History of football in Russia

more than a year ago
Russia is gearing up to host the greatest sporting extravaganza on the planet, and the entire country is united in putting on a great show for the world to watch. But what of matters on the pitch? The history of Russian football is every bit as chaotic and confusing as the country itself, from the halcyon days of the Soviet Union all the way to the inconsistency of the modern age.

One of the traditional sleeping giants of international football, with an undeniably talented team that rarely seem able to cope with the immense pressure that comes with pulling on the national shirt. Its greatest achievement came with international glory in the 1960s, but a couple of semifinals are all it has to show for itself in the half a century since. Not even Fabio Capello could restore former glories. No, we aren’t talking about England, we’re talking about the Russian national football team. The history of football in Russia is one of unfulfilled potential, crushing pressure and continued failure. That might sound a little dramatic, but it is difficult to argue against it. Much like England, Russia enter most international tournaments with heady goals, but everyone knows that getting out the group stage is the best it can really hope for. The comparison continues, as football is the most popular sport in Russia too.
It is no surprise that England and Russia are so similar when it comes to soccer, as it is the English who are credited with introducing the Russians to the game at the end of the 19th century. The English and the Scots that were living in St.Petersburg started forming teams, and October 24, 1897 saw the first official match in the country. Ostrov (a team of Brits) obliterated Petrograd (made up of Russians) 6-0 on the day, but Tsarist Russia had been bitten by the football bug. It was initially referred to as the ‘British open air game’, but that didn’t last so long.
The national side played its first game in October 1910, defeating Bohemia 5-4 in an unofficial match in St. Petersburg. That would prove to be the only victory the side managed, and some of the defeats don’t make for pretty reading. The Russian Empire was crumbling, and a 16-0 reverse against the Germans at the 1912 Olympics was a good enough metaphor for that. A 12-0 loss to Hungary compounded the misery. The team’s last three games ended in draws, but it was all too little too late.
The first half of the 20th century saw great upheaval in Russia, not to mention all manner of conflict and violence. The Russian Empire was ended by the Russian Revolution, and the two World Wars left a terrible mark on the planet’s largest country. Millions of young men were lost, either dying in battle or escaping in revolution. The clubs that made up the national league prior to the October Revolution were disbanded in the 1920s, and it wasn’t until 1936 that anything approaching a cohesive national league began again. The first champions? FC Dynamo Moscow. 
The Soviet Top League (named the Higher League after 1970) was dominated by Russian clubs throughout its 54 years. The league was one of the strongest in Europe, although its clubs failed to bring home much in the way of continental trophies. Russian clubs won the championship an incredible 34 times, with Spartak Moscow (12), Dynamo Moscow (11) and CSKA (7) at the head of that list. Only Ukraine’s Dynamo Kiev (13) won more championships than the Moscow clubs. As many Russian clubs (31) participated in the top league as the rest of the Soviet republics combined. 
Controversy was never far away however. Eduard Streltsov is considered to be the greatest Russian outfield player ever to play, but his career was interrupted prior to the 1958 World Cup after allegations of rape. Streltsov was told that if he pleaded guilty he could play in the tournament, but found himself sentenced to 12 years in the Gulag instead. CDKA, the predecessor to CSKA Moscow, dominated the early days of the Soviet league but found themselves blamed for the Soviet loss to Yugoslavia in the 1952 Olympics. The club was disbanded.
The post-Soviet chaos that engulfed Russia in the ‘90s was mirrored in its football. The Russian Top League went through a number of formats, with plenty of teams hinting at success before falling away and disappearing completely. Eight former Top League sides disbanded after losing top flight status (including former champions Alania Vladikavkaz), four of whom have been resurrected in the years since. One thing that was constant was the domination of Spartak Moscow, who won nine of the fi rst 10 championships (Alania being the only other team to win the title).
The turn of the century has seen a revolution in Russian domestic football however. While the Soviet era saw a number of state-sponsored teams dominate, the 21st century has seen the rise of the billionaire owner. Five different clubs have won the Russian Premier League in the last 15 years, a variety that is bested only by France when it comes to Europe’s top leagues. CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg are the biggest fi sh, but Spartak, Lokomotiv and Rubin Kazan have been there or thereabouts over the years as well. Recent years have also seen the emergence of sides in Krasnodar and Rostov. Russia’s domestic game is in very good health.
And what of the national side? Well, the early comparisons to England return again. Russian appearances at the World Cup since the collapse of the Soviet Union have been disappointing, and the side is yet to make it out of the group stages. This is true at all but one European Championships, although the run to the semi-fi nals in 2008 brings back fond memories for Russian football fans, not to mention players like Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko. 
The last decade has been a struggle for the side. The Sbornaya enters the 2018 World Cup as the lowest ranked side in the entire tournament, an ignominy not experienced by any team in World Cup history. Not team in history has won the tournament from such a lowly position, although these men are no strangers to making history. It was a Russian who earned the fi rst yellow card in World Cup history after all, when Evgeny Lovchev was cautioned in the opening match of the 1970 fi nals. Oleg Salenko holds another unusual record, being the only man to win the Golden Boot despite failing to get out of the group stage, a record he picked up after scoring fi ve goals in Russia’s dead rubber against Cameroon in 1994.
Historically, Russian teams are well disciplined and difficult to play against. This hasn’t brought a huge amount of success, and optimism among fans ahead of the team’s 11th World Cup appearance isn’t high. The nation’s status as hosts could even prove to be a cross to heavy to bear, but it is little more than conjecture until proceedings get underway on June 14.

It won’t be a huge surprise to readers, but Moscow well and truly dominates the Russian footballing landscape. It has always been this way. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been 25 seasons of the Russian Premier League (originally called the Russian Top League), and the championship trophy has only left the capital on seven occasions. That dominance continues when you travel back through the annals of Russian football. Russian clubs won the prestigious Soviet Top League on 34 occasions, and only once was that honour achieved by a club plying its trade outside of the capital (Zenit Leningrad, for the record). Five clubs dominate the Muscovite footballing history, but that number really comes down to three if we’re talking about happenings post-1976.
Where to start? The beginning is generally a decent place. CSKA Moscow have been the top team in Moscow for the majority of the last decade, and the Army Men also take home the trophy for oldest team in Russia. It was founded in 1911, and its history speaks for itself. Five titles in six seasons following World War II for the offi cial army club established its dominance, but it paid the price for the Soviet Union’s loss to Yugoslavia at the 1952 Olympics. CSKA (then CDKA) were disbanded, although Stalin’s death in 1953 saw the team quickly reestablished.
Despite doing the double in the fi nal season of Soviet Union football, CSKA languished in mid-table mediocrity for most of the ‘90s. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the club affectionately called The Horses (its fi rst stadium was built on a racecourse) began to assert themselves as the top side in Moscow. CSKA made history in 2005 when it became the fi rst Russian team to win a continental trophy (winning the UEFA Cup), and its six Russian Premier League titles have come since 2003, CSKA Moscow may have dominated over recent seasons, but the 2017 Russian Premier League was won by the most dominant team in the history of Russian football. Spartak Moscow won more Soviet Top League titles than any other Russian club, and have repeated that achievement in the Russian Premier League. Nine of the fi rst 10 titles went to Spartak, with Alania Vladikavkaz in 1995 the only team to break the red and white stranglehold.
Spartak’s history stretches all the way back to 1922 and four brothers, although Nikolai Starostin demands extra attention in that crew. While most Russian sides were quickly connected to various government departments, Spartak Moscow managed to stay independent throughout it all, earning itself the support of the general populace. Spartak was the ‘People’s Team’ through the many decades of the Soviet Union.
That tag might hint at Spartak being underdogs on the pitch, but nothing could be further from the truth. Despite its claims of conspiracy theories against it and more, only Dynamo Kiev (13) bested Spartak’s record of 12 Soviet titles. The arrival of rich owners int the Russian game has seen Spartak fade a little bit, although the club has itself to blame for much of that as well. The title returned to the club in 2017, and the fans are now dreaming of another era of dominance.
At time of writing Spartak were second in the Russian Premier League table, behind the club that for decades was considered the fi fth wheel of Moscow football. Lokomotiv Moscow was also founded in 1922, taking on its current name in 1936, the same year in which it won the fi rst ever Soviet Cup. Lokomotiv weren’t much of a force in the Soviet era however, a second place fi nish in 1959 the best it could manage as the Railwaymen bounced between the top two tiers.
Lokomotiv may not have experienced much in the way of domestic success during the Soviet years, but the team found itself in a special position on the international stage. It was designated as a football ambassador of sorts for the communist country, and Lokomotiv found itself playing friendly matches against teams from all over the world, competing on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. The red-greens have also flourished in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its standing as the supposed ‘fi fth wheel’ allowed it to develop under the radar, and a new stadium in 2002 was celebrated with the club’s fi rst ever championship success. This took some by surprise but experts knew better, and Lokomotiv’s impressive European performances (Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals in 1998 and 1999) clued many in. A second title followed in 2004.
If Lokomotiv are the fifth wheel, which teams make up spokes three and four? The fourth on that list would likely be Torpedo Moscow, although the car factory club would likely give anything to be able to look at the wheel in the 21st century. Three-times winners of the Soviet Top League, Torpedo has floundered in recent seasons and currently plays in the third tier of Russian football. Optimism is scarce at the Eduard Streltsov Stadium, named after the gifted striker that many consider to be Russia’s greatest outfield player.
Which leaves us with the fallen giants of Russian football. Dynamo Moscow were the only club to play in every single season of the Soviet Top League (and subsequent Russian Premier League), but that run came to an end with relegation in 2016. That demotion came on the 40th anniversary of its last league triumph, although you’d be hard-pushed to fi nd any Moscow football fans wiping away tears when relegation came (other than followers of the club of course). 
Dynamo Moscow was founded in 1923, and was affiliated with the Ministry of Internal Aff airs and the Secret Police, two associations that are guaranteed to damage any hopes of popularity. Needless to say, Dynamo were referred to as ‘garbage’ (slang for ‘police’) by most Russians. Dynamo won the first two Soviet Top League titles to the surprise of nobody, and the favours dealt in its direction were clear for all to see.
Dynamo was the first Soviet team to play abroad, and the first to reach the final of a continental competition. It did so in the 1972 Cup Winners Cup, going down 3-2 to Glasgow Rangers in Barcelona’s famous Camp Nou stadium. A final Soviet title came in 1976, but there has been little to cheer for fans of the Dinamiki in the years since. The clubs’ financial issues have been well-documented, and relegation threatened to put the famous club out of business entirely. Dynamo managed to survive however, and returned to the Russian top fl ight at the very first attempt. The glory days of the 1950s are a long way away, but Dynamo’s fans are likely happy to have a team to follow at all.
There are plenty more clubs in Moscow, but the history of the big fi ve looms large over the city. Which one will you choose to follow? Will you plump for the recent success of CSKA, or the historical dominance of Spartak? How about the underdogs of Lokomotiv, or the long-forgotten Torpedo? You aren’t going to choose the cops, are you?


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