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Sep 8, 2012

Two hours that shook the world

Ten Days that Shook the World is the title of the famous Soviet film that celebrates the 1917 October Revolution. It took roughly two hours to shake the world in the very same city in 2012. A blank shot by the cruiser Aurora signalled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace then; this time, it was a €90 million shot by Gazprom that, according to fans' hopes, starts the assault on the Champions League trophy.

The exact figures reported vary - Zenit St Petersburg themselves say €80 million - but the bottom line is that the Russian champions acquired Brazilian striker Hulk from Porto and Belgian midfield turbo Axel Witsel from Benfica for what appears an insane amount of money.

Just like in 1917, not everyone is happy, to put it mildly. It is important to understand that Gazprom, the huge gas company that exports Russia's enormous natural resources, belongs to the people. It was partly privatised, but the Russian government holds the majority of stakes. Gazprom bought Zenit in 2005, and that decision may have been influenced by the fact that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev were born in Leningrad. "As I grew up in St Petersburg, I love Zenit," Medvedev has said on more than one occasion, and that is quite natural. There are many football clubs in Moscow, but St Petersburg, a huge city with a population exceeding five million, only ever knew one team.

Zenit are still the one true love of people from the former Russian capital, but the club is becoming more and more hated elsewhere. They are seen as the "government team", a club trying to buy success with people's money. As the Trud newspaper put it this week: "Who would believe that there is no correlation between Gazprom investments in football and elderly citizens' poverty?"

You should, however, try to view the whole picture. From 2005 on, Zenit have been just a part of one of the world's biggest companies. It is a business run by businessmen, and their decisions are not supposed to be unreasonable from a financial point of view. When Zenit chiefs think someone's price is too high, they simply don't make the investment. Nani, for example, was close to moving from Manchester United to Russia this week, and both clubs reached an agreement, but his wage demands were not suitable for Gazprom.

A few weeks ago, Luciano Spalletti, the respected Italian coach who led Zenit to two successive league titles, was openly quoted on the official club website as saying: "We bought just one significant player in the last four transfer windows. This time we must spend." The "one significant player" Spalletti was talking about is Italian left-back Domenico Criscito, who signed from Genoa for €15 million last summer and became one of the best and most consistent players in the league. Two years ago, Portuguese stopper Bruno Alves arrived from Porto for €22 million. Those deals aside, Zenit were constantly rumoured to be trying to sign superstars, but nothing materialised.

In the middle of August, injuries to key players - including Aleksandr Kerzhakov, the only top-class striker Zenit had in their squad - exposed a dreadful lack of strength in depth in Spalletti's squad. In two league games - a 1-1 draw at Anzhi Makhachkala and a 2-1 home defeat to Rubin Kazan - the Italian was forced to put reserve team players on the bench, and only made one substitution. It was crystal clear that the team needed reinforcements to be competitive in the Champions League.

The first major figure to join the Gazprom project this summer was not a player but a sporting director. Dietmar Beiersdorfer, formerly a prominent defender in the Bundesliga, had made a name for himself in a directorial role at Hamburg, where he was responsible for signing Rafael van der Vaart in 2005 and selling him to Real Madrid three years later. In 2009, Beiersdorfer moved to Red Bull, and while his actions at Salzburg were not too successful, he was the man behind Thierry Henry's arrival in New York. This summer, he had to make sure Zenit didn't miss out on their main targets.

Beiersdorfer duly tried to make the most of Gazprom's ties with Schalke, as the company has been the main sponsor of Gelsenkirchen outfit since 2007. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, the 20-year-old Greek central defender who could become one of the best players in his position for years to come, was offered a lucrative contract, and there were also attempts to lure Schalke captain Benedikt Howedes and Bundesliga top-scorer Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Papadopoulos' move was extremely close, but in the end finance prevented it. "Zenit changed a few significant things after their original proposition, and I wasn't satisfied with it," the Greek was quoted as saying. "It is disappointing, because it looked really good at first."

Spalletti desperately wanted Papadopoulos to join, but it is interesting to note once again that Gazprom was reluctant to pay excessive salaries. As the transfer deadline drew closer, matters became more desperate. That might have been the reason behind the decision to sign Hulk and Witsel, but as director general Maksim Mitrofanov pointed out: "These players were always our main targets." For those targets, Gazprom decided the spending is worthwhile. At the same time, they waited for Arsenal to let Andrei Arshavin leave for free, and were not prepared to pay anything for a player who was loaned back to Zenit in the first half of 2012.

So while the amazing evening on September 3 stunned the world of football, the indications are not there to suggest Zenit will start behaving like Paris Saint Germain in the market from now on. Hulk is an extremely important addition to the front line, while Witsel is supposed to inject new blood into an ageing midfield in which Roman Shirokov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Sergei Semak are all on the wrong side of 30. It was just a good piece of business, the Zenit board hopes.

At the same time, the club did make a statement. This summer, Gazprom became an official partner of the Champions League, and its long-term goal is winning the trophy. With Hulk, a Brazil international, moving to Russia at the age of 26, he completely ridicules the presumption that superstars don't go east in their prime years.

The message is clear: if Zenit think a deal is worthwhile, they will be ready to pay a lot. Could they try to make Cristiano Ronaldo happy again? It's a question that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez might now be asking himself.

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