Russian fans watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final (Denis Doyle - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

March 13, 2024   6 mins

After Zenit St Petersburg won the Uefa Cup in 2008, beating Rangers in Manchester, the team’s coach Dick Advocaat strode proudly into the press-conference room, only for his phone to start ringing. He looked at the screen, seemingly about to reject the call, then paused. He turned to the mass of journalists, apologised and left. When he returned five minutes later, he explained he didn’t have a choice: it was from Vladimir Putin.

Putin, who grew up in St Petersburg, is no great fan of football — but he recognises its power. “I consider this victory,” he said at the time, “as one of the brightest acknowledgements of the rise of Russian football and, more widely, Russian sports.” Midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov, who scored Zenit’s second goal in the final, similarly recognised the broader context: “Hopefully now in Europe they will start to take us more seriously. Perhaps that is the fundamental effect of our triumph.”

And for a time, Europe did take notice. Soviet football never quite delivered on its promise; might Russian football, apparently shedding the complications of state control, be about to deliver?

In December 2010, when Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Cup, Putin turned up unexpectedly in the Zurich conference hall to witness the result. But that was the high point. In the competition that followed, Russia played well enough, reaching the quarter final. But the nation’s organisers seem to have regarded it as an end in itself; there was little legacy-planning even before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed everything. Today, Russian football now stands as a pariah, its clubs banned from Uefa competition and its national team from this summer’s European Championship. Average attendance at league games is down 32% on the high of the season after the World Cup. The war, clearly, is a major factor. Yet the reality is that the decline was already underway.

Back in 2008, it certainly seemed that Russian football was standing on the brink of a golden era. Three years earlier, CSKA Moscow had become the first Russian side to win a European trophy, lifting the Uefa Cup. In 2007, Russia’s national team outplayed England in Moscow, their dominance far greater than the 2-1 scoreline would suggest. Partly as a result, England failed to qualify for Euro 2008, where Russia reached the semi-final with a memorable victory over the Netherlands in Basel.

For its part, Zenit had a fleet of gifted home-grown players — seven in the starting line-up for the final — and they had the backing of Gazprom. With other oligarchs and energy giants beginning to show an interest in football, it seemed possible that Russia could become a major player; that Zenit or Spartak, the most popular of the Moscow clubs, might become one of the European elite, sitting alongside United or Barcelona or Bayern. “The important thing is that these triumphs become regular,” the Zenit president Alexandr Dyukov said. “Only then can Zenit be called a super-club.”

It never happened. Three times Zenit reached the last 16 of the Champions League, most recently in 2015-16, and three times they lost. And even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the nation’s footballing prowess was in retreat. In 2008, the Russian league was ranked sixth in Europe, a position it still held in 2019. By the time the war began, it was down to 18th. So, what went wrong? Was the dream of a Russian super-club destined to fail?

Zenit, a former club insider admits, weren’t ready for their success in 2008. For years, the club had been a punchline in Russian football, a byword for underachievement. They only won the Soviet title once, in 1984, and did nothing of note after fragmentation until a gifted young generation came together under the Czech coach Vlastimil Petržela. It was his legacy on which Advocaat built, leading Zenit to a first Russian title in 2007.

“Zenit, a former club insider admits, weren’t ready for their success in 2008.”

Suddenly, led by a highly respected European coach, backed by a vastly rich energy company that was building them a fine modern stadium, and because Zenit were in the hugely advantageous position of being the only club in a city of 5.5 million people, the potential seemed obvious. And in this context, they didn’t fare too badly. After Advocaat came a string of respected coaches: the current Italy national manager Luciano Spalletti; the former Chelsea and Tottenham manager André Villas-Boas; the vastly experienced Romanian Mircea Lucescu; Roberto Mancini, who had won the Premier League with Manchester City. But while they were followed by a number of high-profile international players, there was a lack of experience, particularly in terms of the sort of global marketing strategies that are necessary at the highest level of football.

Still, Zenit came close. Two of those Champions League last-16 ties were decided by a single goal over two legs. A refereeing decision here, a moment of inspiration there, a helpful bounce of the ball and they could have been quarter-finalists and then, who knows? But they had the problem all insurgent clubs have: seedings in Uefa competition are calculated using a coefficient based on five years of performances. A history of achievement provides a safety net; for challengers, one slip-up can have profound effects in terms of future draws.

And there were external issues, too. The sanctions imposed on Russia after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 were nowhere near as wide-ranging as those in 2022, but they still caused a fall in the value of the rouble. That in turn led to a shift in priorities. Abramovich had once covered the entirety of Guus Hiddink’s $3-million salary as national coach through the national academy at Togliatti, but he stopped funding the academy completely. A plan for 10 covered stadiums, which would have allowed football to be played even in the depths of winter, was also abandoned.

Less dramatically, in 2011, Uefa introduced its Financial Fair Play regulations, which, despite what many now claim, were formulated to discourage clubs from spending beyond their means. A largely unintended consequence of that has been to make it much harder for clubs from outside the elite to spend their way to the top table. In 2008, for instance, it still seemed possible that Gazprom or Lukoil, which was involved at Spartak, could do what Abramovich had done at Chelsea: splurge hundreds of millions on players and effectively buy success. By 2011, that was essentially impossible, particularly given the relatively underdeveloped state of the Russian market in terms of TV rights, gate receipts and merchandising and the resultant lack of revenue.

The potash billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, who in January 2011 bought FC Anzhi of Makhachkala, the largest city in Dagestan, is illustrative here. After enticing Hiddink as coach and players of the calibre of Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos, he was forced to scale back in 2013 after a misguided decision to break with the Belarusian company that sustained potash prices led to financial problems just as the FFP regulators were beginning to sniff around. Kerimov ended up having to reduce the budget by two-thirds, leading to a fire sale and relegation in 2014.

There have also been wider issues of governance, with decisions taken by the Russian Football Union often for obscure political reasons without due consultation with clubs. The limit on foreign players, for instance, has been repeatedly tweaked over the past two decades, often at extremely short notice. That, for instance, scuppered deals Zenit had lined up for the Portugal midfielder João Moutinho and the Colombia forward Radamel Falcão and made long-term planning impossible.

But the clubs themselves are also at fault. As the former Zenit insider said, even when they weren’t corrupt, and they often were, there was a lack of expertise — understandable enough for a culture formed in the days of state control and then the wild west of the Nineties. With the exception of Krasnodar, every major club in Russia is once again owned by some branch of the state (Spartak might claim they remain a private entity but their owner, Lukoil, is heavily dependent on the state).

Allegations of match-fixing have also been levelled at Zenit and, at the very least, it looks bad that, for all but two years and nine months since 2005, the president of the Russian Football Union has come from Zenit, who have won the last five league titles. Even if it is not illicit, Gazprom, which was a Uefa sponsor before sanctions but after the invasion, and its president Alexei Miller have huge influence. In 2019, for instance, Rubin Kazan signed winger Alexei Sutormin from Orenburg, a small club sponsored by a local offshoot of Gazprom. Nine days later, the deal was mysteriously cancelled and Sutormin joined Zenit for a far smaller fee.

Does this mean Zenit could have jostled its way to a permanent place at the top table? Perhaps. Certainly it was reasonable to raise the question in 2008, given the resources that seemed available to them. But the want of institutional knowledge and a competitive league probably would have scuppered them even before events intervened. And now Russian football stands on the outside, foreigner regulations eased so teams are awash with the cheap exoticism of second-rate Brazilians, while the national team is reduced to playing any country that will still tolerate them: in the past six months they have faced Qatar, Cameroon, Kenya and Cuba and this month they have friendlies against Serbia and Paraguay. Faced with such opposition, the glory nights in Manchester and Basel seem a long time ago.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.