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 every capital member of Russia’s old, Soviet sporting societies, there are untold numbers of much smaller provincial clubs scattered around the country bearing the same name. Whilst the military strongholds of CSKA and SKA largely avoided this for obvious reasons, you can pick almost any football league in the vast nation today and find at least one of the other names which are commonplace across the former Eastern Bloc. Dinamo, Torpedo, Lokomotiv and Spartak are favourites in the slightly larger cities, and even the likes of Zenit, Energia and Trud can be discovered if you look hard enough.
For a nation whose sports fans are fully accepting of a name change coming with a change of ownership, sponsorship or political affiliation, it should come as little surprise that many sides have played under at least two of those monikers, due to one of a number of reasons ranging from regional government adoption to factories changing hands. To pick one example from many, Avangard Kursk have been through a decade as Spartak, another as Trudovye Reservy and a single season as Trud before settling on their current name.
Yet, for every side which changes its colours as often as the wind changes direction, there is another which has held firm to the roots originally planted. The most common of these are again the bigger clubs – Dinamo Moscow, for example, have never felt the need to sever their ties with the ruling authorities – but again further down the league there are a handful of sides who still bear the name they started with.
Spartak Tambov is one such club, and perhaps the perfect juxtaposition to the state-assisted compliance advocated by Dinamo during the Soviet era. To most, the name of Tambov means little other than a relatively small city on the southbound railway from Moscow, once a forward outpost against the Crimean Tatar threat and now a settlement of 300,000 removed from life outside its own oblast or region. However, a glance deeper into the history books reveals that it maintains a status as one of the most openly rebellious cities in the Soviet period.
It is a shame that the current Spartak side do not play in blue but red – the traditional Spartak colours at odds with local history. During the bloody civil war which devastated the newly-declared USSR, residents of Tambov took a unique stance in opposing both the tsarist White Guards and the socialist Red Army, forming the militant Union of Toiling Peasants and launching a systematic fightback against the Reds’ violent requisitioning policies in the region. By 1921, the nominally independent Tambov Republic had been officially declared, although the Red Army eventually quashed the rebellion after diverting troops from the Polish front.
The extent to which Tambov created a problem for the authorities did not become known until much later, when it emerged that the uprising was dealt with much more brutally than previously known. Poison gas was deployed against the residents, whilst a series of concentration camps specifically for the area were established in the surrounding region. Estimates place the total death toll at around 250,000, although the entire affair was the subject of a substantial cover-up by the Soviet government for decades afterwards.
The that devastating history in mind, it is perhaps little surprise that those who established Tambov’s professional football club did not choose to attach themselves to the Dinamo society, the group of clubs favoured by the Soviet secret police and which often saw its sides competing at the top of the all-Union championship – Dinamo representatives from Moscow, Kyiv and Tbilisi all have Soviet titles to their names. To side with the authorities who had decimated their city 40 years earlier would be an insult to those memories, and so another path was chosen.
At the time, the Spartak name could not have been more appropriate. Spartak Moscow were the ‘people’s team,’ the darlings of the proletariat who had set themselves up in opposition to Dinamo despite their humble beginnings in a meat factory. That rivalry had also become something much bigger than football – during the Second World War, secret police boss Lavrenty Beria had ordered the imprisonment of the brothers who had founded Spartak in an attempt to break the club.
Spartak Tambov took part in their first national competition in 1960, a year after Dinamo Moscow claimed their ninth top flight title and two years after Spartak had clinched their seventh. For Tambov, the battle would take place on a somewhat smaller scale, the new team taking their place in Russian Zone 1 of the Soviet Class B competition, two promotions and hundreds of teams away from the Moscow giants. Winning eight of their 30 matches, Spartak claimed 13th place in a league of 16, a result which set the scene of much of the club’s existence.
For the next decade, Spartak would bounce around Zones 1-3 as the footballing authorities did their best to regionalise the game in the world’s largest country. These regular changes did little to aid the Tambov cause however – only twice in their first ten years did they manage to break into the top ten, and even then a 7th place in 1969 was their greatest achievement.
Indeed, Spartak are almost the definition of a third tier club, having spent the entirety of their Soviet existence and all bar three post-relegation seasons of their Russian lives at the same stage. The only promotion on their record arrived in 1996, three years after suffering relegation to the now-defunct Third League – today, the Second Division trapdoor leads straight into the amateur leagues – with only a handful of top five finishes in their Central division giving the fans anything to shout about.
Whilst the club’s ambitions have to be questioned after such long-term mediocrity – manager Vladimir Kovylin has been at the club for three and a half decades as player and coach with only a relegation and re-promotion to his name – Spartak fans can at least lay claim to two of Russia’s better-known footballers. Both Yuri Zhirkov and Dmitri Sychev plied their trade for the Tambov side in their youth, the former a homegrown talent coming through the youth team, before moving on to bigger things, their abilities rapidly outgrowing the collective gifts of their middle-of-the-road club.
Still, with Spartak more familiar with 14th place than 4th, it is unlikely that even the discovery of another Zhirkov or Sychev would lift them into contention for a spot in the First Division. Their Central division contains one or two teams far more likely to suffer relegation than the Tambov side, and so there is little for the club to realistically aim for. Without a more ambitious leadership there will be no progress, but for now it would appear that Spartak are happy with their consistent mediocrity and long-suffering manager. In many ways, it is more important that Tambov has a team at all, than that they achieve greatness.