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.
The date is 21st October 1995, the city is Moscow and the hour is approaching 6pm local time. In Samara, hosts Krylya Sovetov are on the end of a thrashing, visiting Lokomotiv knowing that returning to the capital with anything less than three points would put an end to their title dream. Back in Moscow, Vladislav Radimov scores for the home team with seven minutes to go. A nation holds its breath, but there is no more scoring. The referee from Krasnodar puts his whistle to his lips, and it’s all over.
More than 1,000 miles away, a city and a region erupt in celebration. Having been one of the best supported clubs in the country all season, fans of Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz finally have their moment to savour, the club’s first ever Russian title arriving with a game to spare. The festivities are great, and even those with no interest in football join in the party, peasants and politicians alike revelling their team’s greatest ever achievement. Manager Valeri Gazzaev and his teams became instant heroes, previously unheralded sportsmen who would become the stars of their city and beyond.
Although most championship wins inspire some form of celebration, the added resonance in Vladikavkaz can be explained at least in part by the fact that Spartak-Alania, now simply Alania after financial difficulties and reformation in the middle of the last decade, are not your average Russian football club. Formed as early as 1921, the club originally formed as Unitas spent four decades in their local leagues, competing with other teams from their native North Ossetia with varying degrees of success. At this point, there appeared to be little significance attached to the young side.
However, in 1960 the Soivet footballing authorities finally took the decision to allow North Ossetia a team in a nationwide championship which was growing by the year. Alania were not the region’s first choice, nor were they particularly successful in their early years – taking three years before registering a positive goal difference – but as sole representatives of fiercely proud region, they began to carry the sporting hopes of around half a million Ossetians, a number which would quickly rise as they grew in stature.
That growth would come quickly to the newly-christened Spartak, despite their slow start. Despite a convoluted system of promotion – the winners of six regional leagues participating in four round robin groups of three, the winner of each trio then playing each other once more with only one of the four missing out on promotion – the club escaped fairly rapidly. Having fallen at the final hurdle in 1964, two years they found themselves there again, but this time they held their nerve, defeating Tsement Novorossiysk and Metallurg Tula to reach the second tier of Soviet football.
Their first season there was something of a rollercoaster, but ultimately the journey was successful – Spartak Ordzhonkidze, as Vladikavkaz was still known, finished five points off the foot of the table, taking 16th place in their 20 team group and ensuring that they would be around to take part the next season. An incredible second season saw the side narrowly miss out on promotion to the top flight, but the wheels were already in motion.
The 1969 season began with a pair of easy wins, and it became apparent that Spartak meant business. A string of tricky away games were dealt with comfortably, and before long their league became a straight shoot-out between Spartak and Dinamo Leningrad as the two sides pulled clear at the top of the table. In the end it was the Ordzhonikidze club who prevailed and entered the final tournament, this time only one of the four teams going through. On Ukrainian soil each side won and lost one of their first two matches, resulting in a nerve-wracking final day. In the 53rd minute, Spartak scored the goal which would see them to victory over Zalgiris Vilnius, whilst elsewhere the representatives of Dnipropetrovsk and Khabarovsk played out a goalless draw. Spartak were going to the Top League.
At this point, Spartak became not only the representatives of North Ossetia, but of the entire North Caucasus region, the sole club from the area competing with a host of sides representing the powerbase of Moscow and the republican centres. Such was the new appeal of Ordzhonikidze that other teams in the area, from the likes of Grozny, Makhachkala and Stavropol, reached agreements to send Spartak some of their better players to help them compete. These deals fell through, the club was relegated, but the links forged in that single season remain to this day.
Spartak settled back into the First League for the next two decades, on one occasion even falling back to the third tier, which they escaped at the second time of asking. However, they remained a stable second tier side for much of this time, hovering around the lower end of midtable and rarely having any say in the destination of the title. In 1987 a young Oleg Romantsev took charge of the side, briefly lifting them up the league before leaving for a different Spartak in the capital, but in Ordzhonikidze one future managerial legend was replaced by another one – Valeri Gazzaev taking charge of his hometown team in his first job in the dugout.
His first season was poor and his second phenomenal as Spartak Vladikavkaz, the city now renamed, jumped from 17th and battling relegation to 1st and surprise champions. For just the second time in the their history, Gazzaev had guided them to the top table, the only Russian side in the league from outside of the capital, and this time they survived, finishing in 11th place. In the end it would not matter as the teams were arranged into their new national leagues, but the season established Spartak as one of the top sides in the new country.
So it would prove just some four years later, when renamed and under Gazzaev’s iconic leadership, a side made up of homegrown North Caucasians and a handful of players from the less successful footballing republics – Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan – managed to wrest the title from Spartak Moscow and became instant heroes. With North Ossetia possessing such a distinct and strong culture, forged partly in its mountainous isolation and partly in its Christian faith in a part of the world dominated by Islam, it is fitting that such a strong local contingents were the ones to bring success to Spartak-Alania.
The club were unable to repeat that success, Gazzaev eventually leaving to take charge of CSKA Moscow and the team slowly drifting down the table until their relegation 2005. A chaotic licensing problem meant that Alania were denied participation in the First Division the following year, and a reborn club were forced to start again in the regional tiers. A fortuitous promotion back to the top flight in 2009, caused by the collapse of FC Moscow, came too soon and resulted only in failure, but by finishing as runners-up to Mordovia Saransk in the long 2011-12 campaign, Alania Vladikavkaz once again earned their place in the Premier League.
Today, Valeri Gazzaev remains a legend in his own lifetime, and oversees the club’s running from his role as president. He heads what is turning into a Gazzaev dynasty at Alania, his son Vladimir taking the managerial reins despite having no previous experience. Still, with one of the largest and most partisan sets of supporters in the country, the weight of history behind them and one of Russia’s managerial greats at the helm, there is little doubt that Alania belong at the top level. A little nepotism should not hinder their ability to stay there.