Zenit St Petersburg have emerged as one of Europe's most recognisable clubs, but it has taking a while to get here. Domm Norris charts the rise of a Russian powerhouse.
The name Vasilievsky Island may not hold much significance to many football fans. Sitting in the delta of the Neva river, this historically significant area of Saint Petersburg is not only important for political reasons, after all this is an area that has and continues to play a key role in the city's economic development due to the location of the Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange. The historical role of the island, both politically and economically, can be saved for another rainy day, but another important feature of the Vasilievsky Island is its role in the development of football in the Saint Petersburg area.
1887 was the year that football began its gradual ascent into the hearts and minds of the Saint Petersburg public. It was during this year that English sailors challenged the local contingent to take part in a strange game, where two teams must compete against each other and try to kick a round ball through a set of posts. A team made up of Englishmen took to the field under the guise of Ostrov against their Russian counterparts 'Petrograd', which the city of Saint Petersburg would later be renamed to during the First World War. The match ended with the natives being thumped 6-0, but such a scoreline did little to dampen a growing thirst for the game in the area.
The liberal policies of Tsar Alexander II during the mid to late 1800's saw Saint Petersburg dramatically change. The 'emancipation of the serfs' in 1861, which essentially granted independence to shackled peasants, resulted in a great deal of emancipated people moving to, what was then, the capital of the nation. The influx meant that the area was more densely populated than Moscow itself. The movement also meant that Saint Petersburg began to witness a steady level of industrial growth, which expanded to such an extent that it began to rival Moscow's industrial prowess. The growth and expansion meant that by the turn of the 20th century, Saint Petersburg was the 4th largest city in Europe and a political and economic powerhouse that was able to exert power and influence throughout the continent.
The industrial expansion of the city also directly resulted in the growth of a footballing culture as many of the local businesses and industries spawned a number of small football clubs. The progress of these sides was drastically hindered by a lack of organisation and a level of formality that suffered from a lack of governance. Players were often known to hop from one team to the next, and back again, which meant that the identity of the teams and football in general was difficult to establish. The strength of development and formation of recognised football clubs within Saint Petersburg did not progress sufficiently until the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the Russian Empire collapse in the wake of World War I.
Today, Zenit Saint Petersburg are one of Russian football's most respected and revered sporting clubs. However, during the early part of the 20th century, the metaphoric waters were not nearly as calm as they are today.
The problem of identity was something that plagued Zenit's early progression, as a string of name changes makes it difficult to place an exact finger upon when exactly the club formed. Murzinka was a football club that began in 1914, during a particularly turbulent time in Russia's political history, and played for the next decade at the Obukhovsky Stadium. The development of Murzinka, and the surrounding industrial development of the Obukhovsky area, meant that the club, as well as Obukhovsky, became known as Bolshevik. However, it is testament to the club's will that it remained intact throughout the global conflicts, revolutions and civil wars of the time.
However, 1925 saw the formation of a football club by workers of the Leningradsky Metallichesky Zavod, a metal plant, which became known as the Stalinets. The two clubs remained as separate entities until 1939 when the teams decided to merge and form a single, unified club. It was decided that the club would adopt the name FC Zenit, as Bolsheviks had changed their name to this during 1936, and so the club that we have come to recognise today was formed.
The formation of FC Zenit Leningrad, as the city of Saint Petersburg had been renamed, could well have been seen as a brave new dawn for football in the city, as along with their local rivals Dynamo, the two clubs offered an important political area with a strong level of footballing representation. Dynamo, from the league's inception in 1936, and Zenit, in 1938, were both introduced into the blossoming Soviet Top League, which was to become the USSR’s definitive national championship. However, both teams failed to find success in the initial years of the league's progression. Dynamo suffered the humiliation of being banished from the Soviet Top League after a string of poor performances that saw the team finish in 10th place in the 1953 season. While Zenit were a relatively able side who seemed destined for nothing more than mid table mediocrity, aside from winning the 1944 USSR Cup against CSKA at a time when the Soviet Top League was disbanded due to the war effort.
The 1967 Soviet Top League season was one of great struggle for Zenit. The club ended the season rooted firmly to the bottom of the table and the team looked destined to be relegated, which would leave the city of Leningrad without a single representative in the top division of Soviet football. 6 wins and 21 defeats during the campaign had virtually brought the club to its knees and it wasn't until a spot of government intervention saved Zenit from the perils of relegation. It was felt that Leningrad was too important a city to allow its sole representative to be relegated to a lower division. The move, which would cause uproar in the present day, was seen as a positive step in maintaining strong representation of the most significant political and economic areas of the Soviet Union.
The move to save Zenit from relegation meant that the club would later go on to achieve what no side from the city of Leningrad had ever previously achieved, winning the Soviet Top League. It is quite incredible that such a partisan football club had to wait around half a century to record its first domestic title, and break the dominance of the clubs from Moscow and Kiev. The victory of 1984, in which Zenit finished two points clear of Spartak Moscow, could have been seen as a platform to a spell of domination of football in the late Soviet era. However, such optimism was to be short lived. It took only three seasons for the club to be dealing with the threat of relegation once again as Zenit finished precariously one place above CSKA Moscow who suffered the dishonour of relegation. If 1987 was a warning sign, then 1989 was the final nail in the coffin as Zenit once again found itself at the bottom of the table, however this time the government was unwilling to give the club another helping hand.
The collapse of the Soviet Union caused a great deal of hardship for many Russian football clubs, as former state investment was no longer available and many found themselves with a severely weakened level of income. This in turn led to an increase in private businesses taking control of football clubs at the government's request. For Zenit, Leningrad Optical & Mechanical Union (LOMO) took a controlling stake in the club and sought to provide stability at a time where the future of many clubs hung precariously in the balance. The club managed to attain a level of assurance under the guidance of LOMO, and began to enjoy success during the turn of the 21st century as victory in the 1999 Russian Cup provided the club with a platform to achieve top three league finishes in following couple of seasons.
It wasn't until 2005, however, that Zenit truly began to announce itself as a leader of the Russian game. The purchasing of the club by energy company Gazprom provided Zenit with a level of spending power that it had never previously enjoyed. The financial clout meant that the club was able to compete with some of Europe's biggest clubs in terms of spending power and this meant that it could prove itself a hugely lucrative club. The arrival of Dick Advocaat in 2006 marked a new, brave era and success swiftly followed as Zenit went on to win the 2007 Russian league title and the following year won the UEFA Cup against Rangers. European success ultimately placed Zenit amongst Europe's elite, and along with CSKA's triumph in 2005, proved that Russian football was an ever-growing force.
The 2010 Russian Premier League victory marks yet another era in Zenit's history. From the moment the first ball was kicked in that match on Vasilievsky Island, to the formation of Murzinka and the Stalinets, and the years of competing in the Soviet Top League. Zenit is a club that will continue to make history in Russian football and 2010's achievements will be yet another footnote in the long history of one of Russian football's most impressive success stories since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent football ramblings.