules were not equally applied – for some reason the Soviet Federation required a third division team to field no more than 6 players over 25 years of age. The rule was vastly disliked, but had to be observed – well, Fakel (Voronezh) did not follow it and nothing happened. And it was not the only one. Discipline was chronic problem, and it was observed that most clubs do nothing to improve it. Druzhba (Yoshkar-ola) was pointed out as the biggest offender and nepotist, which is even ironic, since the name of the club means 'Friendship'. But another club came on top of the iceberg: Tzelinnik ( Tzelinograd), a typical eternal mid-table inhabitant of 6th Zone.
Their coach attacked the referee during home match and was removed with great difficulties. For this the club was punished, but did not humbly accept the penalty – instead, both clubs and fans protested. They refused to learn a 'lesson', which triggered official wrath towards the Football Federation of Kazakhstan (to which the club belonged). Suck pictures were hardly rare, but there was more: clubs hired coaches with 'bad reputation' despite official opposition and orders to the contrary (Lokomotiv Kaluga). Suspended players were hired – and played – despite the simple fact they had no right to play (again Lokomotiv Kaluga). A lot of criticism emerged at the end of the season, but... no club was expelled or otherwise penalized. It seems corruption was rampant, bringing only one question: what for? Coaches, asked to comment the season, sound strange: they criticized reforms, pointed out that the best players were the old ones, and concluded that third division is still looking for its identity. That is, no improvement was to happen any time soon, and therefore forget about ambition.

Kolos (Nikopol) – a typical inhabitant of Third Division, despite its name, 'colossus'.

But there was no way to avoid winning... and at the end of the season they were: Zhalgiris (Vilnius), SKA (Odessa), Kuban (Krasnodar), Spartak (Nalchik), Yangier (Yangier), and Spartak (Semipalatinsk). The last two hardly aimed at Second Division, so practically four clubs competed for three promotional spots. One of them went to Zhalgiris.

No need to look for stars here, but one name should be noted – the coach Zelkevicius. He would become quite well known after a few years. So far – return to Second Division, bringing no particular enthusiasm outside Vilnius.