As the World Cup travels from Brazil 2014 to Russia 2018, it will be a journey from the game’s spiritual home to its mysterious outpost.

Like much of the country, Russia’s football too is shrouded in intrigue. Currently, the dialogue about Russian football revolves around President Vladimir Putin’s coup in winning the hosting rights for the 2018 edition, hooliganism, and oligarchs, most notably Roman Abramovich, funding clubs abroad.

There was a time when Soviet football held sway in the world. Established in pre-revolutionary Russia, the game played a complex role in a totalitarian regime. It conformed to the commonest of communist clichés, was used as a diplomatic tool, and gave vent to small acts of defiance.

The first strains of Total Football were played in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); the team rose to Olympic glory in 1956 and won the inaugural edition of the European Championships in 1960 to cap the golden era of Soviet football. The game flourished within, despite being in the clasp of communism.

Football and the state

In the USSR, the state was all-pervading and football was no exception.

Like most other sports, the game’s development was rooted in the Red Army Schools—military sports programmes. They were important to retain the illusion that the state had control over, and was responsible for, their success.

“Sport openly became a means of providing pre-military training and achieving a relatively high standard of national fitness and defence," wrote sports historian James Riordan in an essay, Totalitarianism And Sport In Russia.

CSKA Moscow (earlier CDKA: Sports Club of Central House of the Red Army), the oldest club in the country established in 1911, was the official team of the Soviet army. Across the city, Dynamo Moscow emerged as the side of the MVD (ministry of internal affairs—the Soviet militia) and the secret service organization Cheka, a precursor of the KGB.

By all accounts, Joseph Stalin wasn’t particularly interested in football, not unless it helped the state proclaim superiority. In his 1987 memoirs Trudnye dorogi k Olimpu—translated as Difficult Paths To Olympus in a James Riordan paper published in the journal Soccer & Society in 2007—Nikolai Romanov, the chairman of the committee on physical culture and sport, writes: “To gain permission to go to international tournaments, I had to send a special note to Stalin ensuring victory."

But Robert Edelman, a professor of Russian history and author of books Spartak Moscow: A History Of The People’s Team In The Workers’ State and Serious Fun, says in an email interview: “There is no actual proof of this (Stalin needing an assurance). It was supposed to be true of all sorts of competitions. Having said this, Stalin did not micromanage sport, which was not one of his primary interests."

But defeats on the football field were not taken lightly.

At the 1952 Olympics, the USSR were drawn to play Yugoslavia in the first round. It was a politically charged match as Stalin and Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had severed relations in 1948 and Yugoslavia was excluded from the Communist Information Bureau.

Both leaders reportedly sent messages to their teams ahead of the clash. Though the first leg ended 5-5, Yugoslavia managed to beat Russia 3-1 in the rematch.

Stung by the defeat, Stalin disbanded the CDKA Moscow team, which made up most of the USSR squad. Team coach Boris Arkadyev, one of the most prominent names in Soviet football, was stripped of his “Merited Master of Sports of the USSR" title. The club did not compete till Stalin’s death in 1953.

The Soviet Union team lines up for a group photograph in 1970. Photo: Getty Images
The Soviet Union team lines up for a group photograph in 1970. Photo: Getty Images

Healing touch

Football had spread high and wide in the Soviet Union by the 1920s. But the government understood how good a public relations exercise it could be when Dynamo Moscow visited the UK in November 1945 on a friendly tour.

The British media chased this curious entourage of unsmiling Russians, all dressed in blue coats and carrying identical cases. Legend has it that they speculated that the Russians had smuggled atomic weapons into the country.

As it happened, the visitors had brought their own food supplies. Conspiracy theories, however, kept floating as the Russians rarely, if ever, spoke to the press. They came to be known as “The Silent Ones".

The Dynamo team opened its tour at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, in front of 85,000 spectators. After the match ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw, the local fans poured on to the field and paraded the Russians, who had been their allies in the war, on their shoulders.

Dynamo’s fluid movement and tactical play came as a surprise to the British, mainly because Soviet football had flourished in isolation. They did not enter the football World Cup till 1958, and played their first Olympics only in 1952.

The term international friendly means little in today’s football. But it was loaded with diplomatic weight in 1955, when, 10 years after the bloody end to World War II, the USSR invited West Germany to play a football match. It was to be a friendly prelude to open dialogue with the Federal Republic of Germany, which, in May that year, had joined Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

On 21 August 1955, the USSR and West Germany, the reigning world champions, contested on the football field for the first time. As a gesture of goodwill, the Soviet Union had made arrangements for 1,500 fans to travel from Germany.

Almost 80,000 people witnessed the spectacle in Moscow, and saw the USSR beat West Germany 3-2. West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer met the Soviet leadership a month later to discuss more important issues. It eventually resulted in the USSR releasing 10,000 German prisoners of war (PoWs) on 14 September 1955.

Lev Yashin (in black) thwarts Lothar Emmerich of West Germany during the 1966 semi-final in Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images
Lev Yashin (in black) thwarts Lothar Emmerich of West Germany during the 1966 semi-final in Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images

People’s team

At a time when the USSR’s football landscape was dominated with teams organized by government agencies, Spartak Moscow was created by a trade union public organization, in 1922. They were the “people’s team". “Spartak was funded and supported by a variety of civilian agencies," says Edelman. “The primary fact was that they were the most successful of the civilian clubs and supporting them was a safe way of asserting fans’ dignity in the face of repression."

Supporting football, in general, became a quest for momentary freedom. Desperate for distraction after the hardship of the war years, fans flocked to football games in the thousands, passionately supporting their favoured teams.

One of the most prominent figures of Soviet and Russian football, Nikita Simonyan, wrote in his memoir Football—Is It Just A Game? (1989), “It sometimes seemed that the entire Moscow went to the Dynamo stadium. Metro cars full to capacity, trolleybuses with open doors. The passengers would hang in bunches from the trams, some adventurous types even managed to hold on to automobiles…

“When these teams (Dynamo, Spartak or CDKA) played, the stadium would roar deafeningly. The support was so strong that you could easily say that the matches were, at least in part, won by the spectators too."

Edelman adds, “For some, football was an ‘island of honesty’ in a dishonest world. Love of football was one way for Soviet men to assert and define their masculinity. For others, football’s unscripted dramas challenged the predictability of a planned society."

Spartak did not just challenge the established hierarchies of their world, they also refused to conform to a structured, defensive style of play. They were rebels, they were stylists. Spartak played fluid, quick-passing football and started asserting their technical superiority over their rivals. They won 12 Soviet championships and a record 10 Soviet Cups.

But some of their founders, most notably the Starostin brothers Nikolai and Andrei, paid the price for their defiance. In 1942, they were arrested on charges of conspiring to assassinate Stalin and sent to a gulag (a prison labour camp) for 10 years.

Nikolai was only released in 1953, and served as the Spartak president from 1955-92.

Total football

You might suppose that Soviet football was about a regimented, physical approach. It was quite true in the early decades, when teams were stuck in a time warp of ineffective formations and tactics. Even then, though, there were teams like Spartak and Torpedo Moscow, which were fashioned on creative flair. It was, however, the Basque tour of 1937 that challenged, and eventually forced, the Soviet national team to rethink their football ideology. International exposure was rare back then and the Basque team’s technical superiority stunned the Russians, especially the 4-7 defeat of Dynamo Central Council’s Select XI—a careful assortment of the best football talent in the country.

“After the Basque tour, all the leading Soviet teams started to reorganize in the spirit of the new system," Arkadyev, who was then coach of Metallurg Moscow (a Soviet team, now defunct) at the time, has been quoted as saying in Jonathan Wilson’s book, Inverting The Pyramid (2008). “With the third-back, lots of ours and foreign clubs employed so-called roaming players in attack."

When he took over Dynamo Moscow in 1940, Arkadyev encouraged the creative streak, giving players the freedom to “roam" more and pull teams apart. Soviet football changed from an archaic, and somewhat suicidal, 2-3-5 formation to a more tactical 4-4-2—first employed by Torpedo Moscow manager Victor Maslov, whom football historian Wilson calls the “progenitor of pressing" in his book.

Arkadyev, who took over the Soviet national team in 1952, amplified the success of that strategy. “We confused the opposition, leaving them without weaponry with our sudden movements," he said. “With the transition of the defensive line from a zonal game to marking specific opponents, it became tactically logical to have all the attackers and even the midfielders roaming, while having all the defenders switch to a mobile system."

It was an early version of Total Football, as we now know it.

Lev Yashin moves in to save from Portugal’s Eusébio during the 1966 third-place match in Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images
Lev Yashin moves in to save from Portugal’s Eusébio during the 1966 third-place match in Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images

Golden era, golden boy

Soviet football pressed into prominence in the late 1940s and 1950s. In the post-war years, Soviet football’s state-sponsored teams also had a decisive edge over amateur players from other countries.

Their first big football prize came as a gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In one of the smallest competitions—only 11 teams competed—the Soviet Union took top honours. India finished fourth—their best finish till date.

Some of the most celebrated Soviet and Russian players emerged in that era. The first big sports star of the Soviet Union, Vsevolod Bobrov, excelled at football and ice hockey and was one of the most prolific scorers in club football. Igor Netto was the beating heart of a vibrant Spartak and national side.

But the Soviet Union’s first international star was goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

Donning his signature black cap, Yashin, the “Black Spider", revolutionized his art. He turned the role from a silent observer in goal to a pro-active member of the playing eleven. He was athletic and dynamic; the first goalkeeper to rush ahead to the ball or punch it to safety.

Yashin was the first “sweeper-keeper". So far ahead of his time, he was awarded the highest individual prize in the game, the Ballon d’Or, in 1963. He remains the only goalkeeper to have won the honour.

Yashin was a proletariat hero, one who had started as a factory worker and shot to international fame. Though Soviet beliefs shunned the star system, people singled him out for hero worship.

There’s a story, narrated by team medic Oleg Belakovsky, that when Yashin was on the train from Vladivostok to Moscow, having just returned to Russia after the Melbourne Olympics, a man kneeled before the goalkeeper and presented him with a bottle of moonshine and a pack of sunflower seeds. “It’s everything we have. Thank you—from all the Russian people," he said.

However, Yashin’s, and the Soviet Union’s, finest hour would come on 10 July 1960, when the team won the inaugural European Championships. The first Euros got under way with only 17 teams on board, with West Germany, Italy and England absent from the roster.

Unlike the current format, the teams were to play home and away matches until the semi-finals. Drawn with the Soviet Union in the quarter-final, Spain refused to travel for the away leg. The USSR had been a major supporter of the Second Spanish Republic—and thus General Franco’s rival—during the Spanish Civil War.

Dressed in crimson, the Red Army sparkled on the football field. They defeated Czechoslovakia 3-0 in the semi-final in Marseille. In the final, the Soviet Union came up against that old adversary: Yugoslavia.

Though Yugoslavia dominated the regulation 90 minutes, Yashin stood tall in goal to allow only a deflected goal through Milan Galić in the 43rd minute. His team equalized 6 minutes later.

In extra time, Viktor Ponedelnik, one of the best strikers on show, rose to the occasion, heading home the winner after 113 minutes. Even as the Soviet Union picked up their biggest trophy till date, Yashin was named goalkeeper of the tournament and two Soviet strikers—Ponedelnik and Valentin Ivanov—were joint leading scorers.

The Soviet Union team had some of the leading lights of the game, but the stars never quite lined up for it in major tournaments after the 1960 triumph.

Their best performance at a World Cup remains a fourth place at the 1966 edition. The team did better in the continental championships, finishing runners-up in 1964, 1972 and 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and Russian football has never been the same again.

When the World Cup rolls in on 14 June, Russia will be at the forefront of the footballing world again, but their game continues to exist on the fringes of football.

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