Heart of Football

FM Challenges – (3) Back in the Big Time: Making an Impression, Top Flight Debutants & Underdogs

Thankfully 2020 is drawing to a close, years go by, yet from a football point of view, certain things never change. At this point we normally begin to see the runners & riders in a title race emerge in Europe and the champions begin to be crowned in leagues in both North & South America. It is also the time of the year for Football Manager aficionados to rejoice as the latest edition of Sports Interactive’s brilliant game becomes available to purchase.

Yes folks, FM21 has arrived and with it, there are a huge amount of challenges to whet one’s appetite. At Heart of Football, we have studied from A to Z all of the playable leagues to find FM fanatics some challenges that they will love to take on. In this third of a series of five FM21 Challenges pieces a variety of different scenarios await the player. All these 10 clubs have either returned to their country’s top division after a long time away, are making a debut in their top flight, or are high-flying underdogs.

Leeds United FC – (English Premier League)

The first of these challenges very much falls into this category: Leeds United. The 21st century has been a rollercoaster of emotions for supporters of Yorkshire’s biggest club. April 2001 saw the club line up in a UEFA Champions League semi-final against Valencia CF, but just three years after that, following much-publicised financial problems, Leeds were relegated into the Championship. Worse was to follow though in 2007 as The Whites were relegated into the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.

A return to the second tier followed in 2010, after which Leeds remained a Championship club for the entire decade. Rollercoaster elements remained in place. It was a decade comprised of many a mid-table finish, four different owners and a heart-breaking play-off semi-final defeat to Derby County in 2018/19. The 2018/19 season was Marcelo Bielsa’s first as manager. The recruitment of the veteran Argentine, who counts Newell’s Old Boys, Athletic Club, Olympique de Marseille and the Argentinian and Chilean national teams amongst his previous teams was seen as a coup. In Bielsa’s second season in charge in 2019/20, his appointment proved a masterstroke as Leeds won the Championship title, securing a Premier League return after 16 years away.

Now Leeds are back in the big time, how far can you take them on FM21? After a big summer transfer spend, expectations are to push for a top-half finish, not just simply try and avoid relegation. A decent amount of money on your wage budget remains free and with ₤3 million in the transfer kitty, there are still funds should you need them to improve the squad even further. Can you bring back the famous European nights at Elland Road that were commonplace at the turn of the millennium?

Rotor Volgograd – (Russian Premier Liga)

The next challenge in this set sees a return to Russia. Unlike the second-tier FNL challenges of Alania Vladikavkaz and Torpedo Moscow from the first installment of this series, this time we have a challenge from the top flight for you. That comes in the shape of a club who can be described as the Leeds United of Russian football – Rotor Volgograd. Whilst Zenit St Petersburg have emerged as the biggest challenge to the Muscovite giants in the battle for supremacy in the modern-day Russian Premier Liga (RPL), in the 1990s Rotor Volgograd were one of Russia’s biggest clubs.

Founding members of the first Russian Premier Liga in 1992 following the dissolution of the USSR, between 1993 and 1998 Rotor never finished outside of the top seven. It was a spell which included two second-placed finishes in 1993 and 1997, and third place in 1996. These finishes secured frequent qualification for European football. In the 1995/96 UEFA Cup first round, Rotor faced English heavyweights Manchester United. A 2-2 draw at Old Trafford memorably sent them through to the second round on away goals where they lost to eventual finalists Girondins de Bordeaux. In the following season’s UEFA Intertoto Cup, Rotor reached the final, losing to French club Guingamp.

However, much like Leeds, the dawn of the new millennium saw Rotor struggle and in 2004, the club was relegated out of the RPL. What followed was years of financial difficulties and even a season playing in the regionalised fourth tier of Russian football in 2015. However, back-to-back promotions saw the club return to the second-tier FNL for 2017/18. Last season saw Rotor top of the FNL when Covid-19 stopped play in March 2020; following an inability to resume due to the pandemic, the Russian Football Union (RFU) opted to end the football season at all levels below the RPL. Because Rotor were leading the FNL when the season was curtailed, they were promoted as champions. Just like Leeds in England, Rotor’s promotion sealed a return to their country’s top flight after 16 years away.

It is a very different RPL that Rotor return to compared to the one they left in 2004. Newly-monied clubs such as Zenit, FC Krasnodar and Rubin Kazan have emerged to challenge the Muscovite clubs. So, can you return Rotor to challenging Russia’s elite once more? Avoiding relegation is the initial target; there is zero transfer budget, and very little spare wage room available. Russian Premier League clubs are restricted to a maximum of eight foreign players in their squads.

RC Lens – (French Ligue 1) or Dundee United FC (Scottish Premiership)

The next challenge offers a choice of two clubs – RC Lens from France’s Ligue 1 and Dundee United FC from the Scottish Premiership – both of whom I wanted to include. Being unable to decide which to pick, I opted to include both. They have considerable potential after returning to their respective top flights after several years away.

After a five-season absence, RC Lens returned to France’s top flight for 2020/21. Sang et Or (Blood and Gold) experienced their golden era during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Under the ownership of entrepreneur Gervais Martel, Lens became one of the strongest sides in Ligue 1 throughout this period. Lens famously won their first, and so far, only Ligue 1 title in 1997/98, narrowly pipping FC Metz to their title on goal difference. They also finished as 2001/02 Ligue 1 runners-up to Olympique Lyonnais.

Your target at Lens is to avoid relegation initially before gradually building them up the standings. There is no spare wage room at the club. However, there is a ₤2,284,586 transfer budget for you to identify targets.

Just like Lens, Dundee United have returned to their country’s top flight for 2020/21. The Terrors had their glory period during the 1980s where they formed part of the so-called New Firm alongside Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. This New Firm successfully challenged the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers. United, under the management of the late Jim McLean, won their first, and so far only, Scottish title in 1982/83 alongside two Scottish League Cups in 1979/80 and 1980/81 and two Scottish Cups in 1993/94 and 2009/10.

The Terrors also impressed in European competition. They lost the final of the 1986/87 UEFA Cup to IFK Goteborg. They also reached the semi-finals of the 1983/84 European Cup before losing to Serie A giants AS Roma. 

Now that Dundee United are back in the big time after a four-season absence, how far can you go with them? A transfer budget of ₤100,000 is available with a small amount of spare wage room. Can you challenge the Old Firm once more, or have some memorable results in European football again? Amazingly Dundee United are the only club in Europe with a 100% record against FC Barcelona, having beaten them in both legs of their 1986/87 UEFA Cup quarter-final.

DSC Arminia Bielefeld – (German Bundesliga)

Next, we head to Germany and the Bundesliga. DSC Arminia Bielefeld are arguably not as famous as some in the second or third tiers of German football, such as Hamburger SV or 1860 Munich. Nonetheless, they fulfil criteria of making their return to the top flight after a long absence. Founded in 1905 and named after the famous Germanic war tribesman Arminius, prior to 2020/21 Arminia Bielefeld had spent 17 seasons in the 1. Bundesliga since its establishment in 1963/64. Their best finish to this day was two eighth-placed finishes in consecutive seasons in 1982/83 and 1983/84 respectively. 

Throughout the 1990s the club gathered a reputation as being what is known in German football as a “Fahrstuhlmannschaft”; the most common translation of this would be an “elevator club”. This definition arose because the club was continuously switching between the 1. Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga. Promotion seasons included 1995/96, 1998/99 and 2001/02, with relegation seasons coming in 1997/98, 1999/00 and 2002/03. An unbroken five-season streak in the top flight ended with relegation for 2009/10. Arminia fluctuated between this level and the 3. Bundesliga for 11 seasons before finally returning to the 1. Bundesliga for 2020/21 as 2. Bundesliga champions in 2019/20.

In 9 AD, Arminius defeated the Roman Army at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest (ironically located close to the city of Bielefeld) by ambushing the Romans in the thick forest. Can you now, over two millennia later, ambush the big boys of the Bundesliga at your Bielefelder Alm stadium? Can you remove the “Fahrstuhlmannschaft” label that has been tagged onto Arminia for decades? The board is expecting a brave fight against relegation and there is no transfer budget and little free wage room.

Spezia Calcio – (Italian Serie A)

Making one’s debut in your country’s top flight, for players, management, fans and owners, is a moment full of pride, nerves, anticipation and excitement rolled into one. When you have had to wait 114 years for such a moment, it becomes something truly unique. This is the situation which Spezia Calcio are currently experiencing in Italy’s Serie A. 

Spezia, or Bianconeri (White and Blacks), are based in the city of La Spezia, the second largest city in the Liguria region behind Genoa. The club has spent most of its existence in the third tier of Italian football (Serie C). In 2008, after relegation from Serie B, Spezia was declared bankrupt and had to reform in the Italian fifth tier under the new ownership of businessman Gabriele Volpi. They have not looked back since. Promotion back to Serie B was realised for the 2012/13 campaign. Since then, Spezia successfully stabilised in the second tier. In 2019/20, following a third-placed finish in Serie B behind Benevento and Crotone, they managed to defeat both Chievo Verona & Frosinone to secure their historic promotion. 

Having achieved such an historic high, the tough work starts now for Spezia. Can you lead them to survival, and possibly more? You are currently maxed out on your wage budget and have only ₤1,827,669 available as a transfer budget. Maybe you can take inspiration from previous Serie A debutant underdogs Chievo Verona. Despite being tipped for an instant relegation upon their Serie A debut back in 2001/02, Chievo stunned all of Serie A by eventually finishing fifth and qualifying for the UEFA Europa League.

Rukh Brest – (Belarusian Highest League)

When the Covid-19 pandemic stopped play worldwide in March 2020, one league suddenly went from being anonymous in the eyes of many fans worldwide to being at the forefront of their attention. That was the Belarusian Highest League, which continued its season in spite of all other leagues being halted. The 2020 Belarusian Highest League was also noteworthy for seeing a side make their top-flight debut: Rukh Brest.

The most noteworthy thing about Rukh Brest is that they are also the youngest club in the league having only been formed in 2016. After two years playing in amateur football, the club then adopted professionalism in 2018 and joined the third-tier Belarusian Second League. They instantly won promotion to the Belarusian First League for 2019 after just one season, but Rukh were not finished; the club sealed back-to-back promotions and reached the Belarusian Highest League after just four seasons of existence. 

How far can you take this new club, who until recently breaking ties were a farm club for 2019 Belarusian Highest League champions Dynamo Brest? A mid-table finish is the season’s expectations from your board and ₤58,385 transfer budget is available for spending. Belarusian Highest League clubs are allowed a maximum of five foreign players, although Russian players are exempt from the limit. Maybe this could be something to take advantage of?

FK Zlatibor Cajetina – (Serbian SuperLiga)

One of the newest European leagues is the Serbian SuperLiga, which came into existence in 2006/07 following the decision of Montenegro to become an independent country following a referendum, with the Montenegrin clubs joining their own new league structure. Despite the Serbian SuperLiga being one of UEFA’s newest competitions, the usual two Serbian football giants have shown no signs of their dominance abating. Since 1922, Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade have won 58 out of 68 league titles won by Serbian clubs in all eras (Yugoslavia, Serbia & Montenegro and Serbia).

Stadium capacity in the Serbian SuperLiga is a firm indicator of how dominant Red Star and Partizan are. The pair can hold 55,538 and 32,710 fans respectively, but in contrast no other club in the league has a stadium with a capacity higher than 15,000. For 2020/21, the Serbian SuperLiga has a debutant in the form of FK Zlatibor Cajetina. The club were founded in 1945 and spent many a season playing in the Yugoslav amateur leagues. However, the last seven completed seasons between 2013/14 and 2019/20 have seen the club enjoy one of Europe’s most meteoric rises. Four promotions, including winning the second-tier Serbian First League in 2019/20, saw the club reach their country’s top flight for the first time.

With the city of Cajetina having a population of under 4,000 and the municipality having a population of less than 15,000, Zlatibor are huge underdogs as they prepare for their top flight debut. Can you defy the odds with this modest team? With a transfer budget of just ₤77,675, you will need all your scouting acumen possible to find the talent needed to keep your head above water. Serbian SuperLiga clubs are restricted to a maximum of just four foreign players in their squads.

Elche CF – (Spanish La Liga)

One of world football’s most marathon-esque leagues is Spain’s Segunda División. The league’s normal finishing time (mid to late June) presents problems for the sides who finish between third and sixth, and thus qualify for the promotion playoffs. The winners of said playoffs have a reduced length of time to prepare for the top flight the following season. However, for Elche CF, the winners of the 2019/20 Segunda División promotion play-offs, preparing for life in La Liga threw up a whole new set of challenges.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant that the 2019/20 Segunda División had to have an even later finish than normal, which also meant an even shorter pre-season. The second leg of the 2019/20 promotion playoffs final between Elche and Girona FC took place on 23 August 2020, the same night as the 2020 Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain.

Due to their sixth-placed finish in the regular season, Elche had to play the second legs of their semi-final and final in the playoffs away from home, and yet they overcame both Real Zaragoza and Girona by 1-0 scorelines to secure promotion. From their victory against Girona to their La Liga season opener on 23 September, Elche had just 34 days preparation time for their return to La Liga after a five-season absence.

Can you overcome this difficulty and establish Elche as a force in La Liga? How far can you take this modest club from the Valencian region? A transfer budget of ₤5,634,248 is available for reinforcements should you need them, however spare room on your wage budget is minimal.

Nashville SC – (Major League Soccer)

The 25th season of Major League Soccer took place in 2020, with two clubs making their debuts in the highest tier of professional football in the United States. The first of these is Inter Miami CF, a club who attracted worldwide attention due to the fact that former Manchester United star and England national football team captain David Beckham is a shareholder in the franchise.

However, the second new team to debut in 2020, Nashville SC, had a much less publicised entry into MLS. Headed by the former CEO of Liverpool, Ian Ayre, Nashville are the fourth sports franchise representing the state of Tennessee to play in one of the main US sports leagues, the other three being Tennessee Titans of the NFL, Nashville Predators of the NHL and Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA.

Nashville should make for an interesting debutants challenge. The club does have ₤2,329,138 in transfer budget, and expectations in the first season are understandably modest. Before starting an MLS save it may be useful to check certain regulations that you may not encounter when playing in a European league, such as rules on salary caps, drafts and Designated Players (DPs).

Cerro Largo FC – (Uruguayan Primera División)

The final challenge from this list comes courtesy of Uruguay and Cerro Largo FC. Uruguay’s population is approximately 3.5 million inhabitants and the metropolitan area of its capital city Montevideo has an approximate population of nearly 2 million. It is therefore no surprise that football clubs based in the capital dominate its domestic football. In fact, all of the 10 clubs to ever win a Uruguayan Primera División title have come from Montevideo and its surrounding areas.

Cerro Largo FC are one of the few clubs in Uruguayan football’s top flight to be based outside of Montevideo. The club is based in Melo, Uruguay’s ninth-biggest city with a population of just 51,830 inhabitants. Melo is located out in the Uruguayan countryside in the province of Cerro Largo, a far cry from the big city life in the capital Montevideo. 

Only founded in 2002, Cerro Largo has only spent six seasons of its short history in the top flight. The 2019 Uruguayan Primera División saw Cerro Largo achieve the highest finish in their short history. A third-placed finish saw the club qualify for the 2020 Copa Libertadores, a chance for this modest young club to rub shoulders with the giants of South American football.

Here is where you come in. Can you lead Cerro Largo to even greater heights than the ones it has already achieved? Both transfer and wage budgets are very modest, so this will be a long save for interested players. Uruguayan Primera División sides are restricted to a maximum of six foreign players in their entire first team squad, and just three of these are allowed in a starting XI.



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