Club Profile – Torpedo Moscow

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.

When Moscow and football are uttered together in the same sentence, there is almost a sense of inevitability at the four teams that follow. Self-appointed ‘people’s club’ Spartak still cling on to the imaginary title of Russia’s biggest club, but since the turn of the millennium their domination has been challenged successfully by CSKA and Lokomotiv from within their own city. Apparently cursed by the ghosts of KGB past, Dinamo have been less successful but are no less important on Moscow’s footballing map.

Yet the fifth wheel on the Moscow wagon was at one point certainly more important than Lokomotiv, and while not quite possessing the universal appeal of Spartak, held an identity which caused political wranglings at the very top of the Soviet Union’s hierarchy and threatened to burn buildings to the ground. Torpedo Moscow, for all their current failings and years of confused ownership wranglings, are a crucial piece of the USSR’s footballing history, and much of it is tied inextricably to the name of Eduard Streltsov.

Before the emergence of the ‘Russian Pele,’ Torpedo were in many respects another club from the capital. Formed on the floor of the behemoth AMO vehicle plant – later known as ZiL – in 1930, Torpedo quickly gathered enough momentum to first enter the fledgling professional leagues and then, in 1938, enter the top flight as part of an expansion designed to take the game beyond the handful of top sides.

Of course, they chose to do so at a time when political turmoil and the dogs of war marched eastwards across Europe. After three largely non-descript seasons battling relegation from the revamped Soviet Top League, Torpedo’s progress was brought to a shuddering halt by Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion. Moscow may not have fallen to the Germans, but with the ZiL factory now in total war mode and sporting pastimes taking a back seat, success fro Torpedo was never on the agenda.

With the victorious conclusion of the war, things once again picked up for Torpedo. Boosted by their arms-based history and the return of heroes from the front lines, Torpedo clinched the bronze medal in 1945 behind Dinamo and CSKA, before slipping gradually out of the top five with the dawn of the next decade. Not to be completely left behind however, the club would claim two Soviet Cups in that time – first under the leadership of Nikolai Nikitin in 1949, and again three years later their legendary coach Victor Maslov would repeat the feat.

The 50s, however, will always be remembered by the Torpedo faithful for the arrival of Streltsov. Making his first team debut at just 16, the following season the teenage forward netted 15 times in the league to haul Torpedo up to 4th in 1955, having managed just 9th the previous year. That same year he would hit seven goals in just four games for the Soviet national side – including two hat tricks against Sweden and India – and was already establishing himself as the new poster boy for the next generation of Soviet footballers.

But his meteoric rise to fame – in 1956 he dragged the USSR to the gold medal match at the Melbourne Olympics, only to be dropped from the victorious final – upset the wrong people. Seen as a dangerously ‘westernised’ youth – his hairstyle in particular drawing criticism alongside with allegations of heavy drinking and womanising – the Communist party bosses did not wish the talented Streltsov to become too much of an idol to the youth of the Union. And so, by the 1958 World Cup, Streltsov was in the Gulag.

Whether or not his rape conviction was fabricated or not is unlikely ever to be known – Streltsov was something of a Lothario character and was fond of a drink, yet the precise details surrounding the incident – confused evidence and insinuation by the national team boss of the time, Gavriil Kachalin, that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was involved, add several layers of haze to the story. Streltsov was sentenced to 12 years hard labour, and received a life ban from professional football. His career was over.

With their talisman being worked to the bone, Torpedo could have struggled. It would have been a legitimate excuse to crumble without Streltsov, so when they lifted the 1960 league title, it was a triumph of the collective over the individual. Gennady Gusarov’s goals may have replaced those of his illustrious predecessor, but in terms of personality Streltsov was irreplaceable. Second place followed the next year, but when Maslov left to take charge of a side in Rostov, his side collapsed, slumping to 7th and then 10th before recovering to runners-up in ’64.

By this time, Streltsov was out of the Gulag, released five years into his 12-year sentence but still banned from the professional game. His presence with the amateur ZiL side saw them storm to their own title, and when Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964, one of Leonid Brezhnev’s first tasks was to answer a petition calling for the reversal of Streltsov’s ban. Reversed it was, and with Streltsov firing on all cylinders, Victor Maryenko’s side pipped Dynamo Kyiv to the 1965 crown by a single point.

But one man alone could not sustain the side, and the next two years saw Torpedo slip as low as 12th, and while consistent performance in the Cup – culminating in wins in 1968 and 72 – the club became a midtable outfit in a very short space of time. A haul of 21 goals from their star took them up to 3rd in the first of their cup-winning years, but as time ticked by he was moved back into midfield, retiring in 1972 with 99 league goals to his name.

Midtable once more, Torpedo drifted with little improvement towards 1976, at which point the league system again saw a revamp, resulting in a one-off South American style two-title championship. Finishing 12th in the spring with just five wins from 15 matches, Valentin Ivanov’s side turned things round remarkably to lift the autumn title just months later. Save for two more cups – one Soviet in 1986 and the second ever Russian Cup in 1993, it would be Torpedo’s last major trophy.

Although Ivanov would retain his place in the dugout for all but two of the years from 1973 to 1991, he was unable to reproduce the miracle of the 1976 title win, cementing Torpedo as a top half side but forever a step behind the likes of Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Kyiv. Two more bronze medals, including one in the final season of Soviet football, proved the outliers in a field of 5th, 6th and 8th place finishes, and so it would remain well into the Russian era – a slump to the lower reaches of midtable reversed by a mini-revival and regular European qualification at the turn of the millennium under Vitali Shevchenko.

To that point, Torpedo held the honour of having never been relegated, a proud achievement given their position in the competitive top flight. That would all change in 2006 when they managed just three wins all season, and after just two years in the second tier, they fell even further – 18th place and an array of financial mishaps saw them forced to start afresh in the Moscow amateur leagues, two consecutive promotions bringing them back into the First Division in time for the mammoth 2010-11 campaign.

Instability in the backroom staff, a string of managers and an unsettled playing squad has not made Torpedo the most attractive club in recent years, but after dodging the relegation bullet at the end of 2013, there is fresh hope around the club that progress can once again be made. By the midway point of the 2013-14 season, Torpedo find themselves well positioned for an unlikely drive at the promotion places, although a more determined attempt next year appears more likely. With Moscow’s pitch problems forcing Premier League games to take place on their hallowed turf, Torpedo fans are once again developing an appetite for Premier League football. If the right backing is found, the infrastructure is in place for the club to trouble the big clubs yet again. Only the players can make it happen.

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