Hulk to Zenit St. Petersburg: Russian Champions Make Statement of Intent

Michael Cummings@MikeCummings37World Football Lead WriterSeptember 4, 2012

PORTO, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 25:  Hulk (L) of FC Porto is challenged during the Liga Zon Sagres match between FC Porto and Vitoria Guimaraes at Estadio do Dragao on August 25, 2012 in Porto, Portugal.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

The news was stunning, both because of the names and figures involved and for what it meant.

First, the names and figures involved.

On Tuesday, Zenit St. Petersburg announced the signings of Brazilian winger/forward Hulk from Porto and Brazilian midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica (via The Guardian). Both players reportedly cost €40 million, for a total outlay of €80 million—or about £64 million.

Now, what it means.

Zenit, the two-time defending champions of the Russian Premier League, are no longer content with winning in Russia. Zenit and GAZPROM, a Russian energy company that bought a controlling stake in the club in 2005 (via St. Petersburg Times), have set their sights on Europe.

Spending increased immediately under GAZPROM, with the arrivals of high-priced foreign imports like Turkish international Fatih Tekke and South Koreans Kim Dong-Jin and Lee Ho (via UEFA Magazine).

This takes things to a lavish new level.

Hulk, 26, is a game-changer, a powerful, creative attacker powerful with a lethal left foot. Quite simply, he could start for almost any club in the world and the long-term pursuit of European champions Chelsea suggested just that.

That Hulk would cost €40 million is no surprise. The surprises are that Witsel cost the same amount, that both Porto and Benfica decided to sell and that Zenit bucked up for both.

Witsel, 23, has made 30 appearances for Belgium's senior national team and his precocious skills are well-documented. But €40 million is a lot of money for any player, and even Hulk apparently was surprised by the deal.

Hulk: "I wasn't expecting this. I had no reasons to leave, but my agent informed me FC Porto and Zenit have reached a deal" (@joao_ruela) -W

— Transfer Central TNC (@TransferNewsCen) September 3, 2012

The same probably could be said for most fans and even most European clubs. For all of GAZPROM's money—and they reportedly have buckets of it—Tuesday's news was as stunning as it was purposeful.

That purpose was to send Zenit's aggressive new message out to the continent. On that point, Zenit have succeeded, but now the question emerges: Will it work?

Zenit reached the round of 16 in last year's Champions League before losing to Witsel's Benfica. That team featured some impressive talent, including goalkeeper and captain Vyacheslav Malafeev, defenders Bruno Alves and Domenico Criscito and forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

Manager Luciano Spalletti has been with the club since 2009 and has molded the team into Russia's best. With this latest infusion of cash and talent, could a run at Europe come next?

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