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.
Every country with any sort of a football playing history has at least one team that stands out from the crowd, as the side which is often seen to represent that nation on the world stage, and which possesses a notoriety which goes far beyond a bursting trophy cabinet and success on the field. It might be the presence of a particular player or manager, the historical background of the club, or a unique feat brought to the world’s attention which has catapulted them into the spotlight. The reasons are many, but for Russia, that team is Spartak Moscow.
The self-proclaimed people’s team, they are the side which claims to be the best-supported in the country, with the highest average attendances despite not possessing a stadium to call home. Indeed they have never settled anywhere permanently, roaming freely across the Russian capital and taking up temporary residence at a number of rivals’ grounds – they even played an exhibition game against their reserves on Red Square back in 1936.
By this time Spartak was dominated by the Starostins, a quartet of brothers who all played for the club before taking on leadership roles later on. Passing the requisite political tests required to enter the national championship, Nikolai Starostin changed the name of the club from Promkooperatsiya, meaning ‘industrial co-operation’ and taken from the food industry which gives the side their ‘meat’ nickname, to Spartak – the Russian translation of the legendary Roman slave rebel, and a change taken two-fold by the club. On the one hand, the new name was sufficiently revolutionary to remain onside politically. On the other, the notions of rebellion against the authorities were clear.
Spartak were unique in that they were formed from the ground up, rather than top down on state orders. Here lies the origin on the ‘people’s team’ moniker, and in the Soviet period they forged a strong identity as the only viable alternative to army-run and draft-exploiting CSKA and the secret police clubs of Dinamo. All three sides hold fierce rivalries within Moscow, but it is between Spartak and Dinamo where there is genuine bad blood – Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s immediate successor and head of the secret police, condemned the Starostins to a decade in the Gulag for an alleged assassination plot against Stalin. Even imprisonment could not stop Spartak – returning from the camps and a game of political chess between Stalin’s son Vasili and Beria, Nikolai Starostin returned to lead the team as president, where he would stay until 1992.
During that time Spartak would cement their position as the most popular team in the Soviet Union, drawing in large crowds and bringing through a number of players who would become household names – Nikita Simonyan, now a high-ranking official at the Russian Football Union, where he has twice stepped in as acting president, one of the most well-known in the modern era. In the all-time Soviet tables, Spartak lie a single title behind Dinamo Kyiv and one above their great rivals Dinamo Moscow, trapped between the two police teams. However, they were by far the more consistent – extended to top three finishes, Spartak’s 33 seasons at the top puts the 27 of the two Dinamo clubs in the shadows – a true sign of their domination.
If the Soviet period belonged to Starostin, the modern Russian era can also be attributed to the work of one man – Oleg Romantsev. After forging a successful career as a full back for Spartak, his dedication to the game was noticed by Starostin, who suggested he take the managerial reins at Krasnaya Presnya in 1987, the Moscow club which Spartak emerged from, reborn as a feeder club in the Second Division. A single season there and Romantsev left Moscow or Vladikavkaz, managing the side then known as Spartak Ordzhonikidze. Another one-year spell, and Spartak came calling after Konstantin Beskov – interestingly a man who had made his name playing for, and later managing Dinamo – left the dugout after 11 years in charge.
Beskov had taken over a team in the second tier of the Soviet system and dragged them back to top, winning two titles and constantly challenging in a decade dominated by the Ukrainian sides, in particular Valeri Lobanovsky’s Dinamo Kyiv. Romantsev arrived, his iron-fisted approach restoring the discipline he saw as lacking in the squad, and won the league in his first season, pipping Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to the title.
Spartak dropped the 5th the following year, their worst performance in a decade, but in 1991 they bounced back to finish runners-up to CSKA and reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, going out to Marseille after knocking out Real Madrid with a 3-1 win in the Bernabeu. As the USSR collapsed, Spartak grabbed the final Soviet Cup, and the dynasty was being built.
Spartak lost just one game in the 1992 season, cruising to the title as a number of Spartak legends began to burst onto the scene – Valeri Karpin and Vladimir Beschastnykh played prominent roles in the league win, but the two appearances of a certain Andrei Tikhonov were also crucial, the youngster going on to score a goal every three games from midfield and become the heartbeat of the Spartak team.
The following year, following Starostin’s decision to leave his presidential role, Romantsev stepped in. Following in his predecessor’s footsteps as manager and president, he was now untouchable at Spartak, accountable to nobody and with complete control over the club. It could have been a recipe for disaster, and the move led to a great degree of uncertainty among the fans.
They needn’t have worried in the short term. With the exception of Alania’s 1995 league win, Spartak went on to win every title from 1992-2001, a remarkable achievement of which there is no parallel in either Soviet or Russian football. Champions League money allowed Spartak the ability to bolster their squad, whilst a conveyor belt of young talent, either homegrown or plucked from other clubs, continued to develop strongly. The likes of Yegor Titov, Dmitri Alenichev and Ilya Tsymbalar all broke through and supplied goals from midfield – something Romantsev’s system strongly encouraged, and title kept coming back to Moscow.
However, with such a concentration of power it was only a matter of time before the situation. In 2000 Romantsev sold his controlling share in Spartak, inherited from Starostin on his death in 1996, to LUKoil director Andrei Chervichenko, who brought investment and foreign stars unaccustomed to Romantsev’s disciplinarian methods. In 2003 he became president, and the disagreements with his manager became public. A year after Lokomotiv Moscow broke the Spartak stranglehold by winning their first ever title, Romantsev was sacked amidst rumours of alcoholism and conflict in the dressing room. Spartak finished in 10th place, and have not won the title since.
Since then, Spartak have never disappeared from the top table of the Russian game, but a lone cup win in 2003 is little consolation to fans who have watched first Lokomotiv, then CSKA, Rubin and Zenit all clinch the Premier League title. There are those who say that the revolutionary soul of the club was sold to LUKoil, that the current players do not believe in Spartak’s ideals as the old side did, and that the youth are mismanaged, denied their chance of breaking through into the first team.
There is some truth in this, especially the latter point – the old develop-and-sell policy of youth has almost become ignore-and-buy in recent years – but the truth is that the Romantsev era simply could not last forever. With his departure the club have struggled for stability, eight managers in nine seasons compared to three in 27 before then, and whilst Spartak are no paupers, the oil money continuing to fund the club well, there are other sides with equal or greater resources with which to compete. What Spartak failed to foresee was change.
Still, they remain the moral champions of the Russian game – despite some of their fans’ notorious hooliganism, the club prides itself on its disassociation with the sport’s dark arts – and the best supported team by some distance. With European football an annual occurrence and title challenges not a million miles away, more Spartak success in the future is not unlikely. That they could ever dominate as they did in the past however, is almost impossible. With an multi-national squad containing the likes of Kim Kallstrom, Welliton and Aiden McGeady as well as homegrown prospects such as Sergei Parshivlyuk, Artem Dzyuba and Jano Ananidze, the Spartak fans will continue to dream.