The Muscovite monopoly was seemingly impenetrable. It had been 11 years since an intruder had invaded the steel-capped club of Russian Premier League champions. That was until Gazprom flexed its monetary muscles. The petroleum mega-power seduced the esteemed Dick Advocaat into Zenit‘s conductor’s chair. It lavished rubles galore on adding Nicolas Lombaerts, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Konstantin Zyryanov, Alejandro Dominguez, Fatih Tekk and Pavel Pogrebnyak to an orchestra that already comprised vaunted pros Martin Skrtel, Igor Denisov and Andriy Arshavin. Its reward was reaped rapidly: the 2007 championship concluded with its trophy heading to Saint Petersburg.
Many neutrals were satisfied to see Moscow’s stranglehold snapped. If fans in Kazan fantasised about their heroes giving the gold prize another new home, however, they were wildly unrealistic. 2007 had, after all, been disappointment-heavy for Rubin. Midway through the campaign, they lost Russia U-21 defender Lenar Gilmullin, who died following a motorcycle accident. At its end they had lost more matches than every team other than rock-bottom whipping boys Rostov, and they only just survived relegation. The club who had only surfaced in the top tier for the first time in 2003 then lost some of its key players.
The €8.7m acquisition of Turkey playmaker Gokdeniz Karadeniz may have helped appease the supporters, but big questions marks accompanied other signings through the Central Stadium gates. Playmaker Serhiy Rebrov and striker Savo Milosevic were 34 and 35 respectively, while defender Roman Sharonov and midfielder Sergei Semak were both 32.
Kurban Berdyev's team nevertheless made a flying start to 2008, upsetting Lokomotiv on their travels due to Sharonov’s unanswered goal. Then, after overcoming a numerical handicap to beat Luch-Energiya 1-0, the men in dark red turned up in Saint Petersburg for a presumed reality check. Instead, they returned having recovered from an early Arshavin goal and silenced the Petrovsky Stadium with a 3-1 victory. By April’s end they had seized maximum points from seven outings and were in pole position.
A run of just one win from nine sent Rubin spiralling from the summit, but just as the gas appeared empty in their title charge, Berdyev’s boys found a second wind. An Aleksandr Bukharov brace inspired a 4-1 defeat of visiting Zenit, and with Sharonov, Semak, Karadeniz and Rebrov thriving, the Tatars took nine wins from a possible ten to leave themselves on the cusp of commemoration. Rubin required victory away to Saturn in the fourth-final round, five years ago to this Saturday, to conquer Russia.
Berdyev’s attacking aces were unusually subdued for much of the game in Ramenskoye, but Sergei Ryzhikov kept them at deadlock with two impressive reflex saves. Then, with 14 minutes remaining, Roman Adamov fired Rubin ahead. The possibility of that being the title-winning goal lasted merely minutes, with Petr Nemov equalising.
Glory had seemingly slipped through Rubin's grasp – at least for another round – until, in the last minute, substitute Milosevic volleyed home Hasan Kabze’s knock-back to snatch the visitors a 2-1 success. It was the last goal in the career of a man who finished joint-top scorer at UEFA EURO 2000 and was once one of the world’s most expensive players. It delivered the first major title in Rubin Kazan’s history in what was its 50th year of existence – one nobody expected.
"I’m really shocked and can't believe my eyes!” enthused Ryzhikov afterwards. “Once we conceded the equaliser I thought that was it, but we pulled it off. We’re champions, it’s unbelievable.”
Berdyev added: "Thank God, we've finally become champions! It was a long journey to get to this success. We're very happy."
The 56-year-old tutor and his mature students had put Turkmen coaching and a city celebrated for its captivatingly mysterious leaning tower on the footballing map. A ravishingly unique silver-and-gold trophy and UEFA Champions League football had guaranteed that.