Victory days: how Volgograd changed the history of Russian football in two matches

Volgograd teams are responsible for two of the most significant victories in Russian football history — a fitting symbol of the city’s pivotal role in the country’s modern history

24 May 2018

When the FIFA World Cup is over, almost all of the 12 tournament stadia will be given over to club football. And since not all teams are created equal, some of these shiny new mega-structures will prove harder to fill than others. The Volgograd Arena, a 45,000 capacity latticed bowl of a stadium at the foot of that city’s Mamaev Kurgan war memorial complex, is one such example. The local team, Rotor, only just managed to escape relegation to the third tier of Russian football at the end of last season. But in this instance at least, there won’t be too much discrepancy between the grandiosity of the surroundings and the history of the team in action. Volgograd football holds a hallowed place in the Russian game; Rotor is a name that resounds for the domestic fan. Instead of overwhelming, the stadium seems fitting.

There are two matches that define the history of football in the city. They took place 52 years apart, in circumstances that couldn’t have been more different, but considered in tandem they give a sense of the importance of both the sport and this particular city in modern Russian history. The first took place on 2 May 1943, when a volunteer Tractor Stalingrad side beat Spartak Moscow 1-0 in a match convened to celebrate the liberation of the city from Nazi occupation; the second, on 26 September 1995, when Rotor Volgograd went to Old Trafford, the “Theatre of Dreams”, and knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Cup in arguably the most famous European performance ever by a Russian side.

Volgograd is city defined by the Second World War. The Battle of Stalingrad (as the town was then known) was by some estimations the bloodiest in human history, and is recognised as a critical turning point in the conflict. Today, modern Volgograd’s identity is inextricably tied up with the ongoing memorialisation of the sacrifices made during the war. After five months of pitched urban warfare and aerial bombardment, only 12 per cent of the city’s housing remained intact when it was liberated in February 1943. It might seem bizarre now that a football match was priority just months after the end of such bloodshed, but then, this was Tractor Stalingrad.

In the midst of the destruction, the normalcy and friendly competition represented by a football match was powerful

A club formed by and for workers in 1933 at the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory, Tractor had already demonstrated the symbolic link between town and team by refusing to be evacuated to Siberia as the Nazi army approached. Seven players, including captain Konstantin Belikov, stayed behind and fought; Belikov made 30 combat missions and was named a Hero of the Motherland. When it was decided to host a football match to celebrate the first post-liberation May Day, Belikov and goalkeeper Vasily Yermasov set about finding enough men fit enough to run around for 90 minutes — no mean feat given the circumstances. By the time of the match — to be played at the relatively undamaged Azot stadium in the south of the city — Belikov had 13 volunteers at his command, training in the mornings and evenings before and after shifts in factories and as sappers in the mine-ridden streets.

Spartak Moscow, one of the jewels in the crown of Soviet football, had been able to keep playing semi-regularly during the war and were not expecting much more than spirited, comradely opposition from the decimated Volgograders. Flying in under cover of night to avoid German anti-aircraft fire, they realised the scale of the devastation; goalkeeper Alexey Leontiev described driving across “stretched, black, scorched earth where beautiful buildings once stood. Now just a city of ruins.” In the midst of this destruction, the normalcy and friendly competition represented by a football match was a powerful draw — by some estimates, 12,000 people descended on the 3,000-seater Azot. In a fitting display of military bravado, the match ball was dropped onto the pitch from a fighter jet. Three months after the Battle of Stalingrad ended, football recommenced. And in the 39th minute, striker Moiseyev drove home a cross to win the game for Tractor, 1-0.

With time, the immediate scars of the war healed. Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961. Tractor settled into a middling existence in the Soviet leagues, under a plethora of names (Torpedo, Stal (“Steel”), Barrikady (“Barricades”), before settling on Rotor in 1975). The normalcy that had been heralded by the return to football in 1943 came to pass. Then in the late 80s, Rotor began the rise up the table that would culminate at Old Trafford, thanks to wily managers Viktor Prokopenko and Vladimir Salkov and prolific striker Oleg Veretennikov. Qualifying for Europe’s second tier competition, the UEFA Cup, ahead of the 1994/95 season was in itself already a great achievement. Then they drew Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the first knockout round, instantly shining an international spotlight on this unassuming Russian side.

The match was played over two legs. In the first, at Rotor’s Central Stadium (since demolished to make way for the Arena), United could not break down the hosts, and the match ended goalless. The return leg in Manchester was considered a foregone conclusion. United could call on the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel. Rotor were nobodies, still cloaked in the remnants of the Iron Curtain at a time when the Russian league would have seemed absurdly exotic to English fans — and they used their anonymity to spring an almighty surprise.

In the 18th minute, a cute interplay between Rotor midfielders Zernov and Nidergaus led to the latter slotting past a helpless Schmeichel: 1-0. In the 26th, Veretennikov robbed the United defence before rifling home from distance. At half-time, the hosts were 2-0 down and staring humiliation in the face. Two second-half goals, including one from the goalkeeper Schmeichel, were not enough to save their blushes — Rotor advanced on the away goals rule. Both English and Russian fans and press were in shock. Overnight, Rotor had become cult heroes, the answer to pub quiz trivia questions everywhere. It hardly seemed to matter that they went out in the next round to Bordeaux; they had achieved post-Soviet football’s first statement victory. Their striker, Aleksandr Tsarenko, said in a later interview that the game was “huge, not just for football in Volgograd, but for football in Russia as a whole.”

There is an important truth to Tsarenko’s comments. It might seem crass to put Rotor’s win next to the Stalingrad game. But both took place at points when Russia was emerging from a shattering crisis into a new role on the world stage. The 1990s were a traumatic period for the majority of citizens, having to adapt to a changed political landscape and economic free-fall. Russian football, in keeping with the chaos of the time, was caught up in new swirls of money and influence, with fresh heroes and villains every few years but little of the stability of the Soviet game. Just as Tractor’s win over Spartak signalled the resumption of civilian life, Rotor’s victory was a point of reference in the confusion, a sign that Russian football still carried water on the continental stage. For many it was fitting that it was a team from Volgograd, site of Soviet Russia’s greatest test of will, that came up with the result.

Overnight, Rotor had become cult heroes, the answer to pub quiz trivia questions everywhere

Regardless, the post-Manchester history of Rotor is a case in point. The club has become sadly synonymous with the financial precarity that afflicts lower league Russian football. By the turn of the millennium they were sliding down the league; following one relegation they lost their professional licence and were forced to reform as a regional amateur side; in the 2010s they were again struggling with debt. They have been reformed several times in the last decade or so, a fate that befalls many clubs in a league system where the potential rewards are huge, but the penalties for mismanagement severe.

Now, thanks to support from the city government and the impetus of the World Cup and its new stadium, the Volgograd club are slowly getting their act together. With a more solid grounding in the second division, the famous old Rotor brand reclaimed and a new home, they have finally got themselves in a position to prove once again the importance of this hero city to Russian football at large.

Text: Samuel Goff