On Saturday, thousands of people gathered in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The plan wasn’t to storm it, as had been the wisdom of one such crowd during the Revolution in 1917, but instead to begin a march to the Petrovsky Stadium in anticipation of Zenit being crowned 2012 Russian champions.
Standing at the front, a leading ultra raised a megaphone to his mouth and started the chanting, the fist pumping, jumping and saluting. Huge blue and white flags were unfurled and flares lit leaving a trail of orange and green-ish smoke in their wake.
As the noisy and jubilant fans made their way to the ground, it was possible to see a billboard erected by the club earlier in the season. Above the slogan: “Our city, one team,” it showed a pair of authoritative figures, each bald, wearing a scarf and thick winter jackets. On the left was Tsar Peter the Great. On the right was Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti. Within this St. Petersburg-specific context, there could be no bigger compliment.
The high regard in which Spalletti is held only grew as the day wore on. When the supporters did eventually take their seats at the Petrovsky, cause for celebration wasn’t lacking.
Roman Shirokov gave Zenit the lead over second-placed Dinamo Moscow after half an hour then Aleksandr Kerzhakov doubled their advantage from the penalty spot five minutes later. Even when Dinamo pulled one back before half-time and Konstantin Zyryanov’s sending off meant Zenit had to play much of the second half with 10-men, the result was never really in doubt.
A 2-1 win sealed back-to-back titles for Zenit, as they stretched their lead at the top of the Russian Premier League to an insurmountable 15 points with only three games of the season remaining.
While club president Aleksandr Dyukov, dressed in a white chunky knit, raised both arms in the air in triumph from the stands, Spalletti merely stepped out of the dug-out, embraced a few of his colleagues and pinched his bottom lip.
This was a much more reserved reaction from Spalletti than the time he rather crazily ripped off his shirt in freezing conditions and threw it into the crowd after landing his first league championship with Zenit in the winter of 2010.
All things considered, it had been a “tough, difficult season, somewhat unique,” he told Russian station NTV+. The transition from a spring-autumn calendar to the autumn-spring variation used by most other European leagues meant it had lasted an epic 14 months.
The retention of Zenit’s title was no small feat. They were seven points behind CSKA Moscow at one stage partly because a 1-1 draw with their rivals in April last year was overturned and instead ruled a 3-0 defeat when it emerged they had failed to include at least one homegrown player under the age of 21 in their team. But in the end, not even that, nor a season-ending injury to star player Danny in February could stop them.
“We had a good team when we won our first title [in 2010] but we were even better this season,” Spalletti insisted. “We have scored the most and conceded the least goals and we also showed a lot of character to be the champions.”
Progress was made in the Champions League too where Zenit reached the knock-out stages of the competition for the first time only to suffer elimination at the hands of Benfica in the Round of 16. While tinged with some regret, that result didn’t come to define their campaign.
Few would dispute that Spalletti has done quite a remarkable job again. Whenever anyone questions that claim, and few have had the temerity to do so, he politely reminds them with some pride: “I am still working with eight of the first-11 I inherited.” Extracting maximum benefit from a finite set of resources is a skill Spalletti learned at Udinese and Roma where the budgets were relatively small.
At Zenit, backing from energy giant Gazprom means there is the capacity to spend big if needs be, which they have done in writing cheques for sizeable amounts for the likes of Bruno Alves and Domenico Criscito. But on the whole the bean counters at the club have seen him get plenty of bang for their buck and find good value too.
Taken together with his track record of success—Spalletti has also won the Russian Cup and Super Cup in his two and a half years at the club—and the quality of his football—see Sergei Semak’s goal against Benfica—Zenit offered him a new contract until 2015 with wider-ranging powers. He has even had a say on the design of the dressing rooms at Zenit’s new stadium, which is currently under construction.
Reflecting on the decision, Spalletti told La Repubblica earlier this week. “Outside of Italy the coach has many more jobs and responsibilities. The budget might be €30m to €40m and we manage it together. I always say that if I have to coach a player I also want to be the one to choose him. As a coach I don’t do just what I like and the others, as directors, don’t do just what they like.”
After signing an extension in the spring, there seems little possibility of Spalletti leaving Zenit anytime soon, even during a summer when many of Europe’s most prestigious clubs will be looking for a new manager.
Shortly after putting pen to paper on his new deal, La Gazzetta dello Sport went to visit him in St. Petersburg and found a man in love with his surroundings. He treated the pink paper to a tour of his city, taking in the Hermitage (“it’s not a museum, it’s a world of its own”) and the Church of the Savior on Blood.
Spalletti doesn’t closet himself away. When not at work or at home on the little island of Krestovsky Ostrov, he’s out and about either jogging along St. Petersburg’s canals with his wife Tamara or dining out at a local Italian restaurant Capuleti.
Ask him to recommend something to do in the city and he’s likely to reel off a list as long as your arm. He never misses an opportunity to sing the praises of his adopted home, recommending the White Nights Festival in summer, the season of the midnight sun. “The shops are open 24/7 and no one wants to sleep,” he enthuses.
Any apprehension Spalletti felt when he first moved to Russia has long since gone. He has embraced his new life and was glad to have ignored those people around him who, at the time of him accepting the job, had asked: “What are you going there for? To die of cold.”
No, Spalletti might reply, only to further enhance his reputation as one of Europe’s very best coaches.