2007 – Zenit St. Petersburg’s Wonder Year

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Zenit fans celebrating the tenth anniversary of the 2007 championship before the game against FC Tosno. Photo: FC-zenit.ru

Ten years after Zenit St. Petersburg lifted the Russian championship trophy for the first time, it’s hard to remember the team they once were. With a stunning new stadium, a plethora of global talent and a stylish Italian coach at the helm, today they are the very image of a footballing power.

For much of their history, this was not the case. Despite always enjoying a passionate fanbase and a breathtaking cityscape as a backdrop, they had been the provincial also-rans, the perennial underachievers, another stepping stone for Moscow clubs to tread upon on their way to the title. Seasons passed, hope flickered, the Soviet Union imploded, but still, the second city played second fiddle to the teams of Muscovy.

By 2007, Zenit could only count a handful of cups and one league title to their name. That single Soviet title in 1984 looked increasingly damning as the years passed. After all, St Petersburg was the home of Russian football, the setting for the country’s first ever game between Petrograd and Ostrov in 1897, as well as the Russian Empire’s first international against Bohemia in 1910. But in the intervening years the city’s football star had fallen. In the inaugural season of the newly formed Russian League Zenit were relegated and only returned to the top flight six years later. If fans had hoped that the fall of communism would see footballing glory return to the banks of the Neva, their faith was dwindling.

READ MORE: Revolutionary Origins in Pre-Revolutionary Russia: the development of football in the Tsarist Empire

Yet there were glimmers of hope in the darkness. Zenit, like its mother city, was gradually being rejuvenated. In a deal announced by the city’s governor herself, the oil behemoth Gazprom took a controlling stake in the club in 2005. This arrangement preceded a deluge of investment worth one hundred million dollars and made Zenit financial giants in the world game.

Behind the fiscal fireworks, transformation on the pitch had been simmering for some time. Under the reign of Vlastimil Petržela, a squad of young, gifted, hungry players were starting to create a style of play that was all their own. With many of them being local lads, this brand of football reflected the city’s grand palaces and curving canals. It was expressive, spontaneous and brimming with flair. Tchaikovsky on turf would be an apt description.

This exciting play had created glorious moments but not brought the club the trophies it craved. Despite setting the table for Zenit’s emergence, Petržela was moved out and the experienced Dutchman Dick Advocaat was ushered in.

The pragmatic Advocaat was the tipping point. He was the metronome that underpinned the symphony, bringing balance and tactical nous to the free-flowing game that Zenit had adopted. Under his management, the likes of Andrey Arshavin and Konstantin Zyryanov were free to roam but bolstered by the dogged Anatoliy Tymoschuk and levelheaded Nicolas Lombaerts. These factors combined with Pavel Pogrebnyak’s ruthless finishing made Zenit a force to be reckoned with.

READ MORE: Lombaerts’ Legacy

It wasn’t that Zenit’s opposition that season were neatly dispatched at every turn, certain games were close contests and Zenit only finished two points clear of Spartak Moscow. But aesthetically, they were re-educating rivals on how the game should be played. Other teams became students waiting to be schooled on the finer points of footballing finesse as Arshavin & co ran rings around steely, Soviet-style defences. The rule of rigid Russian play was over and the era of expression was upon us. Although major clubs had been moving tentatively in this direction, Zenit’s triumph was the point of no return. And the impact of the club’s win didn’t end there. When Sbornaya almost stole the show at Euro 2008, their play was straight out of the Petrovsky, Petersburg native Andrey Arshavin proving to be the star player for both club and country.

2007 was not only the year that Zenit defied the weight of expectation and past disappointments, it was the year they announced their arrival as a genuine footballing powerhouse. There were more glories to come, most notably Zenit’s UEFA Cup victory in Manchester, but being crowned champions of Russia marked the moment when Zenit stepped out of Moscow’s decades old shadow into a brilliant white night light.

Although that glow has somewhat sustained in the years since, there isn’t a Zenista alive who doesn’t see that season as the pinnacle of Petersburg pride. A time when both the city and its club underwent a dazzling resurgence, throwing off the shackles of Leningrad and emerging as heirs to a brighter future. The architects of the achievement, from Advocaat to Arshavin, are already local legends, beloved by the supporters that witnessed the restoration of their club’s honour.

There is certainly more glamour attached to Zenit today than at any other time in its history. But you can’t relive the success of 2007 without acknowledging how quickly they’ve risen in just one decade. This should serve as a gentle warning that just as a team can ascend so impressively and so rapidly; they can collapse at the same speed. While investment has remained high, the grassroots talent that formed the foundations for success ten years ago have come and gone. Today’s team survives almost solely on big budget transfer signings and hasn’t lifted the Russian league title in over two years. Even though it’s unthinkable that Zenit could return to the obscurity that imprisoned them for years, the club would do well to remember the frost that came before the thaw. This, as well as the euphoria, should mark the memories of Zenit’s wonder year.

Author: John Torrie

A writer by trade, John’s love of Russia led to him embracing the motherland’s beautiful game. As with everything he loves, John just had to write about it and that’s why he’s here.

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