Gazprom-backed Zenit St Petersburg have been the most successful Russian club of recent times. The last to win a European trophy, and league champions four times between 2004 and 2015, Zenit have broken the Moscow stranglehold on Russian football.
After achieving all this at the modest, Soviet-era Petrovsky Stadium, Zenit strode out into the new-build Saint Petersburg Stadium in the spring of 2017. Although the Blue-White-Sky-Blues had failed to qualify for the Champions League for a second season running, enforcing the replacement of coach Mircea Lucescu by Roberto Mancini, local supporters had been keen for the new arena to open.
Built over ten long years and at an astronomical cost of $1 billion plus, Zenit’s new home quickly saw a doubling of average attendances. The figure of 44,000 for 2017-18 is easily the highest in the Russian Premier League, outstripping that of current champions Spartak by 14,000.
Zenit have their roots in the period around the Soviet Revolution, when sundry local workers’ clubs played matches amid the political and social upheaval.
Partly derived from one of them, Stalinets, Zenit won a war-time Soviet Cup in 1944 – Stalinets had lost the previous final in 1939. The de facto flagship club of Russia’s second city fared worse in the Soviet League, only gaining a solitary title in 1984 with ever-present Mikhail Biryukov, later goalkeeping coach at the club, between the sticks.
The immediate post-Soviet era was similarly patchy but slowly Zenit picked up, taking the Russian Cup in 1999 and enjoying high-placed finishes in the league. Engineering this change in fortunes was club president Vitaly Mutko, later chairman of Russia’s successful bid team to stage the 2018 World Cup.
In 2003, Mutko brought in Russia’s first foreign coach, Czech Vlastimil Petržela. Two years later, energy giant Gazprom stepped in and suddenly the focus of the Russian football world switched from Moscow to St Petersburg.
With the arrival of Dutch coach Dick Advocaat in 2006, the transition was complete. Zenit won the Russian League a year later, the star of the show Andrei Arshavin, a product of the club’s renowned youth academy, Smena. He went one better a year later, man of the match when Zenit beat Rangers 2-0 to win the UEFA Cup.
With Arshavin the subject of several foreign bids – he later went to Arsenal, only to return in 2012 – the star role went to Danny, signed for a record Russian League fee from Dynamo Moscow. On his debut, the Portuguese scored the winning goal in the 2-1 Super Cup win over Manchester United.
Luciano Spalletti replaced Advocaat in 2009 to take lead Zenit to league titles in 2010 and 2011-12. The last Russian championship to take place over a calendar year, 2010 saw St Petersburg-born Igor Denisov come into his own. The defensive midfielder complemented the playmaking skills of Venezuela-born Danny, who set up hatfuls of chances for top scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
Although both Russian sides, Zenit and CSKA, successfully got through the subsequent group stage of the Champions League in 2011-12 – Zenit losing out to Benfica in the last 16 – the league switched to a summer-spring season schedule. During the transitional 18-month-long campaign of 2011-12, Zenit successfully defended their title, Danny and Kerzhakov responsible for most of the goals. Denisov and midfield partner Roman Shirokov were also vital, as was, again, loyal goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev.
This was the last hurrah for Spalletti. His Zenit lost the 2012-13 title to CSKA by two points – arguably partly because of a firecracker thrown by a fan at Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Anton Shunin. Dynamo were awarded the match, and Zenit were forced to play behind closed doors for a further two, one against CSKA.
In the Europa League, Zenit beat Liverpool 2-0 in St Petersburg, a goal from Hulk temporarily silencing his many critics – and when the bulky Brazilian opened the scoring at Anfield with an away goal, all seemed on for a place in the last 16. It wasn’t to be, Liverpool getting three back. Zenit then let Dortmund score four in St Petersburg in the last 16 of the Champions League a year later – and Spalletti was out the door.
With André Villas-Boas as manager, Zenit again entered the group stage in 2014-15, and again as runners-up to CSKA. Again there had been trouble on the terraces, a Zenit fan attacking a Dynamo player – and again it cost the club dear, in theory the one point that kept the 2013-14 title in Moscow.
Zenit marked their 90th anniversary by winning back the domestic title in 2014-15, the first under Villas-Boas, a free-kick from Hulk sealing the decisive win at Ufa. The Brazilian and an ever-improving Artëm Dzyuba then set the Champions League alight in the autumn of 2015, winning five out of six group matches. With Zenit looking like they might provide Russia with a rare Champions League run, Benfica hit them with a stoppage-time goal in the first knock-out round – then scored two more, very late again, in St Petersburg.
After spending more than 20 years at the modest Petrovsky Stadium, building a football empire, Zenit made the long-awaited switch to the new Saint Petersburg Stadium in 2017.
For details of transport and bars, see Saint Petersburg Stadium.
Advance tickets are sold at several outlets – but not at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. Even on match days, the main ticket office is at the old Petrovsky Stadium.
The first port of call to buy tickets in person should be the flagship Zenit Arena store (daily 10am-10pm) at Nevsky prospekt 20, right in the city centre. There are more Zenit outlets at Moskovsky Station (daily 8am-11.30pm), Liteyniy prospekt 57 (daily 10am-9pm) near Mayakovsky metro, Ladozhskaya Station (daily 9am-9pm) and Vitebsky Station (daily 10am-9pm).
At the Petrovsky Stadium, the Zenit Customer Office (daily 10am-8pm) at Arena Hall business centre (prospekt Dobrolyubova 16 A/2) also distributes. On the day of home matches, the ticket offices at the Petrovsky open at 10am until the end of half-time.
Tickets for the next two or three home games are also sold online (Russian-only), a process which requires registration.
For domestic league fixtures, admission start at 200rub/€2.80, with 500rub/€7.15 an average price for a decent seat along the sidelines in sectors A and C. Apart from in the Business Club (6,100rub/€87!), the best seats are 1,100rub/€15.70, right over the halfway line.
Prices rise considerably for major European fixtures, such as the visit of Celtic in February 2018, for which the average price was around 5,000rub/€71, rising to 9,000rub/€128.50.
Zenit have four stores around the city, the main one being the flagship Zenit Arena (daily 10am-10pm) at central Nevsky prospekt 20. There are other city-centre outlets at Moskovsky Station (daily 8am-11.30pm) and at Liteyniy prospekt 57 (daily 10am-9pm) near Mayakovsky metro. There’s another large store at Petrovsky Stadium (daily 10am-8pm).
On offer are first-team tops of sky blue, away kits in white with a sky-blue diagonal stripe and a third-choice shirt in purple with yellow markings. There are classic T-shirts in various colours bearing the Zenit logo with a five-pointed star, supercool Zenit watches and Russian hats in differing shades of blue.
Zenit fan Maxim Mitrofanov is currently collating memorabilia for the Zenit Museum. Though planned to open at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, this is currently only an online resource, with items such as an original Stalinets badge from 1930, a match programme from 1939 and a match poster from 1944. These would have put aside for safe keeping during the terrible Siege of Leningrad during World War II. The Soviet Cup that Zenit won in 1944, partly made of glass, is also still in one piece. It is not yet clear when these items will be put on display for the general public.