This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
For even the most casual of Russian football followers, chances are the name of Dinamo Moscow is one they are familiar with. The only Russian team which has never dropped out of the top flight, they have been a permanent fixture at the top table of Russian football since their inception in 1923, they possess an enigma which has both attracted and infuriated fans in equal measure. Despite holding on to that top flight position for 90 years, the story of Dinamo is far from straightforward, with as many twists and turns as a best-selling thriller.
It all started in 1923, when the watchful eye of Soviet Interior Minister Felix Dzerzhinsky took control of a local Moscow side under the new Dinamo name, inheriting a side which had already signalled its intentions by winning a number of city-wide championships. The previous factory team, OKS, has all but disappeared from the records, and from that moment onwards the link between Dinamo and the secret police, at that time known as the Cheka, was forged – even now, derogatory slang aimed at police is used by opposition fans to discredit Dinamo.
When the first Soviet Championship launched in 1936, Dinamo came out on top of the spring competition. Fellow Moscow club Spartak then pipped them to the autumn title, laying the foundations for a rivalry which, although having lost some of its intensity, has by no means disappeared. Two more titles followed before the Nazi invasion, and when the league resumed in 1945 with the Allies victorious, Dinamo celebrated by clinching their fourth title, winning a two-horse race against CSKA by a single point and smashing in 73 goals in their 22 matches. In the decade from 1940 to 1950, Dinamo never finished outside the top two.
A four-year drought opened up the next decade, but four more titles in the 50s confirmed Dinamo’s role as Russia’s leading side. Helped by their position as head of the Dinamo society, they were often able to acquire talent from other Dinamo clubs for little or no compensation, and their affiliation with the secret police, by 1954 known as the KGB, also played into their hands. Lavrenty Beria, the longest-serving secret police chief and brief successor to Stalin, was a big fan of the club, and combined his job and support regularly – unfavourable referees were often arrested, and even sent the founder of arch-rivals Spartak to the Gulag. A run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1972 however, where Dinamo lost out to Rangers, proved that not all of their success had been achieved illicitly.
As the de-Stalinisation process took hold, so did Dinamo’s fortunes begin to wane. Although the club were blessed with the career of legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, the only goalkeeper ever to win the coveted Ballon D’Or, they would pick up just two more titles, in 1963 and 1976. Despite regularly featuring in the top half of the table, they only managed to genuinely challenge twice more – reaching 3rd place in 1990, just four years after finishing runners-up to Dinamo Kyiv by a point taken from them by the league’s maximum draw limit. In the intervening decade, they thrice avoiding relegation by the skin of their proverbial teeth, and became somewhat renowned for their inconsistency.
The collapse of the USSR only benefited Dinamo, removing their rivals from Kiev, Tbilisi and Dnipropetrovsk from the title picture. For six straight years they filled one of the top four places at season’s end, but never succeeded in wresting the title from a dominant Spartak side. Then came the inevitable decline, a 9th place finish the following year proving the start of Dinamo’s descent into midtable. They would stay there until another bronze medal finish in 2008, but not without yet more incident to accompany the unsavoury actions of the Soviet era.
The year was 2005 when club president Alexei Fedorichev decided to go for broke. Announcing a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Xerox, the club’s transfer policy suddenly kicked into overdrive, with many of Portugal’s Euro 2004 squad finding themselves new homes in Moscow. Maniche, Costinha, Derlei and Danny all graced the sacred turf at Petrovsky Park, the Dinamo Stadium home last used in 2008 as its delapidated concrete could take no more. With a huge wage budget, transfer records smashed and an all-star line-up, Dinamo fans were rubbing their hands in expectation of the procession to the title which would surely follow.
It didn’t. The Portuguese imports finished a miserable 8th that season, and most of them immediately sought moves away from the harsh winters and demanding fans. Fedorichev tried again, this time turning to experienced Russian internationals to steer Dinamo’s ship to success. In came another raft of players, and up went expectations once again. This time the result was even worse – Dinamo slumped to 14th, comfortably clear of relegation in the end but an embarrassment for one of Russia’s historic clubs. Fedorchev left, and in 2007 Dinamo recovered to 6th with Andrei Kobelev at the helm.
Today’s Dinamo remain something of a riddle, one of the best-supported clubs in the country with one of the biggest budgets – the club is majority-owned by the bank VTB, who are financing a new stadium to be built in time for the World Cup in 2018 – and yet, success seems to elude them at every turn.
The current squad is clearly packed with quality – international stars such as Kevin Kuranyi, Balazs Dzsudzsak and Gordon Schildenfeld lining up alongside strong homegrown talent including Alexander Kokorin, Anton Shunin and Vladimir Granat – but the sight of Dinamo in full flight is an increasingly rare one. Under boss Sergei Silkin, they looked like genuine title challengers in the first 30 games of the extended 2011-12 campaign. However, barely able to string two performances together, they failed to take advantage of stumbles from CSKA and Spartak, finishing in a respectable 4th position when so much more was promised.
Dinamo will probably last forever, eternally tainted by their secret police past and yet one of Russia’s most well-known sporting institutions. There are very few certainties when it comes to Dinamo, but the one thing we can be sure of is that their form in one game, competition or season rarely has any bearing on the next. They remain the wildcards of the Russian league – great entertainment for the neutral, hopelessly frustrating for their fans.