As Russia comes under the spotlight at Euro 2016, its most venerable club has just been relegated for the first time since Stalin. Andy Potts takes up the story.
It finally happened. For the first time in the club’s history, dating back to 1923, Dynamo Moscow have been relegated.
An unbroken span of top-flight football that lasted from the successful first Soviet championship of 1936, through war, political intrigue and the collapse of the USSR, is over. Even the mass influx of Portuguese and Brazilians that pushed the club to the brink in 2006 couldn’t sink the mighty Dynamo.
But this May, a damp squib of a 0-3 defeat at home to Zenit sealed Dynamo’s fate as FC Ufa’s home win over Spartak confirmed that the Blue-and-Whites would have been doomed regardless of their result on the final day.
So how did it come to this?
Depending on who you listen to, it’s the fault of UEFA, Western sanctions on Russia or maybe even the sins of the KGB.
The KGB? The once-feared secret police force defunct for quarter of a century? Well, yes. Dynamo’s rise and fall is a classic Soviet story. The team, with semi-credible claims of a connection way back to the sports club of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, a mill town that welcomed engineers from Lancashire and, eventually, a football team, was first adopted by the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. The idea, enthusiastically adopted by secret police chief ‘Iron’ Feliks Dzerzhinsky, was officially to ensure that the state’s security officers had the opportunity for some exercise. Unofficially, it also allowed a certain amount of nose-thumbing to go on between different sectors of the Soviet system as the secret police fielded teams against the military, the air force and the railway ministry.
Even after Dzerzhinsky abruptly fell from favour in the post-Stalin epoch, the team remained powerful. In the 1950s, they finished in the top three every year except 1953, when they won the cup. Rival fans dubbed them the menty, or ‘cops’, a nod to Dynamo’s heritage.
The problem, of course, is that the NKVD and its successor, the KGB, were by no means cherished institutions. Dynamo, for all their success on the football field, and for all the achievements of all-time great Lev Yashin, were an opponent to be feared, maybe respected – but never loved.
As the USSR declined, and the KGB moved from a feared instrument of social control to a despised symbol of misgovernance, so Dynamo’s fortunes also fell. The club’s last league championship came in 1976, and last Soviet Cup in 1984.
After that, sporadic near misses have included a third place in the Russian Premier League in 2008 and a Champions League campaign that ended in that Euro rarity, a Celtic away win. In the cup final of 2012, Dynamo were beaten by contemporary nemesis Rubin Kazan. Menty was replaced with Musor (‘rubbish’) as the putdown of choice.
Word got around that the club was cursed. The ghosts of Dzerzhinsky’s many victims, it was suggested, had angered the footballing gods. Sometimes the idea was jokingly put forward to explain another disappointing season; sometimes it was advanced in earnest when crisis loomed.
Reality, though, is more prosaic. A lack of on-field success at a time when CSKA and Lokomotiv joined Spartak as the dominant names in Moscow, and thus Russian, football, saw crowds dwindle.
By 2006, disastrous recruitment led Maniche, one of the supposed stars of a struggling team, to complain in a notorious newspaper interview: ‘I am wretched here, the weather, the city, everything’. Combined with supporter apathy, the club was forced to slash ticket prices in a bid to boost attendances and roar the team through an unaccustomed relegation battle. It half worked. Tickets at 100 roubles a head (about £2 at the time) gave crowds a slight lift, but survival was only secured due to the incompetence of others.
Dynamo handed their historic Petrovsky Park stadium over to developers in 2008, signing off with a 2-0 win over Tom Tomsk to secure that third place. Alexander Kerzhakov scored both before moving to Zenit. Portuguese playmaker Danny made the same journey and Igor Semshov, a bundle of midfield energy, soon followed.
The team relocated to out-of-town Arena Khimki, promising to be back in a modern super arena by 2012 – while its attendances dropped even further. Global economics halted the rebuild until the club – and its prime land at the junction of the Leningrad Highway and the Third Transport Ring – was bought up by VTB, a state-owned bank. Stability seemed to be back, and building work underway once more.
But the plummeting rouble, and possibly the impact of sanctions on Russian financial institutions, undermined all that. VTB pumped cash into Dynamo, keeping them competitive enough to take fourth place in the 2014-15 season.
Then came the bombshell. Financial Fair Play. UEFA ruled that Dynamo had drastically overspent their self-generated income, not surprising since the club was almost wholly reliant on payments from VTB. At a stroke, the enhanced status of playing in Europe was lost, players had to leave, either to balance the books or further their careers at a club with brighter prospects. A season of struggle beckoned.
Even then, the squad should have had enough to survive. The top of Russia’s Premier League is scattered with star names but the bottom-feeders rise up into mid-table where there is precious little to excite any but the most committed fan of Ural, Amkar or Kuban. Life in lower mid-table wasn’t exactly exciting, but it was hardly terminal.
At least, not until a run of nine games without a win to finish the recent campaign – with just three goals scored – killed off Dynamo. A 0-1 defeat at Kuban on the penultimate weekend saw the Krasnodar side leapfrog the cop club, plunging Dynamo into the bottom two without even the insurance of a relegation play-off. Zenit, gleeful given the conflict between the two sets of fans in recent seasons, just had to apply the coup-de-grâce. That day, Alexander Kokorin, the last star to leave Dynamo in the January transfer window, was on the scoresheet. His four goals in eight games early in the season still made him top scorer for the now relegated club.
Building work continues on Dynamo’s new stadium and the shell of the future VTB Arena can be seen emerging behind the famous old constructivist façade. But right now, it’s far from clear what kind of team will play there if Dynamo struggle to make a swift return from the lower-flight National League.