The opportunity came a few years after the foundation of Spartak. The team was called for an exhibition in the Red Square in front of high-ranking officials on 6 July 1936, the Sportsman’s Day. The originally planned half-a-hour demonstration match against Spartak reserves was extended to 43 minutes, as Stalin himself was truly delighted by the game. Needless to say, this exacerbated the hate of Berija towards Spartak.
The Dynamo honorary president seized the day in 1942, when he ordered the arrest of Nikolaj Starostin, accused of having plotted to assassinate Stalin six years before. Berija had no better evidence than a picture, found in Starostin’s flat, showing the Spartak team passing close to Stalin inside a football-boot-shaped car. However ludicrous, this was sufficient to condemn all four Starostins to ten years ina GULag, a sentence then considered a let-off, as Simon Kuper wrote in “Football Against the Enemy”. Berija’s was not just convicting four men – they were the symbol of Spartak, the only independent major club, cheered by millions of Soviets.
Being the most popular Soviet footballer, Starostin was almost untouchable in his years in prison and in every GULag he served as football coach. A twist of fate, he did so for the various Dynamo teams connected to the NKVD headed by Berija. Everyone was listening to his epic stories and football really resembled a heaven of peace for those who were prosecuted by the regime. However, this is the romantic side of the story. As Jonathan Wilson states in “Behind the curtain”, Nikolaj had cordial relationships with football authorities and probably the reason of his incarceration lied in a simple fraud.
Once the age of terror ended in 1953 with Stalin’s death and Berija’s execution, the Starostins were released from the gulags and returned to Moscow. Nikolaj regained the helm of Spartak and made them one of the most successful clubs in the Soviet Union. The “Red-and-Whites” knew the humiliation of their first relegation in 1976, but they were immediately back to the top flight under the management of Konstantin Beskov, an iron sergeant who would emerge as the main antagonist of Valerij Lobanovskij in the 1980s.
It was in this decade that the glorious Spartak history was soiled with blood by a sort of Soviet Hillsborough. The team faced Dutch side HFC Harleem in the UEFA Cup round of 32 and played the first leg in the Lenin – nowadays Lužniki – Stadium on 20 October 1982. As 10,000 fans showed up in that freezing night, the police decided to jam them in just one sector.
Spartak took the lead and eventually added a second in the final minutes, while some fans were leaving the icy stands and approaching the exit. As they heard the crowd roaring, they turned back but encountered other fans walking in the opposite way. Being squeezed in a confined space as the officers refused to open other gates, many fans lurched in the darkness and were deadly walked over. Official reports said 66 people died, although other sources suggest the number of victims was much more higher. The tragedy was not publicly disclosed until the years of perestrojka and glasnost’ and only in 1990 a commemorative monument was placed outside the venue.
The decade commenced with the invasion of Afghanistan and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, was also marked by a funny episode. Soviet newspaper Izvestija reported in 1988 that Spartak were negotiating the signing of Argentinian star Diego Armando Maradona for $6million. Later, the paper admitted that the story, published on April fool’s day, was untrue.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was supposed to coincide with a new era for football in Russia. Still, Spartak continued to dominate the scene and won all but one national title from 1992 to 2001. Manager Oleg Romancev, appointed in 1988 to replace Beskov, turned out to be both blessing and curse.
He began launching gifted players like Egor Titov and Valerij Karpin and leading Spartak to compete in the glamorous Champions League, this portraying him as the ideal successor of the Starostins. Later on, he became the club president and even the main shareholder, so that he could not be sacked. The first problems arose after the controversial dismissal of Il’ja Cymbalar’ and Andrej Tichonov, two key players.
Being the national team manager at the same time, he lost the control of all this power and made the club sinking with him. An alcohol-addicted, Romancev deteriorated his relationship with Russian media and even screen out after a trial a young Jurij Žirkov. New main shareholder Andreij Červičenko finally sacked him in 2003. Meanwhile, a doping scandal involved Titov (pictured right) – traces of bromantan, a stimulant used by Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, were found in samples given by him – and other players. The decline was inexorable.
Nowadays Spartak are still winless, due to the emergence of other teams such as Zenit Saint Petersburg, CSKA Moscow and Rubin Kazan’ backed by the new Russian sugar daddies . The team, who had become “official, ostentatious and shovy” under Romancev according to Russian journalist Igor Rabiner, appeared to have lost their free soul. They are now backed by oil giant Lukoil and one of its shareholders, Leonid Fedun, is the club chairman. On a good point, the team will finally manage to abandon the Lužniki, which still recalls the 1982 tragedy, and to move in another facility after years of resistence by Moscow council.
Yet, the fans are going on by supporting their favourites who are still the most popular side. As Nikolaj Starostin used to say in hard times, “everything is lost, except honour”.
(2 – the end)