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.
St Petersburg, as a city, has constantly done battle with Moscow for the title of Russia’s true capital. Both have enjoyed their time as the official centre of the country, but ever since Peter the Great founded the city in the 1703, the city on the Neva has laid claim to being the cultural, if not administrative, capital of Russia.
It is an argument which will no doubt remain unresolved until the two metropolises eventually engulf the hundreds of miles between them and form one giant amalgamation of a city. Even then, there will be dispute over which parts of the region are ‘better.’ In basic terms, the argument is one of perspective – Moscow represents the Russia which the rest of the world imagines, a world where Asiatic traditional collides with Orthodoxy and modern Western business, a thriving hub comparable to London and New York. By way of contrast, St Petersburg imagines itself more akin to a Paris or Milan, a beautifully stylish city which surrounds its history with elegance rather than grandeur, the ‘Venice of the North’ in more than its canals.
Whilst in terms of culture, history, architecture and state importance it is almost impossible to reach a definitive conclusion on what have become known as Russia’s two capitals, in the sporting arena the achievements are infinitely more quantifiable. Deciding where to draw the line as to which sports count towards each city’s totals is another matter entirely, but in terms of the big two – football and ice hockey, the balance swings emphatically in favour of the Muscovites.
How far this was due to state intervention in the Soviet era is yet another point of contention, but the facts remain – St Petersburg has never won a Soviet or Russian hockey title, whilst CSKA Moscow were widely acknowledged as the best team in the world for a significant portion of their history. On the football field, the advantage stays with the official capital – whilst Zenit have added three Russian successes to their sole Soviet triumph, the number of Moscow success runs to almost half a century, with Spartak, Dinamo, CSKA, Torpedo and Lokomotiv racking up 47 titles between them.
The counterargument follows that Moscow has been more successful purely because of the greater volume of clubs operating in the area, an indisputable fact but one which is unlikely to account more than 40 top flight titles and numerous national cups. However, the fact that Moscow has been able to boast half a dozen clubs in a top flight of 16 compared to just one from St Petersburg does pose problems for the Baltic city, and there is a willingness in some quarters to level the playing field.
Of course, doing so in the modern era is far more difficult than attempting the same trick under Soviet government, with large subsidies and assistance from the affiliated organisations no longer available to those prepared to attach their side to the army, police or railways. Still, the bottom is for starting from, and in recent years a number of St Petersburg groups have done just that. A look through the lower echelons of the Russian league system reveals new names prefixing the St Petersburg identifier – Piter and Rus appearing in the western branch of the Second Division for the first time in 2012.
However, the city’s great hope for a team to support Zenit in the top flight lies with neither of the two new clubs, but with the less patriotically-named Petrotrest in the First Division. Promoted out of the Second Division last season, Petrotrest were formed at the turn of the millennium and have only appeared at the second level on one other occasion – a relegation campaign back in 2005 under the command of Pavel Gusev.
That relegation came as a double blow to the team, as financial problems and a lack of players saw the club ready to collapse, dropping into the amateur tiers and foregoing their rightful place in the regional Second Division. The following year, with extinction a real possibility, they took the only option open to them – a merger with the more historic Dinamo St Petersburg, at the time continuing in the First Division.
Nevertheless, the merger did nothing to solve the problems which were already plaguing Dinamo, and at the end of the 2010 season the revived old club found themselves relegated into the regional leagues, and faced with yet more decisions. This time, the merger was reversed – a new Dinamo was launched to work their way up from the amateur leagues, whilst the relegated side was rebranded as Petrotrest and left to claw their way back into the First Division.
In the end it was achieved with a little more struggle than expected – Spartak Kostroma and Textilshchik Ivanovo pushing Leonid Tkachenko’s side to the wire – but the man with three spells at Baltika Kaliningrad and a brief caretaker appointment with Ukraine to his name managed to steer his men over the finishing line, earning 93 points from their 45 games and possessing the best attack in the league. In an unexpected move given the penchant for name changes in the Russian leagues, the Petrotrest moniker stuck, and they began the 2012-13 campaign determined to improve on the relegation earned during their previous attempt.
In terms of funding, unsurprisingly one of the most important factors in the First Division, Petrotrest’s budget pales in comparison to some of the more well-backed teams in the league, almost immediately pacing promotion to the Premier League out of their reach. Initially the aim will be to consolidate their position in the second tier, building up both a reputation and sufficient capital to launch a promotion charge before attempting to run before they can walk safely.
Barring a wealthy new owner, it is unlikely that Petrotrest can be to St Petersburg what the likes of Torpedo and Lokomotiv have been to Moscow – an auxiliary club strong enough to chip in with success of its own over the years. Their biggest chance may come with Zenit finally move out of their Petrovsky home, with Petrotrest possibly moving from their Minor Sports Arena in the same complex into the main stadium. Whilst the likes of Rotor Volgograd and Fakel Voronezh are proof that a bigger stadium does not guarantee success, it would act least provide a signal of ambition from a team determined to first move into the slipstream of their more successful neighbours, and ultimately burst out of it. There is a long way to go, but this is yet another battle which St Petersburg is determined not to give up on.