Russian Premier League – Sunday 24th April 2011
With layers of sponsorship across a number of global and Russian brand names it’s hard to believe that as recently as 1995 Zenit St Petersburg club were in the second tier of Russian football. Today, the club are one of the biggest clubs in Europe with a host of international stars and a high profile Italian manager. UEFA Champions League participants almost every year in 2008 the club won the UEFA Cup in Manchester beating Glasgow Rangers in the final.
If the Soviet Union was a world superpower so modern day Russia is one of the world’s energy superpowers. The country has extensive natural gas supplies, massive oil reserves, minerals, gold and coal. The geographical proximity of Russia to China means Russia transports gas and oil into China on top of the pipelines in has into many of its near neighbours. Large cascades of hydropower plants now line the main Russian rivers with many regions still largely unexplored. In Siberia it is felt that vast areas of land remain laden in undiscovered rich resources.
Football in Russia has naturally been impacted by the thriving energy sector. Zenit are backed by Gazprom one of the largest extractors of natural gas in the world. The organisation bought a majority holding in Zenit back in 2005. Gazprom were created in 1989 out of the fall of the former communist regime, emerging when the Ministry of Gas transformed itself into a corporation.
Zenit’s opponents on a beautiful spring evening were a team from the south eastern part of Russia – Krylia Sovetov Samara. Based in the large city of Samara where the Volga and Samara rivers meet, the club have known triumph and controversy in recent years. In 2004 the club reached the final of the Russian Cup only to lose in the final against Chechen club Terek Grozny. Moreover, the club finished the same season in third place meaning 2004 was one of the most successful years in its recent history.
Thanks to financial problems and near liquidation there was a ban on the club signing players not so long ago; a suspension that was not lifted until March 2010. Since then the club have attracted players wisely from Belarus, Columbia and Serbia. First choice goalkeeper is the Algerian goalkeeper Mbolhi Rais who performed well at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The history of Zenit began when a forerunner club grew out of the physical education group belonging to the Leningrad Metal Plant. A football team was organised at the plant on May 25th 1925 in what were some of the early years of the Soviet communist regime. At first the metal workers took part in district leagues, but from the 1930’s the team began playing in the Leningrad championship.
In 1935–1936 when voluntary sports groupings were formed in the USSR the Leningrad Metal Plant football team came under the Stalinets voluntary sports group. The Stalinets side played its first match in the USSR Championship on May 27th 1936 in Dnepropetrovsk in modern day Ukriane.
At the end of 1939, the Leningrad Metal Plant fell under the command of the People’s Commissariat for Arms and Ammunition (LOMO). In 1939, during the rule of Joseph Stalin, the Leningradsky Metallichesky Zavod became part of the military industry and its sports teams. Players and coaches were transferred to the Zenit sports society. FC Zenit won its first honours in 1944 claiming the war-time USSR Cup after defeating CSKA in a well attended final.
After the end of the Communist regime on 6th August 1990, Zenit officially stopped being supported by the LOMO (Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association). By decree of the Executive Committee of the Leningrad, Zenit St Petersburg were established as an independent company.
Owing to chronic financial and organisational issues the team performed badly in the then transforming country. Zenit lagged some way behind the powerful and dominant Spartak Moscow side. At the end of the 1991 season Zenit found itself in the relegation zone and were eventually demoted to the second tier.
It was 1996 before the club returned back to the top division.
The turning point came in 2002 and things have steadily improved since then with the growth of the Russian nation being reflected in the growth of Zenit. Players from the club began appearing in the Russian national side amongst them Alexander Kerzhakov and Andrei Arshavin; a player who became captain of the Russian national team.
The Zenit of today are a side still full of Russian internationalists with a selection of experience from Portugal, Hungary and Serbia. After a spell at Sevilla, Alexander Kerzhakov returned to the club and is one of the leaders within the team alongside the classy Zyranov and the dogged Anyukov. Previous legends like Tymoschuk and Arshavin have moved on but under the coaching of former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti the club became champions once again in 2010.
Saint Petersburg is a world-class destination and Russia’s second largest city with a population of more than 5 million people perched at the eastern tip of of the Baltic Sea and the Neva River. The city was formerly known as Petrograd (Петрогр́ад) and later Leningrad (Ленингр́ад). Founded by Peter the Great it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth and virtually any building in the large historic centre – threaded with canals dotted with baroque bridges – can be considered an attraction and indeed make it a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On the way to the Petrovsky Stadium you can pass a host of attractions including the Hermitage Museum which is housed in the Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty. Inside is one of the world’s greatest and oldest collections of art and antiquities.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the city has become the most cosmopolitan of Russia’s cities with English widely spoken and many cultures represented. Although it suffered badly during the leadership era of Boris Yeltsin its world-class architecture and astonishing views have remained intact.
As you approach the stadium there appears to be nothing but line after line of armoured police trucks (some with water cannons) all around. Partner that with patrol cars, a police helicopter and road blocks and there is a huge police operation in full swing. It all makes you wonder what it’s like if any of the larger Moscow clubs are town. But whatever the opposition its fairly easy for the police to plan accordingly as every game gets the same attendance of between 17,000 to 20,000 spectators.
At the gates of the ground it’s a bottle neck of ticket checks and beer drinking. Inside the perimeters of the ground you are free to wonder where you like and there is row after row of souvenir stalls and hotdog stands. The location of the ground is on the St Petersburg island of Petrovsky connected to mainland via a set of bridges. It takes about 25 minutes to walk back to the central Nevsky Prospekt throughfare from the stadium.
An open bowl with vast electronic media advertising all around, the ground feels like an imposing fort with a surrounding moat. Huge floodlight pylons compliment the feel of the ground and dominate the skyline gazing down on the pitch below in typical Soviet style.
At 3.15pm not 30 minutes before kick off a group of around 40 Krylia supporters appear and they are not afraid to promote the team they support. Each fan flies a flag in the team’s colours and flags of the region. Inside the teams emerge and there are around 150 visiting supporters. A few firecrackers are lit as the teams arrive on the field.
Both teams stand looking towards the Russian national flag and both sing the national anthem.
On 11 minutes Zenit take the lead through Kerzhakov who swung a teasing free kick into the top corner of the net. Almost every Zenit fans then starts jumping up and down singing ‘Sine-Belo-Golubye’ (Blue and white, sky blue white) and Samara are barely in the game. A number of chances are wasted by Zenit until in the final 10 minutes when two goals from Lazovic make it 3-0 to Zenit.
St. Petersburg on a sunny spring evening is such a pleasant place it’s hard to find any reason not to be impressed with your surroundings. Walking across bridges there are ice packs floating down the Neva River as you head into the city centre walking past numerous historical buildings.
Russian football, like Russia itself, is a massive eye opener in a largely unknown country where still too few people choose to adventure into for holidays or weekends. In the United Kingdom games can be seen weekly and Russian players like Roman Pavylchenko and Andrei Arshavin are just two of the foreign players in the English Premier league.
Russia now finds itself if not a footballing superpower at the very least a major player in the European game. Its players and rich owners continue to be influential in a number of leagues with wages in the Russian league amongst the best in the world.
Moscow and St. Petersburg are multi-ethnic melting pots in a nation not so long ago closed and largely unknown. Like any big urban centre in the world there are places that visitors should not venture into but generally St Petersburg is a wonderfully safe city full of historical buildings, museums, arts and exciting nightlife. Fans of Russian football are also very interested in visitors to the city and thanks to high standards of education can display an extensive knowledge of the wider European game.
St Petersburg is a truly interesting place for a football adventure.
You can see some of our photos from St Petersburg here.
This article first appeared in April 2011 in voicesinfootball.com