Football in Russia: From Soviet amateurism to World Cup riches

June 21, 2018
A match between Spartak and Dynamo during the Soviet era.

A country that for more than 70 years maintained an amateur football (soccer) league is today hosting the biggest sporting event in the world.

In today’s Russia, professional football is no longer considered an “expression of bourgeois society”, as it was during the Stalinist regime that governed the country until 1991. According to official figures, President Vladimir Putin’s government invested $14 billion in the organisation of the World Cup.

Today, Russian football is in the hands of oil, steel and gas magnates, who spend millions of dollars on foreign players. This is in stark contrast to its rich history, where footballers were not paid salaries, entry to games was free and television rights were not sold.

Football came to Russia at the end of the 19th century via English merchants. Initially, the game was reserved for the upper classes, although young people quickly became interested in playing the sport.

The development of industry favoured the growth of the population in cities and the organisation of local leagues. An official league bringing together teams from different regional tournaments was created in 1936.

After the 1917 revolution, the state promoted the development of sport and supported the formation of clubs, most of which were linked to trade unions. That was how clubs such as Lokomotiv were born, bringing together railway workers; Torpedo represented workers from the automobile sector; CSKA was associated with members of the army; and Dynamo was linked to the Minister of the Interior and the secret services. The factories and state institutions funded the teams.

Spartak was the only club to not belong to any organisation. It was known as the “People’s Club”, as it represented the lowest classes. This team frequently defeated those backed by the Kremlin, such as CSKA and Dynamo. The Starostin brothers, Spartak founders and players, were persecuted and later jailed.

According to the “Communist” principles of the bureaucratised regime of the Stalinist era, football was associated with bourgeois ideals.  Foreign players were not hired. Football players could not receive money for playing, at least legally. The word “football” was replaced with its Russian equivalent футбол

Different testimonies show that during these years of the Soviet Union, the national league was plagued by corruption, betting scandals and bribes. In the 1970s, a referee became famous for not accepting bribes. He was the manager of a transport company and did not need the money.

In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper travelled through different parts of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Kuper writes about a poll in which 18 Russian coaches were asked if it was common practice to fix games. All responded yes. When asked if their club had been involved in these kinds of dealings, all responding no.

In the stands, the principles of the governing state bureaucracy were also made visible. The state privileged the “worker identity” of individuals, with security forces impeding any alternative identification in football stadiums, such as regional or religious.

But football is a privileged terrain for affirming collective identities, as well as local, regional or national antagonisms. In the Soviet era, many regions — today independent countries, such as Georgia, Lithuania and Armenia — had only one team in the first division. When these teams beat those from Moscow, the stadiums would break out into nationalist songs.

In Lithuania, Kuper collected testimonies from different fans who remembered how at the end of some games, they would leave the stadium with torches, singing, and go to the centre of the city, where security forces would be waiting for them. Football represented their only opportunity to identify themselves as a community and to express themselves with certain freedom.

Sport did not seem to be the opium of the people; on the contrary it was a space where different sentiments surfaced. As French anthropologist Christian Bromberger said: “Each confrontation provides spectators with a support of the symbolisation of one aspect of their identity”.

Fans found ways to get around the firm control that different Eastern European governments attempted to impose “When you met up, the Communist regime immediately put you in jail for 24 hours,” recalled Lech Walesa, who became president of Poland between 1990-95, in an interview with Spanish newspaper El País. “The team that we set up in the Gdansk shipyards was a way in which we could be free and exchange political views. It was very difficult for the regime to control us during sporting events. Sport was supposedly outside of politics, but in reality, they were closely related”.

The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 also marked a new era for the football world. The business owners that ended up with many of the state companies invested their profits into football. Leonid Fedum, owner of Lukoil, the largest private oil company in the country, bought Spartak. Many people point to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who owns English club Chelsea FC, as the real owner of CSKA. Gazprom, the largest gas company, owns Zenit Saint Petersburg.

However, not everyone has shared in the spoils.

In 2011, a study by the International Federation of Professional Footballers revealed that, of 2257 professional football players in 14 Eastern European countries, it was common to come across breaches of contractual obligations, delays in salary payment, violence, intimidation and racism towards football players.

According to the report, 14.4% of players said their clubs did not pay salaries on time; about 5% had not been paid for more than six months; 11.9% had been asked to consider fixing the result of a match; and 23.6% knew of matches that had been fixed in their league.

All of this seems to be of little concern for FIFA, which hopes to make more than $6.4 billion in Russia, a record amount for World Cups. The multinational entity headed by Gianni Infantino appears to give reason to the old prejudices of the USSR of the Stalin years regarding football.

[Translated from La Izquierda Diario by Federico Fuentes.]

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