Search for the city of Armavir anywhere on the English-speaking internet, and chances are you will be left uncertain as to whether the city lies in Armenia or the Russian Federation, an old capital of a Caucasian empire inhabited today by less than 30,000 people, or a urban settlement of more than six times that number in Krasnodar Krai, a small region in the south of Russia. The answer of course, is both – in the 19th century, Armenian immigrants founded the Russian city and named it after their former home, forming a link which remains to this day, with around 8% of Russian Armavir’s population claiming Armenian ethnicity.
It is somewhat surprising then, that the two Armavirs only entered into a twinning agreement as late as 2003. Whilst the twinning of towns is often nothing but a symbolic gesture, the close ties between the two, and the large Armenian presence across the south of Russia, make them ideal partners for cross-border co-operation and cultural exchange, somehow bringing the two nations closer together through shared goals and a common identity.
One of the more unusual facts common to the two Armavirs is that for the vast majority of recent history, neither has had a professional football team representing them. Whilst this is perhaps less surprising for the Armenian city, given its relatively low small population, it is there that the game has maintained a stronger presence. Since forming in 1965, FC Armavir managed to compete in the Soviet leagues until the fall of Communism, at which point they simply joined the newly-independent Armenian competition and continued to play. Whilst they never achieved any great success, no shame given the size of the club, Armavir sustained its team until 2003, when it ceased to compete and dropped out of the professional game. Today the only way the club can participate in the local community is by allowing its facilities to be used by local children’s teams, and with almost a decade passed since FC Armavir’s withdrawal, it appears unlikely that a new team will step in to represent the city at a professional level.
The history of the game in the Russian Armavir begins slightly earlier – the autumn of 1959, when a number of young men from the Novokubansk communal farm decided to form a team and compete against others in the region – a typically Soviet background for a provincial side. Within months the team made its debut in the Soviet Class ‘B,’ defeating the Rostselmash side which would go on to become today’s FC Rostov in their first competitive match, and finishing their debut season in 7th place. In 1965 and ’66 they would finish runners-up in their regional sub-league but never manage promotion, and then in 1969 they suffered the same fate as many a football club in the former Soviet Union – they simply disbanded, a combination of negligible income and a slide to the wrong end of the division cited as the reasons for Torpedo’s unfortunate end.
It was a big blow to the game in Armavir, and it was not until 1990 that another professional side sprang up in the city, the old Torpedo name revived to compete at the lowest level of Soviet football. Of course, the USSR’s collapse soon afterwards had footballing as well as political implications, and after the logistical reshuffle into the new Russian system, they managed two seasons in what is now the Second Division before relegation to the amateur level. Despite promotion at the second attempt, three seasons of struggling to survive once again took its toll on Torpedo, and after finishing the 1998 season dead last, the decision was made to end professional operations for a second time.
Compared with their Armenian namesakes, the Russian inhabitants of Armavir are evidently far more enthusiastic about the game. A decade after Torpedo’s last professional match, the third incarnation of the club began life in the amateur game, and a superb first season saw them straight back into the Second Division, winning Russia’s national amateur cup, and combining impressive league performance with proof of sustainability to earn them a chance in the professional leagues.
Despite previous failures and mediocrity, this latest Torpedo side look set for relative success. Now established as a feeder club to Dan Petrescu’s Kuban Krasnodar, and with former Kuban striker Murat Gomleshko as President, they have taken their third chance with both hands, finishing an impressive 4th in their first season back, and following it up by taking the runners-up spot behind Chernomorets Novorossiysk last campaign, a mean defence more than making up for an attack which managed fewer goals than the Dagdizel Kaspiysk side finishing 12th.
This season, the aim was of course to push for the title and subsequent promotion, and so far they have performed admirably, clinging onto the coattails of the more reputable Rotor Volgograd and at various points leading the table. They succeeding in beating Rotor at home in both league and cup, and clung to a goalless draw in Volgograd, only defeat by a single goal in Beslan in their last game before the winter break handing the initiative back to Rotor.
As such, a home game against lowly Taganrog in the first game back on Wednesday was the ideal opportunity to set a marker for the rest of the season. When the visitors lost on-loan Rostov defender Vladimir Shamara to a second booking before half time, and Sergei Verkashansky converted the penalty, all was going to plan. However, somehow Torpedo conspired to allow Taganrog not one but two equalisers, the second coming just three minutes after substitute Sergei Zangareev had restored the lead, and surrender two points to a team just three points from the foot of the table.
Meanwhile, Rotor travelled to SKA Rostov-na-Don and returned with a comfortable 3-0 win to extend the gap to four points and make themselves favourites with seven matches to go. On paper, Torpedo have the slightly harder run-in, but Rotor play their last two matches away from home, which could be a decisive factor in the battle for the championship. With Chernomorets fighting for their First Division lives and Zhemchuzhina Sochi likely to reform and compete in the southern zone again next season, the region looks likely to be an incredibly competitive one in 2012-13, so promotion this season would avoid a potentially titanic battle as well as give their respective communities a nationally competitive club to rally around.
Torpedo Armavir have done well to rebuild the club not once but twice, and on their brief showing so far, look to have found their most successful formula yet. However, the step in quality from regional to national level is a large one, and there is still much work to be done if Torpedo are to avoid becoming the nearly men of the Russian South. With their current crop of players and levels of ambition and perseverance, it would take a brave man to bet against them taking that step in the not-too-distant future.