This marks the first in a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
At the time of writing, Zenit are the best football team in Russia – that much is undeniable. They are the reigning league champions and have won three of the last five titles, a period of dominance which includes the 2010 Russian Cup and 2011 Super Cup, and was interrupted only by a Rubin Kazan side which has since slid back down the table into the Europa League positions. Under Italian manager Luciano Spalletti, the St Petersburg club are the team to beat.
That has not always been the case. Despite their foundation in 1925, it took the club from Russia’s second city more than half a century to reach the top three of the old Soviet league, despite enjoying vociferous support amongst the Leningrad locals. Indeed, the story goes that in 1967 the club were saved from relegation by the authorities, who rescued Zenit for political reasons – it was the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, and a relegation in Leningrad was simply not acceptable.
It came as some shock then, when in 1984 Zenit reached the Cup final and claimed their first ever Soviet title, finishing two points clear of Spartak Moscow in a tight Top League competition. The title actually signalled the start of a decline for Zenit – key players were picked off by more appealing and politically powerful clubs such as Spartak Moscow and Dinamo Kiev, and they would never again breach the top three in the Soviet era. Just five years after winning the competition, Zenit were relegated from the Top League in 1989, winning just five of their 30 matches and finishing dead last as the Soviet Union braced itself for collapse.
That collapse saved Zenit, as after two years of avoiding a second relegation they found themselves thrust into the top flight of the new Russian system. Relegation immediately followed, but a reinvigorated Zenit returned to the Top Division in 1995 courtesy of a 3rd place finish in the restructured First Division, and since then have never finished lower than 10th place, finally providing St Petersburg with constant representation at the highest level.
Slowly the ladder was climbed, with 3rd in 2001 and 2nd in 2003 showing signs of genuine progress at the club. However, everything would change in December 2005, when it was announced that state-owned energy giant Gazprom would be taking control of the club, investing huge amounts in the playing staff as well as pledging to build a new stadium for the team. Six months later saw the arrival of Dutch manager Dick Advocaat, who would go on to lead Russia’s national team, and suddenly the Zenit trophy cabinet began to fill up.
The 2007 Russian Premier League title signalled the start of the Zenit era, Advocaat’s men fending off all challengers en route to the title. The following year they lost out to Rubin, but there were other trophies to be won – the Super Cup was added to the collection, but paled in comparison to their European exploits. Zenit scraped through their UEFA Cup group with just a single win to their name, but Advocaat’s men came into their own in the knockout rounds. Marseille were beaten on away goals, before Bayer Leverkusen left Petrovsky on the wrong end of a 4-1 hammering. A 1-1 draw with Bayern in Munich gave them hope, but few predicted the 4-0 romp which followed. Rangers waited in the final but were no match for the Russians, sparkling play from Andrei Arshavin and goals from Ivan Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov securing a 2-0 win and Zenit’s first ever European trophy.
The next year Rubin again beat them to the title, but Zenit added the European Super Cup to their growing list of trophies, beating Manchester United in Monaco. Advocaat departed, Spalletti arrived, and the following season Zenit put themselves back on top of the pile, Rubin finishing ten points back in 3rd as Zenit claimed a league-and-cup double. The 2011-12 campaign would be a transitional one as Russia switched calendars, but even a 44-game season could not stop Spalletti’s side as they retained their title by a remarkable 13 points, in the same year making it into the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time in the club’s history.
At the start of the 2012-13 season, Zenit are firm favourites for a third consecutive title. With Gazprom’s backing, a new 60,000-seater stadium on the horizon, and Luciano Spalletti continuing at the helm, the infrastructure is in place to ensure that Zenit continue to compete at the top of the Russian game for years to come. Of the current playing squad, the likes of Alexander Anyukov at right back, Roman Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov in midfield, and Alexander Kerzhakov up front will all need replacing in the next few years, but with Zenit’s financial power there is little cause for concern, and alongside their title rivals will no doubt be competing for the finest homegrown and domestic talent in the transfer market.
Indeed, off the field rpovides the only reason for worry. Although the club itself denies it, Zenit is home to a number of fans strongly opposed to the fielding of any black players, matches in St Petersburg drawing attention for a number of racist incidents in recent years – as a result, the club retains an entirely white composition. Combined with a larger-than-average hooligan element, and a general attitude of being above the law and superior to other sides and their fans, Zenit have drawn much criticism from outside Russia as poor standard-bearers for a Russian game which needs to modernise if it is to compete on the European stage.
On the field however, everything seems to be in place for something of a dynasty in St Petersburg – the money, the manager, the players and the fans are all in place, and their rivals seem intent on tripping over themselves to help Zenit’s cause. For the foreseeable future, a Premier League table without Zenit near the top is a simply unimaginable prospect. It is only their image that needs improving. Unfortunately, that is the one thing which Gazprom’s money may not be able to buy for them.