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.
Rostov-on-Don. Whilst the idea of city and river included in the same name is by no means a unique one to the southern Russian city, the very sound of it conjures something a little more grandiose than some of its foreign counterparts – Frankfurt-am-Main, or even Moscow itself. Not to mention Kingston-upon-Hull.
The Don, much like its partner the Volga, summons images of a bygone time, the mighty river granting life to vast swathes of territory, supplying the local inhabitants with the means to travel, nourishment for their crops and a vital trading post to link their early settlements with administrative centres further afield. For the Don in particular, which has captured the imagination of literary figures for many a year, the river has taken on an almost mythical quality, retrospectively credited for many a tale as if some sort of pantheist deity.
It would be of little surprise to the romantics, therefore, if the football club bursting forth from the fount of the Don were to prove one of Russia’s most successful, a beacon of Cossack hope in the face of increasing pressure from the imperial centre in Moscow. Or perhaps a perennial underdog, the Lermontovian anti-hero whose only true enemy is himself and his own acute self-awareness.
Of course, Rostov are not that team, nor have they ever been. Formed from a factory team – agricultural, in keeping with the natural theme – as far back as 1930, the team from the Azov coast have claimed precisely no major trophies, nor have they come close on a regular basis. Although since the collapse of the communist system they have been an almost permanent fixture in the top flight of the Russian game, the yellow-shirted side have made few waves at their country’s top table, breaking into the top six just once in 1998 and the top ten on a mere three further occasions. For a side so apparently stable in the Premier League, their performances have been remarkably forgettable.
Perhaps their most famous moment came in the 2003 Russian Cup, a rare glimpse of success in a history littered with mediocrity. Beginning their quest in the round of 32, Sergei Balakhnin’s men made it all the way to the final without ever being drawn at home, overcoming the long-defunct Kristall Smolensk, Dinamo St Petersburg, Khimki and pre-Kerimov Anzhi on their travels to reach the showpiece encounter.
There they would meet who else but Spartak, the all-conquering Muscovite behemoth that had not yet fully lost its way under Oleg Romantsev. As if the opposition was not difficult enough, Rostov were once more forced to surrender the territorial advantage as the game took place at Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow. After 90 minutes, Yegor Titov’s strike proved the difference between the two sides, and Rostov’s quest for a first piece of major silverware went on.
The only comparable moment is the club’s long history is their 1999 Intertoto Cup adventure, a journey through the rounds of a tournament long since abandoned by its masters at UEFA. Fresh off the back of their highest ever league finish, Rostov battle their way through Europe’s footballing backwaters – scraping past the industrial talents of FYR Macedonia’s Cementarnica 55 by three goals to two before needing away goals to overcome Varteks of Croatia. Those two victories saw Rostov come up against the mighty Juventus, and for a brief time hopes were high that somehow the underdogs could win through. Not the case -a 0-4 hiding at Olimp-2 followed by a 5-1 rout in Turin, and Rostov’s UEFA Cup dreams were over before they had even begun.
Whilst both the Spartak and Juventus games may lead people to believe the Rostov underdog story, the fact is that those two moments stand out in an otherwise uneventful history. Despite their early foundation, Rostov were unable to assert themselves in the Soviet era, a region still emerging from its Cossack village mentality struggling to make waves in all-Union competition. Unlike in the present era, the wealth of nations in the USSR produced a quantity of opposition simply too much for the Don club to overcome, and the Top League proved a distant dream, in equal measure both tantalisingly close during the more successful of their second tier campaigns, and distant and desperate during the decade of third tier wilderness from 1975-85.
In the early years, Rostov also had to deal with the clear superiority of army club SKA, a side who have, as of early 2013, disappeared from the footballing radar after being crushed by the weight of their own financial woes. For years the dominant force in the city, SKA’s slump was timed to match Rostov’s gradual and unspectacular ascent to the top table of the Russian game, the second team watching on as first their rivals’ players were stolen from them by war and other members of their society, and then by the financial implications of an oversized stadium and the absence of handouts from local government in the post-Soviet generation. Now, as the sole footballing power in the Don region, Rostov have achieved exactly what is to be expected of the single team from a large but provincial city – stability, safety and little else besides.
Whether in their amateur days as Selmashstroi, Selmash and Traktor, or in later life as Torpedo and more famously Rostselmash, the club have been the very epitome of normal for a team of their size and geography, rising through the ranks as rivals died off and never threatening the big city elites. For their supporters, stability seems to be enough. For those looking in from the outside, it is thoroughly uninteresting, especially given their position on the fabled Don. In all reality, we should expect little more.