Death and rebirth is an integral part of the way Russian football works. A relegation or two after a period of success, it is not uncommon for a team to fold and be revived a season or so later, perhaps with the year of the reformation attached as a reminder, a slightly different badge, or in the hands of the regional government rather than a private investor. Occasionally the latter transition occurs the other way, but more often than not it is the state that steps in to provide competitive football in an area with a fitting history.
One only has to look at the incomprehensible history of Torpedo Moscow, the constant variation between Dinamo and Petrotrest in St Petersburg, or even the chaos that ensued following Rotor Volgograd’s slide down the leagues, to see that there is little unusual in a Russian football disappearing. It is, of course, a sporting tragedy to see clubs with such rich histories fade to nothingness due to financial or competitive failures, but frequently these histories are claimed by the new side and the legal issues are either resolved or brushed over. For a nation so used to having to accept such changes in the Soviet era, little has changed in the footballing world.
Therefore, the appearance of Arsenal Tula in the Central Zone of this year’s Second Division should not be a surprise to anyone. Founded as far back as 1946 in the wave of post-war club formations, Arsenal were a regular fixture of both the Soviet second tier during the 1960s, and the Russian First Division at the turn of the millennium. Without a wide enough base to ever push into the nation’s elite, they challenged for promotion once or twice, but were generally content with regional contention with the odd foray into national competition.
When in 2006, just two years after a final fling at the second level of Russian football, it was announced that Tula would no longer be able to sustain a professional football club, there was little shock outside of the city itself. After all, they had achieved very little in their lengthy existence, and looked unlikely to change that from their lowly position in the Second Division. That they would be reborn professionally six years later would not make the headlines in many nations, let alone one so lacking in footballing sentiment as Russia.
However, the appearance of Arsenal Tula at the top of this year’s Central Zone should raise a few eyebrows, and not just for the rapid ascent from non-existent concept to title challengers, if not champions elect – Arsenal currently hold an eight point advantage over nearest challengers Fakel Voronezh with just seven games of the season remaining. From the amateur ranks just a year ago, the new-look side has established themselves as the dominant local force, losing just a single league game thus far – an opening day defeat at home against a Metallurg Lipetsk who played half an hour with ten men – and look like clear favourites to make the step up into the First Division once again. Despite rebirth being such a regularity in Russia, it is less common to see a new side rise through the ranks so quickly.
The primary reason behind their sudden surge to success perhaps lies in the manner of their coming into being. Although there had been one or two clubs since 2006 claiming to be the successor to the original Arsenal side, none were recognised as such. Step forward one Boris Gryzlov, a name unknown to those outside Russia but a highly influential figure within the corridors of power – former chairman and speaker of the State Duma, ex-Minister of Internal Affairs, and current leader of Vladimir Putin’s all-powerful United Russia party. Although a native of Vladivostok and a child of St Petersburg, something in the political veteran turned his attention to Tula, and at his word the new Arsenal were brought to life.
Gryzlov’s reasons for reviving Arsenal are unknown, but his personal approval in the 500,000-strong city is likely to be significantly higher now than if he had made that decision in one of the dozens of other Russian cities currently missing an old football team. Since the club returned, attendances have averaged out at around 8,000 per match. To put that into perspective, that figure is higher than no fewer than five Premier League sides – Dinamo, Rostov, Volga, Mordovia and Amkar – and every current First Division club bar the aforementioned Rotor. It is fair to say that football in Tula is a big deal.
Still, a large fanbase alone does not make for a successful club, especially in a nation where income from ticket sales is negligible and merchandise is impossible to locate anywhere other than the stadium on matchdays. Integral to the success of the new Arsenal side has been the budgets allocated since the return of professionalism, and the wave of interest brought about by their amateur exploits.
In 2011, when the new side was formed, they did not form in the usual manner – a group of promising kids from local clubs and veterans of the old team coming together to compete for their city. Instead Arsenal, bearing an historic if not legendary name, drew in the big guns. Drawing on their reputation as a people’s club, Spartak Moscow were the obvious link, and in a move strangely similar to the shot in the arm that series of veterans gave Khimki as they climbed to the Premier League, a number of old stars came to the club. Veteran and 49 times capped Dmitri Khlestov alone brought nine top flight titles with him to Tula, yet alongside names such as Alexander Filimonov (six), Vadim Evseev (six), Yuri Kovtun (three) and Dmitri Parfenov (four) he barely stood out. With legendary playmaker Yegor Titov and Russia’s all-time top goalscorer Vladimir Beschastnykh joining them in the ranks and Dmitri Alenichev managing his old teammates, he was positively dwarfed.
The aging stars did not set the amateur ranks alight, but what they did was bring in enough attention and cash to ensure that Arsenal Tula breezed through the licensing regulations to rubber-stamp their re-entry into the professional ranks. Only goalkeeper Filimonov, at 39 one of the younger veterans, stayed on for the start of the 2012-13 campaign, the other Spartak heroes knowing that their bodies would not cope with the professional game, but the raised profile given to them club by such star attractions meant that others from more established Second and First Division sides have been happy to drop down to ply their trade in Tula. With a talented squad and a strong financial base, it is little surprise that the new-look side has shot to the top.
Whether Tula’s tale becomes one of success handed to them by political power, one of grassroots support driving a team to great things, or another one of Russia’s countless rebirths and retreats from professional football is something that is impossible to answer at this moment in time. However, with a place in the First Division just weeks away and ample support for Alenichev and his men, it seems that success is just waiting to be grasped.