The last unbroken run in Russian footballing history is over. Ever since 1936, the year the Soviet championship was founded, Dinamo Moscow have been one of the country’s leading lights. Even as city rivals occasionally floundered and dropped into the lower divisions, Dinamo – with varying degrees of assistance from the state during the Stalinist era – remained a fixture in the top flight, never once suffering the agony of relegation.
That is, until now. On the same day an anxious 1-0 win in Kazan saw local rivals CSKA wrap up their third title in four seasons and a sixth since the birth of the Russian league, a shock 3-1 win for lowly Ufa over Spartak combined with a miserable 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Zenit saw the Bashkir club leapfrog their storied relegation rivals, pushing Dinamo into the bottom two after a season of accelerating decline. Next year, instead of taking on the likes of Zenit and Spartak, Dinamo will be hosting their reserve squads in the second tier of the game.
It is a remarkable form from grace for a team that just a year ago clinched fourth place on the last day of the season. For many years Dinamo were seen a team on the cusp of success, a team just a step away from breaking into the coveted Champions League positions. Not long before, they had benefited from the fire-sale taking place at Anzhi, snapping up Russian internationals across the board and positioning themselves as a base for the national squad with the financial support of the billionaire Rotenberg family. However, at the end of that same season, financial irregularities and a breach of Financial Fair Play regulations meant the Europa League spot connected the fourth place in the Premier League was taken from them. It would be a stark warning.
From the start of the current season, Dinamo have been a club in turmoil. With the Rotenbergs and owners VTB Bank hit by Western sanctions in the wake of Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine, Dinamo’s monetary footing became a little more hazardous. Out went several of their higher-earning players, particularly foreign ‘legionnaires,’ and faith was placed in a number of homegrown youngsters that were urged to prove their potential and earn a place even in the national team. For much of the first half of the season, Dinamo’s first team line-up featured 10 Russians and one other, usually the former Zenit defender Tomas Hubocan.
That is not to say that Dinamo’s fall through the relegation trapdoor is entirely down to their financial woes. Over the winter transfer window, the departure of stars such as Aleksandr Kokorin and Yuri Zhirkov allowed them to make significant moves in the market, none of which have really come off. Manager Andrei Kobelev, an old hand in for a third spell at the club, left just two weeks before the end of the season with midtable rapidly seeming at risk of relegation play-offs, and Sergei Chikishev – a man whose only previous managerial experience has been with Dinamo’s youth teams and a brief spell at Siberian club Irtysh Omsk – has been unable to turn the squad around.
Three of Dinamo’s five wins came in the opening seven games of the seasons, and since then things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Even with Russia’s golden boy Kokorin in the ranks they found goals hard to come by, and without him they have found them almost impossible. Since Christmas, Dinamo have found the net just five times in 12 matches, winning just one of those matches – 1-0 away at the very same Ufa that relegated them with their win over Spartak – and losing nine of them.
Even then, the misfiring forwards cannot take all the blame. Only last-placed Mordovia and struggling Anzhi conceded more goals – 50 – than Dinamo’s 47, and again since the winter break their weaknesses have been glaring. April opened with back-to-back 4-1 hammering at the hands of Krasnodar and notorious low-scorers Rubin, and in the final four games of the season they conceded three goals on three separate occasions, including the 3-0 drubbing by Zenit on the final day. Anton Shunin, an almost forgotten man after being supplanted by Vladimir Gabulov between posts, was left hopeless as the defence in front of him parted with alarming regularity, and with both strikers off target and defenders at sixes and sevens, it is perhaps little surprise that Dinamo found themselves in the wrong place at the end of the campaign.
What is clear is that the club has a great deal of work to do before anything can be assumed about next season. Dinamo will, of course, be huge favourites to surge straight back into the Premier League and will be the biggest side to dwell in the second tier since the Soviet era, but given their struggles this season, they cannot afford to take promotion for granted. First and foremost, they need a manager – Chikishev is too inexperienced to be handed the reins – and one who is able to motivate what will no doubt be a team with morale in the gutter.
Secondly, they will need to find some seasoned veterans to replace the undoubted departures. The likes of Hubocan, Gabulov, Chris Samba, Aleksei Ionov, Vitali Dyakov, Aleksei Kozlov, Igor Denisov and Pavel Pogrebnyak are unlikely both to hang around and slash their wages to First Division level, and without them Dinamo are left with an inexperienced skeleton of a squad.
The good news is that, having effectively given this season over to giving youth a chance, some of the youngsters remaining – the likes of Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Tashaev and Dmitri Zhivoglyadov – already have plenty of experience and have proven their talent at a higher level. Should the Dinamo management be able to convince their youngsters to stay around, they are capable of forming the core of a team which, bolstered by shrewd signings, would be capable of dominating the second tier.
For now, however, Dinamo and their fans must come to terms with the first relegation in the history, and the remarkable demise of one of Russia’s oldest and most storied clubs. For decades, Dinamo’s lack of a top-flight title has been attributed to a ‘curse’ handed to them as punishment for their secret police links in the past. Now, officially a First Division club, a Premier League title will be the last thing on their minds.