Looking at Zenit St Petersburg in all its prosperity, a team that paid €100m for Hulk and Axel Witsel, it’s almost impossible to believe it. But it really happened, in 1994, just a little more than 20 years ago. The club played in the second Russian (not Soviet, but Russian!) division, poor as a church mouse. Vyacheslav Melnikov, head coach at that time, and his assistant, Boris Rapoport, told me about that period in colourful detail in a café in St Petersburg. Frankly speaking, even with my journalistic experience I could hardly believe my ears. And just 14 years later Zenit, with Gazprom as their sponsor, would win the Uefa Cup and the European Super Cup.

“We had to play two games in the Far East – against Okean in Nakhodka and against Luch in Vladivostok. The club could hardly scrape together the money for air tickets. The twist was that the tickets back were from Khabarovsk, because they were cheaper. So, we ordered a bus for the overnight drive from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk.

“There was a man in the club called Sergey Iromashvili. He went to Vladivostok airport to arrange it so we wouldn’t rattle in in an old bus to Khabarovsk but would fly. So, he calls and says, ‘You can easily go to Khabarovsk by train, because the flight from St Petersburg to Khabarovsk is six to eight hours late, so going back will be the same.’ We buy the train tickets with our last money and go there. Only to learn at Khabarovsk airport that our plane had taken off two hours earlier. 

“We were shocked. We stayed in Khabarovsk airport, we had no money, we didn’t know what to do. In Khabarovsk, not somewhere halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg! 

“Suddenly a little man of Caucasian appearance approaches us. He suavely asks, do we want to fly to Moscow and, if yes, how much money could we gather. Naturally, we were afraid that he was a swindler who would take our last crumbs and we would be left with nothing at all. We asked what sort of a plane and how it could take us to Moscow. The Caucasian says that a Tupolev-154 plane had brought army recruits and was still nearby, at the military aerodrome. He has to earn money, so they’re looking for passengers for the flight back. 

“We said firmly that we didn’t trust him and asked him to bring the commander. We waited half an hour and finally the pilot, a Russian, in a pilot’s uniform, appeared. They requested 3m rubles [about £10,000]. We started to gather money, as we say, from our pockets, but we couldn’t collect the necessary sum. Finally Alexander Averyanov, a footballer from FC Okean, who was on the verge of signing a contract with Zenit and flew with us, gave us money from his savings. He was travelling with his wife, a small kid and a lot of goods and possessions – a TV, clothes etc. After that trip all his savings were gone and he didn’t get them back for a long time. Moreover, he didn’t sign a contract with Zenit – the club didn’t have money at all. 

“The whole team had to get to the airport somehow. The commander promised to send a bus to take us. But he sent a military vehicle with mesh over the windows and we started. We were riding and thinking that they’d take us to some forest, take away the money, stave in our heads – and nobody would find us. Those were bandit times! 

“Yet we came to some field. And it really was a Tupolev-154. We crept out of the vehicle, a little bit calmer. It took some time before the commander together with the Caucasian got some more passengers and we set off.

“Firstly we flew to Novosibirsk and landed. The commander asked us not to go too far away: he’d have to sort out the refuelling and we’d continue to Moscow. But in the end we sat in the plane the whole night – apparently, they couldn’t agree about the money. 

“At one point, I’m sorry, the team started to go to the toilet near the plane on the runway. We were hungry, dirty as pigs… But in the morning we finally went on. 

“When there was about an hour to go to Moscow, the commander told us that we wouldn’t land exactly in Moscow. We already were ready for anything. ‘Where will we land?’ we asked. ‘In Klin [in Moscow Oblast, about 40 miles from the capital].’ So this was a new headache – how we would go from there to St Petersburg with all our stuff? 

“We successfully landed in Klin and dragged all our things on our shoulders to the train station. Nothing stopped there except elektrichka [suburban trains]. And they were all full – how could a football team get away from there with all our equipment? We had to go to Tver and change for St Petersburg but on the way we lost half of the team. So, we were sitting at Tver station and waiting for remaining players, gathering our last kopecks for train tickets to St Petersburg. 

“This was already the third day after the game in Vladivostok. On the first night we were in the train to Khabarovsk. The second one we were in the plane in Novosibirsk airport. The third day – and we were still on the way. The most awful thing was that in St Petersburg nobody knew where we were or whether we were still alive. There were no mobile phones at the time. 

“Just imagine: the representatives of Zenit met the plane from Khabarovsk and there was no team on it. FC Luch told them that they saw us off. There was huge panic in the city. Everybody thought that we had crashed – either on a plane or on a bus. Only from Tver were we able to inform them that we were on the way and everything was OK. 

“At the end of the day, the second group of footballers reached Tver, and we all gathered in the station. Everybody was wildly hungry. We had one Moscow player, Misha Levin, and he cried and said through his tears that after that trip he would never play football anymore. 

“So, we gathered the very last crumbs for the night train. With all the rest of the money we bought two lengths of boiled sausage. The two of us and the doctor Mikhail Grishin started to cut it up and distribute it to the players right on the platform. Suddenly a dirty hand wedged in among them and we heard a husky roar: ‘And for me?’ It was a homeless man. He thought that it was some kind of charity hand-out. It was pretty hard to kick him away. Very early in the morning we got onto the train and finally we got to our destination.”

Ten years before, 1984. As usual after an away game, the players of Zenit Leningrad gathered in a hotel room to discuss the game they’d just played. They were open, frank conversations. And the players drank – how else could it have been at that time? Suddenly the door was opened, and the head coach, Pavel Sadyrin, also known simply as Pal Fedorych, appeared on the doorstep. 

The players quickly fell silent. Pal Fedorych scanned the room and immediately saw the bottles. He grimaced. He counted how many players were there, then said in an icy tone, “So-o… Fourteen. Where are the other two?”

There was silence. He went on, “Tomorrow some players will be fined. Those…” he paused, and the players stiffened, “…who are not here.”

As he spoke, he narrowed his eyes and smiled. At first glance it might have appeared sly, but it was sincere; it was a smile that opened hearts.

This atmosphere – not of fear but of trust – was rare for the time and it was a key to Zenit’s success. The club won the league for the first time that season. St Petersburg was a city of five million inhabitants but before then Zenit had won only one trophy: the Soviet Cup of 1944.

In 1984 almost everybody in the team was from Leningrad. Only three – the goalkeeper Mikhail Biryukov from Orekhovo-Zuevo, Moscow Oblast, the defender Anatoly Davydov from Tula and the midfielder Vyacheslav Melnikov from Pavlovo-na-Oke, Gorky Oblast – were born in other cities, but even they had come to banks of the Neva very young and everybody regarded them as locals. All the players lived not in luxury houses but in regular apartments in typical high-rise buildings. At best they drove Zhigulis, but mostly they travelled by subway, where any supporter could tell them anything he thought about their performance in the previous game. 

At that time Zenit were regarded as one of the most modestly paid teams in the Supreme League and could only dream of the sort of bonuses won by, for example, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. They weren’t supported by Leningrad Communist Party bosses (the long-serving first secretary of the party, Grigoriy Romanov, was totally indifferent to football), but by Lomo – the Leningrad optic-mechanic association. It was a huge company, serving the military and space sectors, producing millions of cameras, movie projectors and microscopes. Its unique telescope with a 6m diameter was once revered across the world. It still helps Russian astronomers, having been installed in one of the observatories in the Caucasus. 

Lomo, with its dozens of holiday houses and medical centres, was a state within the state. But the national influence of its leaders and the limited interest of the city authorities were not sufficient for Zenit to entice the very best players from other clubs. It was a club that created its own stars and that made Zenit even more loved in the city.

Zenit achieved nothing for decades, not even relegation. But what happened in 1967 was unseemly. Zenit finished bottom of the league and should have been relegated, but the Central Committee of Communist Party couldn’t allow that on the fiftieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution the football team from its cradle would go down. Collective letters from plants and factories were organised – and the Supreme League was expanded contrary to all sporting principles. Older Zenit fans are still ashamed.

Soviet football abounded with back-stage deals. The results of matches weren’t just decided on the pitch. Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff of the presidential executive office, recalls just such a story – although he stressed he was only repeating what fans said during his student years. “In 1973,” he said, “Ararat Yerevan became Soviet champions for the only time in their history. In their final game, they hosted Zenit at the Razdan Stadum. Zenit couldn’t finish higher than tenth and for Ararat it was the biggest game in their history. Because of their friendliness, Zenit stayed in Armenia for a week. It was late autumn, much warmer than Leningrad. Zenit even had the chance to play a couple of friendlies against local amateur teams, from rich collective farms, kolkhozes. Each of them supposedly paid 30,000 rubles to play the game – huge money for that time. In Piter [the diminutive form of Leningrad/St Petersburg] these rumours were actively discussed…” Playing friendlies for money was strictly forbidden.

Ten years before they won the title, in 1974, Zenit finished seventh. This was considered such an achievement that there was a city-wide celebration. There was even a special concert broadcast on local TV in honour of the team. As Sergey Bavli, a St Petersburg journalist, recalls, a puppet chorus sang a song, “Eusébio for us was replaced by Zinchenko and Goncharov.”

So, how could we be surprised in 2009 when Zenit’s captain of the mid-2000s, the Uefa Cup and Super Cup winner Vladislav Radimov, said, “Of course, the surname Arshavin now is known by everybody not only in St Petersburg, but in all of Russia, including Moscow. When Andrei and I last year decided to visit the Lenin Mausoleum and stood in the queue, I had to give him my cap to stop people recognising him and coming for autographs. But in St Petersburg the surname Zheludkov has the same level of popularity as Arshavin, even though a quarter of a century has passed. And I personally as a Petersburgian could easily name for you the line-up of the 1984 team.”

He did it. As did Arshavin, who is four years younger than his former teammate. That means that he was just three in the golden year of 1984 – and Andrei’s mother took him to the stadium for the first time that year. Two goals direct from free-kicks from Yury Zheludkov, the man with the moustache, in the away game against Spartak Moscow, scored past the great Rinat Dasayev, are still legendary and Petersburgians are always ready to tell the story of how the young Spartak striker Sergei Rodionov – later their second top goalscorer of all time and now the club’s CEO – told Dasayev before the second free-kick that Zheludkov would put it in exactly the same place. “Do your own job,” Dasayev replied. Or that’s the legend.

“I was outside the Soviet Union at the time,” said Sergei Ivanov. “But I followed Zenit, and there were away games against Torpedo and Dnipro a few weeks before the end of the season. Radio Mayak at that time was broadcast well – the signal went far abroad. I remember how during both games I stopped the car in some European capital, switched on Mayak and anxiously listened to the last fifteen minutes. I still remember how I was happy when they scored the winning goal at Torpedo, if I’m not mistaken, in the 89th minute.”

In Russia it’s not a secret to anyone that in the eighties Ivanov worked for the intelligence service. When you think how in that atmosphere, when a person can’t make a mistake, he switched on the radio and relaxed with his soul, listening for Zenit’s result…  

Any Petersburgian who was of an age to be aware what was going on can tell you what they were doing on 21 November 1984. That was the day when a home win over Metallist Kharkiv in the indoor Sports and Concert Complex gave Zenit their first and only Soviet championship. 

“My mam was head of the stomatology clinic,” remembers Rodionov who was eight at the time, “and my grandmother worked at Gostiny Dvor [the biggest traditional department store in St Petersburg]. “Somehow, using their connections, they got tickets for two last games of the season, and I was happy to be at the golden game. We went to SKK with my mam and then went with her and her company to the Hotel Sovetskaya to celebrate. I remember how we entered the subway and, while going down on the escalator, I couldn’t understand why hundreds of heavy five-kopeck coins were flying down. And it was total madness in the hotel. My mother and her friends didn’t know where to put me and got me into a variety show! Just imagine, an eight-year-old kid sitting and watching half-naked girls, and nobody stops him doing that, even though it’s the Soviet Union! As I got older, I couldn’t understand how they’d let me go there. Now I realise: that evening everybody, including hotel security, didn’t care about me. They cared only about Zenit’s title.”

The TV anchorman, showman, humorist and Zenit fan Mikhail Shats told me, “The day after golden game I was in the medical institute where I was studying. It was absolutely unreal. In the morning: anatomy – and not in our usual lecture hall but in a morgue or, more precisely, in an anatomical theatre. And it really was like a theatre: a massive old building, huge hall, tall ceilings. The objects of our study, let’s call them that, are lying on marble tables and students in white robes are standing around with drugs. But on top of these robes they wear home-made (at that time there were no others) Zenit scarves. And everybody was shouting, ‘Zenit are champions!’ I’ve remembered it for my whole life.”

I was able to touch history. Literally. Tatyana Yakovlevna Sadyrina brought me a small box and opened it. And I saw a piece of the artificial pitch on which Zenit played that golden match against Metallist. I looked into her eyes and it seemed to me that the most expensive thing in the world wouldn’t compare for her to this synthetic scrap, although Pavel and Tatyana didn’t know each other yet at that time.

The story that sums up the former Zenit skipper and city legend Pavel Sadyrin better than any other happened near Zenit’s training ground in Udelnaya in 1995. “I came to the base,” said Tatyana, “because after the training I planned to go to our dacha with Pasha. We also had our dog, a giant schnauzer called Lord. During training sessions I never got in the way, so I went for a walk with Lord to the pond just outside the base. I noticed that a group of players were working with an assistant coach and Pavel Fedorovich was giving an interview to the well-known TV journalist Ernest Serebrennikov. We stopped some way off, waiting until he finished.

“Suddenly I realised that Lord was anxious, and there were shouts from the pond. I’d heard that the bottom there is dangerous, silty and there are a lot of cold currents. I saw fishermen pointing at something and a kid was running along the bank and crying, ‘My brother, my brother sank!’ And before my eyes Pasha turned his his head, realised what was going on, threw off his tracksuit bottoms, dived into the pond and swam. People were running, shouting, the fishermen were sitting and looking, and Pavel was swimming. And Lord, who jumped into the pond after his owner, was swimming as well. 

“My husband dove once – then emerged. A second time – the same. And only at the third attempt Pasha pulled the boy out. I was panic-stricken – especially after the second dive, when I saw that his breath was going. He told me later that it was scary but that there was no other option to save the boy. He dove, and didn’t see anything – everything was sludge. He opened his eyes but couldn’t find anyone. He bumped against him only on the third attempt. When he got out he was all black from sludge. Many people had drowned in this pond – they probably had convulsions because of the cold currents. 

“Zenit’s doctor Misha Grishin approached the pond with his case – between them they saved the boy, who was 10 or 11 years old. Then we wrapped Pavel Fedorovich in a towel, he changed his clothes, and 15 or 20 minutes later he came back to Ernest Serebrennikov and continued the interview. Nobody realised at the time that it was all caught on camera – how he’d pulled the boy out, how I’d thrashed about in some rustic skirt, how Lord had run and swum… I still have the film. Later Pavel Fedorovich and Mikhail Grishin were given medals at the Petrovsky Stadium ‘for saving a drowning person’.”

It was the second time Sadyrin had saved somebody from drowning. In the sixties, during flooding in Baku, he and two of his teammates had pulled a telephone operator from the water.

Sadyrin was a fighter until the final days of his life. His last game, on 30 September 2001, was as manager of CSKA, his second team, with which he became Soviet champion in 1991, the last year of the USSR league – Sadyrin is the reason why relations between CSKA and Zenit fans are relatively cordial for two major clubs. It was against Zenit, coached by his teacher Yury Morozov who died few years after him, also of cancer.

Morozov had never got the better of Sadyrin in nine previous meetings. But that day his Zenit hammered CSKA 6-1. Tatyana told me the cost of that appearance in the Petrovsky bench in an interview for my book The Truth About Zenit. “Pasha already felt bad at that time, but flew to St Petersburg with the team. I went there by car with my sister and immediately went to the hotel where CSKA were staying. The night before the game he had a temperature of over 40 degrees. He didn’t sleep at all. We were permanently wringing out his clothes and changing them. It was the wrong decision to go to that game.

“Later I was told that Pasha barely got to the pre-game talk and he couldn’t have spoken there. I think it devastated the guys and they couldn’t concentrate on the game. Although Sergei Semak made it 1-0, they then let in six. When the game was over, his assistants brought him with difficulty to the dressing-room where he sat and couldn’t stand up for a very long time. For two days we couldn’t leave St Petersburg because we simply didn’t know how to handle him. After that game my husband couldn’t work any more. Before that he told me, ‘Tanyusha, I’ll go when I feel bad,’ and that was when his moment came. It was on September 30 and on December 1 he died. 

“The new president of CSKA, Evgeny Giner [he took over the club in 2001] helped us as much as possible. Pasha didn’t have the feeling that he was left, thrown away, kicked out from life in advance. But there was nothing to be done against the cancer at that stage. In that year he took every training sessions and Giner swore at him: sit on the folding chair, get the assistants to do everything. He would sit for a few minutes, but then he stood, kicked the ball, walked to the pitch with his cane, gave directions to the players. So there wasn’t much use for that chair: most of the time Pasha stood.”

Now there is a memorial plaque on the house on Moskovsky Prospekt in St Petersburg where he lived. Sadyrin was one of the few people who united two cities that are polar opposites. He brought CSKA from the second division in the late eighties and made them Soviet champions in 1991. And then he came back to Zenit in 1995 and took them back to the top flight in Russia.

“There wasn’t a single shithead in that team,” Dmitry Barannik, the Zenit midfielder of the eighties, told me. “A rotten person in that collective, I think, just wouldn’t have settled in. If we hadn’t had such good relationships, we would never have become champions. In 1984 and before it everybody was at the same level as everybody else. We were a team both in good and bad ways. You understand what I’m talking about. You could say anything but drinking together was an integral part of our life. After all, it was the Soviet Union. A game is over at 9pm. For the next three days you have to sit at the training base and the adrenalin flows. The TV didn’t work late in the evening and most of the players didn’t have video – so what could we do, how could we reduce stress?

“We sat with the guys, discussed the game, everybody expressed to everybody else what he thought. It was a peculiar self-cleansing. We as young guys were in charge of slicing everything right on the table. It happened on the road and in Leningrad there were some places. We had friends who managed restaurants and they had storerooms there. Everything depended on the result – if it was positive, we sat in the restaurant itself; if negative – in the storeroom. 

“Some of us stopped, some didn’t and went on somewhere else. But there was a law: you couldn’t miss training the next day! In that case you were condemned by everyone. Not by the manager (that’s a different issue), but by the team. You were told, ‘Listen, boy, if you can’t do it – don’t drink, sit and prepare the snacks, but you MUST get to the training session, so you don’t focus attention on others. The strength of Sadyrin was that he gave us those opportunities, because it made the team closer. 

“Nobody in Leningrad, even in a nightmare, could have imagined what a fall would happen after the triumph. It was impossible to think that just two and a half years later the same footballers would write a letter against their beloved Pal Fedorych, and he would have to go. That in 1989 Zenit would leave the top league and would finally come back there only in 1995. With Sadyrin again…”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Leningrad was ready to carry the heroes of 84 on its hands. All the significant organisations of the city, from factories to theatres, got in the queue to receive the champions in their offices, to congratulate and banquet, to express their words of love. The team, bathing in the unfamiliar glory, didn’t realise that it was an even harder test than battles with Spartak and Dynamo Kyiv on the football field, both for the team and its manager. 

In a watch factory the team was presented with watches, in a porcelain factory with porcelain sets etc. Always there was drink. Zenit hadn’t been ascetic before but the whole of the winter of 1984-85 was full of vodka and celebration. This is still the story of St Petersburg. It’s a city in which a football star, unlike in Moscow, is a star of the whole city, and could allow himself to become much more than an ordinary person.

I asked Sergei Ivanov whether, if Arshavin hadn’t gone to Arsenal in 2009, the same might have happened to him as happened to the champions of 84.  “Almost for sure!” he replied. “I barely doubt it at all!”

The reaction of Ivanov was very natural. I thought that if a leading state functionary, who according to his position and Russian politics should express patriotism, openly said such things – Arshavin must have been really close to the same abyss as his predecessors. 

Sadyrin also changed. As his friend, the famous Petersburgian TV announcer Gennady Orlov, admitted, the coach once made an attempt to get Orlov sacked. Zenit played by the same rules as everybody else in Soviet football although they certainly weren’t the club who handed out the most lavish gifts to officials. “There was a special apartment for referees on the corner of Marata Street and Nevsky Prospekt, paid for by Lomo, which didn’t want to put them in a hotel,” Orlov explained. “There was a cupboard there. When they arrived, referees would find a reindeer fawn hat and sheepskin coat in their size. And a Lomo camera as well.

“Once Valery Baskakov, a nice man, was appointed for the game between Zenit and Ararat. We met later many times in exhibition tournaments that he refereed and I commentated. Amazing man! But it was a system. So, he worked at the game, I commentated on it, and not just for a Leningrad audience but for the whole Soviet Union. Ararat scored a fantastic goal: a player just turned on the halfway line and hit a shot into the top corner. But Baskakov somehow found an absolutely unbelievable offside and ruled out the goal. In the final minutes, Zenit scored a winning goal and right after the final whistle I said, ‘We congratulate Zenit for winning two points but it’s necessary to say sorry to Ararat: their goal was real.’ There were replays, and I couldn’t have lied to all the Soviet Union!

“At about 11pm I got a telephone call from Sadyrin: ‘What did you say? Now all the country is discussing Baskakov!’

“He called again in the morning, saying: ‘I’m watching the footage, drawing the line: clear offside!’ I told him to call Vladimir Pereturin, who was going to anchor Football Review that same evening and gave him his phone number. Pasha called him, but Pereturin was very principled and drew the same conclusion as me. 

“The game was on May 2. I came into the office on Monday, May 4, where I learned that Sadyrin, as well as going to a team manager and a chairman of the Lomo trade union had gone to Vladislav Korzhov, the former secretary of the Leningrad regional Communist party committee and at that time the head of the city trade union, and had demanded my removal from broadcasts of Zenit games. Korzhov called the TV bosses. They defended me but they told me: be careful. Later our relations with Sadyrin became great again but this happened.”

The Soviet system also influenced the story of the relations between Sadyrin and his players. The head coach not only conducted training sessions and determined the line-up but also distributed material benefits such as apartments and cars. “In the best years players had great relations with Sadyrin,” said Barannik. “With him we felt like personalities which was pretty rare in the Soviet Union. But after the 1984 success that feeling gradually started to disappear, because Pavel Fedorovich changed from being a coach to a manager who handed out favours. It was the biggest mistake of the club and the city bosses. We looked, ‘Oh, this guy got an apartment, I didn’t’ – and we connected it directly with Sadyrin’s attitude to us. There was a split in the team: some players immediately got apartments and cars, some only apartments, some nothing. Several footballers who came to Zenit after the title got benefits which some of the champions didn’t have. All that destroyed Zenit from the inside. Material things rapidly destroyed the order which had been built up over the years.

“After 1984 Sadyrin called Dmitriev, Timofeev and me and asked: ‘Hey, kids, do you want to get cars?’ We didn’t even think about that and almost crapped our pants from happiness. Cars for us?! We were delighted that we had the opportunity to play in this team! I played 19 games and got a gold medal because I’d played more than half the games. Because of that rule only 13 players got medals. That also had an influence on our spirit and unity: some of the veterans who had played for Zenit for much longer than us were displeased.”

But ultimately the young players didn’t receive either apartments or cars.

Sergey Dmitriev, who was one of those young players, explained to me what the buying of a car meant for a Soviet player. “We all had the same salary – 250 rubles,” he said. “Only we and Spartak had such small salaries. All the other clubs received two or three bonuses from different companies in their cities. For example, the players at Shakthar Donetsk got money from several mines, so they got 1000 rubles a month. We at Zenit couldn’t even dream of that. Also we had almost no foreign trips on which a Soviet athlete could have sold vodka and caviar, buy tape recorders and video recorders for that money and resell them for much higher prices in the USSR.

“Selling a car was one of the very few ways we could make extra money. It was the same scheme all the time. Not every person in Soviet Union could buy a vehicle: special permission was necessary and football clubs got these permissions for some players. These players came to their teammates and friends and borrowed money to gather together 15,000 rubles – the official price of a Volga car. You buy this car, then you sell it for double the price to special people and for the difference you can buy furniture for your apartment, a lot of other things, and, of course, pay back your loans. There was no secret why a player was coming and taking these loans. Back then we couldn’t have imagined that abroad nobody knew how much their teammate earned and everybody had different salaries.”

“Despite this invitation from Sadyrin and his promise,” Barannik said, “none of the young players got the opportunity to buy cars. But some new players were offered cars and apartments to come to Zenit and we, the young Leningradians, had to wait longer. Vladimir Khodyrev, one of the party bosses, openly told me, ‘You were born there, you have to play for our monuments!’ This man was also remembered for coming to our training-ground and saying, ‘Why are you so bad at headers? Pavel Fedorovich, do you give them homework?’

“Nobody forced the coach to say that about the cars. In 1984 we were crazy about this. In 1985 we waited. In 1986 we were getting older, had families and children and had to provide for ourselves. So I approached Pal Fedorych and reminded him: “What about that car?’

“Firstly I did it politely, then more persistently and finally, maybe, even impertinently. We didn’t think that Sadyrin could just give us a car by himself. We thought about only one thing: he promised, and he had to fulfil his promise. At first Pal Fedorych joked, then replied with irritation. Finally he started to use foul language. I could never imagine that such things could happen between us. But even more than that I couldn’t have imagined that I would reply to him with the same words.”

It couldn’t go on forever. For Gennady Orlov the final straw came in 1987. “The striker Boris Chukhlov should have got a Volga car. He was next in the queue. But suddenly Sadyrin said, ‘My assistant Mikhail Lokhov has given all his life to football and Zenit. You will earn a car in the future, and we’ll give this vehicle to him.’ It was a decision that led to terrible indignation in the team, especially because just before that Pal Fedorych had accused some players of selling games. It was in March and before that, in the off-season, there was a trip to Japan. There all the players were angered that they got a scant daily allowance, while Sadyrin brought back two video recorders.”

“We got US$15 for the whole trip,” said Barannik, “and bought some baubles for our wives. I personally didn’t see Sadyrin bring two video recorders but I clearly remember all that circus when we were selling vodka and caviar to get at least some money. Now we remember that with a laugh but at that time, if we saw that one of the bosses took some luggage for a trip abroad, it inevitably inspired some talk.”

The musician Alexander Rozenbaum, a Zenit fan and Sadyrin’s friend, told me, “It’s no accident this happened with Sadyrin. It couldn’t have happened, say, with Konstantin Beskov or Anatoly Byshovets. If Pasha was a different person, if he wasn’t so mentally close to the players and didn’t drink with them sometimes, nobody would even have thought to write a letter against him.”

Did he mean that Sadyrin became a victim of his own democracy? “Absolutely right. My grandmother liked to quote the line, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ Also there were very different people surrounding Zenit. There was some envy of Sadyrin. I wrote a song about this disgusting feeling that turns people upside down.” 

The letter against Sadyrin was written in July 1987. Zenit were 15th of the 16 teams in the top flight. The letter was also the product of a revolutionary age. In an interview given to the Football-Express newspaper in 1992 Sadyrin said, “I still think that I did everything right as a professional coach. But, unfortunately, that conflict in Zenit coincided with the beginning of perestroyka when workers started to choose the directors of factories and football players appointed their head coaches.”

Others are unconvinced. “Pavel Fedorovich at that time behaved as a star,” said the defender Arkady Afanasiev.

“He didn’t want to compromise with us at all and turned all the team against him. We talked about serious things that prevented us from playing well. We asked him to remove his assistant Mikhail Lokhov from the training process, but Sadyrin defended him. When conflict arose, he said, ‘You are nobody, and I decide everything.’ At that time a head coach had huge power. But Pavel Fedorovich exaggerated his force: the bosses of the Leningrad sports committee, of Lomo and of the city football council didn’t support him, and that was a surprise for us. After many years I think that we had to find a compromise. But, unfortunately, among the bosses there wasn’t a single person who was able to reconcile us with Sadyrin. If it had happened, Pavel Fedorovich could have worked at Zenit for many more years. 

Sometimes personal issues decide a lot in football. At that time, Sadyrin’s nerves were at the limit also because his first wife Galina was dying from cancer. He did everything to save her. His thoughts were far from football and in that condition he couldn’t enter into any compromise. 

Sadyrin was a courageous person. He didn’t like to complain or look for excuses. For example, in his final season of 2001 he worked almost to the end, not mentioning his illness in the press, although everybody knew about it. And only a few people knew about his first wife’s illness. But when a person, especially such an extrovert as Pal Fedorych, keeps such a woe inside, it has a major influence on his nerves. And that rebounds on his team. 

“The idea of writing a letter was provoked from above, from the Leningrad sports council,” said Sergey Dmitriev. “At that time I had an injury and went to Moscow for surgery. When I came back to Leningrad, it was already underway. My teammates came to me, saying that all the team had already signed. I did the same. Two days later I went to Sadyrin’s home and said sorry. We drank tea and he said that he understood everything and didn’t have any complaints. Later I joined him at CSKA and became USSR champion again.”

The letter was signed by 20 players and addressed to the chairman of the sports council of Leningrad, saying that they were not prepared to play under Sadyrin any more. The chairman, who hadn’t liked the coach for a long time, was happy to grant their request. “I was absolutely sure that Sadyrin would stay – his authority was very great,” said Gennady Orlov. “Even after that letter he wasn’t sacked right away. On the contrary, they said, ‘Pavel Fedorovich, keep everybody in order.’ Actually the sports council had no right to make that kind of decision – it was within the remit of the Leningrad committee of the Communist Party. But Sadyrin suddenly made a generous gesture, saying that he would not sack anybody! These people became champions of the USSR with him and Pal Fedorych couldn’t expel them from Zenit. I clearly remember that it made a huge impression on me. But the sports council used the slack that the coach offered and ran over him. After a few days the Leningrad committee of the Communist Party decided to sack Sadyrin.” 

The players who signed the letter are still ashamed. They realise that functionaries who hated Sadyrin – he wasn’t afraid to tell them what he wanted and was never a diplomat – used them for their purposes. And the team collapsed, being relegated from the top flight in 1989.

As the USSR broke up, Lomo collapsed and stopped sponsoring Zenit. The club had no money and lost its famous veterans. Barannik went to Norway and for a while was out of football, just grateful not to be in Russia. Almost all the 84 champions fell into poverty after football and were grateful for any job they could find. The striker Vladimir Klementiev, for instance, worked as a locksmith. Yury Zheludkov, who became a driver for some VIP, was regarded as a lucky man. 

In 1992, fragmentation gave Zenit a chance. Many clubs from the lower Soviet divisions, including Zenit, were included in the inaugural season of the Russian Supreme League. But their first two games put their standing in perspective: Zenit lost 4-2 at home to Asmaral Moscow and were beaten 6-1 away by Rotor Volgograd. Later that season Konstantin Beskov’s Asmaral destroyed Zenit 8-3, making it 12 goals conceded in two games against the team which had spent the previous season in the Soviet third division. Who could have imagined then that Asmaral would be dissolved in 1999 and their owner, the Iraqi billionaire arms dealer Hussam Al Khalidi would be killed on the Iraq-Afghanistan border, while Zenit would go on to win the Uefa Cup and beat Manchester United in the Super Cup?

In the early nineties, the television sports announcer Vladislav Gusev became Zenit president. He did everything he could but the club was sinking. Vyacheslav Melnikov, one of the 84 champions, became a head coach in the age of 38. He told me, “The club didn’t have any money. The city was suffocating. There were hunger riots, people occupied the streets because of the lack of tobacco. There were ration cards for food. The new mayor Anatoly Sobchak more or less stabilised the situation, but the city bosses had things to think about besides Zenit. We couldn’t even train at our training ground in Udelnaya because there was no hot water there. The pipes burst and there was no money to repair them. By the end of 1992 there was real danger that the team would collapse.”

It didn’t happen. At the end of 1994, Sobchak named one of the vice-mayors, Vitaly Mutko (another one at the time was Vladimir Putin), as president of Zenit, found money and hired Pavel Sadyrin as the new head coach. “I dream of taking Zenit back to top division and beating Spartak Moscow there,” Pal Fedorych said. 

The first thing he did right away, in 1995, and the second in 1996. But after that season Mutko, who was angry that Sadyrin was much more in the spotlight that himself (the current president of the Russian Football Union should be number one anywhere), fired the coach. Mutko heard a lot of dissent from the stands the following season. But he worked hard and did a lot for the future of Zenit: Gazprom became a sponsor in the late 90s, when he was a club president. And then it all began: the Russian Cup in 1999, bronze medals in 2001, silver in 2003. Gazprom took a controlling stake in 2005 and gold medals followed in 2007. “Dreams,” as Gazprom’s slogan has it, “come true.”