Russian Top League – The Class of 1993

Russian Top League – The Class of 1993

Saul Pope –

A Tweet sent out by Zenit St. Petersburg’s English Twitter feed inspired this piece – it was a screenshot of all the Russian top league teams involved in a 1993 football computer game. Something made me save the screenshot; I kept looking at it and getting more curious.

Futbolgrad Nickes Travel

Travel the world and watch football. Book your custom European football travel tour by visiting!

1993 was just a few years before my first trip to Russia, and so the season was pretty unfamiliar. I decided to do some digging, and the result is below – I’ve gone through each team from the class of ‘93, in order of their final league position, and had a quick look at what has happened since.

Spartak Moscow – Rising (and Falling) Stars

In 1993 Spartak were at the early stages of their most successful period: in the following eight seasons they would win seven Russian league titles, two Russian Cups and a perfect six out of six wins in the 1994/95 Champions League Group stage.

Things haven’t been quite so positive since the turn of the century. Spartak have struggled with replicating the consistency they had in the nineties, as well as with a more competitive league in which more teams have the funding to challenge for the league title. Desperate attempts to recapture the glory days have seen a lack of patience from the top – there have been sixteen different managerial appointments, including caretakers, since Oleg Romantsev’s departure in 2003. Having said that, Spartak are one of only three teams from the 1993 league that have been in the top flight ever since.

Rotor Volgograd – Golden Years

The year 1993 represented the early stages of a purple patch for Rotor, who would regularly challenge for the league title without ever winning it during the 1990s, and also regularly appear in European competitions (including a famous 1995/96 UEFA Cup win over Manchester United). One of the most formidable strikers of that first decade of Post-Soviet football, Oleg Veretennikov, played for Rotor – he scored 141 goals in 247 appearances for them during this particular period.

Rotor Volgograd - League - Peter Schmeichel #1 of Manchester United heads in a goal during the UEFA Cup first round second leg match against Rotor Volgograd at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. The match was drawn 2-2. \ Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport

Peter Schmeichel #1 of Manchester United heads in a goal during the UEFA Cup first round second leg match against Rotor Volgograd at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. The match was drawn 2-2. \ Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport

Those days now seem a long time ago. Following relegation in 2004, the club have stumbled from crisis to crisis due to lack of funding, including losing their professional licence on several occasions. Rotor are currently in the second tier Football National League and finished in the relegation places last season – though financial problems further down the leagues meant they were not actually relegated. They may need the same to happen again this season if they are going to survive into 2019/20.

Dinamo Moscow – Experiments and Carousels

Since coming in third in 1993, Dinamo have generally finished outside the podium positions and clear of relegation. They were relegated in 2015/16, however: until that season, Dinamo had NEVER been relegated (including for their entire Soviet history).

Before this there was the quirky (and somewhat messy) 2004-06 period, when new Dinamo owner Aleksey Fedorichev attempted to build a side of title winners by implanting a plethora of Portuguese players into the side (result: an 8th place finish followed by a relegation near miss). Things have since calmed down a little, but a continuous carousel of managerial appointments (21, including caretakers, since the year 2000) at the club has thwarted progress.

Tekstilschik Kamyshin – High Water Mark

The fourth place achieved by Tekstilschik was their best ever finish – and it saw them making an appearance in the 1994/95 UEFA Cup. The club had only started playing in the Soviet league system in 1988 – and wouldn’t last much longer as a professional entity. By 1999 the club was playing amateur football; Tekstilschik returned to the Second Division South in 2003, but they were relegated back to the amateur game in 2007 (having been reprieved both in 2005 and 2006 after finishing bottom of the league).

Internet references to Tekstilschik stop around 2011; luckily there is a Twitter feed which charts the club’s current progress in the Volgograd regional league. It feels positive to sense that the club are not forgotten, though it’s some distance from facing off against Nantes in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup.

Lokomotiv Moscow – On The Right Tracks

Of all the clubs still in the top flight, Lokomotiv is the one where the circles in a Venn Diagram showing most success/least tumult would bisect the most. There was the fall out between Yuriy Semin and Olga Smorodskaya and some fairly fallow years during Smorodskaya’s time as club president, but since 1993 Lokomotiv have won the league three times, finished in the top three twelve times and won the Russian Cup seven times.

Never a side with a huge budget for big-name transfers, Lokomotiv’s appearances in European competitions have been less impressive – a couple of semi-final appearances in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in the nineties is as good as it has got. Nevertheless, Lokomotiv always feel like a pleasant addition to the Russian football scenery – they don’t splash out on expensive players, don’t cause controversy and generally get on with things the right way.

Spartak Vladikavkaz – At Base Camp

Although it may be overdoing things to describe Spartak (or Alania, as they have been known for much of the period since 1993) as a ‘sleeping giant’, they are an important club that has fallen on hard times. During the early nineties, Alania were one of Spartak Moscow’s biggest title rivals: they won the league in 1995, and only came second following a title-deciding ‘golden match’ in 1996 (they and Spartak Moscow had finished the regular season level on points). Until Zenit St. Petersburg and Rubin Kazan rocked up, they were the only side outside of the capital to have won the Russian league title.

The late nineties up to 2006 saw more mediocre results – and then the financial troubles began. The club has since jumped between all the leagues from the top flight to the regional third tier Professional Football League. In recent seasons Spartak have settled in lower mid-table PFL, and show no signs of leaving from what is a tough league to get out of. The recent appointment of local boy and former Russian Premier League winner Spartak Gogniev as manager may cheer some fans, though as a brand new coach he will need time to adapt.

Torpedo Moscow – On The Way Back

Torpedo’s history since 1993 can be split neatly into three parts. The next few years saw them generally finish in the lower reaches of the table, though clear of relegation. From 1999 – shortly after the club was sold – until 2005 Torpedo made the top five, five times and also appeared in the UEFA Cup. Since relegation in 2006 (a first EVER relegation) the club has lurched through a prolonged financial crisis and has played at every level from the Premier League to the Moscow Amateur Football League.

Much of the blame for the lack of stability was placed on former player and owner through much of the crisis years, Aleksandr Tukmanov. The club were even forced out of their historic Eduard Streltsov Stadium, and he was unable to get them onto an even financial keel (there were questions under Tukmanov as to who exactly owned the club). Now under new owners, Torpedo are back home; they also top of the PFL (third tier) Centre and look good for promotion back to the second tier.

For the purists, Torpedo ZIL should be mentioned in a footnote. In 1997 the troubled car manufacturer ZIL sold Torpedo Moscow, who were moved to the Luzhniki Stadium. When ZIL were bailed out by the government, a new club called Torpedo ZIL were formed who remained at the original Eduard Streltsov Stadium. By 2001 ZIL had reached the Premier League and played against estranged relatives Torpedo. However, their glory was short-lived – by 2010 the club was disbanded, having twice changed owners (and names).

Ural (Uralmash) Sverdlovskaya Oblast – Slow Build Up

Eighth position is Uralmash’s best finish (they have equalled it twice since 1993). They only ever spent one season in the Soviet top division; the five seasons spent in the Russian top flight between 1992 and 1996 is to date the club’s longest run at the highest level. When bigger clubs poached the best players from the successful mid-nineties’ squad, Uralmash struggled to recover and suffered two consecutive relegations. A return to the second tier in 2003 was thrown into chaos when main club sponsors, the Uralmash factory, withdrew their funding. The regional government stepped in, and the club’s name changed (Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast rather than Uralmash Ekaterinburg), but it wasn’t enough to prevent immediate relegation.

A careful approach from the club’s new leadership saw it eventually return to the Premier League in 2013/14 – since then it has lurked around the mid to lower reaches of the division; Ural look likely to avoid relegation in 2018/19.

CSKA Moscow – At Full Gallop

CSKA’s mid to lower-table finishes throughout the mid-nineties are their lowest in the post-Soviet period. Since 1998, the side have only finished outside the top three on three occasions – no other  Russian team can match that level of consistency over the last twenty years. There have also been a UEFA Cup win (2005) and seven domestic cup wins during that time.

The current season promised to be more challenging – there had been major changes to the CSKA side following a number of key players retiring or moving on. However, the club quickly regenerated and – surprise, surprise – they hit third place going into the winter break. All in all, not a bad couple of decades for a side that finished below Shinnik Yaroslavl, Baltika Kaliningrad and Chernomorets Novorossiysk in 1997.

KAMAZ Naberezhnye Chelny – Truck Stopped

KAMAZ only joined the Soviet national league structure in 1988: they had five top-flight seasons between 1993 and 1997. In 1993 they also had the league’s top scorer up front – Viktor Panchenko scored 21 goals. The following season saw a best ever sixth-place finish. Ruslan Nigmatullin was in goal for part of that season – he would soon move onto Spartak Moscow and appear for Russia at the 2002 World Cup.

Ruslan Nigmatullin of Russia in action during the FIFA World Cup Finals 2002 Group H match between Belgium and Russia played at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, in Shizuoka, Japan on June 14, 2002. Belgium won the match 3-2. DIGITAL IMAGE. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Ruslan Nigmatullin of Russia in action during the FIFA World Cup Finals 2002 Group H match between Belgium and Russia played at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, in Shizuoka, Japan on June 14, 2002. Belgium won the match 3-2. DIGITAL IMAGE. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

KAMAZ’s only European appearance was in the Intertoto Cup – they topped a group that included 1860 Munich, beating the German side 1-0 away in the process. By the turn of the century, though, financial problems at main sponsor KAMAZ had led to two relegations. KAMAZ returned to the second tier between 2004 and 2011/12; they were close to promotion on a number of occasions. They have since played only in the third tier, and are in second place at the time of writing.

Lokomotiv Nizhniy Novgorod – Hit The Buffers

Lokomotiv spent eight seasons at the highest level; their best showing was sixth place in their first ever top flight season (1992). A 1997 Intertoto Cup appearance coincided with relegation, and although the club made an immediate return, they were relegated to the second tier again in 2000. This time there was no way back: a further relegation coincided with manager Valeriy Ovchinnikov’s decision to leave his post just two games into the season (he’d been at the club for eleven years).

Lokomotiv did not drop to the third tier – they were instead disbanded due to financial problems. A phoenix club played in the amateur league for a season and made an immediate return to the professional game, but this was short-lived – with financial problems looming once more, the club lost its professional licence in 2006. Lokomotiv still exists as an amateur side within the Nizhegorod Oblast structure. There is little written about them other than their Twitter feed (@FCLokonn). Recent tweets include a master class put on for local children by Lokomotiv players, and congratulating the founders of the new Kuban Krasnodar.

It is worth a few lines here on Nizhniy Novgorod’s other post-USSR teams. Volga Nizhniy Novgorod spent fifteen seasons as a professional entity, including three in the Premier League, before overspending saw them collapse in 2016. A year earlier, in 2015, a further team was founded – Olimpiets Nizhniy Novgorod quickly gained promotion to the second tier Football National League and are now known as FC Nizhniy Novgorod. They play in a former World Cup stadium.

Dinamo Stavropol – Nine Lives

One of the older clubs in this list (Dinamo were formed in 1924), they have nevertheless hit hard times in the post-Soviet era. Dinamo played in the top flight from 1992-94, and 1993’s twelfth position was their best performance. Relegation in 1994 was followed by several reasonable years in the second tier – during which time future Russia striker Roman Pavlyuchenko would start his career with Dinamo.

A further relegation followed in 1999, and from there Dinamo remained in the third tier until 2004, which was when the real difficulties began. The club lost its professional status due to financial problems in 2006, and after a brief return to the third tier, the same thing happened again in 2009. Two new football teams were immediately formed, both claiming to be Dinamo’s successor. FC Stravopolye-2009 were the chosen ones and were soon renamed Dinamo – but also went under in 2012.

A further reincarnation appeared in 2015 in the Professional Football League (third tier) and remains there today – going into the 2018/19 winter break, only goal difference kept them off the bottom of the table. There is not a lot of news regarding Dinamo online these days, though the Sector 9 fans’ site makes for interesting reading. At the time of writing, a long and impassioned promise to commit the supporting the club through hard times – which eloquently takes in a lot of the post-Soviet football troubles sides like Dinamo have faced – is the pride of place on the landing page.

Zhemchuzhina Sochi – Comings and Goings

Zhemchuzhina were only formed in 1991 and named after the hotel that was the club’s first owner. After promotion into the top flight during the first post-Soviet season, the side remained at this level for the rest of the decade – a ninth-place finish was to be their finest performance.

By 2003 Zhemchuzhina were at the foot of the third tier, and were disbanded at the end of the season due to lack of finance and huge debts. A phoenix club was founded in 2007, which spent three seasons in the third tier (2008-2011). In December 2010 current Russia national team coach Stanislav Cherchesov was unveiled as the new Zhemchuzhina manager: he talked of a club with “big ambitions” when he signed a 3.5-year deal, but within a few months the club was once again forced out of the league due to a lack of money. Cherchesov was one of eight managers at the club between 2008 and 2011. There have been several more attempts to revive Zhemchuzhina; the side now plays in the Sochi city league.


There have been several other post-Soviet attempts to bring professional football to Sochi. Sochi-04 was in the third tier between 2005 and 2008 before being disbanded. Another team, FC Sochi, was formed in 2013 and spent the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons in the third tier. A further team from Sochi was formed in 2018; having taken Dinamo St. Petersburg’s league position, they play in the second tier Football National League.

Kryliya Sovietov Samara – Same Place Today

Between the inaugural post-Soviet season and 2013/14, Kryliya Sovietov were not relegated and in most cases not even close to this, making 1993 something of a close shave. When they were finally relegated, the exclusive group of sides who have only played top-flight football from 1992 shrank by one – the remaining members are all Moscow teams. Kryliya were also relegated in 2016/17, but – as in 2013/14 – they bounced straight back. In 2010 the club almost disappeared, having racked up huge debts. Fan protests seemed to encourage the government to step in and provide sponsorship.

In between, there have been some very good seasons – and some very good players. In 2006 Andrei Kanchelskis played his final professional season at the club as Krilya finished tenth. The side’s best ever finish was third in 2004 – the same year that they made the Russian Cup final. This final is perhaps best known for being won by second-tier Terek Grozny, and for not – possibly because no Moscow side was involved – not being shown on Russian television.

There have also been a couple of UEFA Cup runs. In 2005/06 Kryliya made the first round, but were squeaked out by AZ Alkmaar on away goals (6-6 on aggregate). Slightly less impressively, in 2009-10 they were knocked out in the third qualifying round on away goals by St. Patrick’s Athletic.

In 1993 Kryliya survived in the top flight thanks to winning a relegation/promotion play-off tournament. In 2018-19 they may face a similar challenge: currently, they occupy the final Premier League relegation play-off place.

Luch Vladivostok – Rays of Light in the Russian Top League

Luch had only just been promoted to the top flight in 1993 but disappeared straight back to the second tier in the promotion/relegation play-offs. Some players involved claimed that the tournament had been fixed to ensure that Far Eastern clubs Luch and Okean Nakhodka were relegated, thus meaning the other teams avoided the nine or ten hour flights to the other side of the country.

Luch did not bounce back. The first two second-tier seasons were promising, but they began to slide and by 1998 were playing in the regional third tier. It wasn’t until a new sponsor appeared (along with a name change to Luch-Energiya) that things improved. The team won the third tier in 2003 and the second tier in 2005, and reached a best-ever seventh place in the Premier League in 2007; this season included thrashing Moscow sides CSKA and Lokomotiv at home.

Leandro (L), Levani Gvazava (C) and Dmitry A. Smirnov (R) of FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostok celebrate after scoring a goal during the Russian Football League Championship match between FC Khimki and FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostok at the Khimki Stadium on October 25, 2008 in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Leandro (L), Levani Gvazava (C) and Dmitry A. Smirnov (R) of FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostok celebrate after scoring a goal during the Russian Football League Championship match between FC Khimki and FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostok at the Khimki Stadium on October 25, 2008 in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Luch were relegated in 2008 and dropped straight into the third tier. They returned immediately, but it has hardly been plain sailing since. Following the withdrawal of sponsorship from the energy company (they are now plain ‘Luch’ once more), stories of financial problems have appeared in the press. In the past two seasons, Luch have finished in the second tier relegation places, but have been reprieved on each occasion due to sides in the third tier refusing promotion. This season looks better – Luch are currently just three points off a play-off place.

Okean Nakhodka – Set Sail

Okean were founding members of the Russian top flight in 1992 – they narrowly avoided relegation by finishing 13th but were not so fortunate a year later. This was followed in 1995 by relegation to the third tier. The club played amateur football after 2011 and was liquidated in 2017.

However, the story has a happy ending. Last summer the club held an open training session, with a view to restarting the club and returning to the amateur league structure in 2019-20. Okean could one day return to the professional game given that – somewhat unusually for modern Russian clubs – it left the league in one piece. As a result, there would be no issue with using the club’s name and iconic dolphin club badge once more as a professional team.

Rostselmash Rostov-on-Don – Against All Odds

Rostov’s relegation in 1993 was quite a rarity – they have only been relegated on one other occasion since then. On both occasions, they have returned to the top flight immediately. Many of the Premier League years have been pedestrian – finishing between 11th and 14th place fourteen times – but there have also been some spectacular peaks. Rostov won the Russian Cup in 2013-14 (Artem Dzyuba was their top scorer that year) and finished second in the Premier League in 2015-16. This was a particularly amazing achievement given that at the time the club was suffering from financial troubles; players went without wages for several months during this spectacular run.

Sardar Azmoun celebrates his goal against Bayern München. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Sardar Azmoun celebrates his goal against Bayern München in the Champions League. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Much of the success of the club at this time is put down to manager Kurban Berdyev – one of the best coaches the Russian top flight has ever seen. Berdyev signed a new contract with Rostov shortly after winning the league but resigned one month later. After a failed attempt to take up the vacant post at Spartak Moscow, Berdyev returned to the club as ‘vice-President’ and helped them to a reasonable Champions League showing – which included beating Ajax and Bayern München at home.

Asmaral Moscow – No longer with us

Asmaral were formed on the base of an existing club – Presnya Moscow – at the end of the Soviet era. They were the first foreign-owned club in Russia – Iraqi businessman Hassam al-Khalidi, who owned a joint Soviet-British firm, funded the club (the name Asmaral was created using the first few letters of his children’s names).

Asmaral finished seventh in the inaugural post-Soviet top flight, which was to become by far their biggest achievement. Bottom place in 1993 was followed by further relegations in 1995 and 1996, leaving the club in the fourth tier (still a professional league at this point). By 1999, however, Asmaral were playing amateur football and at the end of the season were declared bankrupt. Presnya Moscow returned to professional football under new owners just over a decade ago, but only lasted two seasons.

Asmaral was the first professional club of current Zenit St. Petersburg coach Sergey Semak. On his way to greater things, Semak appeared for the club in 1993 and 1994. He made his debut for Asmaral – and scored on it – at the age of just seventeen.

Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid-nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.