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.
History is a peculiar beast, particularly in the sporting world. The ‘true’ date of a club’s founding can be the difference between a rich legacy and little more than a nostalgic gaze, whilst the number of times players who join the world’s biggest teams claim to have been lured in by the history, rather than the extra digits on their pay slip, seems to rise roughly in proportion to the size of the transfer fee spent.
Of course, not every team can count itself amongst the world’s finest – the term itself would be rendered obsolete if they were – but the issue of history still remains an important one for fans and the teams themselves. In England, there are many lower league sides who boast proud histories dotted with cup wins in the late 1800s, without which these clubs are just run-of-the-mill teams with nothing to set them apart from their closest rivals or divisional opponents.
The same is true in Russia. The big clubs constantly bicker over which of them can claim to the earliest foundation – officially it is Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuyevo, for those seeking an end to the argument – whilst there is an almost constant dialogue regarding which clubs are the true heirs to the records of clubs which have fallen by the wayside. In a country in which clubs are regularly founded at the lowest level one year only to disappear two or three years down the line, some sort of footballing genealogy can be crucial, not only for a team’s progression, but for the very legitimacy of its existence.
Such is undoubtedly the case with Volga Nizhny Novgorod, the side which emerged from obscurity to clinch two promotions in quick successions before scraping its way to survival in the Premier League. Although they required a play-off to do so, fans of the club will rightly point out that in previous seasons the play-off did not exist – in any previous season, Volga’s position in the top flight would not have come under question.
The club’s foundation and history have, however, come under slightly more scrutiny than the odd question from a disgruntled First Division follower, particularly since the club that they defeated in their two-legged play-off, FC Nizhny Novgorod, has since ceased to exist, financial difficulties resulting in a merger between the two inter-city rivals, with Volga retaining the name, the pick of the players, and the spot in the Premier League. Officially, the current incarnation of the club is therefore just a single year old, but the situation is more complex.
The difficulty boils down to whether or not a club can dissolve, fail to compete for 15 years, and then have its history assumed by a new team starting up in the same city and under a different name. As complex a situation as this may seen, it is commonplace in Russia – see the trials and tribulations of Rotor Volgograd and Zhemchuzhina Sochi for the blueprint on death and rebirth in Russian football clubs – and without the acceptance of this practice, some of Russia’s most historic sides are just a few years old.
Volga’s longest story begins in 1963 in the city then known as Gorky – a name which still features on railway timetables across the country – which we now know as Nizhny Novgorod. Two teams, Torpedo and Raketa, came together to form a new professional side by the name of Volga, with the intention of putting the city on the footballing map. Torpedo had done this briefly, reaching the USSR’s Top League on four occasions, but their own slide down the leagues prompted a new course of action. From their ashes, Volga were born.
Yet circumstances – namely the closure of Gorky as a city to outsiders due to secretive military research operations – conspired against the new club, and after finding themselves unable to break back into the upper echelons of the national game, those occupying the corridors of power took the decision to shut down Volga in 1984, just two decades on from its foundation. Whilst the city’s wheel turned to the sound of discovery and progress, its footballing cogs ground to a halt.
In 1997, the history question seemed to answer itself – Torpedo-Viktoria Nizhny Novgorod emerged in the renamed city, claiming the heritage of the old Torpedo club and therefore, the Volga side which succeeded it. However, just a year later a rival claim was made, this time Elektronika the team to seek Volga’s history and establishing themselves in the amateur leagues.
Today, Torpedo-Viktoria participate only in local competition, whilst Elektronika represent the city at the highest level, having rebranded themselves as Volga whilst playing in the Second Division in 2004. The argument has been won in favour of the bigger side, largely due to their success and the name change. The situation could have been very different – Torpedo-Viktoria reached the First Division as early as 1999, but were relegated back after finishing 19th out of 22 teams and finding themselves seven points from safety. They would never reach the second tier again, and in 2001 the new side fell back into the amateur ranks.
When Torpedo-Viktoria reached the First Division, Elektronika were yet to reach the professional ranks themselves, only doing so at the turn of the millennium. Under Vladimir Zinovyev, the man who helped bring the new Volga into existence, the club progressed from obscurity to challenging for a First Division place in just under a decade. Zinovyev left the manager’s position in 2007, and the following year the former Torpedo Moscow midfielder, coach and assistant manager Sergei Petrenko guided his brainchild into the second tier at the first time of asking, losing just twice all season on the way to the regional title.
Petrenko left the club before that campaign, but the momentum which had begun under Zinovyev continued to build. A 4th place in their debut second tier season was an incredible result, and even more so was the 2010 campaign which followed. Although the final detail of their promotion, a 2-2 draw with city rivals Nizhny Novgorod which secured 2nd and 3rd places respectively in the penultimate round of fixtures, was highly suspicious, a 21-goal season from Georgian striker Omar Martsvaladze helped fire his club into the Premier League for the first time in their recent history, even if the ancestral Torpedo had reached the Soviet top flight half a century before.
The difficult first season was survived, and whilst everything points to a likely relegation in the near future, there will always be hope that Volga, now boosted by the former FC Nizhny Novgorod deemed worthy of a place in the squad, can survive and give their city a team appropriate for the impressive proposed stadium due for the 2018 World Cup. They may have one of the top flight’s weakest squads and an unsettled backroom staff – six managers and a caretaker since Zinovyev’s departure in 2007 – but they have some form of history, debatable as it may be, on their side, and a city as expectant as any other. Like so many Russian clubs, they do not intend to go quietly.