Two years ago, Aleksandr Kokorin had just finished his best-ever season for Dinamo Moscow. The then 23-year-old striker had scored ten goals in the league and another four in the World Cup qualification campaign. Kokorin went to score another at the World Cup in Brazil, where he was one of few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing Russian campaign. Meanwhile, his teammate and buddy Fyodor Smolov watched the tournament at home in Moscow together with his model girlfriend, the former Miss Russia, Viktoria Lopyreva, and seemed to care more about living the celebrity life than being a professional football. The 24-year-old Smolov had finished another underwhelming season for Dinamo and was yet fulfill the enormous potential that made him one of the most lethal strikers in the country as a youngster.
The two strikers played together in the blue and white kit between 2008 and 2015, when Smolov eventually left Dinamo and Moscow permanently. In between both of them had brief stints at other clubs; Smolov played on loan at Feyenoord, Anzhi Makhachkala and Ural, while Kokorin had a brief and controversial stint at Anzhi before their crash and firesale.
The two of them immediately hit it off after Kokorin joined Dinamo in 2008. The combination of their incredible talent combined with their boyish charm and stunning appearances made them obvious candidates to become the future poster boys of Russian football, and nothing less was expected. And the expectations only grew bigger after Smolov became the first player born in the 1990s to play in the top flight.
The best example of their success came in the qualification for the 2013 U21 European Championships, when Kokorin scored five goals and Smolov four as the Russians impressively won their group ahead of Portugal, Poland, Albania and Moldova.
However, at this stage the careers of the two strikers had already begun to move in different directions. They were both blooded into Dinamo’s first team in 2007, and they both scored their first goals for the Blue-Whites as teenagers – Smolov at the age of 18 in September 2008, and Kokorin at the age of 17 a month later. But while Kokorin only had to wait another month before he scored his second, a winner in the local derby against his former club Lokomotiv Moscow, no less than 947 days, or two years, seven months and five days and an obscure loan in Netherlands with Feyenoord, went by before Smolov could finally celebrate another goal in the RFPL.
By then, Kokorin had already established himself as one of Dinamo’s stars and the future of Sbornaya, and the distance between the two was bigger than ever before. After returning from Feyenoord in 2011, the 21-year-old Smolov was mostly used as a substitute for Dinamo, deputizing for Kokorin, and he only featured in the starting line-up five times during the 2011/2012 season.
The following season, halfway through an unsuccessful loan spell in Dagestan with Anzhi, Smolov was spotted together with Lopyreva – seven years his senior – during a vacation to Miami for the first time. This was just a month after Smolov had scored nine minutes into his debut for Sbornaya, the fastest goal ever scored by a debutant. But it was the new relationship that stole the headlines, and Smolov was suddenly elevated to the A-list of Russian celebrities.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well for Smolov on the field as they did off the field, and his hunt for playing time at Anzhi was unsuccessful as he only started four games for the Dagestani side. Meanwhile, Kokorin reached double figures of goals in the league for the first time, which earned him a €19 million move to Anzhi.
Fate would have however have it that Kokorin and Smolov would soon be reunited again, as Anzhi owner Suleyman Kerimov suddenly pulled funding, forcing the Dagestani club to sell all their stars. After just a few weeks away from Moscow, Kokorin returned to Dinamo, making the two friends teammates once again. Like before, Kokorin took the headlines with his performances on the field, while Smolov became known for his relationship with Lopyreva, whom he married in December 2013, after the wedding had comically been cancelled earlier that year.
On the field, Smolov became more and more of a laughing stock in the Russian football world. By the time the 2013/2014 season was over, and Kokorin had already featured at the 2012 Euro and 2014 World Cup, Smolov had just been relegated with Anzhi following his second loan stint at the club, and seven years into his professional career, he had just scored four league goals. In April 2014, he became world famous, when he tapped a certain goal by Vladimir Bystrov across the goal line just for it to be annulled for offside moments later.
2014 was however also the year the balance between the pair started to tip again. By then, Kokorin was the third best paid player in the country with his annual salary at €5 million according to Sports.ru’s annual top 70 list of the best paid players in the RFPL. Smolov on the other hand was in the last year of his contract and was sent away on loan, this time to FC Ural, who had finished just above the relegation zone the previous season.
Far away from the Muscovite glamour, Smolov started to thrive as the front striker in head coach Aleksandr Tarkhanov’s fluid 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation. Finally, the attention Smolov received was coming due to his performances on the pitch. Smolov went to score several important goals for Ural, including goals against top teams such as Lokomotiv, CSKA, Krasnodar and Kokorin’s Dinamo, and he was instrumental in Ural once again surviving in the league despite their limited financial options.
However, despite the success on the field, Smolov couldn’t stay out of the tabloid’s spotlight. A week before Ural played the last game of the season, Lopyreva announced on social media that she had left her younger husband. “The last thing I want to do is to comment on our relationship,” Miss Russia 2003 wrote on her well-followed Instagram account, “But now, in order to avoid speculation and rumours, I must confirm that we have nothing more in common.” About the reason for the split-up, Lopyreva wrote: “I made this decision six months ago, but he then managed to convince me that he had matured and was ready to get serious about family and work. But he was more interested in social media and beautiful cars.”
The same comments were started to be said about Kokorin, who attracted more and more attention for his behaviour on social media, especially Instagram, where he flaunted his luxurious lifestyle by sharing pictures of himself with various celebrities as well as exorbitant cars, clothing items and accessories. At the age of 23, pundits also started attacking Kokorin for lacking ambition due to his apparent resistance to leave his small pond in pursuit of bigger challenges.
By the end of the season, the two strikers had both scored eight goals, which for Smolov was a remarkable achievement, and earned him a big contract with FC Krasnodar, while for Kokorin it was a worrying sign, as he had failed to develop as a goal scorer, despite the addition of the French midfield genius and wing-man Mathieu Valbuena to Dinamo’s squad.
And if there was any doubt that Smolov had finally moved focus from ‘social media and beautiful cars’, as Lopyreva phrased it, to football, he removed it last season by becoming the first player in five seasons to reach 20 goals in the RFPL. His performances in Krasnodar’s green and black kit even made him a regular with Sbornaya, and he started all three games at the Euros this summer.
Kokorin, on the other hand, found himself in the middle of the Dinamo chaos last summer, which led to the departure of president Boris Rotenberg, sports director Guram Adzhoyev and head coach Stanislav Cherchesov as the Blue-Whites were kicked out of Europa League for overspending. Kokorin left the sinking ship six months before Dinamo were relegated, for the first time in the club’s history, when he joined Zenit in a heavily criticized move. Once again, Kokorin was attacked for being greedy and unambitious, and he remains yet to impress at Zenit.
Since his debut for the Blue-White-Sky Blues in March, Kokorin has scored twice for Zenit in the league, while Smolov has scored five goals this season alone. Ever since the pair made entered the biggest stage Kokorin have been the bigger of the two, but now, ten years later, that has finally changed. Kokorin is no longer the player the foreign scouts discuss when debating Russian strikers; in fact he wasn’t even called up to the latest national team squad, and with Smolov’s language skills and new-found ambitions, he could eventually take the leap to Europe, which Kokorin never dared.
Follow Toke on Twitter: @TokeTheilade
Author: Toke Møller Theilade
Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.