Steven Gerrard, Xavi Hernandez, Iker Casillas, Bastian Schweinsteiger. We are witnessing a historic and emotional summer when numerous one-club legends are saying goodbye to fans and opening a new stage in their careers. You should add Andrey Arshavin, who was released by Zenit Saint Petersburg and looks set to join Kuban Krasnodar, to that list as well.
Granted, Arshavin is not exactly a one-club player, having represented Arsenal for four years between 2009 and 2013. However, he has always been considered as such in Russia. Arshavin is Zenit through and through, and it is nearly impossible to imagine him wearing a shirt of another Russian club.
His departure from the club in controversial circumstances has left an extremely sour taste in fans' mouths, just like Casillas' sad exit from Real Madrid. By the time he was shown the door by coach Andre Villas-Boas and Zenit senior management, a significant portion of fans became disappointed with his attitude and performances, and many wanted to see him go, but the whole city is in a state of shock nevertheless. In a perfect world, that would never have been allowed to happen.
To fully understand Arshavin's significance to Zenit, one has to know the history. Gazprom, one of the largest natural gas companies in the world, only acquired the team less than a decade ago, in December 2005. Before that, Zenit were perennial underdogs, who rarely came even close to the top and believed that there was a conspiracy against them in the FA.
As Vlastimil Petrzela, the likable Czech coach who built a very attractive side in St Petersburg, famously put it in May 2005 after a serious refereeing mistake robbed his team of a win, "Zenit will never be champions. Never." Naturally, few hated them across Russia, and they were quite popular with neutrals.
Arshavin was just three years of age when Zenit won their only championship title in the Soviet era in 1984. The stunning success was achieved with a backbone of local players, all born in Leningrad -- Yuri Zheludkov, Valery Broshin, Arkadi Afanasyev, Vladimir Klementyev, Sergei Dmitriev, Sergei Vedeneev, Dmitri Barannik, Boris Chukhlov, Vladimir Dolgopolov, Sergei Kuznetsov and Nikolai Larionov.
Ever since, fans waited for a new generation of stars to grow at the club's doorstep and lift the trophy. It was not an obsession, but rather a sacred dream few believed was possible. For years, Zenit were underachieving, even suffering two relegations. Then, at the turn of the century, Arshavin appeared as the city's ultimate golden boy.
Born in Leningrad, he started playing in the academy at age seven. A dozen years later, veteran coach Yuri Morozov, who was admired for having a very good eye for talent, gave the youngster his debut for Zenit. "Shava", as he was nicknamed in the very early days, made incredibly fast progress. By 2001, he was already one of the top players in the league, as Zenit finished third. Having developed phenomenal understanding with his close friend, striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Arshavin was everyone's darling. Ambitious but humble, with a somewhat naive look in his eyes, he was impossible not to like.
The whole nation wanted Shava to go to the World Cup in 2002, and everyone was disappointed when he was left behind, even though Kerzhakov made the squad. In 2003, Arshavin scored five goals and provided 10 assists as Zenit managed to finish in second place -- their best-ever position but for 1984. A star was born, and he dearly wanted to rewrite history and make Zenit the best team in the country. St Petersburg fans were ecstatic.
Eventually, titles only came after the Gazprom takeover, but it didn't really matter in the beginning of the new era. Arshavin was the best player in 2007, when Zenit pipped Spartak Moscow in a dramatic finale and were crowned champions. They still were not considered too rich back then, and their success in the UEFA Cup in 2008 came as a big surprise. Shava made 10 assists en route to the triumph, and scored four goals as well.
Then, that very summer, he took Europe by storm at Euro 2008. His magical performance in the quarterfinal against the Netherlands was one of the best the tournament has ever witnessed. Suddenly, the local boy from St Petersburg was about to become one of the best players in the world. Top clubs queued up to sign him, and his childhood dream of playing for Barcelona could have become reality if Zenit didn't refuse to sell him. In the end, he was off to Arsene Wenger's team, about to score four goals at Anfield.
As time went by, Arshavin's reputation suffered huge setbacks. One can say that Shava and Zenit gradually went down the same path -- they became too rich, too arrogant and overconfident. They lost their youthful and rosy-cheeked appeal. They took success for granted. They thought that money could buy them everything, that misbehaviour would always be forgiven because they were too powerful. Both club and player were wrong, especially Arshavin. Very few neutrals like them now.
Instead of using the bright start at Arsenal to become a star in the Premier League, Arshavin played worse and worse. Russia fans accused him of laziness as well, when Guus Hiddink's team sensationally lost to Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup playoffs, which meant that Shava would once again not grace the biggest tournament on earth.
Arshavin provided three assists at Euro 2012, but Russia lost to Greece in the last game of the group stage and meekly went out. He was then made a scapegoat when telling an angry fan: "It's not our problem that we didn't meet your expectations. It's your problem." A couple of months later, he played his last game for the national team. Russia boss Fabio Capello discarded him and never used him again.
Nevertheless, it was always crystal clear that Arshavin would return to Zenit when his time at Arsenal ended. He was loaned to his beloved club in the beginning of 2012, and eventually signed a permanent deal in the summer of 2013. His form was not sparkling to say the least, and Villas-Boas, who arrived at Zenit in March 2014, rarely used him.
Last season was fairly humiliating for the former star, who became a peripheral figure on the bench. The Portuguese coach gave him a rare start in an unusual position as a centre-forward in the big game versus Dynamo Moscow in September, and Arshavin provided a promising performance, scoring his only goal of the season in a 3-2 win, but for some reason that didn't help him at all. Shava only started four games in 2014-15, and his attitude wasn't always positive.
Many Zenit fans were angry at him for taking home a generous salary while contributing next to nothing. Many started to dislike him. And yet, all of them still loved him and felt sorry for him. They didn't adore the current version of Arshavin, but rather the younger one, and it is absolutely impossible for anyone in St Petersburg to forget the old days. That is why his presence at the club was so essential.
The departure was heartbreakingly brutal. As Arshavin's contract expired, Villas-Boas laconically announced that it will not be renewed. At the same time, the Portuguese said that Anatoly Timoshchuk, the captain of the 2007 champions, would also leave the club, while Kerzhakov didn't figure in his plans either. Three legends were cut out at once. It was way too much for Zenit faithful to stomach.
Arshavin was offered a coaching role at Zenit, but refused it. "I want to thank the fans who warmly received me and supported me during my loan spell and my second coming to the club. I would like to ask for their forgiveness if my game and my behaviour off the pitch disappointed them," the 34-year-old said.
He will now continue his career at a modest Kuban, who are not the best managed club in the league, and his chances of recovering his best form in such surroundings are rather low. Some would say that retirement in Zenit shirt would have been a better decision, but the player himself feels otherwise, and he wants to prove Villas-Boas and Gazprom management wrong.
As Shava walks away from his beloved city, he leaves a huge void behind him. His last years might have been poor, but fans feel that he should have been treated more respectfully. In fact, the way in which Zenit discarded their legends shows that little heart is left at the club and perfectly highlights what has been lost during the years of Gazprom.
The club from St Petersburg are able to spend fortunes on the likes of Hulk and Axel Witsel. They are relatively successful on the local stage, having won the league in 2010, 2012 and 2015. That is true, and yet many fans nostalgically cherish the memories of the days in the beginning of the century, when young local boys ran wild on the pitch and the club had much more soul. Those were times when the title seemed unreachable, but the supporters were happy nevertheless. It was easier for them to identify with that team.
Those were the days of the real Arshavin. He is gone now, rich and spoiled, and Zenit's innocence is gone forever with him.