Mark Godfrey

Moscow - Between darkness and light

Mark Godfrey
Moscow - Between darkness and light

This article appears in Issue 18 of The Football Pink

MANUEL VETH uncovers the storied history a football city that never sleeps, and of the Russian capital’s big clubs, from the Soviet era to the days of wealthy Oligarchs.

Moscow has always been a city of progress. The pace at which it has developed since the collapse of communism has been breathless. In a sprawling city, there exists a patchwork of classical Tsarist architecture mixed with Stalinist skyscrapers, Khrushchev’s brutalism and post-communist extravagance.

All of this is visible from the viewing platform on the Sparrow Hills. This viewpoint, located next to the Moscow State University, one of the Seven Sisters, which are seven skyscrapers built by Stalin in a mix of Russian baroque and gothic styles. From Sparrow Hill one can see the remaining six of the Seven Sisters, the Moskva river that gives Moscow its name, the towers of New Moscow’s financial district, and most importantly for football fans, the gigantic Luzhniki Stadium.

Currently under renovation, the Luzhniki Stadium – where the World Cup final will be held next summer – will officially re-open on November 11th with a friendly between Russia and Argentina. Opened in 1955 as the Lenin Stadium, it is a stunning facility and one of the great symbols of Moscow. Like the city itself, the Luzhniki has undergone a significant transformation since the 1950s. Renovated in the 1970s for the Moscow Olympics and then again in the 1990s to comply with UEFA standards, the stadium is now getting its third facelift for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Other than the Olympics, the stadium has hosted many football games. Spartak Moscow played there, as did CSKA Moscow and Torpedo Moscow as well as a number of other clubs that have existed in the city. The stadium was almost always used for the big European occasions, such as the 2008 UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea. It was also here that one of the biggest stadium catastrophes took place.

The disaster unfolded on a very cold October night in 1982 when the stadium terraces were covered in ice. Spartak was playing Haarlem of the Netherlands in the UEFA Cup and had scored an early goal. As the match was nearing its conclusion, people started to leave early. Because only 23,000 people attended the match, security personnel had opened only two gates to the stadium. Reports later indicated that one fan stumbled in the large crowd, which immediately crushed those people who moved to help the fallen fan. The exit was blocked by even more fans who were funnelled by metal banisters as they tried to make their way out of the stadium.

People fell over the crushed bodies and this created a domino effect. Spartak then scored a late second goal and many people who were already on their way to the metro tried to return to the stands to celebrate. In total 66 people died during the stampede. The authorities reacted by keeping the extent of the deaths and injuries a secret. Only one local newspaper, Vecherniaya Moskva, escaped the general censorship and reported as follows: “An incident occurred yesterday in Luzhniki. After the football match, some spectators were injured.”

Some foreign press were, however, able to report on what happened at the match. Three days after the accident, the New York Times published a report in which it stated that 20 people were killed in a panic at the stadium. The full extent of the disaster at the Luzhniki stadium was not made public until 1989, after Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies were introduced.

Today there stands a memorial outside the stadium for the Spartak fans who died there. It is not uncommon for the memorial to be draped with the red-and-white scarfs of Spartak supporters. Not unlike Liverpool with Hillsborough, Spartak fans suffered from the fact that the catastrophe was covered up by the Soviet authorities. The tragedy aside, like Liverpool in England, Spartak has a special place in the folklore of Soviet and post-Soviet football.

Described as the People’s Team by the author Robert Edelman, Spartak are easily the most popular team in Moscow today. Founded by Ivan Artemev and the Starostin brothers – Nikolai, Aleksandr, Andrei and Petr – in 1922 as the Moscow Sport Circle (MSK) the club evolved to become Spartak Moscow in the 1930s when Nikolai Starostin managed to have the club associated with the powerful Promkooperatsia organisation.

This organisation was, since 1931, the trade union for a variety of occupations. It is from their association with Promkooperatsia where the nickname Myaso (meat) came from. The Promkooperatsia was in charge off the meatpacking sector and because football players were officially amateurs and had to be given jobs by their sponsor in order to circumnavigate the rule, many Spartak players were officially employed in meatpacking plants. This resulted in taunts by opposition fans that the players were Myaso, but Spartak fans soon incorporated wearing the label almost like a badge of honour.

Despite their official amateur status, Spartak was a fully professional club. Nikolai Starostin in fact ran the team not too differently from how professional clubs were run in the West. In order to recruit the best players, Starostin continuously sought out new sponsors and patrons that could help the club. Although its affiliation to Promkooperatsiia remained in place until the fall of the Soviet Union, Spartak Moscow was not a union team in the true sense because in the 1950s the club came under the patronage of the Moscow city party committee and the Moscow city council. While Spartak as a sports society remained with the Promkooperatsiia, the Moscow city committee and city council acted as the patrons of Spartak Moscow by supporting the team financially, and by giving the club access to apartments that were used as incentives for player transfers. The link with the city meant that Spartak was rich in property when communism fell. This situation made the transition easy for the team, which helped the club to win nine out of the first ten Russian Football Premier League titles.

Spartak may have been rich in land, but they lacked a true home. Although always linked abroad with the Luzhniki Stadium, the stadium was not the club’s true home. Founded in the Presnensky District, commonly called Presnya, Spartak has its origin in the North East of Moscow. It is here that the club was born. But the lack of a stadium meant that Spartak were a bit of a homeless club until the Otkritie Arena opened on the former Tushino Airfield not far from where the club was founded.

That new stadium was a big part of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. Covering games in Moscow during the tournament, one quickly realises the transition of the game from the times of the Soviet Union to the quick-fire capitalism under Yeltsin and Putin’s more pragmatic state economy policies. The stadium is a wonderful facility funded by Leonid Fedun, an oligarch, who bought the club in 2004.

It was only thanks to Fedun that the club could build a new facility. The oligarch also upgraded the training grounds and brought in professionals to promote the club off the pitch. On the pitch Fedun’s decision-making was poor, with coaches constantly coming and going. It was only after Massimo Carrera was brought in last season that the club finally won a league title under Fedun, ending a 16-year championship drought. Back in the Champions League in a glitzy stadium the time is now for Spartak. The club, however, is never far away from tragedy and a poor start to the season could derail Carrera’s promising project.

Spartak are not the only club that have recently opened a new stadium. CSKA Moscow also made the move away from the Luzhniki, opening the VEB Arena this season. Located just north of the Presnya in the Khoroshyovsky District, the stadium is constructed in what used to be the traditional home of CSKA Moscow at the Peschnaya Ulitsa.

Built like a traditional English stadium with four stands, one of the corners is filled with a high riser that has the form of the UEFA Cup. The UEFA Cup plays an important part in the development of the club as a modern team in the 2000s. The club became the first team from Russia to win a UEFA tournament when they beat Sporting CP in the 2004-05 final in their opponent’s own Estádio José Alvalade XXI stadium in Lisbon. The triumph quickly became a symbol of Russia’s re-emergence as a world power.

This was also the time of the oligarchs. Roman Abramovich had just bought Chelsea and his oil company Sibneft also lavishly funded CSKA Moscow. Fuelled by oil and gas, CSKA Moscow put together an all-star team. Officially owned by Evgenii Giner, the club was investigated for its links with Abramovich. The question of Abramovich’s involvement, however, could never be proven. The UEFA investigators found no link on paper between the two clubs except for the sponsorship contract with Abramovich’s company Sibneft. One thing is for certain though; the former Army club had success, winning six Russian Championships since 2003, the most of any club in Russia. CSKA replaced Spartak Moscow as the most successful club among the big Moscow teams in the new millennium.

Founded in 1911 as a Tsarist officer’s club, it is one of the few big teams in Moscow that pre-dates the 1917 communist revolution. The club underwent several name changes until finally becoming the Central Sports Club of the Army. The link to the Army remains to the present day. The Russian Army maintains a 20% share in the club and players still pose in officer uniforms of the armed forces. This tradition also dates back to the time of the Soviet Union when all players were actually officially part of the armed forces. It was not uncommon during the time of the Soviet Union that CSKA would push through transfers by calling up players to the military.

In the glitz and glamour of professional football the connection to the communist past and the Red Army remains. All the CSKA clubs, whether they are the basketball, hockey or volleyball team, still maintain traditions dating back to their military origins. It is not uncommon to see entire army battalions visit CSKA Moscow games. The soldiers can then be found in the stands while on the pitch the CSKA cheerleaders conduct their half-time shows. It is an odd contrast between Ostalgia and post-Soviet kitsch.

There are, however, clouds gathering over the club. Alleged investments by owner Evgenii Giner in energy companies located on the Russian occupied Crimean Peninsula have meant that his wealth has taken a severe hit. As a result, CSKA Moscow has been forced to sell most of its top players and currently plays with a squad that largely consists of young Russian players. In that sense CSKA Moscow is not just a symbol of ostalgia and post-communist glitz, but also represents the current situation of Russian football.

The conflict in Ukraine has been problematic for Russian football. Many oligarchs and state companies no longer have the ability to freely finance the sport. Stadium construction, in the meantime, has meant that clubs owned by government institutions have struggled as well.

Another example can be found close to CSKA Moscow’s new stadium. A 30-minute walk west of the new VEB Bank Arena lays Petrovsky Park, home of the Dinamo Stadium. On a sunny day this is a beautiful stroll through Khoroshyovsky District. A little detour will bring you to Peschanaya Ulitsa. On the corner, right across a beautiful park on Peschanaya Ulitsa 18, a small plaque shows the face of legendary Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin. He lived in this house, not far from the Central Dinamo Stadium where he played for Dinamo Moscow.

Dinamo, unlike CSKA and Spartak, always had a home at the Petrovsky Park. Located on the Leningradskaya Boulevard, the park and stadium were symbols of Soviet football. Yashin defined Dinamo Moscow in the 1950s and 1960s. With him in goal the club won five Soviet championships and three Soviet Cups. He also won the inaugural UEFA European Football Championships with the Soviet Union in 1960. A dynamic, modern goalkeeper, Yashin was a star both at home and abroad. He became known as the black panther or black spider, because of the black shirt he wore, and dazzled at international tournaments and was even forgiven the occasional mistake.

A chain smoker, Yashin believed that a cigarette before the game and a shot of vodka would calm the nerves and strengthen his muscles. Sadly, his habits likely resulted in his early death, of cancer, in 1990 at the age of 60. Yashin has been depicted on various coins and stamps, and outside his old stadium there is a big sculpture that depicts him diving across the goalmouth. Normally, the sculpture would be highly visible from the Leningradskaya Boulevard, but construction at the Dinamo Stadium has meant that the statue is hidden away behind a barrier.

It is a perfect symbol for his former club as well. Founded as part of the secret service, Dinamo was owned by the Ministry of Interior. Like CSKA, players were drafted into state service and were officially officers in the KGB. In fact, Dinamo Moscow was one of several clubs under the name competing in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga (Top League). The Dinamo sports society also sponsored clubs in Kyiv, Tbilisi, Minsk and other Soviet cities. Privatised in the 1990s like all other Soviet clubs, Dinamo underwent various ownership changes. Oligarchs came and went, all promising a return of the success that the club experienced when Lev Yashin was playing in goal for the club.

Not having won a national championship since 1976 the latest owner to promise glory was Boris Rotenberg. The oligarch and owner of the VTB Bank invested heavily in the club, bringing in players like former German national team striker Kevin Kuranyi. He also promised a new stadium and construction began at the Central Dinamo Stadium in 2008.

Rotenberg hoped that the Dinamo Stadium project would result in his facility hosting games for the World Cup. The problem, however, was that he was not the only one with such ambitions. The story is that President Vladimir Putin promised all the owners of Moscow clubs that their stadium would be picked as the second location to host World Cup games in Moscow. As a result, Giner, Fedun and Rotenberg launched stadium projects, but it was Fedun who got the job done the quickest and Spartak’s new stadium was therefore picked as Moscow’s second host stadium.

After this setback, Rotenberg slowed down the project at the Petrovsky Stadium. For a long time, there was not even any construction. Instead the partly demolished stadium was rotting away. In 2015 the construction picked up somewhat and an outline of the new stadium, which is going to be built into the existing structure, slowly became visible. Two years later in 2017, the stadium is still not finished.

In the meantime, Dinamo Moscow has struggled financially. The club did not receive a licence to compete in the 2015-16 UEFA Europa League. The financial watchdogs at UEFA found that VTB Bank’s sponsorship of €70million was unjustified and therefore refused the club a licence. Subsequently, Rotenberg drastically reduced spending at the club and the following season Dinamo were relegated for the first time in the club’s history.

It was a long fall from grace, and at one point last season the club faced bankruptcy and further relegation to the third division of the Professional Football League. Restructuring and a return of ownership to the Dinamo sports society somewhat stabilised the situation.

Promotion back to the Russian Football Premier League means that for now Dinamo are secure from completely disappearing. But at the same time the club remains homeless, playing its games at the Khimki Arena on the outskirts of Moscow. Many Dinamo fans have voiced their frustration over the situation at the club. Khimki is a long journey, 45 minutes by train from the centre of town, and supporters long for the club’s return to the city. Some even believe the club is cursed because of its connection to the secret police.

Perhaps this is true, but Dinamo are not even the worst example of the current crisis in Russian football. The Yuzhnoportovny District is the former industrial heart of the city. It was here in the south of the city that the Likhachev Automotive Plant (ZiL) was located. Like all major industries ZiL also had sport teams that were associated to the national Trud sport society. ZiL’s most famous sports club was Torpedo Moscow.

Known as the black and whites, Torpedo – alongside Spartak, Dinamo and CSKA – was one of Moscow’s elite clubs during the time of the Soviet Union. But the fall of communism hit the factory hard. Privatised in the 1990s by the Yeltsin government, ZiL was forced to sell Torpedo. Russia’s largest car company had owned Torpedo for almost 60 years, and Torpedo was one of the most storied clubs from the former Soviet Union. At this point the club, which had been so firmly associated with the automobile industry, became part of a private entertainment company called the Luzhniki Group, which ran and operated the Luzhniki Stadium.

A former Torpedo player, Vladimir Aleshin, ran the Luzhniki Complex entertainment company. Aleshin also had financial backing from the city government in the form of then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. The transfer of Torpedo from ZiL to the joint-stock Luzhniki Group was finalised on February 27, 1996. The club was then moved from its home ground at the Eduard Streltsov Stadium to the Luzhniki Stadium for the 1997 season. ZiL in the meantime was restructured at the end of 1996. The company was thereafter able to create a new team that performed as Torpedo-ZiL (and later as Torpedo-Metalurg) in the lower levels. Torpedo Moscow’s transfer from the Eduard Streltsov Stadium to the Luzhniki Stadium was one of the more questionable business adventures of post-Soviet era football.

In 2007, I attended a Spartak game at the Luzhniki Stadium and even with 30,000 fans in the stands, the atmosphere at the stadium was rather ghostly, and Torpedo’s attendance rarely rose above 5,000. While low crowds make for a poor atmosphere at a gigantic stadium like the Luzhniki, one also has to consider the cost of simply opening the gates for a match in such a gigantic facility. Torpedo, therefore, not only drowned in the gigantic bowl of the Luzhniki, but was also raking up a huge financial loss for the Luzhniki Group.

The reasons why fans did not flock to the Luzhniki are manifold. ZiL was an important anchor for the identity of the football club; the club was a factory team and many fans associated themselves not only with the football club, but also with ZiL. The Streltsov Stadium, which was located near the car factory, was also a significant part of Torpedo’s identity, and so when ZiL chose to register a team from the lower leagues in order to fill the vacant stadium, many Torpedo fans decided to support the new team instead of the old Torpedo team that had moved across town. In 2003 the new Torpedo-ZiL reached the Russian Premier Liga, but ZiL was again forced to sell the club, which then became part of MMC Norilsk Nickel and eventually became known as FC Moskva.

Meanwhile, the Torpedo Moscow team under the ownership of the Luzhniki Group struggled, suffering relegation in 2006, and again to the third division in 2008. In 2009, the club returned to the umbrella of ZiL, and the team returned to its historic home ground, the Streltsov Stadium, when the car maker bought back the shares of the football club from Luzhniki. After years in the lower divisions, Torpedo Moscow managed to be promoted to the Russian Premier Liga in 2014 where the club stayed for one season before being relegated, and declaring bankruptcy once again. After a season in hiatus, Torpedo returned to professional football in 2016-17 finishing third in the Professional Football League Centre bracket.

Despite the low level of football, visiting the stadium is worth it. The Eduard Streltsov Stadium is one of the most historic grounds in Moscow. Located right next to the Moskva, one must enter the stadium from the top, walking down several steps of stairs. Alongside the stairs are murals depicting the former stars of the club including Eduard Streltsov, known as the Russian Pelé.

Streltsov is one of the most legendary players in the football folklore of the city. The Russian Pelé dazzled the world at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and the world was in breathless anticipation to see the wunderkind play at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. But instead, controversy struck. Accused of rape by a 20-year-old girl, Streltsov apparently was promised that he would be permitted to play at the World Cup if he confessed to the crime. However, the authorities sentenced Streltsov to twelve years in a gulag as well as a lifetime ban from playing football.

Released from the gulags in 1963, Streltsov was eventually allowed to return to professional football in 1965, after workers and members of the Supreme Soviet protested in his favour. Despite his time in the gulag, Streltsov managed to help Torpedo win the 1965 Soviet League and Soviet Cup. Like Dinamo’s legend Yashin, Streltsov would die of throat cancer in 1990, at just 53-years old, having been both a heavy smoker and drinker all his life.

His death meant that Streltsov was spared the tough times of his club. Replaced in Moscow’s top four by Lokomotiv, Torpedo has lost much of its glory. Furthermore, the future of Torpedo is also in jeopardy. Developers are hoping to turn the land of the now closed ZiL factory and the stadium into a modern apartment complex to satisfy the demands of living space in Europe’s largest city. Officially, a new stadium is supposed to be part of the plan.

Visiting the complex in 2015 and speaking to people in the visitor’s centre of the construction site, it became clear that the club is not necessarily part of the vision. Speaking to a source about the club, the thought is that developers are secretly hoping that Torpedo will never come back, in order to create more shops, apartments and offices in the area.

It would be the sad end of a historic piece of football in Moscow and would fit in well with the current melancholy that surrounds Russian football. But not all is bleak when it comes to football in the Russian capital. On Peschnaya ulitsa, right next to the new CSKA Moscow Stadium, is the old heart of the Army club. A little main stand and a few football fields represent a fascinating part of grassroots football.

Under the UEFA Cup tower of the CSKA Stadium, amateur clubs from all over Moscow compete here almost around the clock. There is a constant coming and going, with a high level of play. This pickup league is also full of professional players who are looking for a new club to play for. It was here that Oleksandr Zinchenko maintained his fitness after his contract dispute with Shakhtar Donetsk. He was then signed by FC Ufa and now is on the books at Manchester City.

Perhaps the story of Zinchenko nicely rounds up the story of football in Moscow. Success and failure are close together and contrasts are everything. Clubs fuelled by oligarchs can rise to the top quickly and fall just as fast when business ventures fail. This is perhaps also true around the world, but nowhere else do the highs and low happen as breathtakingly fast as in Moscow. It is a city that vibrates; always on the go, always changing and adapting in football and in the real world.

MANUEL VETH - @ManuelVeth

Manuel is the Editor-in-Chief of the Futbolgrad network.

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