TALKING FOOTBALL - Watching among Zenit’s 100% fans in zero degrees

Zenit St. Petersburg are the only team in this season’s Champions League with a 100% record. Andy Mitten watched Tuesday’s victory over Lyon among their passionate fans behind the goal.

As the fans shuffle outside the window in zero degrees cold towards the giant Soviet-era floodlight of Zenit St. Petersburg’s Petrovksy Stadium, hardcore fan Vlad sits in a coffeehouse ahead of their Champions League match against Lyon.

The 21-year-old English translator feels conflicted about his local team, currently managed by Andre Villas-Boas. He loves Zenit winning all their Champions League games and that he watches outstanding imported footballers like Hulk, Ezequiel Garay, Javi Garcia or Axel Witzel, but it nags at his conscience about what his football club should be.

“Our owners Gazprom buy players like Hulk because they genuinely want us to win the Champions League,” explains the English translator. “Maybe they think that because we won the UEFA Cup (v Rangers) and European Super Cup in 2008 (v Manchester United) that we can compete with the biggest teams in Europe, but Zenit are not Manchester United or Real Madrid, we’re a small club in comparison, one with a loyal following and a strong Russian identity.

“I know that Hulk is a great player and I applaud him, but it’s better if we have locally-born or Russian players and coaches. I don’t seriously think we’ll win the Champions League, so why not use more Russian players and give the best Russian managers a chance?”

It’s an argument which could be repeated around the world. Athletic Bilbao aside, the top talent follows the money because the richest clubs will not only pay them more, but are likely to win trophies. Football’s globalisation means footballers join the biggest clubs from around the world and that doesn’t prompt unanimous delight in Russia’s second biggest city of five million, created by Peter the Great and long considering itself a window to Europe.

To the chagrin of many in Russia who see an energy company spending millions on foreign footballers, Zenit’s profile has risen because it has bought those very players. After spending most of their history seldom troubling the Moscow giants CSKA, Spartak, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, they came into money a decade ago when Gazprom took over, Russian money being used to improve a leading Russian team rather than, say, Chelsea.

Zenit have been largely successful, challenging the hegemony once held by the Moscow sides by winning four titles in the last decade. That delights fans and it annoys Muscovites.

The rivalry between the two cities, located 700 kilometres apart, burns fiercely in sport and Vlad travels with the big away following to Moscow to watch Zenit.

“Zenit took 5,000 to Spartak’s new stadium,” he says proudly. He’s also pleased that bigger new stadiums being built as part of Russia’s 2018 World Cup mean larger allocations for away fans.

“We sing songs about each other, we had a flag about St Petersburg being the capital of the Russian empire. Spartak had one saying ‘Our city is your capital’.”

Fan culture is alive and well in Russia. Forget disturbing YouTube videos of hooligans in the colours of their team meeting to fight in car parks a decade ago, watching football in Russia is largely a safe and enjoyable experience – though some would struggle to see the enjoyment in travelling to an away game in Vladivostok by the Pacific, an eight hour flight east of Moscow. Or 12 days on the Trans Siberian train.

At games such as Zenit’s, the police presence is high and ticket checks are thorough, with three for this writer alone before Tuesday’s game.

At Zenit, the 5,000 Fanati or ‘Ultras’ in the relatively small 21,000 capacity stadium create a consistent din behind their goal. Their stadium enjoys a splendid location, but that will be lost when they move to the 62,287 capacity Gazprom Arena which has been dogged by years of delays. It looks close to being finished and will stage games in the 2018 World Cup finals. Zenit’s average crowd will probably double in a stadium where people who don’t like football will feel comfortable watching it.

“We’re really looking forward to hosting the World Cup here,” says Vlad. “The people here will be good hosts and they love football.”

The new stadium will be as impressive as the Emirates or Athletic Bilbao’s new arena, but something will be lost when they leave the distinctive Petrovksy, where hulking floodlights are clearly seen across the water from the famous Hermitage museum. It’s a one club city, save for third tier Dynamo, formerly Petrotrest.

Zenit are the Russian champions and they’ve already beaten Genk and Valencia. On Tuesday, Lyon (and their 49 travelling fans) became their third victims after another excellent performance.

Despite the cold, the home fans never stopped singing. Each blue and white section behind the goal is orchestrated by one lone conductor at the front, but they’ll join in unison and get the other areas of the ground singing, especially one song to the tune of a famous Russian folklore-song ‘Katyusha’ which goes:

“Here we are and we need a victory,

Hey Zenit. you must win,

Nor Spartak, Nor Cops (Dynamo Moscow), Nor Torpedo will change our mind,

We are Zenit, We are guys from St. Petersburg and we are the strongest in Russia!”

They also call St. Petersburg by its communist era name, Leningrad. The fans applaud Hulk and the foreigners, though Villas-Boas has already announced that he’s leaving at the end of the season. Few expect him to depart a Champions League winner like his compatriot Jose Mourinho when he left Inter in 2010.

While fans would prefer another Russian like former hero Andrei Arshavin, their current exports give them the cutting edge. Hulk was the best player on the pitch again Lyon. He’s got the ability to beat a man, to get past him with pace and skill, to create and score.

In form Russia striker Artem Dzyuba gave Zenit a third minute lead before Lyon equalised at the start of the second period. Zenit needed something special. They got it when Hulk turned the ball on the halfway line and drove forward before hitting a shot from 30 metres that bent beyond the Lyon goalkeeper into the top corner of the net after 56 minutes.

The Champions League has not seen a better goal this season, nor a team as in form as Zenit. Gazprom may think otherwise, but few of their fans think they can win the competition. They’re just enjoying the ride while it lasts. And as for those pesky, brilliant, expensive foreigners. That’s one for more coffeehouse discussions.