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.
Football in St Petersburg is, for all intents and purpose, a one-team affair. Even before their purchase by Gazprom and subsequent transformation from top flight also-rans to three-time champions and European challengers, Zenit were able to boast of a long history of support and relative success in an environment dominated by the Moscow powers – the 1984 all-Union title their greatest achievement in a crowded market.
Today’s Zenit is, albeit with several anomalies, a picture of the modern European football club. Driven to success by sources of income which delight the fans and irritate opposition, the club is a United Nations of talent, with native Russians aided by expensive imports from all corners of the globe. Their recent success has led to the demand for a new stadium – a project eternally delayed in typical football fashion – and whilst the deepest problems at the club are tied up in the racism of some hardcore supporters, a series of foreign managers and internationals stars is a symbol of football’s changing face. As long as similar problems persist across the continent, Zenit will remain thoroughly European.
The fact should not come as a surprise to those familiar with the city, which is in its very nature a Russian attempt to imitate its neighbours to the West. Commissioned by Peter the Great as a fortress city against the Swedes, the towering Tsar’s new capital became the outworking of his well-travelled education, with English, Dutch and Italian influence on the city clear to see. As opposed to the Asiatic, Slavic feel of its great rival Moscow, St Petersburg sets itself proudly apart as a window on Europe.
It stands to reason therefore, that the nation’s second capital should blaze a different trail to the first on the football field. Moscow’s menagerie of clubs is well-known, and for years was the dominant force in Soviet and then Russian football – CSKA, Spartak, Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Torpedo. In Moscow lie the centre of the Soviet Union’s network of sporting societies, the capital’s representatives having first pick of players and coaches from their numerous affiliates and maximising their advantage from the system.
St Petersburg however, is different. Whilst tracing the history of Dinamo/Petrotrest back through history is an interesting process, it should not detract from the fact that, at least since the middle of the 20th century, the second team has been a footballing irrelevance on Russia’s map of the game. A societal system, with clubs playing second fiddle to their Muscovite counterparts, would simply not have worked in the second city – their identities are just too distinct.
A brief glance across the lower leagues of the Russian game still throws up the odd Zenit away from the Baltic coast – Penza and Izhevsk the lesser-known equivalents in far-flung corners of the vast nation – but apart from those provincial copycats, Zenit stand alone as the sole representative of the group which once stood for the arms industry. By monopolising the game and forging a unique identity, Zenit have been able to draw in large crowds even in less successful times, and created a brand which can compete with the Moscow giants rather than be forced to subordinate itself to them.
Despite Zenit’s great success, there have been plenty of attempts to launch a rival within the city, to widen the base of talent in St Petersburg and create a footballing landscape similar to that of Moscow and its many clubs. Along with Dinamo, Petrotrest and their various other forms, more recent times have seen the youth-driven Rus and Piter established as virtual farm clubs for Zenit, giving locals a chance to experience professional football in the lower levels.
The one club rarely spoken of in relation to St Petersburg is Lokomotiv, a club founded as far back as 1936 but which managed professional football for just ten seasons in a 70-year history. When the club eventually collapsed in 2006, departing the amateur ranks for the final time, there were few who mourned its demise – after all, whilst the reborn club made the First Division as recently as 2000, their achievement stretch no further.
In Moscow, Lokomotiv and the railway workers it represents are numerous enough and geographically significant enough to generate a powerful sporting presence, the age-old tradition of allowing rail workers free tickets to Lokomotiv games still practiced in a city which grants access to almost every corner of the Russian domain. Conversely, the rail network leading in and out of Petrograd in 1936 was decidedly smaller, the city still reliant on Moscow as a gateway to the rest of the Union and therefore both smaller and less important. That Lokomotiv gained a foothold at all is admirable, but their lack of historical significance – a 1936 Soviet Cup appearance and participation in their regional division some 33 years later – is hardly a surprise.
When the Loko name re-emerged in the chaos of the Soviet collapse, it was once more in the regional competitions of the Communist days, spending the first four years mired in mediocrity in the Western subsection of the third tier. In the fifth year they cheated the system, gaining promotion to the First Division by merging with the short-lived Saturn-1991 St Petersburg, who had finished the previous season in 19th place. The move worked briefly, a 5th place finish in 1997 Loko’s greatest achievement, but three years later they had managed two 16th place seasons and a lowly 20th – catalyst for the relegation from which they never returned.
When later, after five years of reasonably successful amateur football, Lokomotiv St Petersburg disappeared for good. One of the least likely tenants of the vast Kirov Stadium (100,000 capacity before its demolition), with small but devoted support and a short and unspectacular league record, the old club will in all likelihood be ignored by the history books. Whilst such an omission would be entirely unfair, they also serve to highlight the major differences between Russia’s two great cities, and are yet another reminder of why Zenit are able to dominate the footballing landscape of St Petersburg. Their old fans may not see things the same way, but it is no bad thing to be reminded of.