Zhemchuzhina midfielder Ricardo Baiano hasn't been paid for three months, but his mate's just texted him a great tip about finding pizza delivery work.
Zhemchuzhina's big spending, private ownership and base in a World Cup host city have made it the darling of the Russian Football Union in recent seasons, with accompanying grumbles from other team's fans about favouritism. It's not hard to see why the authorities like the club. Zhemchuzhina has all the right ingredients to be a perfect international representative for New Russia on the world stage - a glamourous (and hideously expensive) beach resort home, some international stars and even a bit of footballing pedigree from some solid mid-90s Premier League campaigns. Yet all is not well.
Despite fielding several RPL stalwarts, among them ex-Lokomotiv goalkeeper Marek Cech and former Nalchik man Kazbek Geteriev, and signing Czech international striker Michal Papadopoulos from Eredivisie side Heerenveen, the 2011-12 campaign has been far from the coronation many predicted. Shocking on-field organisation and defeats to newly-promoted minnows were worryingly predictable even before news emerged yesterday that players have started boycotting training. The entired squad has gone AWOL over three months' unpaid wages, and the authorities consider the situation serious enough for league president Igor Yefremov to issue a statement best summed up as "nothing to see here, folks". Just before the season began, a flurry of reports emerged that the club was in financial difficulty. Many observers dismissed this as a crude, if unusual, publicity stunt from a club craving name recognition, especially considering that reports of a "rescue" followed within hours - the theory being that the club's beach-resort image was simply too useful to too many a people, a team too ideal to fail.
That theory is now being tested to destruction. OneDivision now reports that Zhemchuzhina owner Dimitrii Yakushev is in talks with the club's investors and that ten squad members have gone unpaid for so long that they now qualify as free agents under Russian rules. One unnamed player said: "We respect [Stanislav] Salamich [Cherchesov - the manager], he's not getting any money either. But why should we suffer?" Thoughts of promotion have vanished, replaced by worries about survival. Fans of teams not blessed with Zhemchuzhina's friends in high places have reacted scathingly to the trouble at the "political project" and a furious debate is raging on forums, with some claiming the whole business is "another bloody PR move". This seems to be the real thing, though - head of marketing Andrei Malosolov is reportedly looking for a new job.
Working out the financial health of a Russian business is always tricky and usually impossible (I'm a business journalist most of the time), but Zhemchuzhina's footballing troubles are easier to diagnose. The team is currently seventh, seven points off the promotion places. A defeat on Friday to Shinnik, however, is glaringly likely if the team aren't training, and that could place Zhemchuzhina as low as 12th. The match is a home game, which may at least make it easier to persuade the squad to turn up.
Last time out, a 2-1 away defeat to Sibir was marred by some "interesting" refereeing, with both Sibir goals coming from doubtfully awarded penalties**. Cherchesov said afterwards: "If that's a ref, I'm Mother Teresa".
It would be wild speculation to suggest that dodgy decisions might result from someone in financial trouble not paying their dues - but in Russian football, who knows?
* Pearl is Zhemchuzhina translated into English. Rather kinder to Andy Townsend.
**To see the dodgy pens and decide for yourself, here's a video of the match. One seems to be a handball awarded for a header, the other a spot of bodychecking outside the box. Then again, Zhemchuzhina's defending elsewhere in the game is pretty poor too.
Around the grounds
Since almost every game in Round 16 ended as expected from a fixture list that pitted promotion contenders against relegation scrappers, there's not a lot to talk about. Alania and Mordovia recorded formulaic, if not particularly impressive, wins and continue to hold the promotion places, two points ahead of a chasing pack lead by FC Nizhnyy, who also won. KamAZ fell away slightly with an unexpected 0-0 draw at home to Baltika, while the only real shock was Yenisei's 1-0 loss at home to Chernomorets. The game wasn't broadcast and there's no video available, allowing fans' conspiracy theories about the ref to flourish unchecked. One claimed Aleksei Sukhoi must have been bribed so much, "he'll be buying a new flat". Dinamo Bryansk, one of the dullest teams I've ever seen, played out an uninspiring goalless draw with Ural.