Deeper Than Oil: FC Russian Cops

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
FC MVD, the side of Russia’s much-maligned police force, no longer exist.

FC MVD, the side of Russia’s much-maligned police force, no longer exist. Indeed, the club functioned for less than five years. But they packed more incident and scandal into that short period than other teams do in decades.

Formed in the summer of 2007, FC MVD - or the "Football Club of the Russian Interior Ministry", to give the outfit their full title - saw astounding progress in their first two seasons, with a victory in a Moscow-wide tournament followed by promotion to the second tier of Russian football at the end of last year.

"There are even greater triumphs to come," predicted senior police official Nikolai Ovchinnikov after FC MVD had finished at the top of the Second Division West zone, breaking point- and goal-scoring records in the process.

I paid my first visit to the club in March 2009, just before the start of the Russian First Division season, trudging through the slush to a meeting with Alexei Zinin, FC MVD's thirtysomething general director.

"When we began life in the amateur league, there were actual police officers on the team," he told me, pointing to a photograph on his desk of a distinctly overweight bunch of off-duty coppers. "The minister then heard about us and decided to turn the side into a fully fledged Interior Ministry club. He then set us the goal of making it to the Premier League."

Armed with a vastly improved budget, FC MVD duly set about replacing the police officers, bringing in experienced veterans, including former Spartak Moscow wild boy Yuri Kovtun.

The largely venomous reactions of Russian fans to FC MVD's promotion reflected the widespread antipathy towards the country's underpaid and undertrained police. Posts on fan websites such as ranged from allegations that the club would use its clout to influence results to outrage at its very existence. Others were, admittedly, more light-hearted. "The coppers will just arrest the other side if they are losing at half-time," wrote one.

FC MVD's rapid rise, twinned with its high-level backing, also led to speculation that Russia could soon have a police side representing it in Europe. But was a successful Russian cops XI really the best thing for the country's already battered world image?

I didn't expect Zinin to react well to the suggestion, but he immediately lit up. "I can assure you," he laughed, "that if we did get to play, say, Manchester United in the Champions League, then we wouldn't worry at all what it might look like or sound like. It would, quite simply, be a dream come true."

I left the team's offices possessed by an almost perverse passion for FC MVD. Like most people here in Russia, I have no reason to be overly fond of the cops, but Zinin's obvious enthusiasm for the game ("I feel real, incredible joy every time Roman Pavlyuchenko scores for Tottenham," he confessed) won me over, and I found myself rooting for the side this spring as they attempted to secure a place in the elite.

And then, this summer, the club's success story shuddered to a halt: dreams of Europe-wide televised encounters with Rooney and company were suddenly no more than a cruel joke, a dark parody of the side's lofty ambitions. The end was as bizarre as it was unexpected.

The roots of the team's downfall reach back to autumn 2008, when transport police at Moscow's Vnukovo airport seized some $15 million in various currencies belonging to businessmen from the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. But the authorities were unable to prove anything and eventually returned the wad of bills to its owners… apart from a million dollars or so. The Dagestanis, believing someone had pulled a fast one, launched legal proceedings.

On 17 June, officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB) raided FC MVD's headquarters, confiscating documents and computers. In a vague statement, the state prosecutor announced that the missing cash could "possibly" have been used to fund the club's activities, based on the fact that one of the team officials was also head of Moscow's transport police. The club denied the allegation. The raid made news across the country, and there was a certain glee in headlines such as "FC MVD's secret sponsors?"

The team's backers – a group of businesses with close ministry connections – withdrew their sponsorship deals, fearing they would receive the next visit from the FSB. With Russia hit hard by the global economic downturn, the ministry was unable to find replacement funds. As the money ran out, an FC MVD press release declared "We want to play football!" and appealed to the country's leadership to intervene.

Busy with their attempts to revive Russia's superpower status, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev failed to respond, and, just over a month after the raid, the club withdrew from the First Division to concentrate on amateur reserve side FC MVD 2.

The team's farewell home game, a 0-0 draw with Siberia's FC Chita, attracted the club's highest-ever crowd, with 3,500 curious spectators cramming into the tiny Domodedovo stadium to check out the lower-league cop side busted by its own colleagues. Then things went quiet.

A number of theories were put forward to explain the raid. The FSB had been criticised by Putin for failing to tackle corruption, and some believed this was the security service’s zealous response.

The Prosecutor General’s office eventually confirmed that the stolen money had not been used to fund the team. But it was too late to save FC MVD.

I still feel a certain sympathy for FC MVD – victims, apparently, of forces beyond their control. But short of a lengthy, not to mention hazardous, investigation into the internal workings of Russia's security structures, I am unlikely to ever find out exactly what really went on that summer.

Instead, the FC MVD story is one of the elements that make the modern Russian game so compelling. Russian football, like the country itself, is in flux, and while it might not always be nice, it is never dull. Scandals, corruption allegations, conspiracy theories and hooliganism – every weekend seems to bring new controversy. Somehow, I can't help but get the impression that the Russians prefer it that way. After all, as Zinin admitted to me months before FC MVD died their very public death, "Predictability might be fine for the English, but it's hell for a Russian."

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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