Delve back into the history of football in Russia and you’ll find that its roots hail from none other than the green fields of Caledonia.
Arthur Davidovich MacPherson is generally considered to be the father of Russian football.
At a gala dinner celebrating the centenary of the Russian Football Union, this relatively unknown Scotsman was given a special toast by Putin for his contribution to football in Russia. Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini both found themselves raising a glass to Arthur MacPherson.
A true all-rounder, MacPherson was also responsible for introducing lawn tennis and rowing to Russia. He was awarded the Order of Saint Stanislaus by Tsar Nicholas II - the only person ever to receive this honour for services to sport.
MacPherson was born in St Petersburg in 1870 to a family of Glaswegian shipyard owners. His grandfather, Murdoch MacPherson, moved to Russia to help the tsars establish steelworks and shipyards.
A stock exchange dealer and timber merchant, MacPherson worked hard to promote football in Russia, playing in some of the country’s earliest matches.
The sport first appeared as a way for ex-pats in St Petersburg to preserve a sense of their heritage in this new home. Scottish and English workers would wait by the ports for the crews of visiting British ships to provide opposition teams. Soon the beautiful game was taking hold among the locals too.
The St Petersburg Football League, Russia’s first organised league, was founded in 1901 with MacPherson taking on the role of chairman.
One of its first teams was the Nevka side, made up of Scottish workers from the Samson weaving mill in St Petersburg. A rival team, Nevsky, soon formed from English workers from another of the city’s mills. The Scottish team went on to become the first champions of the Russian football league.
It’s thought that the Russian mill owners created football teams for their workers to discourage them from drinking vodka on weekends. Many of the Russian football clubs we know today such as Dynamo Moscow originate from these first factory teams.
The popularity of the sport grew and grew and in 1912 MacPherson founded the All-Russian Football Union, becoming its first President.
As Russia was rocked by the tumult of WWI and increasing resistance to the Romanov regime, the development of football in the country shuddered to a halt and the story of its founding father takes a very tragic turn.
After the Revolution, MacPherson was arrested by the Soviets for introducing “bourgeois” sports into Russia. He was left to die of typhoid in a Moscow prison in 1919. It’s said that when MacPherson’s body was discovered it was unrecognisable. He could only be identified by a piece of paper with his name scrawled on that he’d managed to tie to his own wrist.
One of his sons, Arthur Jr, went on to become a spy for the British secret service. Like his father, he was also a keen tennis player and competed in both Wimbledon and the US Open.
MacPherson’s gravestone can be found in the Smolensky Cemetery in St Petersburg. The inscription reads:
“Arthur Davidovich MacPherson 1870-1919: First Chairman of the All-Russia Union of Lawn Tennis Club 1908-17 and of the Football Union 1912-13. Member of the Russian Olympic Committee 1911-13”.
So when watching the 2018 World Cup, don’t forget to join Vladimir Putin in raising a glass to Arthur MacPherson.