Nizhny Novgorod was supposed to be on the up, football-wise. FC Volga had just won promotion to the top flight for the first time since the 1960s. A few weeks later, Sepp Blatter opened up the envelop that confirmed that World Cup football was on its way in 2018. In the Russian Premier League, the team had made a decent start with an opening day win over Tom Tomsk and a narrow defeat to a late goal at Spartak. The visit of Dynamo Moscow – still a big name in Russian football – should have been a celebration.
Yet the Lokomotiv Stadium’s shabby state belay the hopes of great things to come. Discarded floodlight bulbs and crumbling concrete were the order of the day. The desperate cold of central Russia as spring tries to persuade itself to get going seemed to dull any sense of progress. And, ultimately, Volga caught a financial cold that would prove fatal.
Not that there was too much evidence of it on that April day when Dynamo came to town. A near sell-out crowd, local enthusiasts topped up with a further mob spilling off the overnight trains from Moscow braved the snowy streets. A 3-0 win for the newcomers hinted at a new era in Russian football; Novgorod was eagerly eying the big time.
Nizhny Novgorod, a 2018 World Cup host city, was established as a trading point at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. In footballing terms, it had achieved little. FC Volga Gorky (the town’s Soviet name) was founded in 1963 following the merger of Torpedo and Raketa; it played at the Krasnoye Smorovo factory. Promotion to the top flight came right away, but the 1964 campaign ended with a play-off defeat to Torpedo Kutaisi. That was as good as it got. A couple of decades bumping around the second and third tiers and a fairly unlamented demise in 1984.
The Volga name did not reappear until 2004. The new-look club, like its predecessor, had its roots in the Krasnoye Sormovo plant. The factory established an amateur team in 1994 and, called Elektronika at the time, they began playing in the professional second division in 2000. Re-assuming the old identity seemed to help. The team edged up the leagues and finally broke into the top flight via a play-off in 2010. With Russian football celebrating the award of the World Cup and switching to an autumn-spring calendar via an extended 2011-12 season, it felt like a transformation was taking place, even if the Lokomotiv Stadium looked the quintessence of Soviet bleak and the club’s mascot, a mustachioed sailor, bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Josef Stalin.
Volga’s captain, veteran Anton Khazov, was in no doubt. Looking forward eagerly to 2018, he highlighted how sport was changing his city. “On a local level, Nizhny Novgorod will get a new stadium, improved road, rail and air travel, extensions to the metro. It will take our city to a new level,” he said in an interview in the match programme. The same programme talked enthusiastically of the club’s new international star, Mark Crosos. A graduate of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona B team, he also had stints in midfield at Celtic and Lyon. Even the team’s new kit – blue and purple stripes – was seen as a sign of new ambition, although the end result was more Crystal Palace than Barcelona.
The game was a victory for the avant-garde of Russia’s new football; Dynamo’s fans, decidedly old-school, took the opportunity to trade a fusillade of seats with the home supporters on the other side of the fence. But it felt like they might be on the wrong side of history. With the recent successes of Rubin Kazan shattering the Moscow monopoly on the Russian title, and the likes of Roberto Carlos and Ruud Gullit arriving in the Caucasus at Anzhi Makhachkala and Terek Grozny respectively, it really did seem that a new order was arriving.
Today, though, Volga’s top-flight dreams are as stricken as the floodlight bulbs scattered in the snow outside the stadium. The team never established itself in the top flight, surviving that first season via a play-off against local rival FC Nizhny Novgorod (who folded shortly afterwards and were merged into the Volga organisation) and eventually going down in 2014.
It got worse. Mired in midtable in the second tier, the money ran out. Despite a 10th place finish in 2015-16, the club was unable to account for historic debts dating back to 2010-11. They were racked up under previous management, according to a statement on the official website, but were never paid off. The pressures of continuing to compete in a nationwide pro league and try to clear those debts proved too much. Volga were sunk.
Football continues in Nizhny Novgorod. Olimpiyets are playing in the Ural-Volga division of the third-tier PFL. They still use the Lokomotiv Stadium, but crowds are a couple of thousand, compared with the 17,000 who came to the Dynamo game. A World Cup stadium is due to be completed late this year, with room for 45,000 people, but it’s far from clear who those crowds will come to watch once FIFA’s circus leaves town.
Lokomotiv Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
April 2, 2011, Russian Premier League
Volga Nizhny Novgorod 3 (Plesan, Khojava, Akhmetovich) Dynamo Moscow 0