Zenit reveals ambition with Hulk swoop
Zenit St Petersburg stunned football by signing Brazilian star Hulk hours before the Champions League eligibility deadline, in a sign the Russian champions' ambitions go well beyond the domestic game.
In the highest-spending moves in the history of Russian football, Zenit grabbed not only Hulk from Porto but also Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel from fellow Portuguese side Benfica in deals worth a reported total of 100 million euros.
While the Russian game has seen an influx of ageing foreign superstars as well as decent African and Latin American players, capturing a player of the quality of 26-year-old marksman Hulk shows a new level of ambition.
Once the poor relation of the big Moscow sides, Zenit's fortunes have been transformed by funding from state gas giant Gazprom. Signing players like Hulk show it will no longer be content only with success in the Russian league.
Adding the two new stars to a squad that already includes Portuguese internationals Bruno Alves and Danny as well as Italian Domenico Criscito, Zenit will be looking to make a major impact in the Champions' League.
They should be helped by a relatively weak group with Anderlecht, Malaga and AC Milan. While Zenit were the 2008 Uefa Cup winners, no Russian or Soviet side has ever won the Champions' League or its predecessor the European Cup.
"Zenit has won the last two Russian championships but the team wants serious results in the Champions League. Until now it was going to get no further than the quarter finals," said sports journalist and editor at the Moscow Echo Radio Station Anton Orekh.
"Zenit wanted a star of global stature to compete at a European level," he told AFP.
The move to Zenit was a complete surprise for Hulk himself but he appeared thrilled by prospect of moving to Russia.
"On Friday the transfer market was closed and I was preparing myself for another season in Porto but my agent told me that the club was set to sell me to Zenit," Hulk was quoted as saying by Portuguese media.
"It was a terrific proposal both for Porto and for me. It was an unexpected move but I'm ready for this new challenge."
Hulk's agent Teodoro Fonseca, told Portuguese agency Lusa that the transfer fee was 60 million euros, while the Witsel transfer cost Zenit a confirmed 40 million euros from Porto's bitter domestic rivals Benfica.
Russian daily Sport Express gave a slightly lower figure, quoting an unnamed Zenit club source, that Zenit would pay Porto around 40 million euros in several instalments over three years.
In a sign of the quality of the St Petersburg outfit, the club has made no effort to keep the services of its former talismanic striker Andrei Arshavin who made a couple of appearances on loan from Arsenal last season.
But there is no shortage of free-spending ambition in Russian football, despite a range of systemic problems with its youth system which appear to be behind the national side's recent failures.
Another upstart Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala has caused a stir on the international transfer market thanks to financial backing by Russian metals and oil tycoon Suleiman Kerimov.
Anzhi, founded in 1991, had little success in Russian football until being acquired by the Kerimov last year and going on a spending spree that landed Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o and Brazilian veteran Roberto Carlos.
In the last days, Anzhi signed French midfielder Lassana Diarra from Real Madrid.
Furthermore, Kerimov lured Dutch guru Guus Hiddink to manage Anzhi on a reported net annual salary of 10 million euros.
The more modest signings of Moscow giants Spartak and CSKA -- owned by businessmen Leonid Fedun and Yevgeny Giner respectively -- have been left in the shadows by the high-spending of their Saint Petersburg and Makhachkala rivals.
However Moscow side Lokomotiv -- funded by the state railway -- has made waves by signing former Croatian national coach Slaven Bilic as its manager.
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