As surroundings go, it is fair to say Gary Neville had experienced better ones than on New Year’s Day 2011. Yet it was there, sitting on a toilet at half-time inside the Hawthorns, that he decided his playing career was over. Following a dismal performance in which he should have been sent off for tripping Graham Dorrans in the box, the very next day, Neville informed Sir Alex Ferguson of his intention to retire.
Leaving behind a career that contained 602 games and 20 trophies for his boyhood club Manchester United, it was an inauspicious ending to an illustrious career. This began on 16 September 1992, when Neville came on for Lee Martin for the final three minutes of a UEFA Cup first-round match with Torpedo Moscow.
One could be forgiven for interpreting this as a governmental instruction emanating from the height of the Cold War rather than a football club. To clear this up, the name stems from the club’s historical owners, ZiL, who manufactured cars and trucks during the Soviet era. Torpedo were one of the most successful clubs in the USSR, participating in all 46 seasons of the Top League and reaching 15 Soviet Cup finals, winning six of them.
Fast-forward to 1997 and Russia was in the midst of a financial crisis, forcing ZiL to sell Torpedo to Luzhniki OJSC. However, in a situation reminiscent of MK Dons and Wimbledon, CEO Valery Nosov decided ZiL needed a new team. Torpedo ZiL, as they were christened, entered Russian football in the fourth tier Amateur Football League, whilst the original Torpedo remained in the Premier League.
Few expected Torpedo ZiL to undergo the rise that unfolded. Back-to-back promotions meant by 1999 they were in the second tier, just one league below their surrogate. After narrowly missing out on promotion in their first season at this level, in 2000 Torpedo ZiL finished two points above Rubin Kazan to earn a place in the 2001 top-flight.
Waiting for them were Torpedo Moscow, fresh from finishing an impressive third. The first match between the teams took place on 23 June 2001, ending in a 1-1 draw courtesy of an 89th-minute equaliser for Torpedo ZiL from Valeri Klimov. In the end, Torpedo Moscow finished fourth, whilst Torpedo ZiL avoided relegation by three points, a feat they would repeat the following season.
As if things were not already confusing enough, with both clubs using identical colours and practically the same badge, in 2003 it got worse. Unable to fund a top-tier football club, ZiL were again forced to sell the club. In a farcical response, ZiL then formed another team, this time known as Torpedo RG Moscow. Three incarnations of the same club now occupied the league system.
Some differentiation was finally sought when new owners Norilsk Nickel renamed Torpedo ZiL to Torpedo Metallurg. In an effort to claim legitimacy as the sole Torpedo, in 2003 they appointed Valentin Ivanov, a legendary striker for Torpedo in the 1950s and 60s, as caretaker manager. Home matches also took place at Torpedo’s Eduard Streltsov Stadium. Despite such backhanded actions, the long-term intention was not to agitate but rather leave Moscow entirely.
The destination of choice was Krasnoyarsk, a city in Siberia over 4000km away, a five-hour flight west of Moscow. The reasoning for such a left-field location was due to Norilsk Nickel’s operations being based around this area. The company was to provide half of the funding, with the other portion coming from the local government.
Such a partnership came about through Alexander Khloporin, the chairman of Norilsk Nickel’s board, conveniently also a governor of the city. The deal collapsed, however, when a social crisis forced Khloporin to reallocate funds to other more pressing matters.
In 2004 it was decided through a joint initiative between Norilsk Nickel and the Moscow government that Torpedo Metallurg would be renamed FC Moscow. This decision was based largely on marketability, inspired by simple European examples such as Copenhagen, Porto and Roma.
Mayor Yuri Luzhkov played a key part in the decision, committing to act as club sponsor. It was his fondness of wearing a flat cap to matches that gave rise to the nickname “Caps” from other fans, alongside the official, purposely promoted nickname of “Citizens”.
Under their new name, the club finally started to gain momentum. In their first season, FC Moscow improved to finish ninth under coach Valeriy Petrakov, whilst losing in the Russian Cup semi-final to Krylia Sovetov. A poor start to the 2005 season, which still followed the calendar year, saw Petrakov sacked in July. His replacement, future CSKA Moscow and national team coach Leonid Slutsky, would go on to take the club to new heights.
His first game in charge was a 3-1 win over Spartak that featured a stunning solo goal from the club’s all-time leading scorer and appearance maker, Héctor Bracamonte. Receiving the ball in the middle of the pitch, the Argentine beat Radoslav Kováč, causing Clemente Rodríguez to collide with teammate Nemanja Vidić. Faced with a one-on-one with Wojciech Kowalewski, Bracamonte nonchalantly skipped round the goalkeeper to slide into an empty net.
Despite a failed bid to sign Yossi Benayoun from Racing Santander, further wins over Dynamo Moscow and Zenit followed as Slutsky guided FC Moscow to fifth. Qualifying for Europe for the first time in their history through the Intertoto Cup, they would easily dispatch of Belarussian outfit MTZ-RIPO before being knocked out by Hertha Berlin.
The increased profile brought on by this run, coupled with handsome pay-packets, meant big players started to arrive. The year 2006 saw former CSKA captain Sergei Semak brought in from Paris Saint-Germain, followed by San Lorenzo’s Pablo Barrientos in the middle of the season. There were also strong links with Luís Figo, only for the deal to go south after his wife refused to move to Moscow. Nevertheless, the Caps managed to finish sixth, whilst in a cruel twist of irony, Torpedo were relegated.
In 2007, Slutsky achieved his greatest feat by taking the Citizens to a record league finish of fourth. This season saw the club fighting Zenit and Spartak for the title for most of the season, corresponding with a run all the way to the Russian Cup final. Played in May 2007, they took Lokomotiv Moscow to extra time, only for Garry O’Connor of all people to score the winner.
At the end of the season Slutsky departed, with the likes of Vicente del Bosque and Zdeněk Zeman seriously courted to replace him. Both of these negotiations, however, broke down, with ex-Ukraine coach and 1975 Ballon d’Or winner Oleg Blokhin chosen as financial muscles continued to be flexed.
Maxi López arrived from Barcelona whilst the club indulged at the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Canada. Representatives met both Ángel Di María and Éver Banega, before settling on Maxi Moralez. Whilst appearing odd in hindsight, at the time Moralez was in demand, having won the tournament’s Silver Ball with a series of impressive performances, particularly in the quarter-final against Mexico.
He could well have been joined by his compatriot Ezequiel Lavezzi, who was recommended by Barrientos. “If we sign him, we will become champions,” he supposedly told club officials, being so insistent as to offer to pay part of the transfer fee himself. In the end, however, this move, like so many others, proved to be nothing more than hot air.
Despite their investment, the Caps failed to repeat the previous season’s success. In 2008 they finished a disappointing ninth, with Blokhin blamed for adopting too harsh a line of discipline. He was particularly scathing on Moralez, commenting when observing him in his first training session, “what kind of midget is this?” The Ukrainian would pay the price at the end of the season, with the following 2009 campaign proving FC Moscow’s last.
Circumstances had begun to unravel in April 2007 when Mikhail Prokhorov resigned as CEO of Norilsk Nickel and sold his shares to business partner Vladimir Potanin. Despite being one of the wealthiest men in Russia, Potanin held little interest in football. This was hardly helped by the fact the club possessed the league’s lowest average attendance, coupled with the Siberian centred eyes of Norilsk Nickel.
On 5 February 2010, the company stated they could no longer justify financing the club, with all players asked to find a new employer. In response, 11 fans went on hunger strike, although the RFS still expelled them from the now renamed Premier League.
More than a degree of conspiracy existed, as Norilsk Nickel refused to sell the club. These suspicions failed to be abated when their league place was awarded to Alania Vladikavkaz, the club based in the region where Khloponin had just been appointed governor. The move was allegedly to heighten his local popularity, however also logical given the 1995 champions had finished third in the second tier.
Contentious politics also hammered the final nail into FC Moscow’s coffin. Returning to the fourth tier they had left some 13 years previously, the club were shut down in the autumn of 2010 after Luzhkov was fired as mayor. These came following a decree from President Dmitry Medvedev, which vaguely cited “a loss of confidence”.
This brings us back to the other Torpedo clubs. The second ZiL incarnation folded in 2011 having never achieved the rise of their predecessors. Meanwhile ZiL bought the original Torpedo Moscow in 2009, undergoing their own momentous climb from the fourth tier to re-reach the Premier League in 2014. This only lasted one season, and they were banished back down to the third tier on the brink of financial collapse.
Torpedo have since recovered, finishing a mere point off promotion back to the Premier League this season. Others, however, such as Amkar Perm, Kuban Krasnodar, and FC Tosno, have not been as lucky. All cup finalists in recent years, such demises prove clubs folding in Russia is merely part of the landscape. Few, however, have quite the same story as FC Moscow.
December 2020 marks a decade since Norilsk Nickel officially announced the club had ceased to exist. In the ten years that have passed, it’s debatable how many have missed them. A politicised, unsupported flash in the pan they may have been, but FC Moscow very nearly toppled Russian football’s established order.
By James Kelly @jkell403