One of the great appeals of Russian football is its great history – there are few countries in the world in which such a rich history has taken so many twists and turns, whether in terms of an entire nation’s orientation or the inner workings of a single club. In a pattern which has mirrored the country, the history of the Russian game is far from simple.
If there is one team which perhaps epitomises those erratic, unpredictable characteristics, Rotor Volgograd could certainly put forward a case on par with the most obvious choices such as Spartak and Dinamo Moscow – in recent years, there has been a great deal more variation in Volgograd than in Moscow. From great players to famous results, there are almost as many memories dwelling on the crumbling terraces of Tsentralny Stadium than in the Luzhniki itself, whilst many of the current Premier League crop would be jealous of Rotor’s past.
For Volgograd, football was officially born in 1929, the famous Dzerzhinsky Tractor Works the birthplace of the first club in what was then still Stalingrad. The huge factory, which would become seen the world over as the site of part of the infamous Battle of Stalingrad which ravaged the city in 1941 and 1942, gave its name to the fledgling club – Traktorstroitel – and despite the devastating effect of war on the city, the club, now simple ‘Traktor,’ took part at the highest level of Soviet competition as soon as it resumed in 1945, finishing 7th to match their second best pre-war performance.
Understandably however, the war took its toll on Traktor, and that 7th place finish would end up representing their best finish until the fall of the Soviet Union. Even the return of pre-war manager Yuri Khodotov could not revitalise the Stalingrad side, Khodotov unable to recreate the pacey attack which took the USSR’s top teams by surprise and saw the leading Moscow clubs attempt to poach Traktor’s most important players.
Khodotov’s second spell at Traktor lasted just over a year, the club’s first returning manager leaving just as the club went through its second name change, this time adopting the Torpedo moniker. By 1950, Torpedo found themselves at the foot of the Class A table, just a point above rock-bottom Neftyanik Baku. The inevitable relegation followed, and for the first time since their 1937 promotion campaign, Stalingrad lacked a representative in the top flight of Soviet football.
The journey downwards continued in the coming years, with Torpedo failing to threaten an immediate return to the top flight. By the time they did manage to earn promotion, the Soviet system had been revamped to split Class A into two groups, meaning that they were in fact being promoted back into a second tier they had never been relegated from. Alexander Abramov was the man who eventually made they step in 1963 by finishing runners-up to Spartak Krasnodar in their regional subdivision, just a year after narrowly missing out to Krylya Sovetov Kuybyshev.
Yet more chaos in the league system meant that by the time in 1981 – having undergone another series of name changes to become the Rotor Volgograd we are familiar with today – they were again restricted to the second tier, the league system streamlining the somewhat bloated top flight and clarifying the structure of the league. Despite winning their regional group the previous season, they were thwarted by the end-of-year mini-league for zonal champions, and were forced to wait another season. At the second time of asking, they managed to overcome Textilshchik Ivanovo and Dinamo Barnaul to take their place in the First League, which was of course the second tier of Soviet football.
That promotion signalled the start of something of a managerial crisis at Tsentralny, with the club apparently ill at ease with its position in the rankings and unable to prevent higher profile managers being poached by the Union’s elite clubs. Ten managers came to Rotor in as many years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even the man who took them to the top of the Soviet game for a fleeting moment, Viktor Prokopenko, would not stay to claim his reward – after taking 2nd place in the 1988 First League and thus promotion to the Top League, Prokopenko could not resist the call of former club Chernomorets Odessa, who finished two places above Rotor in the following season in 8th.
With Prokopenko gone, Rotor survived their first year amongst the elite clubs of the USSR, but in their second they were less fortunate. Finishing a single point below Dinamo Minsk and in the last of the relegation places, Rotor were forced into a play-off with Lokomotiv Moscow to determine which club would take the last spot in the top flight. A 3-1 defeat in Moscow gave them a tricky task in the return leg, and although they would claim victory against the Railwaymen, the 1-0 success was not enough to see them survive on aggregate.
The following year, Rotor bounced back in style, clinching the second tier title thanks in part to the goals of one Yuri Kalitvintsev, who would later go on to manage the Ukrainian national side as assistant and caretaker. The almighty reshuffle caused by the independence declarations of that year placed Rotor back at the top of Russian football, and an unspectacular first season saw them finish 12th in the 20-team Russian Top League.
In 1993 however, Rotor announced themselves on the new stage in dramatic fashion. Although Oleg Romantsev’s Spartak Moscow comfortably retained the national title, the first of nine they would win in the first decade of Russian football, Rotor emerged as the best of the rest, beating out Dinamo to take the runners-up spot. It did not take a genius to work out that Oleg Veretennikov was the crux of the team, the forward signed from Uralmash the main source of goals for the club. In 1993 he missed out on the league’s top scorer accolade by two goals, but it would not be the last time he challenged for the honour – he remains the league’s highest ever goalscorer, and the only man to top the scoring charts on three occasions.
A year on after a 4th place finish, none other than Prokopenko returned to the helm, and Rotor were a marked team. The man who had taken them to their highest position since before the war struggled at first, leading the Volgograd club to a disappointing 7th in the table, but unlike previous managers he was given the time to turn it around – there was plenty of cause for optimism after Veterennikov’s 25 goal campaign. In 1996, the attacking combination of Veretennikov, Valeri Yesipov and Kazakh striker Vladimir Niedergaus fired Rotor into the bronze medal position just two points behind champions Spartak, and a year later they took 2nd, again within touching distance of Romantsev’s men. Rotor were a force to be reckoned with.
Yet that would be as good as it got for football in Volgograd, intense battles with Spartak and the memories of knocking Manchester United out of Europe in 1995 -a goalless draw under the watchful gaze of Mother Russia at home before a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford made famous for Peter Schmeichel’s headed equaliser – would drag the fans through a dismal few years. In 1999, Veretennikov netted just 12 goals, and even that relatively low figure represented a third of Rotor’s goal tally for the season. Even Prokopenko could not defend 13th place and just a five point cushion to the relegation zone, and the managerial legend left for the final time.
It marked a dramatic turning point for the club, and things went from bad to worse. Star man Veretennikov left for Greece, where he failed to make his mark at Aris Thessaloniki, the club never again managed to break the 40 point mark in the top flight. Lower midtable was all they could manage until the inevitable took place, and after winning just four games of the 2004 season, Rotor were relegated after more than a decade at the top of Russian football.
Worse was to come as the club were then denied a professional license, forcing the club out of professional football and spending time in the regional Second Division under the banner of their renamed reserve squad. Veretennikov returned, top scoring in the third tier, but a multitude of managers could not haul Rotor out of the hole they found themselves in. The 30,000 seats at Tsentralny began to fall into disrepair, and for a long time a revival seemed impossible.
Indeed, it took bankruptcy for them to be restored to anything close to their former glories. In 2009, Rotor withdrew for the Second Division after 18 games, simply unable to pay their way to the end of the campaign. The proud city was represented solely by FC Volgograd, a side formed in anticipation of this precise occurrence and their 3rd place coincided with an unexpected vacancy in the First Division. The name was changed, the license was granted, and Rotor once again took their place in the second tier of Russian football.
The new Rotor were not ready, and the 2010 season saw them comfortably adrift of safety and relegated back to regional however. However, with a promising youth programme buoyed by cash from the World Cup bid and Veretennikov back at the club as assistant manager – his son Pavel also played briefly for the club – Rotor quickly established themselves as the region’s biggest lower league club, sealing the title and promotion back in time for the 2012-13 season. This time, hopes were much higher.
Promotion to the Premier League in the immediate future seems unlikely – Rotor’s budget is not big enough to compete with the top teams in the league, there is nobody in the current squad to be relied on for 25 goals a season, and manager Valeri Burlachenko is no Viktor Prokopenko. However, a return from the regional doldrums and a team of more than local schoolboys has finally given one of Russia’s proudest cities something to be proud of, and the memories trapped in the stadium will only breed dreams for the future. In the meantime, Volgograd will wait patiently.