They have not been winning a national title for more than a decade. Yet, they remain the most popular football club in the country, the “people’s team”, as they were labelled in the 1930s by fans. Many politicians would probably sell their soul in order to achieve the same consensus of Spartak Moscow, which celebrate their first 90 years of activity, filled with 12 Soviet championships and nine Russian titles.
Spartak are more than a simple football team. If they can boast the highest number of fans in Russia it is because of their origins, traced back to the years immediately after the October Revolution. Unlike the major sides in the then USSR, Spartak were not affiliated with the regime.
Football was introduced in the Soviet Union in the 1870s by British sailors, who were used to juggle a ball in the ports of Saint Petersburg and Odessa. It found difficulties in gaining popularity, though, as it was initially considered a bourgeois sport.
Later on, as the Establishment realised the importance of sports as control means over the masses, every State apparatus began to create its own team; CSKA were the club of the army, Dynamo represented the secret police and Lokomotiv were linked to the railways.
Spartak were the only one club whose foundation was not imposed from above. Instead, they were created in early 1922 by a group of young football lovers who came from the Presnja, a working-class district. Until the definitive advent of football, their preferred pastime consisted in a sort of fights against fellows from the adjacent neighbourhood of Dorogomilovo, as Mario Alessandro Curletto recalls in his book “Spartak Moscow”.
As long as metropolitan leagues were established in main cities, football briskly became the most practised activity by the Presnja boys. They were the main characters of the rude matches of dikij futbol(“wild football”), played in the suburbs of the capital city, which epitomised the rising popularity of the sport outside its institutionalised leagues.
The October Revolution favoured the access to sports also to lower classes, excluded until then due to economic reasons. Leaded by Ivan Artem’ev, one prominent star of Muscovite football, the youngsters from the Presnja went even further and decided to form a new multisport club. Once the reserve by the local Komsomol, the Communist Union of Youth, was broken, the group collected the money necessary for the construction of the stadium. Finally the club, named MKS (“Moscow Sport Circle”), was formed and played their first official match on 18 April 1922. The budget was quintessentially based on gate revenues.
Among the players in those pioneering years there were four guys destined to become the symbol of the team. They were the Starostin brothers – Nikolaj, Aleksandr, Andrej and Pëtr (pictured left). Nikolaj, the oldest one, had become the head of household following the death of their father in 1920. In order to maintain his family, he played ice hockey in winter and football in summer.
The team, soon renamed Krasnaja Presnja (“Red Presnja”), became popular also outside Moscow and relocated in a new 10,000-seat stadium. Between 1923 and 1926 football was strongly revolutionised by the Communist Party; only teams linked to companies or local governments were admitted to compete. Krasnaja Presnja passed under the direction of Komsomol and were sponsored by the food workers union; it was later renamed Piščeviki and, then, Promkooperacija.
However, it was in 1935 that substantial changes occurred in the club. The football team became part of a larger sports society and, above all, changed definitely denomination; the Starostins rechristened it Spartak. Andrej told the name was chosen in honour of Spartacus, the leader of the rebellion by the slaves against Rome, as Nikolaj spotted the cover of a novel dedicated to him. Instead, his brother stated it was a reminder of a clubhouse where he was hosted during a tour in Germany. A red shirt with a horizontal white band was adopted.
Relocated again in a new venue inside the Tarasovka training ground, Spartak definitely became the “people’s team”. Not only were they the only major side unrelated to the Establishment, their name also echoed revolutionary implications. Supporting Spartak meant hating State apparatuses and in the Soviet Union football was perhaps the only one area free from the regime’s diktats.
The team caught the support of the working class as well as the dislike by the other teams’ chairmen. The fiercest opponent was Lavrentij Berija who, as chief of the secret police, was Dynamo Moscow honorary president. A hybrid between legend and truth maintains he once played in Tbilisi against Nikolaj Starostin; as he failed to mark him, he promised himself to avenge this humiliation as soon as he could.
(1 – to be continued)