Gazprom fuels Zenit dreamFriday, 19 January 2007
by Eduard Nisenboimfrom Moscow
Moscow's domination of Russian football has been all but total. Just once since independence has the championship gone outside the capital, which is the only city from that country to have been represented in the UEFA Champions League. FC Zenit St. Petersburg have strived for decades to change that, without much success, but that may be about to change spectacularly, thanks to the help of the third largest company in the world who have set the aim of getting the club among "the top three in Europe".
Russian bands and singers have composed songs with the refrain "Zenit are champions" for decades, yet they took the old Soviet title just once, in 1984. Since returning to the Russian top flight in 1996, four seasons after relegation, they have won the 1999 Russian Cup - the first club to take the trophy outside Moscow - and were second in the Premier-Liga four years later, claiming the League Cup. However the dream of becoming the second team after FC Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz in 1995 to break the capital's stranglehold on the league crown has remained just that.
But December 2005 could just have proved the turning point for Zenit, and Russian football. It was then that one of the most passionately supported clubs in the country were sold to the biggest firm in the nation, the massive energy concern Gazprom. They paid €27.9m for a 51 per cent stake to add to the 25 per cent already owned by one of their affiliates. Little public attention was paid at the time, and although Zenit went on to reach their first European quarter-final, in the UEFA Cup, a mediocre start to the league season led to the summer replacement of coach Vlastimil Petržela.
In his place came Dick Advocaat, and a spending spree began. Korean internationals Lee Ho and Kim Dong-Jin arrived before the high-profile signing of Turkish international Fatih Tekke for €10m. The club finished the year in fourth, not enough for a guaranteed UEFA Cup place, but the prestige and resources of Gazprom are globally renowned. They appointed as president Sergei Fursenko, the brother of a government minister, and he has laid out an ambitious programme for the next decade, reminiscent of Roman Abramovich's plans at Chelsea FC.
"There's no point in setting the aim of finishing third - especially because now potentially we can challenge for gold," Fursenko said. "We need to set the highest standards in order to achieve anything at all. This means we will have only one task; to win the title. I think in the near future our fans will have reason to celebrate, and I know for sure our team will be among the strongest and most dangerous in Premier-Liga."
We have a right to count on getting Zenit into the top three European clubsSergei Fursenko
That is not all. "We need a team which will play at top European level," Fursenko added. "We have already made public the ten-year programme of development. I know many have taken it sceptically. Yet the most important points are still valid: to win the title and one of European trophies. We do set such tasks and we are working very seriously to achieve them. We have a right to count on getting Zenit into the top three European clubs. It is just a matter of time."
These are not hollow words. Usually it is rare for Russian clubs to reveal their annual budgets, but it has emerged Zenit will have €38.6m to spend in 2007, making them the richest club in the land, well ahead even of FC Spartak Moskva and champions PFC CSKA Moskva. That sum does not even include the money being poured into the planning and construction of a new 50,000-seater stadium in St. Petersburg. Furthermore, according to sports director Konstantin Sarsania, spending on new transfers is unlimited as Gazprom are ready to cover any extra demands deemed necessary by the club leadership.
The Russian internal transfer record fell twice in December as Zenit bought highly-rated Russia striker Pavel Pogrebnyak from FC Tom Tomsk and then FC Rubin Kazan playmaker Alejandro Dominguez for a combined outlay of more than €13m. Russian player of the year Andrei Arshavin then agreed a new contract that took his reported league-record wages to close to €2m a year.
A word of caution, however, as recent Russian history shows that spending does not always equal glory. FC Dinamo Moskva made headlines when they recruited several of the Portugal squad who reached the final of UEFA EURO 2004™, yet the likes of Maniche flopped and relegation was only narrowly avoided. But in Advocaat, Zenit have one of Europe's most experienced and respected coaches, and it seems his current two-year deal - already thought to be the most expensive in Russian club history - may swiftly be extended. "It will still depend on how the team does this season", said Advocaat. He will know well the burden that expectation can place on a coach, but Zenit fans can hardly be blamed for dreaming of a celebratory 2007.
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