Denisov finally returns for Zenit, but true cost of his strike still unclear

Zenit St Petersburg's summer spending hasn't gone entirely to plan, as Eastern European football writer Marcus Haydon explains...

After a handshake and a hug from his manager, he was ready to go. A smattering of applause was largely drowned out by whistles of discontent as the fourth official raised his board to mark the substitution.

Igor Denisov had not appeared for Zenit St Petersburg in 45 days; not since the team’s 3-0 defeat to Malaga in the Champions League back in September. He’d not been injured or suspended - just on strike. Last Saturday’s appearance against Rostov brought that ‘industrial action’ to an end, but the situation remains largely unresolved.

Denisov’s protest had been sparked by the €80 million arrival of Porto’s Hulk and Benfica’s Axel Witsel, with the new recruits reportedly awarded contracts well in excess of any of the existing Zenit squad. Denisov - who in the process of negotiating an extension to his current deal - felt the move was disrespectful to the players who have helped the club claim consecutive league titles and promptly refused to play for the team.

“[Denisov], in the style of an ultimatum, refused to go onto the pitch in the match against Krylya Sovetov, demanding a review of his personal contract,” stated Zenit’s official website. “By breaking his contract with the club, Denisov is behaving unprofessionally and moreover discrediting himself as a player of the club and the Russian national team and doing serious damage to his reputation.”

Denisov featured for Zenit in this week's Champions League loss to Anderlecht

“His wage is one of the highest not just at Zenit football club, but in the whole of the Russian championship,” the club added. “The wage is appropriate for a player of Igor’s high level.”

Denisov wasn’t alone in making a stand, his colleague Aleksandr Kerzhakov was also briefly banished to the reserve team. The two players received a mixed reaction from fans and the media, one which was pre-conditioned by the fact that both were part of the Russia squad that was accused of greed and complacency following their premature exit from the European Championships last summer. A survey run by the sports daily Sovetsky Sport found that only 7% of readers believed that Zenit had been too harsh in their expelling of the pair.

The timing of Denisov’s toy-throwing was particularly awkward for Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti. His team had flown out of the blocks in their title defence by winning their first four matches - including a comprehensive 5-0 thrashing of Spartak Moscow, considered by many to be one Zenit’s main challengers for the title. However, the defeat to Malaga had left them with just one win in five and saw both the manager and his team come under scrutiny, especially given the club's gigantic transfer outlay.

As Zenit continued to struggle on the field, the stalemate off it continued. Russia coach Fabio Capello must have had a sense of déjà vu as he once again found himself in a quandary over how to deal with an off-field controversy surrounding his national team captain. But unlike with the English FA’s handling of the (more recent) John Terry affair, Capello was left to decide for himself whether Denisov would remain available for selection. He kept faith with the rebelling player, calling him up for the World Cup qualifiers against Israel and Northern Ireland despite his lack of game time at club level.

Capello stood by Denisov during the player's 'strike'

The moment of compromise with Zenit arrived last week, when Denisov released a statement following talks with the clubs leadership. "I made the wrong decision,” admitted the midfielder. “But it took time to understand it all. My behaviour was incorrect in that situation, and I was too emotional. As a result I couldn’t help my teammates and fulfil the expectations of our loyal fans. I have a valid contract, and I have to and want to work for the club until the end of the contract.”

The admission was satisfactory for the club, who reinstated him in the first-team, but others were less convinced. One correspondent took some time to read between the lines, a skill many Russians developed during the era of anodyne Communist Party statements. The absence of an actual apology was noted, as was the fact that Denisov’s initial contract dispute remained unresolved.

“What are the terms of this truce?” asked the columnist Evgeny Lovchev. “If the club is willing to increase wages and that was the main condition to issue a statement, then we go in the direction of chaos because this information is sure to known by the other players.”

As Lovchev implies, Zenit are no doubt aware of the risk of ceding to Denisov’s demands. A substantial salary increase would set a dangerous precedent for future contract negotiations with his teammates. The issue may have been convoluted and damaging to Denisov’s reputation, but if Zenit accede then he will have got what he wanted. Russian players already benefit from inflated salaries courtesy of the league’s quota system, which requires each team has a minimum of four Russian players in their starting line-up.

For the time being Denisov returns to action amid a complex mixture of handshakes, hugs, claps and jeers. The situation has been reconciled but not resolved. The resolution of Denisov’s contract negotiations, if they are to continue, will determine just how damaging this whole episode has been for Zenit.