Have you ever heard of a coach who resigned in disgust but continued to work as an assistant to his own assistant, helping the team to the greatest achievement in its history?
You might understand that Rostov's qualification for the Champions League group stage -- where they were drawn against Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and PSV Eindhoven in Group D -- is a huge sensation, but it is difficult to fully grasp its proportions. The circumstances of the triumph are unique in their strangeness. The saga surrounding Kurban Berdyev, the one and only architect of the team, truly defies belief. It sounds like an over-imaginative Hollywood script.
The very fact that Berdyev took over at Rostov in December 2014 was surprising. He was considered one of the best coaches in Russia. He built Rubin Kazan from scratch, turned the modest club into a real force, won two Russian championships in 2008 and 2009 and proceeded to claim some very good results in Europe, including a 2-1 win at Barcelona in 2009.
When Berdyev was forced out at Rubin in late 2013, he was expected to sign for a big club or try his luck abroad. Instead, he waited for a year before arriving at Rostov, who were in very deep crisis. Rock bottom, with a porous defensive record and total managerial chaos, they looked certain to go down. On the face of it, Rostov were the worst possible choice for Berdyev.
And yet, the coach again proved that he is a true magician.
After saving Rostov from relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2015, he turned them into the most organised team in the league in 2015-16. He convinced players who worked under him at Rubin to come to Rostov; most importantly Ecuadorian midfield general Christian Noboa, young Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun and veteran Spanish stopper Cesar Navas. Together, they produced a seemingly impossible title challenge, and the dream was alive until the very last second on the final matchday.
Eventually, CSKA Moscow denied them and were crowned champions, but Rostov managed to finish ahead of the Gazprom-owned giants Zenit St Petersburg, whom they thrashed 3-0 in the crunch game of the season, without conceding a single corner, let alone a shot on goal. Zenit had to be content with playing in the Europa League and sold Hulk to Shanghai SIPG. Rostov were through to the Champions League qualifiers.
The improbable success was achieved despite the fact the club was still poorly managed and in desperately poor financial situation. Salaries were delayed and the club's future was always in doubt. Berdyev not only worked with his players as a coach, but had to deal with countless logistical problems on a daily basis, and even looked for sponsors himself. That is why he demanded to dramatically improve the situation in order to continue, while Spartak Moscow owner Leonid Fedun made a lucrative offer.
An agreement was only reached in late June, less than a month before the club started the season. After a decisive meeting with the Rostov regional governor Vasily Golubev, Berdyev signed a new two-year contract. He was promised that things would change, but the promises were not kept. The salaries still went unpaid, the debt remained huge and the club couldn't even sign new players, leaving them with a very thin squad.
And thus, Berdyev chose to leave. Rumours about the imminent departure circulated before the games against Anderlecht in the Champions League qualifiers, and they were made official after Rostov sensationally won 2-0 in Brussels in the return leg.
"The decision was taken before the games, and the club was informed about it", Berdyev said. Just 24 hours prior to the announcement, Spartak lost to AEK Larnaca in Europa League qualifiers and fired coach Dmitry Alenichev, and that's when a crazy story became much crazier.
For a few days, it looked certain that Berdyev would sign for Spartak, and take the best Rostov players with him. Noboa made his intentions clear: "I came to Rostov because of the coach, and will probably leave now that he has left."
The Ecuadorian was supposed to move to Spartak, alongside Azmoun and talented Russian players like Ivan Novoseltsev and Fyodor Kudryashov. Without Berdyev, there was no reason for other players to stay at Rostov as well, because they were not getting paid. Star defender Bastos, who was initially kept because Berdyev found a sponsor to fund his contract, was sold to Lazio earlier this month.
Fans and players gave Berdyev an emotional farewell. At the league game against Ural, his name was constantly chanted in the stands throughout the whole 90 minutes, and the players threw him in the air after the final whistle. The coach organised a gala dinner in order to say goodbye to his adoring proteges. Berdyev's assistant, Dmitry Kirichenko, was named the interim coach as the club started searching for a long-term successor.
That should have been the end of the Rostov fairytale, but it wasn't because, incredibly, Berdyev stayed.
It is impossible to fully understand what went on, but Berdyev was seen in the stands when Rostov played at Zenit two weeks ago, wearing club garb. Then UEFA announced that Rostov listed Berdyev as Kirichenko's assistant ahead of the games against Ajax. Rumours started to circulate that the veteran coach would travel to Amsterdam with the team, and that was indeed the case. Berdyev prepared Rostov for the big clash, and that was very bad news for the Dutch. The Russians drew 1-1 and became favourites ahead of the return leg.
At the same time, the negotiations with Spartak became extremely difficult. Fedun failed to meet Berdyev's demands, and the Spartak deal collapsed on Wednesday. Massimo Carrera, who had worked under Antonio Conte at Juventus and Italy, was named coach at Spartak, while Berdyev began talks with Lokomotiv Moscow, but still prepared Rostov for the return leg against Ajax, as a "consultant".
"His role doesn't matter," Kirichenko said on Tuesday. "Berdyev continues to work with us like before. He helps us very much." He was nowhere to be seen in the stands when Rostov thrashed Ajax 4-1 on Wednesday, the biggest night in the club's history, but it was obvious that it was his triumph. He made this team.
Without Berdyev, Rostov would've been relegated in 2015. Instead, the ecstatic city in southern Russia is preparing to host Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and PSV Eindohoven in Europe's most lucrative competition. The turnaround couldn't have been sharper, but it is still unknown if the tactical genius, who celebrated his 64th birthday on Thursday, will continue working with the team
Will Berdyev officially return? Will he sign for Lokomotiv instead? If so, which players will remain at the club? Are they ready to leave now, before the biggest games of their careers? Is the club capable of keeping anyone?
All those questions remain, and they will be answered before the transfer window closes on Aug. 31. If Berdyev stays, Rostov must not be underestimated, and they could make quite a few headlines in the autumn. If he leaves, the club could fall apart. Anything is possible.