Lombaerts’ Legacy

Photo: Вячеслав Евдокимов

Photo: Вячеслав Евдокимов

To be a centre back at Zenit St. Petersburg is like being the foundation stone that bolsters any one of St. Petersburg’s grand facades. While the service you perform is indispensible, adoration is largely reserved for those you support. Eyes linger on beauty for far longer than function, and in a city that rewards flamboyance and flair before all else, there is usually little adulation left for the quiet enabler.

But magnificence without structure simply cannot exist. And as Nicolas Lombaerts bids a sad ‘d svidaniya’ to Zenistas everywhere, his departure should bring about some closer, more current introspection. For as much as the Arshavins and Dannys of this world may beguile, it is men like Lombaerts that pave the way for real success.

True triumph is not born of creativity but consistency, and it was here that the unassuming Belgian really excelled. His constancy coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history, an array achievements that would have been impossible without the quiet resolve he offered at the back.

In fact his signing, in 2007, signaled the start of a new era at Zenit. Head coach Dick Advocaat had taken charge just one year earlier and his acquisition of the boy from Bruges marked a turning point in the side’s fortunes. Under the previous management of Vlastimil Petržela, Zenit had often impressed in patches but been continually found wanting in crunch games. In most of these encounters it was their inability to close ranks that cost them dearly.

The pragmatic Advocaat realised that without a strong line of defence, the elegance of Zenit’s attack would be largely impotent in the grand scheme of things. He could have plucked a veteran centre-back from one of the major leagues, a fading marquee name that would have, if nothing else, shifted a few shirts at half time. Instead however, in a bold display of wisdom, Advocaat chose fresh potential for his backline. The promising, but largely untested, Lombaerts.

This acquisition marked the start of a renaissance. In his first season at Zenit, Lombaerts lifted the Premier League title. Plaudits were mainly reserved for the electrifying Andrey Arshavin and the predatory Pavel Pogrebnyak, but the Belgian’s contribution was undeniable. He added depth to a defence that desperately needed it. He provided assurance to compliment the team’s surfeit of artistry. At the tender age of just twenty-two, he possessed an infectious wisdom and composure that quickly spread through the squad and its impact had been immediate.

Even when Zenit lifted the UEFA Cup without much participation from Lombaerts (an injury saw him miss most of the 2007-2008 season), his influence was palpable. The patience and maturity exhibited by the team in the Manchester final against Rangers would have been unimaginable just two years earlier.

Following his recovery, Lombaerts slotted back into the side with the skill and grace of a veteran. For the following decade he served the club with loyalty and unwavering commitment, securing the full support of its passionate and, at times, volatile fan base.

To mention his individual moments of heroism while playing in blue would undermine his legacy. For players like Lombaerts, the real success is found in the game-to-game quality of their football. Their reliability, regardless of the scoreline, makes them invaluable to coaches of any ethos. Which is why over the course of five managers and an endless list of signings and sales, Lombaerts’ place in the squad was largely unquestioned. Facades alter all the time, their foundations stand forever.

This leads me to reflect on the present foundations at Zenit. After a disappointing season that was not short of moments of quality but lacked any permanence, the team is missing characters of Lombaerts’ calibre. There is still an abundance of creative players. This well, for Zenit, will never run dry. But in terms of determination and a silent iron will to win, there is a gaping hole where men like Lombaerts used to stand. His leaving is a reminder that it takes much more than style to lift trophies.

In a season where the side also said goodbye to their historic home stadium, the iconic Petrovsky, Lombaerts’ departure has even greater resonance. When, at his last home game, he was presented with a commemorative shirt incorporating all the kits he’d worn for the club, it seemed to mark the moving end of a unique era. One where Zenit finally merged fluidity with stability, bringing forth a football that reflected the city they hail from. A city where, behind the gilded palaces and sculpted bridges, dockworkers and builders toil day and night to keep everything on course. Perhaps that’s why these were the people who turned out in force to honour Lombaerts. Because in his quiet dignity and constant resolve, they saw something of themselves and something of their city. The boy from Bruges actually represented a vital part of Petersburg.


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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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