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.
Of the many things that Moscow was in need of in 1997, another football club was not one of them. Despite beginning to recover from the economic meltdown which overwhelmed the young Russian Federation in the wake of the USSR’s demise, the great capital remained awash with vultures looking to prey on those most vulnerable, to make their fortune out of others’ loss and to position themselves as the false saviour of a nation.
However, despite the many other problems being dealt with at the time, it was decided that another football club was exactly what was necessary in one small region of the city. The reasoning behind this conclusion was a strange mixture of history and ego, the pride of a company’s past incapable of separating itself from the modern reality.
ZiL, the giant Likhachev Automotive Plant formerly bearing the nation of none other than Stalin himself, lies between the central Garden Ring and the city-encircling MKAD, yet for years played an important role in the city’s footballing life. It was there, as long ago as 1930, that the side best known as Torpedo Moscow was formed, forming a team which would go on to lift three Soviet titles, six cups, and give a stage to the man known by many as the ‘Russian Pele,’ supremely talented and highly controversial striker Eduard Streltsov. The Torpedo legacy was firmly established in the country’s sporting history, and yet in 1996 the very foundations of Torpedo were altered.
Despite the inextricable link between the club and the factory, Zil were forced to sell Torpedo to the Luzhniki corporation, leaving them without a team to represent them in the Russian leagues. Thus the decision was made the following year to create their own alternative to the club made famous by Streltsov, launching the imaginatively-named Torpedo-ZiL into the Third League the following year. A fundamental change to the lower leagues meant that ‘promotion’ to the regional Second League was guaranteed, but a strong 3rd place in their debut proved to be a good enough start to keep the project going despite a lack of support which would plague the club throughout its existence.
Midway through the following season, the managerial reins were handed over to former USSR youth coach Boris Ignatyev, who had won the under 19 European Championship with the old Soviet Union a decade ago. Under his guidance, Torpedo-ZiL raced to the top of their western division, finishing 12 points clear to claim the title and a place in the second tier. Already Torpedo-ZiL were making waves, and they were not about to stop.
Ignatyev stayed on, and in their first second tier season the club missed out on promotion to the top flight by just three points. As the second millennium passed into the third, so did the First Division change from 22 to 20 teams, and Torpedo-ZiL took full advantage – another 80 point haul, and the young club would join champions Sokol Saratov in the Russian Top Division for the 2001 season. For a side just four years old, few had expected such a rapid rise.
However, the mark that Ignatyev left on the club almost proved to be too big. A lucrative offer from China tempted him away from the Russian capital – he would later return in 2004 to manage another ambitious Moscow region club, Saturn – as Torpedo-ZiL prepared for life at the top table. Over the next three years they would go on to employ no fewer than five different managers in their bid to cling on to top flight status, and yet somehow they succeeded – for three consecutive years they ended the season in 14th place, a single spot above the dreaded drop zone, doing the bare minimum necessary to survive.
Not all of the ensuing progress can be attributed to new boss Valeri Petrakov. Off the field, the ZiL company found itself struggling to find the financial backing necessary to support a Premier League football club, and so began to look elsewhere for assistance. Help emerged in the form of metallurgical giants Norilsk Nickel, based in the far north of Russia, but the money came at cost – first majority ownership and then complete control of the club passed away from the automotive factory, once again ended their affiliation with football in the country. Twice they had tried, and on both occasions their finances had been overstretched. They would not be deterred – starting up a third club and then buying the original Torpedo, now in financial straits in Moscow regional leagues, back in 2009, but a merger of the two clubs did not materialise, and when the second incarnation of Torpedo-ZiL was not granted a place in the First Division in 2011, the newest team decided to call it a day.
Meanwhile, the team which had raced up the league system, now in the hands of Norilsk Nickel, took part in the 2003 Premier League as Torpedo-Metallurg, finishing 14th for the third time. The following season, before any league matches had been played, officials from Norilsk and the Moscow city government struck a deal to relaunch the club as FC Moscow – the city would provide the identity, the support and the facilities, whilst the metallurgists would be responsible for the bulk of the finance. The new-look side ended 9th, and midway through the following season, promising young manager Leonid Slutsky arrived to take on the highest profile job of his career, guiding the rebranded Citizens to 5th in the standings.
That 2005 arguably represents the pinnacle of Muscovite football since the fall of the Soviet Union. FC Moscow finished 5th, powered by the likes of Yuri Zhevnov in goal and a strike pairing of Hector Bracamonte and Dmitri Kirichenko, one of a remarkable six Moscow sides in the Premier League. All six finished in the top half, with CSKA, Spartak and Lokomotiv rounding off a 1-2-3 for the capital clubs. Rarely has one city shown so much footballing power.
It would prove to be something of a false dawn – the following season, the original Torpedo were relegated from the top flight, and in 2008 crashed into the murky depths of the amateur ranks as a result of their financial woes. At the top of the table, first Zenit and then Rubin took the title to St Petersburg and Kazan respectively, and at the time of writing the five-year title drought in the capital equals the longest ever endured in the Soviet era.
The glory days were almost over for FC Moscow too – in 2007 the owner of Norilsk Nickel, recent Russian presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov sold his controlling stake, the sports-mad oligarch’s replacment less keen to lavish funds on his newly-acquired football team. That season’s achievements – 4th place and runners-up to a Garry O’Connor-powered Lokomotiv in the Cup final – would never be bettered, and weeks before the start of the 2010 season, the inevitable happened.
Despite a 6th place finish under Miodrag Bozovic the previous year, it was announced that Norilsk Nickel, who at that time were still feeling the effects of the global financial crisis, were withdrawing their funding from FC Moscow. The regional government could not afford to make up the difference, and the club immediately withdrew from the Premier League. A handful of the club’s pitiful fanbase went on hunger strike in protest, others saw the move as a conspiracy from the authorities to fast-track Alania Vladikavkaz back to the top flight, but the rumours bore nothing. One token season in the amateur ranks followed, and on 28th December 2010, after a brief but dazzling history containing three promotions, a cup final and two trips into Europe, FC Moscow ceased to exist as a football club.
This time, there would be no replacement, and the natural order of things resumed – Alania took their place in the Premier League, and the ZiL plant once again own the original Torpedo, now plying their trade in the second tier. With the dust settled, it is almost as if FC Moscow never existed in the first place.