Spartak Moscow determined to add new chapter to its intriguing story
IN THE beginning, the aim was simply to offer the people a way of venting their emotions. In a society which championed conformity, supporting Spartak Moscow was a way of expressing subtle resistance to the Stalinist state and getting one over on those who ruled.
It was a matter of pride. Like so many clubs who set their face against a hostile Establishment, the roots of the Moscow side Celtic will face this week are planted in politics, a product of the social circumstances of that time. That political dimension remains, the social scars run deep. Like the rivalry the SPL champions enjoyed with their own city neighbours, Rangers, and the competitive edge between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the fundamental reasons for Spartak’s existence will always drive them in their quest for success and the need for bragging rights.
While CSKA Moscow were funded by the army and Dynamo Moscow by the secret police, Spartak are the “people’s club”, created by a trade union. It was the basis for such deep rivalries and the reason why the fans have remained loyal throughout the lows as well as the highs. Although Spartak have adjusted well to the capitalist ways of post-socialist Russia, going on to win nine of 19 Russian Premier League championships, “Krasno-Belye”, the Red-Whites, are still remembered as the people’s club in the workers’ state.
They emerged from the city’s rough proletarian district of Presnia, the name Spartak derived from Spartacus. It represented a clear indication of the club’s and the supporters’ independent attitude and their need to express themselves in any way they could.
The Starostin brothers helped found the club and it was a commitment which spanned seven decades and endured work camps and the wrath of Stalin. There were four Starostin brothers but Nikolai and Andrei were the key men in club history. They were footballers turned entrepreneurs and whether because of their business dealings or the club’s continued and infuriating success against the state sponsored teams, they were arrested in 1942 and spent 12 years in the Gulag. Even today, the reasons for the arrests are shrouded in ambiguity, but the facts no longer matter. What does is the residual sense of injustice. The supporters believed it was down to the club’s ability to shame the state teams and that is what counted. It elevated the brothers to heroes, made them martyrs to the cause, and is still an intrinsic part of the club’s folklore.
The brothers survived the brutal Soviet prison system after camp commandants asked them to take responsibility for prison football, and following Stalin’s death and the inevitable political changes they returned to take control of Spartak in 1954.
Along with success on the field, the return of the club’s cult heroes ensured the Fifties was a decade of positivity. The Sixties and Seventies were not so kind. But the togetherness and spirit of the club remained strong. Even when the club was relegated in 1976, the team still ran out to large crowds and, having received a rare break from the authorities, who agreed they could break the wage limit for a second-tier team, they bounced back to the top flight before winning the title again in 1979.
But adversity is rarely far from this club’s history and in 1982 another painful episode required them to summon more of their resolve. Playing a UEFA cup match against Dutch side Haarlem, a late goal prompted a stampede that caused mass fatalities. As occurred later at Hillsborough, the authorities tried to pin the blame on the victims rather than confess to their own failings. At the time, officials said the death toll was 66 but seven years later the newspaper Sovetskii Sport published an exposé claiming the real figure was actually 340. Ultimately, the senior police officer that night was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
The incident stoked the same feelings of injustice and the mistrust of authority which provided the foundations for the Muscovite people’s club all those decades ago.
Politically and socially, Spartak may have spent most of their existence as the city underdogs, but on a football field they have rarely been downtrodden.
In the UEFA competitions they are aided and abetted by the home advantage afforded by their artificial pitch. It was in 2007 that Celtic last travelled to the Luzhniki Stadium. The pitch left then manager Gordon Strachan appalled but Celtic still left the city with a draw, courtesy of a Paul Hartley goal, above. Strachan left Aiden McGeady out of that tie, claiming his dribbling skills and the surface were not compatible. The winger has since carved out a career at Spartak following his 2010 move.
Before this weekend, Spartak sat sixth in the Russian league after nine games, but in the Champions League they startled group favourites Barcelona in the first game, leading 2-1 before going down 3-2.
Owner Leonid Fedun is desperate to compete again with the elite, the club having reached three semi-finals in Europe throughout their history. While the rest of Europe sat up and took note of Spartak’s showing in the Nou Camp, Fedun claimed that was not good enough and believes cash is the answer. He intends buying in even more talent to supplement summer signings.
While this won’t have any impact on Celtic this week, it reminds everyone that Spartak is a club built on pride and the desire to step out from the shadows.
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