On the last day in March, the final whistle brught a collective sigh of relief Eduard Streltsov Stadium in Moscow. Nikita Satalkin’s equaliser against promotion-chasing Shinnik Yaroslavl not only dealt their opponent’s hopes a huge blow, but also signalled the first time that home side Torpedo managed to avoid defeat since a 1-1 draw against another promotion hopeful, Mordovia Saransk, at the end of October.
Despite their poor recent run of form, Torpedo still find themselves in the Championship group of the First Division, albeit currently propping up the table in 8th place. With just a handful of games remaining and a 15 point gap to the play-off spots, even a miraculous change of fortune would not be enough for Torpedo to go up this season, but to even be in that top group is a remarkable achievement for a club which less than half a decade ago was on the verge of extinction. Although recents allegations of racism against their fans in a home defeat to Alania have somewhat tainted the success of their playing squad, the story of their effective death and ressurection is one which provides hope for a number of Russian clubs in a similar situation.
For fans of the British game, the notion of a club going out of business or being forcibly relegated as a direct result of financial mismanagement is an unthinkable one – you only have to look at the furore surrounding the current plight of Rangers and Portsmouth, or the extent to which fans across the country rallied in support of Darlington earlier in the season. In the case of Rangers especially, the potential demise of a big club with a wealth of history is a tragedy in itself, let alone the actual eventuality of administration and liquidation.
In Russia however, such an occurence is becoming less and less of a surprise, and Torpedo certainly qualify as a big club. Just two years after becoming a founding member of the Soviet ‘B’ League, Torpedo earned promotion in fortuitous circumstances as the top flight expanded, but would take full advantage of their good fortune, remaining in the top flight until 2006 and establishing themselves as one of a quartet of Moscow sides, alongside with CSKA, Spartak and Dinamo given Lokomotiv’s relatively lowly status at the time, which would regularly compete for honours alongside the Soviet Union’s finest club sides.
Whilst they were never the most consistent of sides – five top five finishes in the aftermath of World War II followed by two 10ths and a 12th – they were on occasion able to challenge at the very top of the Soviet league. In 1953, the debut season of the striker whose name is given to Torpedo’s stadium, they managed to break the top three, and four years later built on that success with the runner-up spot.
However, by this time Streltsov’s star was rising too fast for a Communist Party determined to show that no one man could be exempt from the system. Rumours began circling in the press and in government, a sending off prompted a full-length newspaper article criticising the striker, and his apparent reluctance to return to Russia for overseas matches was seen as a sign of potential defection. In the build-up to the 1958 World Cup, Streltsov was convicted of raping a young woman despite the evidence being unclear and best, and although he served just under half of his 12 year sentence in the labour camps, the forward missed out on the best years of his footballing career. Although Torpedo eventually recovered and won their first title in 1960, in the immediate aftermath of Streltsov’s sentence they slumped to 7th, showing their dependence on a man who pioneered the backheel and became known as ‘the Russian Pele.’
Streltsov was eventually released and had his ban from professional football overturned, leading to another title for Torpedo in 1965. However, inconsistency struck again, and it would be there last for eleven years, finishing 16th just three years after winning the league before settling into an upper midtable position for the rest of the Soviet period, a couple of 3rd place finishes and the 1986 Soviet Cup their notable achievements until the collapse of Communism.
The club continued in much the same vein for the early years of the re-organised Russian game, again finding cup sucess easier than league triumph, winning the new Russian Cup in 1993 following a penalty shootout win over city rivals CSKA. The new millenium saw another 3rd place, but the slide began soon after, failure to repeat that success under Sergei Petrenko saw them slip down the table, and in 2006 Torpedo were relegated from the Premier League after winning just three of their 30 matches.
Much of the instability can be attributed to a change of ownership, the ZIL automobile factory out of which the club had been born deciding to sell Torpedo to the Luzhniki corporation in 1996. ZIL set up the club which would become FC Moscow in response, but they were forced out of business in 2010 following the withdrawal of their major sponsors. Meanwhile, Torpedo’s new owners were unable to prevent their club’s decline, and after a second relegation, this time to the regional leagues in 2008, Luzhniki offloaded Torpedo back to the ZIL company. With finances far from stable, the Russian Football Union had little choice to punish Torpedo, and their professional license was revoked, meaning demotion to the amateur tiers.
However, Torpedo refused to die, romping to their regional amateur title with 30 wins from 32 games and averaging four goals a game. That earned them a shot in the third tier, and an eight match unbeaten run to end the season, including a 9-1 thrashing of league whipping boys Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuyevo, saw them clinch the title and promotion back to the First Division.
Torpedo are still some way from their title-winning past, but for a side expected to struggle afer two straight promotions they have done remarkably to make the Championship Group, a 12-game unbeaten streak towards the back end of the regular campaign helping their cause. They may never find another Streltsov, but with the determination shown to keep the club alive still pulsing through its veins, Torpedo is an institution on the rise once again. Promotion may be a step too far this season, but don’t bet against them turning up in the Premier League again some time in the future.