The Retirement of St. Petersburg’s Prodigal Son, Aleksandr Kerzhakov

Aleksandr Kerzhakov celebrating a goal in 2012. Photo: Степиньш Ольга/Soccer.ru

Aleksandr Kerzhakov celebrating a goal in 2012. Photo: Степиньш Ольга/Soccer.ru

Nothing warms the hearts of football fans like seeing a local lad ‘come good’ for his boyhood club. Steven Gerrard in the Liverpool red. Fransesco Totti turning out in Roma’s claret and gold. In an increasingly disloyal game these flashes of tribal faith resonate. They offer glimmers of hope in a sport too often darkened by cynicism. Beyond the obvious visual appeal of homegrown talent flying the hometown flag is something deeper and more valuable. But to journey to the heart of this phenomenon we have to look at each case on an individual basis.

As the announcement of Aleksandr Kerzhakov’s retirement is still echoing through the streets of St. Petersburg, it feels appropriate to delve into his complex affinity with the team of his youth. Unlike Gerrard or Totti, 34-year-old Kerzhakov was not a one-club man. His path home was a more winding one, lined with peaks and troughs, promises and disappointments. But by its end he had come full circle. Starting out as a St. Petersburg prodigy before emerging as its prodigal son. When told in full, it really is quite the tale.

Born in Kingisepp, a historic but provincial town in the Leningrad Oblast, Kerzhakov’s footballing path seemed pre-destined. For aspiring players in this corner of Russia, Zenit is the club of choice, if not necessity. The team holds unopposed dominion over the city and its satellites, serving as the only real challenger to Muscovite powerhouses like Spartak and CSKA. Playing in the Nevsky blue becomes the only true mark of success for young footballers in the region. Kerzhakov was no exception.

After a short spell with local amateur side, FC Svetgorets Svetogorsk, Kerzhakov made that mark. Transferring to Zenit in 2001 and scoring his first goal for the club against their main rivals, Spartak Moscow, Kerzhakov had fulfilled the dream of nearly every boy in St Petersburg. By the end of the year, his budding partnership with the young midfield maestro, Andrey Arshavin, had started to turn heads. The local lad was finding his feet.

But that footing wasn’t entirely sure until the arrival of Vlastimil Petržela in 2002. Under his management, Kerzhakov became first-choice striker and his goals saw Zenit secure second place in the 2003 Premier League. At that time, their best finishing position since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Increased goal tallies and regular call-ups to the national side soon followed, leaving Kerzhakov well en route to enjoying a legendary career in a familiar location. But the winds of change had already begun to blow. Petržela’s departure and the arrival of Dick Advocaat signaled a turn in the striker’s fortunes.

The forward quickly found himself out of favor with the new management and promptly benched for significant parts of the 2006 season. As his relationship with Advocaat deteriorated it became clear that Kerzhakov was looking to fly the nest. A five and half year contract along with a fee of five million Euros lured him away from the city on the Neva to sun-kissed Sevilla.

His years in Spain were by no means a disaster, but limited playing time impeded his striking prowess. At the back of a long line of talented goal scorers, it soon became clear that Andalusia was not a fit for Kerzhakov. And although he was there to see Sevilla’s UEFA Cup victory in 2007, he was absent from the talented Zenit side that lifted the same trophy the following season. A fact that, even all these years later, still seems like a gross cosmic error.

As he looked, once again, for pastures new, there was no shortage of interest in the goalscorer. Even Manchester United were alleged to have made enquiries about his availability, but, like many a Russian before him, the call of the motherland was too strong to resist.

This is where Kerzhakov’s story takes an unexpected turn. An uproarious return to the Petrovsky and St. Petersburg should have been the only possible conclusion to the striker’s sojourn away from home, but, for reasons that are still the subject of speculation, this is not what happened. In an unthinkable move, Kerzhakov took his talents to Moscow to play for Dinamo, one of the most hated clubs among Zenit fans.

Despite the hint of disloyalty, Dinamo proved to be an unlikely shot in the arm for Kerzhakov. Opening his account there with a blistering shot against FC Moscow, he finished the season as the club’s top scorer and his goals helped them gain a healthy third place spot in the league. While his second season in Moscow produced fewer fireworks, he had announced his return to Russian football. His journey home was almost complete.

In 2010, under the new management of Luciano Spalletti, Zenit reunited with their erstwhile son. Kerzhakov returned to the Petrovsky, picking up exactly where he left off four years earlier. His appetite for goals was as intense as ever and his time away from the club was dismissed as the misadventures of youth. It was in this era that he finally became national champion with Zenit and his next seven years there cemented his reputation as a true club legend, albeit one with an intriguing resume.

Kerzhakov celebrating the national championship of 2015 with his child. Photo: Вячеслав Евдокимов/fc-zenit.ru

Kerzhakov celebrating the national championship of 2015 with his child. Photo: Вячеслав Евдокимов/fc-zenit.ru

The likes of Gerrard and Totti enjoy a remarkable status among their fanbase. They have attained a level of popularity usually reserved for fictional superheroes. Kerzhakov’s enduring appeal is tied as much to his flaws as his ability in front of goal. To err is to be human, it has been said, and it is this humanity that so endears the striker to his public.

His achievements can speak for themselves. His position as top all-time scorer for both the Russian national side and Zenit ensures Kerzhakov’s legacy will last long after his retirement.

I believe that the true glory lies in his long-awaited return to the city where he first made his name. His history of reunion, redemption and resurrection will surely aide him in his new role coordinating the youth system at his boyhood club. Younger players would do well to listen closely if he decides to share it with them.

It’s never easy to write a fitting conclusion to a career like Kerzhakov’s. There doesn’t seem to be enough room to cover every aspect of his time as a player or enough words to articulate what he has meant to his fans. But maybe his journey proves something that reverberates beyond football. Whether on the pitch or off, bridges can be rebuilt, relationships renewed and past transgressions pardoned. In time, you can go home again.

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.

Comments

  1. I Climhazzard I says:

    Gerrard is not a one club man! He played for 2 years at L.A. Galaxy! Totti, Ledley King, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Tony Adams and Jamie Carragher are one club men. Aside from that brilliant article and I’m sad to see Kerzhakov retire.

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