The game between FC Sochi and FC Rostov went ahead despite the latter’s squad being hit by six positive coronavirus tests before the match. Those positive tests meant Rostov’s entire senior squad had to be quarantined, according to a club statement explaining its 10-1 defeat.
Prior to the match at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Rostov was challenging for a UEFA Champions League place, while Sochi was embroiled in a relegation battle.
Rostov asked Sochi to postpone the match but the team refused, and so it was forced to field a team of young players aged 16-19.
The youngsters took an improbable lead in the first minute, when 17-year-old Roman Romanov scored, becoming the youngest scorer in club history. He is also the third-youngest scorer in Russian Premier League history.
However, by half time Sochi had taken a 4-1 lead, and scored another six goals in the second half.
“The score was most likely upsetting. However, we do want you to stay on the bright side!” Rostov wrote, pointing out that 17-year-old goalkeeper Denis Popov was named Man of the Match after making a league record 15 saves, including keeping out a penalty.
“We know you would agree our players were fighting for every inch of the pitch — each and every of them showed incredible character and attitude today!” Rostov wrote in the message to fans.
Even before the game, Sochi had received widespread criticism after making a controversial post on its official Instagram account Friday.
“The entire country will be rooting for schoolboys! We were all schoolboys once. Today, let’s just play football. The field is flat. The ball is round. Playing until mama calls home,” the caption read.
“P.S. @fcrostov this is just a joke for f**k’s sake, and this is on our conscience.”
Sochi later deleted the post it but came in for more criticism for its refusal to rearrange the game and the subsequent treatment of its young opponents.
Russian sports journalist Vasily Utkin said it was a “real scandal” that the match went ahead.
“All of Europe is laughing at us,” he said in a video posted on his personal YouTube channel.
Utkin said the fact the match went ahead worked against the interests of the league.
Sergey Silkin, ex-coach of FC Dynamo Moscow and a former player, also criticized Sochi.
“What I saw in the Sochi-Rostov match is a joke. The championship needs to be played in combat-ready squads,” he told state news agency RIA Novosti.
“Yes, the situation is very complicated and extraordinary, but the leaders need to get out of it somehow differently.”
Silkin called on league officials to do more to ensure that similar incidents don’t happen again.
However, Sochi owner Boris Rotenberg, a childhood friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, defended his club’s actions.
Clubs had agreed not to rearrange matches due to time constraints, and any club in Sochi’s position would have played the game, Rotenberg told the TASS news agency, adding that his team had played professionally.
“If we were sorry for the young, they would not understand this, because when you fight with a stronger opponent, the more effort he puts in to beat you, the more opportunities you have for progress.”
This was the teams’ first match following a break in play due to coronavirus, and there are nine remaining games in the season.
The massive defeat means Rostov is now 15 points behind league leader Zenit St Petersburg, in fourth place. The top three teams qualify for a place in the Champions League.
Sochi is effectively a feeder team for Zenit, which is Putin’s home team.
Sports reporter Utkin talked about the long friendship between Putin and Rotenberg in his video, and the connection was also discussed by Soviet-born American sports journalist Slava Malamud, whose Twitter thread about the game and the circumstances surrounding it went viral.
Rotenberg’s claim that Sochi couldn’t have delayed the game was also thrown into doubt by the postponement of FC Krasnodar’s game against Dynamo Moscow.
Krasnodar and league authorities agreed to postpone the fixture until July 19, after the Dynamo squad entered quarantine following positive coronavirus tests, according to a league statement published Sunday.
Russia has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic — ranking behind only the United States and Brazil in Covid-19 case numbers. It has reported more than 590,000 infections and over 8,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.
CNN’s Nathan Hodge and Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.