Torpedo Moscow, back in Russia’s top flight for one brief season in 2014-15 after an eight-year absence, were a big name in Soviet football. But ‘Torpedo’ is also a byword for the plummeting fortunes of the game in post-1991 Russia.
Relegation in 2015 was followed by another bombshell: the club had no cash, and would not be able to play in the second-tier National League. After some frantic fundraising – and a fan protest outside the headquarters of the ZiL car company that has nurtured the club from its infancy – Torpedo finally confirmed they would compete in the third-tier Professional Football League (Central Division) in 2015-16. The licence was awarded on July 9, a week before the Black-and-Whites started their Russian Cup campaign and barely ten days before the opening of the league season.
But this is nothing compared to the chaos of a decade ago. In the 2000s, there were even three separate ‘Torpedo’ teams. The original is currently exiled from its spiritual home on Vostochnaya uIitsa, by the ‘Palace of Culture’ of the ZiL car plant – but once reduced the Avtozavodtsy, ‘The Car Makers’, to bit-part players.
It wasn’t always like this. Torpedo, founded in 1924 as the works team of the Moscow Car Plant, later the Stalin Factory and finally ZiL (‘Zavod imena Likhacheva’, ‘Likhachev Factory’), were founding members of the Soviet second division in 1936. They won three Soviet championships (1960, 1965 and 1976) and seven national cups (six Soviet and, its last major honour, the Russian Cup of 1993). Torpedo also played regularly in Europe, most recently in 2003-04.
The club also claims perhaps the finest outfield player in Russian history, Eduard Streltsov, as its own. And, like Torpedo’s, Streltsov’s story is a rollercoaster of highs and lows.
A talented forward and pioneer of the backheeled pass, Streltsov was the Soviet league’s leading scorer in 1955 before helping the national team win gold at the 1956 Olympics. He was set to confirm his star status in Sweden at 1958 World Cup when he found himself on the receiving end of a rape allegation that saw him sent to the Gulag for 12 years and banned from football.
The circumstances are still surrounded in mystery. Streltsov was a notorious womaniser and a dangerously popular figure in a Soviet Union where grey conformity was king. He courted scandal after an affair with the 16-year-old daughter of a Politburo minister. Accused of raping a certain Marina Lebedeva at a party, he was promised passage to the World Cup if he confessed. But his next appearance was before a judge, and his next destination the Gulag.
Released after five years, Streltsov spent two more fighting for the right to play football again, only achieved by the intervention of Soviet supremo Leonid Brezhnev. He returned in time to help Torpedo to the title in 1965 but never represented his country at a major tournament. He retired in 1970 after scoring 99 goals for Torpedo and 25 at national level, the fourth-highest scorer for the USSR despite his long-enforced absence.
Streltsov died in 1990, before the USSR collapsed. A decade later, his rehabilitation was complete: Torpedo’s stadium was named after him and statues built. The Russian Football Union named its leading annual awards after him. Streltsov was one of three footballers commemorated with specially-minted two-rouble coins, along with Lev Yashin and Konstantin Beskov. But while his reputation was sealed, his old club was sinking.
First, the ZiL car plant ended its long association with Torpedo in 1996, selling to the owners of the Luzhniki Sports Complex who wanted a full-time tenant at the national stadium. This team played for two seasons as Torpedo-Luzhniki before reverting to its traditional name in 1998.
By that time, however, the Streltsov Stadium was home to the freshly minted Torpedo-ZiL, formed by the factory that had ditched the original. Torpedo-ZiL duly rose from the third tier to the Premier Division. ZiL hit a financial crisis and sold up to Norilsk Nikel in 2003; the team was briefly known as Torpedo-Metallurg, then FK Moskva when the city council became involved. They played in the top flight and even reached the UEFA Cup, before Norilsky Nikel pulled out in 2010 and the team folded.
Torpedo-ZiL didn’t give up in 2003, however. Yet another club was formed by the car plant, in a joint project with the ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’ newspaper: Torpedo-RG played in the second division before folding in 2011. Briefly, therefore, Russian football featured Torpedo, Torpedo-Metallurg and Torpedo-RG. Confused? Most were, and crowds drifted away in droves.
The historic Torpedo hit problems on the field as well. In 2006 they were relegated to the second flight, then the third, playing before tiny crowds in the vast Luzhniki. In 2009, ZiL bought the club from Luzhniki but failed to register the team in time. Torpedo dropped into the amateur leagues. From that low point, they battled all the way back to the top – only to find that their stadium was unavailable because of a refit. Most home games in 2014-15 were played at Saturn’s old ground in suburban Ramenskoye, adding to Torpedo’s struggle to stay in the top flight.
Torpedo play their home games in 2016-17 at Spartak’s training ground, deep in the leafy Sokolniki Park, also home of Spartak II – ironically promoted from the third flight to the second just as Torpedo were falling the other way.
The Streltsov Stadium, with a capacity of 14,000, was Moscow’s smallest top-flight venue. It was built on the site of an old fortified monastery that defended the southern approaches to the city, mainly bulldozed in the 1920s to make way for the vast car plant that went on to churn out limos for party apparatchiks. Views across the river and towards the domes of the Novospassky Monastery gave it a rustic feel somewhat at odds with its industrial surroundings, and were often more diverting than the football as Torpedo slumped down the league in front of dwindling crowds.
While the stadium is soon to undergo restoration, the surrounding pitches are still used for youth games. Also set to open nearby is the Arena of Legends, Russia’s new flagship ice arena and home of the national ice hockey hall of fame.
For 2015-16 Torpedo will be playing at the training ground of Spartak Moscow, also home of the Spartak II reserve side.
To visit the Torpedo stadium, take dark-green metro line 2 to Avtozavodskaya station, with its murals of heroes of Socialist labour grafting in the factory. Arriving from the city centre, leave by the entrance at the back of a train and turn left in the underpass to reach street level. From here, follow the road towards the large shopping centre and beyond, where the floodlights and a remaining monastery tower beckon you to the stadium.
For 2016-17 and games at the Spartak training ground, you’ll need to take the metro to Sokolniki – see Spartak for details.
Match tickets are not hard to come by. Torpedo’s support dwindled during the club’s off-field uncertainties and plunge down the divisions, and the trek out to the suburbs is a further deterrent. For most games it should be possible to buy on the gate; advance ticket arrangements are advertised (in Russian) on the club’s website a couple of days before each game. Tickets are also sold in person at the Torpedo Fan Club, Velozavodskaya ulitsa 9, near the Streltsov Stadium, from mid-afternoon to early evening during the week of the match – but this is a private club, and any transaction may be tricky for a non-Russian speaker.