Rotor Volgograd are perhaps one of the finest examples of what can go wrong with Russian football given the chance. After a strong finish to the Soviet era, Rotor found themselves forming the new Russian Top Division, and in 1993 shocked the reborn nation by finishing runners-up to the all-powerful Spartak Moscow side led by Oleg Romantsev. Proving that this was no fluke, they came 4th and 7th in the next two seasons before new manager Viktor Prokopenko led them to back-to-back podium finishes, placing 3rd in 1996 before repeating their highest ever finish the following year. In the 1995-6 UEFA Cup, a goalless draw at home followed by a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford saw Rotor dump the mighty Manchester United out of Europe, a result which reverberated around the footballing world and signalled Rotor’s arrival on the big stage.
It was an arrival which never really happened. 4th place the following season was no disaster, but Prokopenko was unable to retain key players and in 1999 Rotor slumped to 13th in the standings, their worst result since the Soviet era. That season sparked a series of lower midtable finishes and relegation battles, until eventually the combination of a weakening playing squad and issues with ownership and finance saw the Volgograd side finish rock bottom of the renamed Russian Premier League in 2004. With the club in disarray, debts piling up and Central Stadium becoming emptier by the year, Rotor were denied a professional license for the following season.
As a result the team folded, leaving feeder side Rotor-2 as the city’s sole representatives. They removed the integer in 2006 and spent half a decade in the regional Second Division before financial difficulties took their toll, and midway through the 2009 campaign were forced to withdraw from the league in much the same way as Zhemchuzhina did this season. FC Volgograd took over the reigns and were granted permission to compete in the First Division after strong regional showings in the same season, but despite reviving the Rotor name once more the team were relegated, finishing nine points from safety and earning another year in the regional leagues.
This time however, there is hope. Despite their chequered recent history and financial troubles, Rotor have this time managed to sustain the team in the lower leagues, and with just eight matches to go this season find themselves locked in a two-way fight with Torpedo Armavir for top spot in the Second Division South, a position which would win them their First Division place back immediately. The Volgograd side boast a two point lead and have lost just three league matches all season, and expectations are high in the city.
The current side may be a far cry from the Prokopenko side of Oleg Veretennikov, the Russian top flight’s record goalscorer, but that is not to say that there is no link to the past. Veretennikov is currently employed as the club’s assistant manager, and his son Pavel a young right winger trying to make his mark on the side. Valeri Burlachenko, a veteran of over 200 Rotor games in the glory years, holds the managerial reigns, and former reserve goalkeeper Andrei Nikitin is in charge of the current crop of stoppers. Much like the city itself, a living monument to a sacred past, Rotor are a club steeped in a tradition their fans are very aware of.
Today, their 32,000 seater stadium is a shadow of its former self, a crumbling metaphor for its once great team. Less than half of the ground is opened on matchdays – many of the seats are peppered with holes, the west stand is punctuated with a huge hole and is closed for reconstruction, and the north stand is not a stand but a dilapidated sports hall available to hire for boxing, indoor football and other such pursuits.
Nevertheless, Rotor are on the rise. The famous statue of Mother Russia, centrepiece of the Mamaev Kurgan memorial complex, overlooks the ground, and a complete renovation in time for the 2018 World Cup will see the capacity increased to 45,000. At the moment there is simply no need for that number of seats, but even in the third tier of Russian football Rotor regularly attract 5,000 fans, almost double the average of any other side in their division. Despite their lowly status, Rotor are still thought of as a big club, and Volgograd is a city which demands a strong football team.
The current crop is a strange blend of grizzled veterans, such as 36 year old defender Nikolai Olenikov and 37 year old striker Denis Zubkov, and bright young things from the youth system, such as Veterennikov and midfielder Nikita Glushkov. With the mercurial Maxim Primak and workhorse Vyacheslav Sostin dictating play from midfield, Rotor have turned themselves in an effective unit, rarely romping to victory but scarcely conceding – just 13 goals have been scored past goalkeeper Alexander Malyshev this season.
Of course, even if Rotor do achieve promotion there is a great deal of work to be done if they are to survive the First Division in 2012. There is a vast difference in talent between the likes of Energia Volzhskiy and Ural Ekaterinburg, and Rotor’s young squad has yet to be tested at a higher level. What is certain however, is that as long as there is football in Volgograd there will be a public ready to support it and try to recreate the glory years of the early 90s.