Conspiracy, revenge and the Russian Pele. Francis Scarr looks at the colourful history of Torpedo Moscow

‘Yes, the fate of Torpedo is odd… Well, you see, Spartak is the people’s club. CSKA is the army club. Dinamo, well that goes without saying [MG: the secret police club], Lokomotiv is the railway team. But us? I suppose we’re the team of the workers and the factories. But what do we do if all of sudden the factory and its workers are no longer needed?’

As the USSR and its state-administered industrial complex fell apart in the early 1990s, these earlier words from Valentin Ivanov, the exalted winger and later manager of Torpedo Moscow, turned out to be eerily prophetic.

While the ZiL automotive factory to which Torpedo had always been attached churned out its last vehicle as late as 2013, its privatisation in 1992 appeared to spell the beginning of the end for Torpedo, Moscow’s fifth most popular side.

Despite never garnering the same level of support as its rivals in the Russian capital, Torpedo’s smaller fanbase nonetheless has a turbulent past and true pantheon of Soviet footballing heroes of which to be proud.

Since 1993, when the Black and Whites pipped CSKA on penalties to the first Russian Cup following the fall of the USSR, fans of the three-time Soviet champions have had little to cheer.

But after three decades of ownership changes, failed phoenix clubs and forced relocations, supporters of the now second-tier club are brimming with optimism as the season wraps up for its annual three-month winter break.

In late October 2019, Midfield Generalities was at Torpedo’s home, the Eduard Streltsov stadium, for a midweek last-16 cup clash against fellow second tier side FC Baltika Kaliningrad, a side hailing from the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania.

A tight one-nil victory fired Torpedo into what the club will see as a very much winnable quarter final tie with Khimki, another second-flight team.

But it is in the league though where the club has most impressed this season. Ignashevich has taken Torpedo to second place in the Football National League (FNL) at the winter break with 25 of 38 games played.

Ignashevich, who graduated from Torpedo’s academy before achieving greater feats at city rivals Lokomotiv and CSKA, has been tasked by owner Roman Avdeyev with taking the club back to the top flight.

The workers’ club

No figure is more closely associated with the twists and turns of Torpedo’s history than Eduard Streltsov. Known as the ‘Russian Pelé’ and arguably the most gifted footballer ever to come out of the country, Streltsov’s career was suddenly interrupted before his 21st birthday in 1958. The young goalscorer was arrested and charged with raping Marina Lebedeva, a woman he had met at a party at an acquaintance’s country dacha. After confessing to the crime with the apparent promise that he would be allowed to take part in that summer’s World Cup in Sweden, he served five years of a 12-year labour camp sentence and returned to professional football a further two years later.

The issue of Streltsov’s guilt remains highly contested to this day, with many believing the allegations to be a sham concocted by Yekaterina Furtseva, a rare female Politburo member and close associate of Soviet premier Khrushchev.  Furtseva’s teenage daughter Svetlana had reportedly become besotted with Streltsov after meeting the young forward. But he was not interested in the girl and was later overheard badmouthing her to a friend.

If Streltsov’s devotees are to be believed, a drunken party at the country dacha of an acquaintance then served as the perfect scene for Furtseva to level allegations at the player as a way of avenging her daughter.

Nonetheless, in his first full season back after a bleak period of felling trees and laying railway tracks in the Siberian tundra, the plucky Streltsov found the net 12 times to help Torpedo towards the second of their three Soviet titles. The remainder of his career saw him awarded Soviet player of the year in both 1967 and 1968.

The issue of Streltsov’s guilt remains highly contested to this day, with many believing the allegations to be a sham concocted by Yekaterina Furtseva, a rare female Politburo member and close associate of Soviet premier Khrushchev.

After passing the Streltsov statue on Vostochnaya Street, a series of murals depicting other club icons opens up beside the concrete steps leading to Torpedo’s decaying home.

And the colourful Streltsov was not alone in standing out from the drab grey of the post-Stalin era.

Like Streltsov, defensive midfielder Valery Voronin was awarded the Soviet player of the year award twice, in 1964 and 1965. His commanding performances in Chile during the 1962 World Cup even landed him a place in the team of the tournament.

But he was found unconscious by the side of road and passed away just days later at the age of 44 having never recovered from a car accident years earlier that robbed him off his striking looks and drove him to drink.

An obituary in the Russian sports magazine Football-Hockey described him thus: ‘He wasn’t just a name in the Torpedo team, or even in the USSR team. He was a name in football. On the beaches of Copacabana, Brazilian children would pretend to be Voronin. He was as handsome and slender as a matador. And when training and playing matches, he worked as hard as a stonemason.’

A brighter future

In lead coach Sergei Ignashevich, Torpedo have not only the record appearance holder for both the Russian top flight and the country’s national side, but also an articulate and erudite figure commanding respect across the Russian game.

The steadfast defender bowed out of the professional game following Russia’s World Cup quarter final exit on home soil to eventual runners up Croatia.

After just a year of coaching in the U21 set-up at CSKA, where he made most of his top flight appearances, Torpedo offered their former academy graduate the chance to take charge of a side just promoted back to the second tier.

Pavel Mamayev, a talented midfielder who recently spent a year in custody after attacking a mid-ranking government bureaucrat on a drunken night out, has said that Ignashevich is the most intelligent teammate he’s ever played alongside.

On 23 November Torpedo welcomed Vladivostok’s Luch-Energiya for their final game at the Soviet-built Eduard Streltsov stadium, their modest 13,000-capacity home nestled between the old ZiL plant and the Moscow river.

The club’s last charge to the top flight almost led to bankruptcy in 2015. But two years later, billionaire investor Roman Avdeyev reunited Torpedo and the Eduard Streltsov stadium under single ownership before seeing to the club’s awry finances.

This winter the club’s home on Vostochnaya Street will finally begin undergoing redevelopment in order to satisfy the safety regulations set out by the Russian Premier League.

With the club’s balance sheet finally addressed and the country’s most sought-after young coach at the helm, Torpedo’s unwavering supporters might just feel that their workers’ club has finally left the frenzied vagaries of Russia’s post-Soviet transition.