This is part of 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.
In a capital city, it is not easy to play the underdog, especially when the city in question happens to be one of the biggest in Europe. London has done well, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and even West Ham all enjoying time at the top of the English game, however for every top flight club there is a Barnet or a Tooting and Mitcham, plugging away in the lower leagues and struggling for recognition. Across Europe, even the biggest teams face a lifetime in the shadow of their more illustrious rivals – no number of Europa League titles will make Atletico Madrid bigger than Real, whilst more Rayo Vallecano have no chance. In Lisbon, whilst Sporting and Benfica do battle with Porto for the title, Belenenses are forced to feed off the scraps in the second tier.
In Moscow then, a city which boasts a population in excess of 11 million people, it is not difficult to begin to understand the struggles which some of the city’s lesser footballing lights may find themselves embroiled in. As the Wall came down and the Soviet Top League gave way to Russian football, the hierarchy of the new nation’s game was focused very much on the capital, and the four-pronged Muscovite attack on the title – Spartak were the obvious frontrunners, ably backed by eternal enemies Dinamo, army club CSKA and Torpedo, the club made famous by the ‘Russian Pele’ Eduard Streltsov. It appeared there would be little room for anyone else to join the party.
However, the Moscow elite had reckoned without the combination of Yuri Semin and Lokomotiv Moscow. The railway club were by no means a new side when they took part in the inaugural Russian season, having been founded as far back as 1923 – making them one of the oldest clubs in the country – however, compared to their cross-town rivals they still appeared as the poor relation. Whilst Spartak and Dinamo had remained mainstays at the top of the Soviet game, competing alongside their counterparts from Kyiv and Tbilisi for the top prizes on an annual basis, Lokomotiv could boast nothing but two Soviet Cup trophies, the most recent dating all the way to 1957 and the first the inaugural competition in 1936. Indeed, for a side with obvious eco-political connections, a record including 16 seasons spent outside the top flight was something of an embarrassing secret to their few fans.
Yet by the start of that first Russian season in 1992, Semin had been in charge of Lokomotiv for six years, taking them from the second tier to the top via the setback of relegation. He took the most unlikely of breaks for the final Soviet campaign, travelling across the world to manage the New Zealand youth set-up, and in his absence Valeri Filatov could do no better than last in the Top League. His Oceanic sojourn cut short, Semin returned to Moscow with work to do.
By every standard imaginable, he carried that work out brilliantly. From the lowest starting point in the capital, Semin took Lokomotiv into the pack of teams chasing down Oleg Romantsev’s all-conquering Spartak side, and kept them there. Backed by a board which saw their manager’s good work and backed him to continue, Semin’s Loko side finished 4th, 5th, 3rd and 2nd in the first four Russian seasons, and found themselves favourites to finally ascend to the Moscow throne. In 1996 they slipped back to 6th, but they added more fuel to the fire with their first Russian Cup success, Yuri Drozdov’s 85th minute winner at Dinamo Stadium clinching a 3-2 win over the great Spartak side and adding further weight to their claim. That they retained their trophy the following season did Semin’s reputation no harm at all.
Fast forward to the new millennium, and with Semin still at the helm, Loko’s love affair with the cup was rekindled – back to back successes were coupled with consecutive runners-up spots in the league, with Spartak’s dominance looking less stable than ever. Rumours surrounded Romantsev, and the following season their rivals looked to take advantage. While Spartak fell away, Lokomotiv and CSKA surged ahead, opening up an 11 point gap by the end of the season.
Finishing level on points meant a ‘Golden Match,’ a one-off decider at Dinamo to determine the champions. Appropriately for a team which had conceded just 14 times all season – a remarkable feat given the fact that eight defenders featured in more than half their fixtures, an impressive rotation policy in effect – the game was settled by a single goal. For Semin and his men, it was the reward for more than a decade’s work, captain and club legend Dmitri Loskov winning the match with his 6th minute goal. Lokomotiv were officially a force to be reckoned with.
It was little coincidence that the title came after their first season in their new stadium, originally named the Lokomotiv Stadium but often referred to as Cherkizovo, one of the first modern grounds in Russia and regular host to national team matches. The new stadium helped bring in the crowds, and today Lokomotiv’s average attendance is higher than that of CSKA and Dinamo, despite the richer history of both clubs. Two years on from their first title, Lokomotiv lifted the league trophy again, this time finishing a point clear of CSKA and building their success on the combination of a strong defence and golden boy Dmitri Sychev’s goals, the signs looked in place for a lasting dynasty at Cherkizovo.
It was not to be. The following campaign, the iconic Semin left Lokomotiv to answer the call of his country, leaving the club he had built in the hands of Vladmir Eshtrekov. 3rd place was all the new manager could achieve, a late season collapse gifting the title to CSKA. Although another Cup arrived in 2007 with Garry O’Connor’s extra time winner over FC Moscow, that 3rd place remains their best effort since the Semin era, the club unable to replicate those halcyon days.
Part of the reason has been the extensive investment in the likes of CSKA, Rubin and Zenit, however circumstance cannot be blamed in isolation. The club’s own management has been too quick to pull the trigger – whilst Semin’s success came over 19 years, former Croatia boss Slaven Bilic represented the ninth full-time manager in eight years when taking the reins for the 2012-13 season, even Semin himself himself unable to halt the slide on his brief return in 2009.
With an undoubtedly talented squad – Russian internationals Denis Glushakov, Dmitri Torbinsky and Roman Pavyluchenko all ply their trade at Cherkizovo, whilst promising young centre back Taras Burlak has been pciked out as a future national team star – Lokomotiv have the potential to challenge at Russia’s top table. Whilst a little more investment in the playing squad may be needed, as the quality of their overseas stars may be half a notch below the talent on offer at Zenit, CSKA and Anzhi, it is consistency which is most craved at Lokomotiv. A look into their past will show them just what that can achieve.