BREMEN, GERMANY – Within hours of the official announcement of Andrei Arshavin's return to Zenit St. Petersburg , whom he left to join Arsenal in January 2009, the Russian club's 15 merchandise stores had already begun selling replica shirts emblazoned with his name and squad number (29).
Fans were snapping them up despite the eye-watering price of RR3,210 (US$110). After all, Zenit have to balance the books, particularly after reportedly shelling out $1.6 million to Arshavin for his five-month loan.
"Arshavin's popularity in St. Petersburg and Russia is very high," Eduard Sidelnikov, the head of Zenit's merchandising arm, happily told the Izvestia newspaper. "Shirts with his name on [them] sold very well even when he was at Arsenal."
Arshavin's baby-faced features are ubiquitous throughout Russia. Whether it's advertising potato chips or adorning political billboards, he is everywhere. He's even one of the faces of Vladimir Putin's presidential election campaign.
Such is the Russia-wide craze for all things Arshavin that the player could be forgiven for wishing the last two years of disappointments in North London had never happened. He arrives back in Russia as the country's top sportsman, according to a survey carried out by polling organization VTsIOM (to add to the poll's time-warp quality, boxer Nikolay Valuev, who last fought in November 2009, came third in the same poll).
Adding to the nostalgia, Arshavin rejoins a Zenit side largely unchanged from the one he left three years ago. Yes, there is a new coach (Luciano Spalletti), but astonishingly, nine out of the 13 players who appeared alongside Arshavin in his last Zenit game in November 2008 are still regulars. Compare that with Arsenal, where only Robin van Persie, Alex Song, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna remain first-team stalwarts from Arshavin's debut game for the club. It's as if time has stood still in St. Petersburg as the city awaited the return of their favorite son.
Beyond the superficial, things have changed for Arshavin in Russia. For the first time since 2005, there have been question marks over whether he should be included (never mind wear the captain's armband) in the Russian national team. There are even some who suggest Arshavin will never reach the heights he did in 2008-09, when he inspired Russia to their third place in the European Championships and became the first away player for 63 years to score four times at Anfield.
"It will be . . . difficult for Arshavin," former Russia international striker Sergey Yuran told the Sport Express newspaper. "The fans in St. Petersburg will expect miracles from him on the field. But that often inhibits a player and stops them from playing to their full capacity. So there's a possibility that the loan of Andrei to Zenit from Arsenal could be an error."
Others have been more forthright. "It's not clear to what degree Andrei Arshavin, in his current condition - whatever that entails - is really able to play to that level," Vasily Utkin, a noted commentator in Russia, wrote this week. Arshavin's "current condition", incidentally, was discovered by Russian national team boss Dick Advocaat this week after the player reported for duty ahead of an international friendly against Denmark - he had apparently put on 5 kg since last autumn. That will not help Arshavin's aim of securing his place at Euro 2012, though it would take a braver man than Dick Advocaat - who is widely derided in Russia for only selecting 'favorites' for his squads - to drop Arshavin.
Having said that, Arshavin is by no means guaranteed a place in Zenit's starting lineup, either. Ostensibly the club sought his return following a knee injury suffered by their star playmaker, Portuguese international Danny, in training last month. Danny is set to be on the sidelines for five to six months, by which point Arshavin's temporary deal will have run its course. But in Danny's absence, and having yet to sign Arshavin, Zenit put in a superb performance in Champions League, defeating Benfica 3-2 a fortnight ago.
Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti seems reluctant to tinker with his squad to accommodate his new signing. "[Arshavin] has to be ready to work for the team, because Zenit has one very important quality - a balance between attack and defence," Spalletti told Zenit's official website. "I absolutely do not want this quality to be lost."
The sense of change will really hit home to Arshavin on Saturday when league-leading Zenit travel to Moscow to face second place CSKA. He will experience first-hand the novelty of Russia's new footballing calendar, as the country's domestic league completes its switch from a summer to a winter season.
The 2011-12 Russian Premier League is a 44-game marathon contested over 18 months, and Arshavin jets in just in time to help Zenit's title push. His side are six points ahead of CSKA with 12 games to go, but in an exciting twist to the championship run-in, the top eight sides in the league will play matches only against one another, rather than the relegation candidates, until the end of the season.
That means no easy games for Zenit and a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for Arshavin. It's great for fans, who get to see games between the top sides every week from now on, but it makes the former Arsenal man's acclimatization all the more tricky. He will only have one training session with his Zenit teammates before his return match.
CSKA have had their own changing of the guard this winter, with the departure back to Brazil of iconic striker Vagner Love after more than seven years in the Russian capital. The highest-scoring foreigner in the history of the Russian league, Love had in recent seasons become more famous for his beaded hair and party-hard lifestyle than his goal-scoring. After CSKA found a more than able replacement two years ago in Ivorian Seydou Doumbia (who broke Russia's single-season goal-scoring record last year with 24 goals in 30 appearances), Love was deemed surplus to requirements. The Moscow club's fans loved him, but his loss wasn't mourned much given his indifferent form on the field.
Looking back on his departure from Arsenal, that's probably a feeling Arshavin knows rather well.