Ask any observer of the Russian league who they believe to be the country’s strongest team at the moment, even of the last five years, and you would be unlikely to hear an answer other than Zenit St Petersburg. The team from Russia’s second city, currently led by Luciano Spalletti, won the title in 2007 and 2010, look on course to retain their crown this season, picked up the Russian Cup in 2010 and crowned an excellent campaign with victory over Rangers in the 2008 UEFA Cup final. Since state-owned energy giant Gazprom bought a controlling stake in the club in 2005, the side have used their new financial clout to great effect, moulding their assembled mix of homegrown Russian talent and overseas stars into an effective team, regularly beating their challengers from Moscow and making greats strides in Europe – reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time this season before being knocked out by Benfica.
Indeed, most casual foreign observers of the Russian game are not aware that there is a second team in St Petersburg – whilst it makes sense given the city’s large population and the proliferation of clubs in Moscow and its surroundings, Zenit have no top flight rivals, with Krasnodar the only other city in Russian league history to host a top flight derby. However, Dinamo St Petersburg most certainly do exist, plying their trade in the amateur leagues this season and even sharing the same home as Zenit , although admittedly the Petrovsky arena they use is considerably smaller than the larger stadium on the same complex occupied by the reigning Russian champions.
Given that Zenit’s most recent league finish saw them crowned the best team in Russia, whilst Dinamo’s resulted in 17th place and relegation from the First Division, you would be forgiven for assuming that Zenit are the long established team, with Dinamo springing up in opposition to the bigger club’s principles, and valiantly but unsuccessfully attempting to catch up to their rival and establish a new era of dominance within the city. However, whilst this may be the blueprint for any number of footballing derbies, St Petersburg does not stay true to the norm.
Firstly, both teams can lay claim to a rich and convoluted history. Dinamo came into being as far back as 1922, as part of the All-Union society representing the secret police across the USSR. The club took part in the first ever Soviet Championship in 1936, winning just two of their combined 13 games but avoiding last place in both the Spring and Autumn competitions thanks to the ineptitude of Leningrad city rivals Krasnaya Zarya in the first edition and CSKA Moscow in the second. Indeed, it took a full 20 years for Dinamo to leave the top flight of Soviet football, their best result the 4th place won in 1954 – when war interrupted the 1941 season, Dinamo found themselves in the dizzying heights of 2nd position. Between 1956 and 1959 the club played under the name of Trudovye Reservy in the second tier, but were re-established as Dinamo in 1960 in time to earn promotion back to the top flight – however after relegation three years later, Dinamo were unable to fight their way back to the top, and their rivalry with Zenit existed only in cup competitions.
Whichever version of their foundation you believe, Zenit too were around in time for the 1936 season, competing in the second tier, taking just two years to win promotion and the chance to compete against their city rivals. There they would remain until 1989 (admittedly saved on one occasion by merging with another Leningrad team, Stalinets) and relegation to the second tier, in turn followed by two terrible seasons in the First League which could well have led to further demotion had it not been for the USSR’s collapse and the restructuring of the game in the Russian Federation. However, despite Zenit’s relative stability at the top, in the 17 seasons the pair spent in opposition at the pinnacle of the Soviet game, it is Dinamo who emerge as the victors, finishing ahead of their rivals on nine occasions. Furthermore, for all their years spent in the top flight, only twice did Zenit surpass the 4th position achieved by Dinamo in 1954 – the bronze medal achieved in 1980 was bettered by Zenit’s only Soviet-era league title four years later, with the All-Union cup won the next season.
However, a look at the years in which Dinamo came out on top of the Leningrad rivalry points very clearly to the gradual decline of the team. Whilst Dinamo controlled the early years, taking the first four seasons and three of four in the aftermath of war, by 1950 Zenit were the rising force, and Dinamo’s record finish in 1954 would be the last time the club managed to keep up with their rivals. As Dinamo faded into second tier obscurity, players moving to the city were far more likely to ply their trade at Zenit, allowing them to maintain their top flight status and domination of the rivalry. By the 1970s, at which point Zenit found themselves midtable makeweights in the expanded Soviet Top League, Dinamo were a footballing irrelevance in the regional leagues, with only a rich early history to look back on.
The same can be said of today’s Dinamo, a new team currently competing in the amateur leagues after the side relegated from the First Division last season changed its name to Petrotrest. It is a club with a wealth of history and a small but dedicated fanbase, but equally one which cannot hope to compete with the resources of even First Division clubs. Conversely, Zenit are a club whose very origins are disputed and yet whose long period of stability has been punctuated by an influx of financial and supporter backing which has taken them to the very top of the Russian game. With histories which are so intertwined, the two club’s paths since the 1960s could not have been more different, and the gap between the top only appears to be widening. One can only guess how long it will be before the two sides meet again at the highest level.