Given the long history of the torpedo as the purveyor of silent death, it could be considered a cruel irony of fate that the recent demise of Torpedo Moscow, once one of Russia’s greatest clubs, has received so little comment.
Condemned by last Thursday’s 2-4 home defeat to Vityaz Podolsk to relegation from the Russian First Division, the capital side now face the dismal prospect of competing in the country’s third tier for the first time. Regional football awaits, offering little more than endless, numbing journeys to fellow West Zone has-beens and never-weres such as Dynamo Saint Petersburg, Pskov-747 and Sever Murmansk – all queuing up to take a shot at a team for whom it all used to be very different.
The uncertain initial steps of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan for Soviet industrialization had been transformed into an unstoppable force when Torpedo Moscow Football Club was founded in 1930 by the AMO truck factory, itself soon to become the Zavod Imeni Stalina or Stalin Automotive Plant, and still operating today as ZIL. Playing in the local Moscow league for the next six years, they then became founding members of the Soviet B League — formally assuming the Torpedo name for the first time – and achieved promotion to the A League in 1938. With the division dominated from the outset by the CDKA (now CSKA)-Spartak-Dynamo Moscow triumvirate, Torpedo had to rest content with third place finishes in 1945 and 1953 and a runners-up spot in 1957 before the inaugural league triumph finally arrived in 1960. The achievement was all the more remarkable – and bittersweet – for the fact that Eduard Streltsov, along with Lev Yashin the unquestioned greatest of all Soviet footballers, had been dispatched to the gulag two years previously for refusing to leave Torpedo for either the army-backed CSKA or the KGB’s Dynamo. Streltsov, a wonderful player who even through flickering black and white radiates truly extraordinary skill, balance and craft, eventually returned to Torpedo in 1965 and promptly led them to a second title.
However, even the shimmering genius of Streltsov could not disguise the fact that the great power axes of Soviet football had irrevocably shifted in his long absence. Torpedo had failed to defend their first championship against a Dynamo Kyiv side featuring a 22 year-old left winger by the name of Valeri Lobanovsky, and the 1965 Streltsov-inspired second win represented only a brief interruption to an emerging dominance that saw Kyiv capture 12 more titles by 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall the following year. The onset of the 1970s saw Communist Party power slowly becoming more decentralized and fragmented than at any previous time, and as if in sympathy the Moscow sides also gradually began to cede precedence to the regions. In fact, the 36 years succeeding Torpedo’s 1965 title witnessed only seven further championships going to teams from the capital. The Moscow era was coming to an end, and hitherto-unknown outfits such as Ararat Yerevan, Dinamo Minsk and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk all took turns at the top. But Torpedo still had one last moment of glory left in them. In the autumn of 1976, they inched two points clear of Kyiv to snatch a third and (to this day) final championship, and cement their place in the annals as one of only five teams to win the Soviet league more than twice. When considered alongside their six Soviet Cup wins and 77 appearances in European competition — including two European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finals — Torpedo Moscow could, in the brave new world of post-Communist Russia, claim to be one institution, at least, that did not deserve the ridicule of history.
That was then. Anyone who considered a Russian Cup win in 1993 as boding well for Torpedo under capitalism was soon thoroughly disillusioned by a string of mediocre performances and increasingly perilous league finishes. Although the side rallied briefly to take third spot in 2000 — and striker Dmitri Vyazmikin rattled in 18 goals to become Russian top scorer the following year — what was then an all-too familiar malaise of a stalled youth production line, mismanagement, apathy and a string of failed takeovers firmly set in. Initiating the rot was the sale of the club by ZIL in 1996 to Vladimir Aloyshin’s Luzhniki Complex corporation, who promptly moved it across town from the creaking, memory-haunted Torpedo Stadium (now home to FC Moscow) to the cavernous Luzhniki, the biggest arena in Russia. The sole saving grace of this decision may be that only 1,500 of the near 80,000 seats were full on November 25th 2006 when Torpedo closed the year’s league campaign with a 1-1 draw against Shinnik Yaroslavl, bringing an end both to a pitiful season in which they managed only three wins, and to a proud record of almost 70 years in the top flight.
Whilst the Russian Premier League is tough, the first division is an exercise in survival. Torpedo were joined in their debut season in 2007 by 23 other teams hailing from, amongst other distant frontiers, Makhachkala in the restive far south, Kaliningrad floating between Poland and Lithuania, Irkutsk deep in the frozen heart of Siberia, and Khabarovsk, only 30 kilometers from the Chinese border — and 8,523 from Moscow. Forty-two matches (12 more than the Premier League) were played — or fought – between March and November, in eternal snow and bleaching sun, on thick mud and parched earth lying across eight time zones. Each year two can escape upwards, but five must travel down yet further. Torpedo survived — the first time. A sixth place finish last year was viewed as the stepping stone for a top two placing in 2008 and a return to their rightful home in the Premier League. But things began badly, with a 0-1 opening day reverse away to Nosta Novotroitsk, and the first eighteen matches of the season saw Torpedo win only three games. The increasingly desperate search for improved performances began to run up against an unforgiving fixture calendar – the month of May opened with two home games in three days, followed by consecutive away days in far-off Irkutsk and Khabarovsk, and closed with two more home games, again spread over three days. Slowly but surely, yet perhaps still only half-seriously, attention began to be drawn away from the top towards the bottom of the league standings. The regular system of five relegation spots would have appeared threatening enough, but Torpedo had picked a fine year in which to struggle. Long under pressure to reduce the vertiginous league programme, the Russian football authorities had this time around decided to increase the number of relegated teams to an unprecedented seven. Even before the season opened, then, Torpedo — and every other side in the division — stood a 32% chance of getting relegated.
These were the odds, and this was the game. Torpedo lost. A spirited run of thirteen points from five games as September drifted into October — with back-to-back away wins at Vladikavkaz and Pyatigorsk – restored some measure of hope, but a single point from the final five matches ultimately sealed their fate. The long-fading light of the Soviet truck factory team, club of the many glories and the unique Streltsov, was finally extinguished on a grey, featureless afternoon in Moscow last week — and with it something intangible and irreplaceable. Perhaps Torpedo will return, perhaps we will never see them again. History, in Russia of all places, both animates and devours. But we have to believe, especially if we cannot see. For everything they have meant — and still mean — to Russian football, this is one Torpedo which we must all hope one day will eventually surface from the depths.