A game in history and the tradition of defeat in Russia
Simon Kuper | 07 Jun, 2018
IN 1992 I spent a month having the traditional foreign journalist’s experience of confusion while getting lost around Moscow. The city’s size, greyness and filth were reminiscent of South London circa 1976, but otherwise the place felt alien. Then, one Sunday afternoon, some Russians took a few of us Brits to the Spartak Moscow vs CSKA derby in the giant Luzhniki Stadium, with the statue of Lenin in front. ‘Horses! Horses!’ the Spartak fans chanted at the CSKA fans, on the logic that CSKA was the army club, and army equals cavalry equals horses.
It was a gorgeous sunny day in August (already autumn in Moscow), and I realised that this was the perfect Russian tourist event: it was an authentic Russian occasion, because the game wasn’t being staged for our benefit, and in fact nobody even cared that we were there; there were real local passions on display; good football; and all that for about three pence. On June 14th, on the same spot, Russia and Saudi Arabia will kick off the World Cup 2018—albeit in a stadium expensively rebuilt from scratch for the tournament after the old Luzhniki was razed.
Football still renders Russia a little less incomprehensible. The game—past and present—offers a surprising window onto the country. For most of the last century, the game had a significance for Russian fans that it lacked in happier, freer countries.
British merchants introduced the game in Tsarist St Petersburg. Later, two northern English textile manufacturers, Clement and Harry Charnock, brought football to Moscow. In 1893 they set up the Orekhovo Sport Club for their local factory workers. After the 1917 Revolution, Felix Dzherzinsky, head of Lenin’s secret police, rechristened the club Dynamo Moscow, which it remains to this day. One Charnock tradition survives: Dynamo still play in the blue-and-white of the brothers’ beloved Blackburn Rovers. The Charnocks had brought over kits from home.
In the early 1900s, Russia’s male urban masses began falling for the game. Andrei Starostin—one of four brothers who make up Russian football’s most storied family—reminisced much later about taking a tram as a ten-year-old across a rapacious and drunken pre-Revolutionary Moscow, his ten-kopeck piece to pay for his match ticket safely hidden in his mouth, until he swallowed it. Soon afterwards, Andrei’s elder brother Nikolai and some friends founded the club that under the name Spartak would become the most beloved in Russia.
During Stalin’s forced industrialisation in the 1930s, peasants flocked to the growing cities. About the only thing that gave them a sense of belonging there was supporting a football club. In the terrible years of Stalin’s purges, just before the equally terrible German invasion, the stadium was a haven. It was about the only place in Stalin’s USSR where you could shout and feel almost whatever you liked. ‘Not one match have I missed in the last few years,’ wrote the composer Dimitri Shostakovich to a friend in 1940. He kept stats on the Leningrad clubs Zenit and Dynamo, and followed them to away games.
During Stalin’s 1930s, peasants flocked to the growing cities. About the only thing that gave them a sense of belonging there was supporting a football club
In Moscow, Dynamo was the club of the secret police, CSKA of the army, but Spartak didn’t belong to any Soviet institution. Fans who chose to support it—one of the very rare choices in Soviet life—felt they had created a sphere of autonomy. Between 1936 and 1940, Spartak’s average home attendance nearly doubled to 53,900. Nikolai Starostin wrote: ‘For most people, football was the only, and sometimes the last, chance and hope of retaining in their souls a tiny island of sincere feelings and human relations.’
But Starostin spent these years waiting to be arrested. Stalin’s football-mad secret police chief Lavrenti Beria had put himself in charge of Spartak’s great rival, Dynamo Moscow. To quote the American historian Robert Edelman, it was as if the owner of the New York Yankees, head of the FBI and chief of the Gestapo had all been rolled into one single human.
Finally, one night in 1942, Starostin was woken by a torch shining in his eyes and two pistols pointed at his head. He was accused of plotting with the German embassy to assassinate Stalin and turn Russia into fascist state.
But, explains Starostin in his not totally reliable memoirs, he and his brothers were too popular to be killed. Instead they were given ten years each in Siberia—such a mild sentence that it seemed almost a let-off. They had more fun in the gulags than most. Nikolai saw ‘hills of corpses’ in his first camp, but was greeted as a celebrity and quickly appointed camp football coach. ‘Even inveterate recidivists would sit quiet as mice to listen to my football stories,’ he wrote. As for the camp bosses: ‘Their unlimited power over people was nothing compared with the power of football over them.’ The poet Osip Mandelstam died in the gulag, but all four Starostins survived their camp years in relative comfort. They were released in 1954, and returned to their old apartments. Nikolai would serve as Spartak’s president from 1955 until 1992, the year after the USSR collapsed.
Throughout those decades, football remained a source of frustration for the state’s rulers. They had worked out how to win in Olympic sports: toddlers with the ideal body shape for a particular sport would be picked out, trained up for years, and stuffed with doping. But the method didn’t work well with football. Stalin even dissolved the national team after its failure in the 1952 Olympics. In his words: “If you are not ready, you do not need to participate.”
The Sbornaya, as the national team is known, won the inaugural European Championship in 1960 in which few countries bothered to participate. But after that, the team consistently underperformed. It suffered from the USSR’s harsh climate, the state’s international isolation, the lack of any football tradition in many regions, but also from the dictatorial nature of Soviet workplaces. The coach was the boss and players had to obey unthinkingly. For decades, they displayed the ‘I only work here’ demeanour of Homo sovieticus. They shoved safe square passes into each other’s feet, because that way nobody could ever shout at them. There was zaorganizovannost, over-organisation, and none of the creativity that wins World Cups.
With Communism gone, the stadium ceased to be a rare zone of freedom, and newly impoverished Russians stopped going
Only in the late 1980s did the Sbornaya experience a brief flowering. The brilliant, vodka-sodden Ukrainian coach Valeri Lobanovski built a great team at Dynamo Kiev, modelled on the Western free-thinking Dutch. In international tournaments most of his Ukrainians would play as the national team, albeit, as the Soviet joke went, ‘weakened by a few players from other clubs’. The USSR reached the European Championship final in 1988, and won Olympic gold that same summer.
In football, as in life in general, the first post- Soviet decade was criminal and poor. Moscow spent the 1990s transforming from post-communism to late-capitalism (the exact opposite of Marx’s prophesy). Players were squeezed between mafiosi telling them which matches to lose, and Soviet-era coaches still screaming at them. There was a spate of football murders, most notably the gunning-down of Spartak’s director- general Larissa Nechayeva and her aide in her dacha (a Russian country house) in 1997. (Nikolai Starostin had died the year before, aged 93.)
With communism gone, the stadium ceased to be a rare zone of freedom, and newly impoverished Russians stopped going. Many of those who stayed loyal to football were hooligans—an aspirational identity for many Russian boys, just as many girls told pollsters they wanted to be prostitutes when they grew up. The riots in Moscow after Russia lost to Japan at the World Cup 2002—two people were killed, and Japanese music students attacked, while Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese hid in a downtown McDonald’s—were merely versions of the race riots common after Spartak matches.
In 2002, I went to a league match at the Luzhniki. Virtually the only human figure visible outside the stadium just before kick-off was Lenin’s statue. The 1,000 spectators (about 99 per cent of them men) were guarded by about as many conscript soldiers, who tried to warm themselves with tea from a samovar. At Sportivnaya metro station afterwards, baton-wielding conscripts showed us to the trains.
Gradually the violence of the 1990s faded— one reason why most Russians still support Vladimir Putin, president since 1999. His anointed oligarchs bought football clubs and imported foreign stars. From 2000, the Russian economy boomed as the oil price rose. Russia’s relations with the West warmed. On May 21st, 2008, Moscow staged its first ever Champions League final, Chelsea vs Manchester United. That week may have been the peak of Russian international modernity. The Moscow stock market hit a record high that it wouldn’t return to for years afterward, and for the first time in centuries, visitors were allowed into Russia without a visa; showing a match ticket was enough. Putin’s security forces invited 40,000 English supporters to party at Red Square. None was arrested.
The Sbornaya won the inaugural European Championship in 1960. After that, the team consistently underperformed
One Russian security officer later described working three consecutive sleepless nights around the match. The day after, he slept until evening. He was woken by a phone call from a friend, who joked, “I have good news. From now on the Champions League final will be held in Moscow every year.” And the official said, “I’d be very happy with that.”
Even the Sbornaya peaked in summer 2008. They reached the semi-finals of the European Championship, and their freewheeling play under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink prompted Moscow’s largest spontaneous street parties since 1945. In the euphoria, Putin decided to bid to host the World Cup 2018. Like most Russians, he isn’t a football fan; he prefers judo and ice hockey. However, he probably conceived of the World Cup as his coming-out as a respected member of the international community—his version of China’s 2008 Beijing Olympics. He probably even thought the Sbornaya could win playing at home. He personally met several members of FIFA’s executive committee, and on December 2nd, 2010, in Zurich, Russia was chosen as host. Were bribes paid? Nobody knows, partly because when FIFA’s ethics committee asked to see the Russian football federation’s computers, the Russians explained that unfortunately they had all been destroyed after the bid.
In the decade since Putin’s decision to bid, the international climate has transformed. Now he is the West’s pariah, after his invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 and subsequent meddling in various Western elections (most spectacularly on Donald Trump’s behalf). Very few Western dignitaries will come to the tournament. But Putin will have to put up with thousands of mostly critical foreign journalists poking around the country for a month—probably the largest international media contingent ever to be let into Russia.
He may also fail to impress the constituency that he cares most about: Russians. Many of them have noticed that the World Cup has already enriched his cronies. Most spectacularly, his hometown St Petersburg now boasts the most expensive stadium ever constructed, delivered years late at a cost of $1 billion, despite being partly built by North Korean labour. Russian social media are full of grumbles about overpriced stadiums.
Meanwhile, the Sbornaya just keep getting worse. Their FIFA ranking is now 66, their lowest ever. By chance (or perhaps not) they have been drawn into a group that statisticians have identified as the weakest in the World Cup’s history, with Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Still, only 4 per cent of Russians now believe their team will win the tournament, according to a poll by the state-backed Public Opinion Fund in April.
Naturally, the state has tried its traditional sporting remedy: doping. The McLaren report for the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2016 spoke of more than 150 suspicious doping tests of Russian footballers. It suggested there was a special ‘urine bank’ containing clean samples for footballers, and implied that the whole Sbornaya squad at the 2014 World Cup may have benefited from manipulation. Even so, Russia exited that tournament in the first round. Doping is of limited use in skill-based, tactical football.
No wonder Putin is keeping his distance from the team, while the Russian media play down the World Cup. There’s no equivalent of the ‘One Nation-One Team’ PR campaign rolled out for the Sochi Olympics of 2014.
Football’s traditional function in Russia is to provide a little innocent happiness. No doubt the World Cup will achieve that, especially for Russia’s upmarket urban young, who tend to prefer foreign stars to the national game. Putin will have a month to parade in front of a bitter West. But the traditional outcome of football in Russia is defeat.