Piercing the Moscow night sky to the north-west of the centre is a rather sharp, electric red line. In almost every aspect, it could not differ more starkly from the colossal, epic lines seen soaring upwards through monuments to Stalinist architecture found atop the city’s Seven Hills. Muscovites like to remind visitors that their home is known as the ‘third Rome’, with architecture such as the iconic Moscow State University overlooking the 2018 World Cup Final and 1980 Olympics venue, the Luzhniki Stadium.
The red neon outline surrounds the outer wall of a monument to something perhaps less enduring, but built upon pillars of such permanency and stoic pride. That is the success of CSKA Moscow, the foundations of which were crafted around the twin brothers Aleksei and Vasili Berezutski.
One corner of the eclectic VEB Arena is shaped in homage to the now-defunct UEFA Cup trophy that the twins lifted high into the Lisbon sky in 2005. In the José Alvalade stadium that night, against the resident club Sporting, it was Aleksei who headed CSKA level before Yuri Zhirkov and Vágner Love also got on the scoresheet to seal the club’s proudest moment in the Russian era. The twins would go on to make over 1,000 combined appearances for the club, win 159 combined caps for their country, and lift six league titles, seven Russian Cups, and five Russian Super Cups.
Born in 1982, the Berezutskis grew up in the youth system of Torpedo-ZiL, the club that would later evolve into the wildly ambitious but ultimately short-lived FC Moscow. At first they were not seen to be anything particularly special. Aleksei was sent on loan to Chernomorets Novorossiysk in early 2001 before moving to CSKA in the summer, while Vasili joined him the following year.
Rather than being headhunted for prodigious talent, they were part of a wider net cast out, as Vitaly Leonov, a season ticket holder for more than two decades explained: “After [club president Evgeniy] Giner took control of CSKA, there was a huge transfer campaign. CSKA signed dozens of players including many youngsters from CIS, so at that stage they were just some young defenders among a big squad.”
When Giner arrived at the club in 2001, at the advent of the relaunched top flight, Spartak Moscow were more than just dominant. The legendary Oleg Romantsev had won all but one of the first ten Russian league titles since the breakup of the Soviet Union for CSKA’s rivals, so it would take more than just cosmetic surgery.
In came Valery Gazzaev, a talented manager who had achieved the seemingly impossible by breaking the Spartak monopoly with southern side Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz in 1995. Aleksei and Vasili would find playing time scarce to start with, but they soon found their feet despite a challenging atmosphere. “Gazzaev had used a 3-2-4-1 formation. At that stage Aleksei was preferred; he started to play in 2002 and since 2003 he was in the starting lineup. Vasili played quite a bit in 2003 but only really took his spot in the starting eleven from 2005.
“Many people criticised Gazzaev for his choice of the Berezutskis at CSKA and with the Russian national team. They had poor positioning and were rather slow players. Also they were the subjects of ridicule. They were called Berezy (birch trees; or ‘wooden’ football players) or Berezutski sisters by Spartak fans.”
It wasn’t long before the balance of power in the capital swung towards CSKA, however wooden their young defenders may have been. After lifting the title in 2001, Spartak wouldn’t win it again for another 16 years. In the meantime, Lokomotiv traded the next four championship wins with CSKA, before Zenit Saint Petersburg repeated the UEFA Cup feat in Manchester in 2008 by beating Rangers.
Leonid Slutsky arrived at the end of the decade and ushered in a more conventional setup with two defensive midfielders to offer more protection to the defence. In a league that was already slow-paced, the double pivot allowed the Berezutski brothers to control their area of the pitch with supreme confidence. Sergei Ignashevich – Russia’s all-time most capped player – competed with the twins for a starting spot with seamless ease, and before long three more titles followed in the four years running up to the 2016 European Championships.
“At this stage Vasili was a leader of the side, and at the time Ignashevich was moved to the bench. Also the brothers had a friendly relationship with Igor Akinfeev while his connection with Ignashevich was rather tight. Vasili is a more open person; he was the jester. He was a leader on the pitch and in the dressing room, while his brother is a more closed man. Except Aleksei’s half a year with Chernomorets, they always played together, and even lived in the same neighborhoods.”
The spine of the CSKA team – and by extension the national team – around the turn of the last decade was built around the most remarkable consistency in defence. The four players with the most appearances for CSKA Moscow all played over virtually exactly the same side; Akinfeev made his debut in 2003, while Ignashevich moved from Lokomotiv the year after. The three defenders all retired in 2018, leaving just Akinfeev still in active service.
After they finally hung up their boots, Aleksei and Vasili joined their old boss Slutsky in the Netherlands to learn their trade as coaches at Vitesse Arnhem. Rumours soon began to circulate about Vasili being lined up to replace the then-under fire Viktor Goncharenko back at CSKA, and although both brothers did return to the club it was in more withdrawn roles on the coaching staff.
It is inconceivable that such an enduring dynasty will ever be collected together at one club again, or especially for two brothers to be so central to it on an equal footing for so long. Great entertainers like the powerful Seydou Doumbia, the dashing Daniel Carvalho, the spectacular Vágner Love, or the technically gifted Yuri Zhirkov will perhaps garner more fondness. Their monuments of success and adulation, however, owe almost all of it to the era-defining platform provided by the Berezutski twins.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint