Russian Football: Past, Present and Future

The modern day image of Russian football has come a long way since the days of Soviet rule, communist direction and mass unrest across the country. With the birth of a new nation over two decades ago came an influx of obscene amounts of wealth to the domestic league. The floodgates are well and truly open and as Russia enters the World Cup in Brazil this year, expectation is high to see a return for the country’s investment.

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Welcome to the history of Russian football, a tale of politics, brutal control and a future buoyed by unlimited Rubles. Officially the first ever football match took place in Russia in the cultural capital and most western city, St. Petersburg in 1897. English and Scottish expats working in the city brought their favourite pastime in the late nineteenth century and were instrumental in arranging the fixture between the creatively named St. Petersburg Circle of Lovers of Sport and the Vasilyevsky Island Football Society.

However the game was being played competitively almost a decade earlier; English brothers the Charnock’s owned a village mill outside of Moscow and brought with them football kit; but boots were expensive. As a solution the industrious brothers adapted a machine at their mill and fixed spikes into their shoes.

As the British formed their own football teams, the game took hold; Russians embraced the game and began to establish their own clubs, resulting in the formation of the Moscow Football League in 1890. The Charnock’s team Morozovtsy dominated and won the first five championships.

January 1912 saw the birth of the first official governing body in Russia, the all-Russian Football Union and months later they were accepted on to the world stage as a member of FIFA, the same day losing at the Olympic Games to Finland to mark their debut at an international tournament.

Just five years later the Russian Revolution took hold and Lenin’s Soviet regime was implemented along with a new national title, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The first official RSFSR Football Championship was formed but just three years later in 1923 become obsolete with the formation of the Soviet Union and the brand new shiny USSR Football Championship.

On the international front the USSR comfortably beat Turkey 3-0 in their debut international and, domestically, communism shaped the national league’s success. The four most successful clubs were all based in the capital and controlled by sections of the state; Dynamo Moscow by the KGB, CDKA Moscow by the Red Army, Torpedo Moscow by state car maker ZIL and Lokomotiv Moscow by the Rail Ministry.

Despite football widely going against the principles of communism Lenin avoided abolishing the popular sport and instead controlled it, to keep the support of the public. Pre-World War Two Spartak and Dynamo shared the majority of the honours.

Fast-forward to 1952 and the national team entered their first official tournament, the Olympic Games, and in one exhilarating match came back from 5-1 down against bitter rivals Yugoslavia to draw 5-5. They ultimately lost in a replay.

The brutal leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, had made clear the importance of beating Yugoslavia and in response to the defeat tore apart the army club team CDKA Moscow (that later reformed as CSKA Moscow) that had provided most of the national teams squad. Stalin’s anger was ignited when the fellow communist nation, led by the infamous Tito, severed its ties with Moscow and started to form its own identity.

Much to Stalin’s delight revenge came at the next summer games in Melbourne in 1956 as his nation took gold, beating their rivals 1-0 in the final. Described as the ‘Dream Team’ they reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup and, marking their greatest achievement to date, they won the very first European Championships in France. Once again their opponents in the final were Yugoslavia as they snatched a 2-1 victory in extra-time.

The era also marked the peak of the career of the most celebrated footballer in Russian footballer. Still regarded as the country’s greatest player and arguably the best goalkeeper of all time, Lev Yashin (pictured) had movie-star looks and the reflexes of a gymnast. Yashin would continue to play for the Soviet Union and Dynamo Moscow until 1970, amassing 150 penalty saves and 270 clean sheets.

Remarkably he was not content with his early career performances and in the early 1950s played for the Dynamo Moscow ice hockey team, winning a USSR Ice Hockey Cup in 1953 and honing his already obvious talent. In addition he remains the only goalkeeper to ever win the European Footballer of the Year award in 1963 and in an ode to his chosen dark kit, was nicknamed “The Black Spider” or “The Black Panther”.

A fourth-place finish at the 1966 World Cup was followed by third at the 1968 European Championships; cruelly the Soviets were denied a place in the final after drawing their semi against Italy and the match was decided by a coin toss – Italy would go on to win the Championship. A quarter-final loss at the 1970 World Cup marked the beginning of a barren decade as they mighty USSR failed to appear at any major tournaments.

There was one monumental positive to emerge from the decade: the emergence of striker Oleg Blokhin. From 1960 to 1988 he scored 211 goals for club team Dynamo Kyiv and hit the net 42 times in 112 caps for the Soviet Union, to this day he is still the record scorer for both club and country as well as being the only player to win over 100 caps. His exploits for Dynamo Kyiv saw them win 11 Soviet Top League titles during his career and establish themselves as one of the dominant teams of the era.

With Communism and the Cold War at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, defection became increasingly popular for government officials, athletes and footballers.

Politicians continued to use football as a propaganda tool to endorse communism across the Eastern Bloc. Football in its natural form is considered a freedom of expression and the Stalin-led Soviet Union used its threats and examples of brutal methods to restrict its athletes to singing from their communist hymn sheet.

Notably famous players, particularly from East Germany and Hungary, including the great Ferenc Puskás, left their homeland for other European states and beyond. As Robert Edelman noted in his piece Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR, “For the Government the aim of high-performance sport was to inspire citizens to exercise and therefore become better workers and soldiers. Elite athletes were to be heroic role-models for their fellow citizens, who would learn lessons of discipline, orderliness, honesty, fitness, patriotism, and respect for authority.” In reality the public watched sport for entertainment and resentment was constantly simmering and gradually growing.

The 1980s saw a slight recovery on the national front with qualification for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups but elimination soon after the group stage did little to balance the failure to qualify for the European Championships for three consecutive times until 1988. The team’s superstar was undoubtedly attacking midfielder Igor Belanov. Of Ukrainian heritage he would win the 1986 European Footballer of the Year award and take Dynamo Kyiv to multiple titles.

Post World War Two to 1991 the Ukrainian Kyiv and Spartak Moscow would claim a substantial share of Championships. At the 1988 finals Belanov would help his nation beat Italy in the semi-finals but they were humbled by the classy Netherlands 2-0 to finish runners-up. Failing to advance to the 1990 World Cup group stage, they rebounded to qualify for the 1992 European Championships but a bigger force would prevent the Soviet Union from competing, at least under their current identity.

On Boxing Day 1991 the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin and replaced with the flag of Russia. For some years there had been continued unrest and in 1991 the ferocity increased with many states calling for independence. Lives were lost in violent protests as the Soviet army quashed the unrest with tanks and guns.

When the dissolving of the Soviet Union finally occurred, 12 republics gained independence and the most prominent, Russia, was born. Despite the break-up Russia played its first international in 1992 with a squad filled with several players from former Soviet Republics, notably Ukrainians.

With the state of Ukraine failing to gain FIFA recognition in time for the 1994 World Cup, Russia reaped the benefits and was more than happy to foster stars such as Oleg Salenko and Manchester United’s Andrei Kanchelskis, the former scoring five goals in one game against Cameroon. Strangely Salenko would only play eight times for Russia and score six goals, but never again appeared after the World Cup.

With a solid team of stars including Viktor Onopko, Aleksandr Mostovoi and Valeri Karpin, Russia narrowly missed out on qualification for the 1998 World Cup, losing to Italy in a playoff game. Heartbreak followed in their quest to qualify for the 2000 European Championship. After three straight defeats, the appointment of former coach Oleg Romantsev inspired six straight wins but in their final game a 1-1 draw against arch rivals Ukraine saw them finish third.

At the turn of the century the domestic Russian Premier League was formed to replace the former ‘Top Division’ and with the creation came the end of Spartak Moscow’s dominance. From 2002 to 2006 Lokomotiv Moscow and CSKA Moscow would share five titles.

The 21st century would also mark the tidal wave of money that entered the Russian game. With the collapse of communism over ten years old, in the background certain Russian figures took full advantage and spearheaded capitalist initiatives and investment. As Roman Abramovich targeted England’s Chelsea, energy giants Gazprom would invest heavily in Zenit Saint Petersburg and ultimately fund the transfers of Hulk, Axel Witsel and Bruno Alves.

After a disappointing second round exit at the 2002 World Cup and early exit from the 2004 European Championship, Russia failed to reach the 2006 World Cup finals but gained redemption in 2008. Beating Sweden and Greece in the group stage took them to the quarter-finals, engineering a thrilling 3-1 extra-time victory against Netherlands and facing Spain in the semi-finals.

The incredible Spaniards eased to a 3-0 victory but Russia could hold their head high. Coach Gus Hiddink’s reign would come to an end at the 2010 World Cup qualifying stage as they lost to unfashionable Slovenia in a two-legged playoff.

Back in the Russian Football Premier League a shift occurred in 2007 and the top tier’s power struggle was replaced by another two-club duel; from 2007 to 2012 Zenit Saint Petersburg and Rubin Kazan also shared five titles. With their bottomless pockets massaging success, the ‘Big Four’ Moscow dynasty of teams scrambled to keep up.

With ownership including oil giant Lukoil, high profile bank VTB and links to the Russian mafia and government assembly, the sources of finance are virtually endless. To further complicate its operation, a country so huge as Russia is difficult to control, let alone the governing of football. In complete contradiction to this predicament some have even called for a new domestic league that will encompass all clubs from former Soviet Union Republics; a mind-boggling and logistical nightmare.

On the international scene the new decade saw Dutchman Dick Advocaat last just two years at the helm, taking Russia to the 2012 European Championships with a lacklustre performance resulting in elimination at the group stage. Italian legend and former England coach Fabio Capello was appointed to ensure the Russians would feature at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and he delivered in style, topping their qualification group ahead of Portugal.

As with the great Yashin, their current goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was instrumental in qualification, conceding just five goals during their march to the finals and breaking the record for the longest run of clean sheets by a Russian number one. At the opposite end of the field Aleksandr Kerzhakov scored five goals in ten games, often crucial strikes.

Capello has been hailed as the national team’s savior, scouring Russia’s league games for talent and combining youth and experience to create a disciplined unit. The current squad is almost exclusively pooled from Russian clubs with Lokomotiv, Dynamo and CSKA Moscow featuring heavily along with several Zenit St Petersburg stars.

The latest 2012/2013 campaign was won by CSKA, their first title since 2006. Key to CSKA’s and the national teams recent success has been the intimidating centre-back partnership of Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutski, with Akinfeev in goal to complete the impenetrable trio.

The days of communist rule and influence in football are long gone, and with stability has come prosperity in the Russian game. Post-communism it could be argued there is more control than ever, yet capitalism has brought private investment with little government interference, perhaps because of hush-hush payments and financial benefit for those that kept the free market fluid.

Many have argued that the levels of investment in Russian football are unsustainable but the biggest challenge yet for modern Russian football will be UEFA’s impending Financial Fair Play rules and the need for strict regulation and transparency.

In Brazil this year the national team face Belgium, Algeria and South Korea and should comfortably reach the knockout stages if they continue their machine-like efficiency. Ironically some will say the disciplined approach of communism mirrors the current national team style and their Capello-led tactics of today.

However the minute the tournament ends all eyes will turn to Russia and the 2018 World Cup. If current investment in the game is a benchmark then there will be no expense sparred to ensure the new Russia is on show for all to see.

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