Giant Killers: 1944 Zenit Leningrad

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst IApril 29, 2009

When I heard about the "Giant Killers" series, I felt that I could contribute a new angle to this delicious topic. So, I thought this was an upset story that not many realized.

This football match wasn't just about the game being played, but about the city they were playing for. In it's darkest hours, a band of survivors traveled to Moscow in attempt to accomplish an unthinkable feat.

Let's turn back the pages a few times.

It's the winter of 1943-1944 and the city of Leningrad had been under seige by Nazi Germany for over two years. After turning on his former promises, Adolf Hitler declares that "St. Petersburg must be erased from the face of the Earth".

The city was encircled by the Nazis, but not taken. The hardened citizens and soldiers were going to do anything it took to repel the invaders.

However, in the process, the home of the Tsars had been decimated, along with a large portion of its populace. Almost 90 percent of the citizens of Leningrad perished during the 872-day siege.

Among the honored dead were a number of Zenit Leningrad players. Of the 20-man amateur squad made up of mostly of factory workers, half were killed in combat and many of the others were severely wounded.

January 27, 1944 finally came. Possibly the greatest day in the history of Saint Petersburg.

The city itself was nearly eradicated, but the Soviet Cup was going to be held again in April. And Zenit Leningrad barely had anyone to put on the field.

Manager Konstantin Lemeshov did his best to assemble a squad, but many had not done much more than kick a ball around casually.

After a couple months of training, the team set off for Moscow, expecting to get blown out. But they were going to make a showing for the city.

Captained by war veteran Ivan Kurenkov, the patchwork squad carried the same skill level as a high school team.

With nothing to lose, Lemeshov's boys faced Dynamo Moscow in the first round. Although Zenit would walk away with the win, the only goal came from an own goal by Dynamo. Lucky.

Next round was a professional side, Spartak Moscow. The crowd was out in full force at Pishcheviki Stadium, to will on the locals.

Spartak stormed out to a 2-0 halftime lead and the game looked to be about in the books. Nikolai Starostin scored both times for Spartak, who had dominated play from the beginning.

But within the 10 minutes after halftime, Zenit had tied the game back up thanks a goal and assist by Kurenkov. With five minutes to go, Zenit's Alexey Pshenichny poked home the game-winning goal to advance Zenit to the USSR Cup match.

Lemeshov and the home town supporters already considered the victory as a success. Even the generally optimistic Kurenkov didn't like their chances against powerhouse CDKA Moscow in the championship.

The "Red Army" was just too good on paper.

Once again, Zenit got behind heading into half, this time down 1-0. The legendary Lieutenant Vsevolod Bobrov scored for CDKA.

CDKA came awful close to scoring again after halftime with a couple misses. With time ticking off the clock, Boris Chuchelov netted the equalizer in the 80th minute of play. Zenit was driven by pure ecstasy at that point, as they continued to push for a possible cup-winning goal.

And they got it.

Nine minutes later, defenseman Sergey Salnikov punched in the winner. A most unlikely source, Salnikov had nearly lost his entire family in the siege. Zenit had defeated the Moscow juggernaut in a ridiculous series of events in the capital city.

Zenit Leningrad logo

For the city of Leningrad, they had a reason to smile for the first time in years, as Salnikov held the USSR Cup high over his head.

For Capt. Kurenkov and the rest of the squad, a half a year had not even passed since they were attempting to survive the siege by eating wallpaper and drinking mud water.

Now they were taking in the sun, basking in the glory of the Cup.