“My whole life at Zenit. My whole life in gloves” – the words of Vyacheslav Malefeev upon retiring from football last week neatly summarised the veteran goalkeeper’s life in football: all nineteen years of his professional career had been spent between the sticks at Zenit St. Petersburg.
Cliches only serve to besmirch football writing, but it seems right to attach a few overused labels to Malafeev. He was a one-man club, something of an anomaly in modern football. With Zenit perhaps representing the height of modernity in the sport – especially in Russia – Malafeev stood as the beacon of an ‘old school’ breed at one of the flagships of commercial soccer. But the transformation of Zenit into a behemoth of global branding did nothing to waver the Malafeev’s loyalty for his hometown club.
Indeed, this was clear when Malafeev waved a poignant goodbye with his revered hands to the fans gathered on the steps of the ‘Music Hall’ virazh. The weight of the occasion suddenly speared Malafeev; he paused, only momentarily, and leant against the left hand post, his head bowed and concealing tears. In that moment he realised he was standing in that goal in front of an adoring mass of white-blue-sky-blue in a white-blue-sky-blue jersey for the last time. The crowd offered voracious applause. Malafeev composed himself, raised his hands, and applauded back.
“Heartfelt thanks for your support that you have showed over my career. Thanks to the supporters and the club,” he would later remark. It was a mutual show of adulation, respect and above all love.
For Malafeev, this was a local love. Born in Leningrad in 1979, before the city was renamed St. Petersburg, he completed his primary and secondary education in the local Petersburg schools while training with Smena football club, the academy of Zenit St. Petersburg. His performances were deemed good enough to see him graduate with honours in 1997 and fast track a link up with the first team in 1999.
Naturally, the young Malafeev occupied the bench as understudy to Armenian great and Zenit number one Roman Berezovsky. But his chance in the first team came when Berezovsky was dismissed for swearing at the referee in a match against Alana Vladikavkaz. Although Malafeev didn’t manage to make the number one spot his own, he was named in Russia’s Olympic squad, playing for them against the country of his mentor. It was all valuable experience for the young Malafeev, who was making rapid progress on his apprenticeship. Berezovsky again kept goal for Zenit in their 1999 Russian Cup final success against Dinamo – Malafeev watched from the bench – but Berezovsky was creeping towards the end of his glittering career.
His departure in 2000 created a vacuum that was filled by a fierce rivalry between Malafeev and Slovakian stopper Kamil Čontofalský for the number one spot. Both battled hard against the other and initially passed the number one jersey back and forth.
It was Čontofalský who pulled ahead in the race for goalkeeping honours when Malafeev was sent off in a cup match against CSKA, thereby being relegated to the bench. But when Chontofalsky himself saw red in the UEFA Cup, duties were exchanged and Malafeev this time established himself and, with a full season of games under his belt, was named in the list of 33 best players and won the Lev Yashin trophy for goalkeeper of the year. In 2004, he played 36 matches, letting in only 30 goals in the process as he was again named goalkeeper of the year.
Further success would follow. A first league title came in 2007 and a year later came the greatest success for both man and club. Zenit’s famous UEFA Cup campaign culminated in a final win against Scottish side Rangers at the City of Manchester stadium. Malafeev’s clean sheet ensured Zenit clinched the trophy and stretched his record to just one goal conceded in 317 minutes of UEFA Cup football.
High intentions of how to mark the occasion was clear – “I hope we will celebrate for two or three days in St. Petersburg.”
Just three months later and he would taste European glory again in the Super Cup Final against Manchester United, conceding only to Nemanja Vidic as Zenit ran out 2-1 winners over the Champions League holders.
For Malafeev, it was the steepest of pinnacles finally reached with his boyhood club. The thought of Zenit twice winning European silverware in the same year and such famous opposition was something that few in the dank industrial Leningrad apartments dared dreamed. Malafeev had provided the safe hands that delivered it.
With Zenit he won the highest Russian domestic honour by winning the Russian Premier League and Cup in 2010. Malafeev was named by ESPN as one of the world’s best goalkeepers in 2011, and that same year he kept a record 159th clean sheet in a match against Porto. It was also the year personal tragedy struck. On March 17th his wife Marina was killed when the Bentley she was driving home from a party left the road and hit an advertising board before crashing into a tree. Many in the game talked of the 32-year-old Malafeev retiring. That he didn’t showed the measure of the man. He continued playing and won a further two league titles in 2012 and 2015 and a Russian Cup coming just this season. But Malafeev has largely been used as backup to Yuri Lodygin or Mikhail Kerzhakov in recent times.
Internationally, Malafeev racked up 29 caps for Sbornaya after making his debut against Wales in 2003. He was a key part of Russia’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2004 but played only one game – a win against eventual winners Greece – at the tournament in Portugal. It was against the Iberian nation the most harrowing event of Malafeev’s tenure as Sbornaya stopper would occur. In October 2004 in a qualification match for the 2006 World Cup against Portugal, he let in seven goals and was subsequently dropped in favour of Igor Akinfeev, managing from thereon only substitute appearances in friendlies against Qatar and Cameroon albeit with the captain’s armband. His international career wound up in 2012 with those seven part of only 24 he conceded in his time with the national side. After over 300 appearances and 11 major honours for his beloved Zenit, his club career came to a halt last week.
But Malafeev’s character transcends business on the pitch. It can be argued that no other goalkeeper has done more to advertise his craft so explicitly to aspiring youngsters. He has produced three films – the third of which has recently been released – that give in depth and intimate analysis of goalkeeping, providing a window into the lives the life of those that reached the top of their profession such as Iker Casillas, Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar. “A life in gloves” – his words that accompanied his exit are also the name of the series.
The 37-year-old Malafeev has since been added to Zenit’s club museum along with a mould of his hands, which will stand as tangible reminders of his time at the club. But in memory, Malafeev will also go down as the last of the local boys from a crop of Leningrad-born club talismen that include Andrey Arshavin and Igor Denisov who came up through the ranks of the academy to play on the Petrovsky pitch. Malafeev was a master keeper, a high achiever, remains a courageous and caring individual, and is the last of the band of brothers to call time on a career that helped lead the revival of Russian football from the fields of the country’s northern capital.
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