Russian giants Dinamo Moscow on brink of historic relegation
Spare a thought for Vitali Dyakov. The promising centre-back, who used to be on the fringes of Russia's national team, scored a hat trick for FC Rostov a year ago in the relegation playoffs against second division Tosno and kept his club alive. However, Rostov's desperate financial situation saw them clear favourites to go down the following season, and Dyakov was delighted to get an offer from Dinamo Moscow -- traditionally one of the top teams in the league.
Fast-forward to May 2016, and the situation couldn't be more bizarre. Nicknamed "The Russian Leicester," Rostov could win an incredible title if CSKA Moscow fail to beat Rubin Kazan on the final matchday on Saturday. At the same time, Dinamo Moscow are very close to making history of their own and being relegated for the first time ever.
"I don't regret anything. How could I know that the whole situation would change like that?" Dyakov said last week. He also promised that Dinamo will stay up, but that is now rather unlikely.
After losing 1-0 at rivals Kuban on Monday, they fell to 14th place (in a 16 team league) for the first time. On Saturday, they host mighty Zenit, needing a win to ensure they aren't relegated automatically in the bottom two positions. If Dinamo win, they could escape completely depending on Kuban and Anzhi's results, or go into the relegation playoffs, just as Rostov did last season.
That is easier said than done, however. Zenit ultras dislike Dinamo supporters very deeply. In fact, this is one of the most passionate rivalries in Russian football. After sensationally missing out on Champions League qualification to Rostov, the least Andre Villas-Boas can do in his final game at the club is to send Dinamo down.
Dinamo's chances to save themselves are slim, but they can get help from others. Ufa and Mordovia, who still trail Dinamo by a point, play against Spartak and Lokomotiv, respectively, and at least one of them must win in order to send them down.
For millions of supporters, such a scenario would be a huge tragedy. Dinamo are the only Russian club to never have been relegated since the establishment of the Soviet league in 1936. Spartak Moscow went down in the 1970s and Zenit fell on hard times in late '80s, but Dinamo have always been there. They haven't won the title since 1976, but their proud heritage remained.
Dinamo's tour to Britain in November 1945, right after World War II ended, was very important politically and socially. They were the only club in Lev Yashin's illustrious career, and their stadium -- which is closed for reconstruction nowadays -- will be named after one of the world's most celebrated goalkeepers. Dinamo are the first Soviet team to reach a final in European competition, losing 3-2 to Rangers in the Cup Winners' Cup decider at Camp Nou in 1972 -- a game best remembered for the pitch invasion.
Fans try to remember those days because Dinamo haven't won any trophies in the last two decades. Their most recent success was a Russian Cup title back in 1995. However, expectations were always high and the club made significant investments, hoping to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in European football.
The problem was that presidents and general managers never stayed too long. And strategies frequently changed, with numerous powerbrokers pulling the club in different directions behind the scenes. Dinamo are the most enigmatic team in Russian football; they are totally unpredictable even to the best-informed journalists.
There have been a lot of curious adventures throughout the years. The strangest of all occurred in 2005, when Dinamo signed 13 players from the Portuguese league, including little-known 20-year-old Brazilian defender Thiago Silva from FC Porto's reserve squad. But the man who went on to become Selecao captain never played for Dinamo and nearly died of tuberculosis in a Moscow clinic. Most of those expensive players, including Portuguese internationals Maniche and Costinha, were huge flops in Russia.
Dinamo seemed to have their best chance of winning the title in 2011-12, when they played some stunningly beautiful football under coach Sergei Silkin, with German striker Kevin Kuranyi and Ukrainian playmaker Andriy Voronin calling the shots. CSKA players even wondered aloud if they had actually played Barcelona after getting thrashed 4-0.
But the success was short-lived. Dinamo's challenge faded away in the spring. They finished fourth, Silkin was eventually fired and they haven't been able to find any sort of stability since.
New hopes arose in the summer of 2013, when oligarch Boris Rotenberg was named the club's new president. Rotenberg, one of Vladimir Putin's closest friends -- the pair have known each other since their mutual judo training sessions in the '70s -- immediately bought five stars from Anzhi Makhachkala's fire-sale. Then, in the summer of 2014, Mathieu Valbuena -- one of France's best performers at the World Cup in Brazil -- sensationally arrived from Marseille.
Dinamo's ambitions were very high and they had a run in the Europa League last season, reaching the round of 16. Yet they couldn't keep the pace in the league once again, and it became apparent that management spent much more than allowed under the financial fair play rules. UEFA's decision to ban the Muscovites from taking part in this season's Europa League was announced in June 2015 and didn't surprise anyone.
Immediately afterwards, Rotenberg left and the new management announced a new strategy. Out went almost all the foreign stars, including Valbuena, who moved to Lyon. Kuranyi's contract had expired anyway, and he signed for Hoffenheim. But the real farce began when successful coach Stanislav Cherchesov was sacked just days before the season started, and sporting director Andrey Kobelev took the reins. It became evident that the club was in total disarray, and poor Dyakov had to wait for weeks to finally get the contract promised to him by the previous bosses.
The club's new mantra was to promote young players from the reserve team and build everything from scratch. Signing veteran striker Pavel Pogrebnyak from Reading hardly fit into that strategy, and he had a disastrous season, scoring just once. He was not the only failure though: Russia stalwart Igor Denisov, who earns €5 million annually, fell out with Kobelev and the management and was sent to train with the reserves in November.
The results were disappointing, but Dinamo were still middle of the table at the winter break. Then two more star international players, Aleksandr Kokorin and Yuri Zhirkov, were sold to Zenit, following the footsteps of Artur Yusupov, who left in the summer -- and the team completely fell apart.
Incredibly, Dinamo won just two league fixtures after August. They took only a single point from their final eight games, the latest two under interim coach Sergey Chikishev after Kobelev was belatedly fired. Ironically, in the meantime, Cherchesov won the title in Poland with Legia Warsaw.
Now it all comes down to one game against Zenit. If the worst happens on Saturday, Dyakov would be forgiven for blinking twice and considering his future once more. The shiny, renovated Lev Yashin Stadium could be set to host second-division games in 2017 if Dinamo's proud 80-year uninterrupted stay in the top flight comes to an end.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin