cover

Contents

COVER

ABOUT THE BOOK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

TITLE PAGE

DEDICATION

NOTE TO THE SECOND EDITION

FOREWORD by Simon Kuper

PROLOGUE

1. SPARTAK IS A RELIGION

2. NATIONAL TRAUMAS AND ORDERS FROM ABOVE

3. CSKA MOSCOW – ALL THAT GLITTERS

4. THE CURSED TEAM

5. FOREIGN AFFAIRS

6. THE FIXERS – RUSSIAN STYLE

7. ZENIT – LIFE’S A GAS WITH GAZPROM

8. PROFESSOR HOOLIGAN EXPOUNDS

9. CHECHEN CHAMPIONS

10. NEW ROPE FOR NEW TIMES

11. THE SIXTEENTH-RICHEST HUMAN IN THE WORLD

12. KANCHELSKIS ON THE VOLGA

13. MOVING ON UP WITH FC KHIMKI OR FRANKNESS FROM ‘HE WITHOUT HAPPINESS’

14. A MOST UNLIKELY COMEBACK

15. RUSSIA REVEALS ITSELF

EPILOGUE

REFERENCES, ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF RANDOM INSPIRATIONS

THANKS AND GREETINGS

INDEX

COPYRIGHT

About the Book

1991: The collapse of the USSR seems to signal the death of Russian football, as the money, the players and the fans leave.

Now: With oil prices at a record high, the oligarchs who profited from the post-Soviet turmoil are supporting the nation’s football clubs and their dreams of glory, resulting in unprecedented success.

Join Marc Bennetts on a journey into the heart of Russian football and meet the managers, oligarchs, players, pundits and fans that define the nation’s Premier League, now the fastest-growing and most intriguing football league in the world. From Andrei Arshavin and the national team’s adventures at Euro 2008 to the symbolism of a club from war-torn Chechnya lifting the Russian FA Cup, Football Dynamo uncovers shocking revelations about corruption, hooliganism and racism, but also the true beauty of the game and the country.

‘Bennetts has produced an engrossing, authoritative account of the game in his adopted country as it makes a growing mark in Europe’ Independent

‘This book does more than just help you learn to love Russia. It even helps you learn to love Russian football’ Simon Kuper

About the Author

Marc Bennetts is a journalist and translator who has written for Insight Guides in conjunction with The Discovery Channel, DK’s Eyewitness Guides and Lonely Planet guides on Russia and Russian football. He supports Nottingham Forest and has a large collection of Russian pirate DVDs, mainly horror films.

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Modern Russia and the People’s Game

Marc Bennetts

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This book is dedicated with love and thanks to Bill and Jo Bennetts (a.k.a. Mum and Dad)

Note to the second edition

The release date for the first edition of this book could not have been more fortuitous. In the week it hit the shops, Zenit St Petersburg claimed their first European trophy, lifting the UEFA Cup with a confident 2–0 defeat of Glasgow Rangers in Manchester. Seven days later, Chelsea and Manchester United fought out a thrilling Champions League final in Moscow. And then, in June, the Russian national side confounded domestic and foreign expectations to reach the semi-finals of Euro 2008, their 3–1 victory over Holland possibly the best match of the entire tournament. All of this meant that interest in the Russian game was arguably higher than ever.

However, the fact that the book came out before Zenit’s triumph and Andrei Arshavin’s match-winning performances meant that, obviously, its pages included nothing on the very events that may have attracted people to pick it up in the first place. This gave me the happy task of writing a new, update chapter.

Writing about Russia’s adventures at Euro 2008 and Zenit’s European success was an odd experience. Russian football had emerged from the shadows, and I was now describing events that the whole world had seen. The players I had been following for years were suddenly, notwithstanding the inevitable problems with pronunciation, almost household names. However, if the achievements were no secret, the reactions of the Russians themselves to this unexpected success were not quite so well documented, and I have made this the focus of my update chapter.

Marc Bennetts, Moscow, November 2008

Foreword

‘The beautiful game,’ writes Marc Bennetts in this remarkable book, ‘was the anti-Enigma Machine through which Russia could be decoded.’ If he’s right, then watching the Russian Premier league could save the world’s spies a lot of work. In fact, a subscription to the Sovetski-Sport newspaper could have shortened the Cold War. And yet Bennetts gets you to believe the claim. This book might not crack Russia’s code – probably nothing can – but it does make the country a little bit less incomprehensible, and it’s very funny along the way.

In 1992 I spent a month having the traditional foreign journalist’s experience of bafflement while getting lost all over Moscow. The city’s size, greyness and filth was reminiscent of South London circa 1973, but otherwise it all felt pretty alien. Then, one Sunday afternoon, I went with some Brits and Russians to the Spartak Moscow vs CSKA derby in the massive Luzhniki stadium with the statue of Lenin in front. It was a gorgeous sunny day in August, and I realised that this was the perfect Russian tourist event: it was an authentic Russian occasion, because the game wasn’t being staged for our benefit, and in fact nobody even cared that we were there; the setting and the fans’ behaviour were so familiar that we could barely recognise the differences between it and Britain.

Like many foreigners who spend any time in Russia, I found that there was something addictive about the country, an attraction that isn’t obvious at first glance. Anyone can fall in love with Rome. What attracts people to Russia may be the intensity of relationships, the joys people have despite everything, and – something that surprised me – the national sense of humour. The experience inspired me to go away and spend a year studying Russian every day. I never got far enough to have a simple conversation.

I was just a passing observer whose hopes for more were defeated. Bennetts has gone native. He came to Russia planning to stay for a year. That was a decade ago. Then he fell in love with a Russian woman, and much more bizarrely, with Russian football. In fact he may be the only person from outside the former Soviet Union with the latter affliction.

Like all foreigners, Bennetts began with the sense that Russia was unknowable: ‘There was a certain something, inaccessible to the casual observer, at the core of the Russian game. This was encapsulated, for me at least, in the form of the terrace chant – “Sudyu na milo” – that the fans would invariably begin to shout whenever a decision went against their side.’

The chant literally meant ‘Ref on soap’, but that didn’t seem to make sense. Eventually Bennetts cracked it: ‘I found out that the idiomatic phrase was correctly translated as “Make soap out of the ref!” and referred to the Soviet practice of producing hygiene products from the fat of slaughtered stray dogs, a fate that the enraged supporters deemed only fit for the object of their righteous indignation.’

Having figured that out, Bennetts was away. Over the years he watched Moscow transform from post-communism to late-capitalism (the exact opposite of Marx’s prophesy) while football made the same journey. When he first arrived, so few people cared about the game that you could walk into some matches off the street without paying; or as one Muscovite fan told me, during the years of chaos, ‘So many matches are fixed that as a supporter all you can do is cheer on the odd player of quality who plays honestly.’ By the time Bennetts finished his Football Dynamo, the oligarchs and state energy companies had turned the Russian game into ‘one of the world’s richest’.

Everything has changed, and yet the corruption and underperformance of Russian football – hilariously documented in this book – have remained intact, as if these were facts of nature, impervious to any man-made influences. One thing Bennetts conveys is how miserable it must be to be a Russian professional footballer: if the Soviet-relic manager doesn’t get you, the new mafia will.

This book is packed with brave and surprising interviews (conducted mostly in Russian), with everyone from humble fans to Russia’s best players and its richest oligarchs. Getting those interviews must have been even more of a feat than it would have been in another country. The author, after all, is ‘a foreign writer lacking official Russian press accreditation in a land where documents are accorded a particular reverence’. It’s exhausting just to think about how much work went into this.

In one of his interviews, he asks Evgeni Giner, oligarch owner of CSKA, whether the team really fixes matches as everyone says. At the end of the interview Giner sees him out of the door, and tells him: ‘“Your book should concentrate on the game itself, on the matches, not on the scandals. It’s easy to write about that kind of stuff,” he added. “Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens,” he went on, throwing in a token English writer, “they didn’t write about scandals, did they?”’

Most writers hearing this might get a touch concerned. In Russia, the ins and outs of football are considered a dangerous subject to discuss, like Chechnya, or sales of nuclear missile parts. Happily, Bennetts was naive enough to ignore Giner’s advice.

The ‘matches’ tend to lose something in the telling. The best football books therefore usually steer clear of them. The best books – and this one fits in the football-in-one-country tradition of David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, Alex Bellos’s Futebol and Phil Ball’s Morbo – are always about a place as much as the game. Bennetts doesn’t just know the history of Dynamo Moscow, gruesomely gripping as it is. He also knows about Dostoevsky and Gogol and the Bolshevik revolution and ‘zapoi’, the Russian word for ‘bender’, if a few drunken nights out in Britain can be said remotely to compare to an experience straight out of the Apocalypse. As a bonus, he gives us a marvellous cameo of Steve McClaren.

You’d think this book – packed with horrors – would do nothing to advance the cause of Anglo-Russian friendship. In fact it just might. Bennetts writes about the Russian game – and by extension, a large chunk of Russian daily life – with such love that the reader cannot help but be infected. Just look what happened to the Bennetts family. After Russia beats England in the crucial qualifier for Euro 2008 in Moscow, the author calls his mother-in-law to congratulate her. ‘She sounded a touch bemused by my joy at Russia’s victory,’ he writes. (And having read the preceding 200-odd pages, you believe that his joy has to do with more than just hoping that a Russian qualification will help sell his book.)

But it turns out Bennetts is not the only convert:

Back in England, won over by my enthusiasm and their many trips to the country, … my father later told me than when Pavlyuchenko scored his second goal he and my mother had leaped around the room cheering so much that ‘the neighbours must have thought we were Russian’.

If George Blake, the MI6 agent-turned-Russian ‘superspy’ now living out his last years in Moscow, reads this, as he should, you imagine his octogenarian eyes twinkling with recognition. But this book does more than just help you learn to love Russia. It even helps you learn to love Russian football.

Simon Kuper,

February 2008

Prologue

In July 2007, the month that Britain and Russia engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats in connection with the murder of the ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, I went to watch Spartak Moscow take on Zenit St Petersburg in the Russian capital. The crowd of 50,000 was one of the season’s biggest and the match itself a thrilling display of open football, as Spartak ran out 3–1 winners, showing no respect for their opponents’ recent multimillion-dollar signings. Leaving the stadium after the match, I couldn’t help thinking back to the first ever games I had attended in Russia over a decade before.

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Back then, Russian football had been in a bad way, characterised by low attendances, crumbling stadiums and a severe image problem. This was hardly surprising. Russia itself was in the midst of a cataclysmic upheaval, the one-time superpower slowly being torn apart by almost total social and economic collapse, rampant corruption and brutal civil war in Chechnya. The rarely sober Boris Yeltsin was in the Kremlin, and the ideological emptiness caused by the collapse of communism had yet to be filled by the affluence that democracy and capitalism were supposed to bring. Life in Russia was a battle for survival and, naturally enough, football was furthest from most people’s minds.

‘I remember going to matches in the years immediately following the collapse of the USSR,’ a long-time Dynamo Moscow fan, Dmitri Dudenkov, told me recently. ‘The gates were so low that they frequently used to open the turnstiles at half-time. Anyone who wanted to could just wander in. Tickets were really cheap, but, still, no one was at all interested in the game. People would casually stroll in off the street to catch the second half of games featuring the country’s top sides and players. We had, you understand, other things to think about.’

A decade on, everything has changed. Yeltsin is long gone, and Russia has grown rich on oil dollars. This wealth has brought about a confrontational foreign policy, which has, in turn, sparked fears of a new Cold War.

These changes have not passed football by. Supported by the vast fortunes of the Kremlin-backed oligarchs and the gas and oil industries, the country’s football industry has likewise been reborn, rapidly becoming one of the world’s richest, the huge wages on offer tempting players and trainers from all over the world to Russia.

However, both on and off the field, Russia’s rebirth is not without its dark side. Indeed, were the nation’s recent improbable re-emergence as a world power to be represented as a football match, it would probably look something like this – 3–0 down at half-time, playing with ten men, the manager incapacitated by a drink problem, the second half sees the teetotaller assistant manager take control and the side, spurred on by the appearance of their new record signings, claw their way back into the match, scrambling home the winning goal in injury time. This miraculous comeback is not without scandal, however. There are rumours that wads of cash changed hands in the referee’s dressing room during the break, and that the forced substitutions of two of the opposition’s star players were the result of stomach cramps brought about by someone tampering with their half-time oranges …

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Before I moved to Russia, I knew all about Lenin, Stalin and all those other guys. I had studied them, I could tell you all the facts and figures you wanted to know about the Great October Revolution. I’d read almost all the Russian classics, and I’d managed to force myself to stay awake through most of respected Soviet-era director Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. What I wasn’t so clued up on, though, was the country’s football.

Of course, as a child, I knew even less about the beautiful game in Russia. Despite being brought up in Bristol, I was infatuated with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. My home town is a mere 120 miles away from Nottingham, although, on Saturday afternoons, forced to make do with Ashton Gate and Bristol City, those miles may as well have been light years.

If I thought of Russia at all, it was in terms of the Cold War, or as an excuse to annoy teachers by professing to being a Young Socialist and refusing to study on the days that Soviet General Secretaries passed away. And in the 1980s there were many such opportunities; three of them, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko shuffling off to the great Party Congress in the sky between 1982 and 1985.

But – Russia and football? Even great rivals Liverpool had only once played a Soviet team, beaten by Dynamo Tbilisi in the 1979/80 European Cup. My footballing knowledge, garnered from televised away legs, stretched about as far as Bulgaria, or East Germany.

As I got older, Soviet football vaguely made itself known. There was Oleg Blokhin and his otherworldly dribbling, and the team’s distinctive red shirts, but I had no real interest in the side. They were basically quarter-finalists and, in my mind, differed little from fellow underachievers such as Belgium or Yugoslavia. (Granted, the Soviet Union reached the 1988 European Championship final but, as Khrushchev commented regarding the uncertainty over the exact number of victims of Stalin’s purges in 1930s Russia, ‘No one was keeping count.’)

Later, in my early twenties, I began to cultivate a mild obsession with Russia, with its history and its writers. Eventually, in 1997, I decided to put my growing, yet unproven, love to the test and move to Moscow. I initially planned upon staying for a year, to get a taste of the place, and then to move on, perhaps to Vietnam or South America. That was more than a decade ago.

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Upon arriving in the Russian capital, in the midst of the Yeltsin-era chaos, speaking little of the language and surrounded by a foreign way of life, I was immediately drawn to one of the things that was instantly familiar to a white, twenty-something male – football.

However, despite the seemingly homogeneous nature of the world’s favourite sport, there was a certain something, inaccessible to the casual observer, at the core of the Russian game. This was encapsulated, for me at least, in the form of the terrace chant – ‘Sudyu na milo!’ – that the fans would invariably begin to shout whenever a decision went against their side.

Sudyu’ – ‘ref’ – ‘na’ – ‘on’ – ‘milo’ – ‘soap’. ‘Ref on soap?’ I slowly translated, struggling to fathom the expression. What could they possibly mean? Perhaps ‘soap’ here was slang for something? But what? Bribes? Steroids, maybe? But no, ‘ref’ was in the accusative case. Whatever was going on, it was happening to the man in black. Exactly what this was, I was unable to determine, although the fury in the fans’ voices led me to suspect that it was something deeply unpleasant indeed.

Not having been in the city long, I was forced to go to my first games in Moscow alone, and I had no one to turn to for an explanation. It was only later that I found out the idiomatic phrase was correctly translated as ‘Make soap out of the ref!’ and referred to the Soviet practice of producing hygiene products from the fat of slaughtered stray dogs, a fate that the enraged supporters deemed only fit for the object of their righteous indignation.

The satisfaction I felt upon solving this riddle was immense. Life in Moscow can be frustrating, at times incomprehensible, and if I could crack the intricacies of the country’s football then, or so I reasoned, everything else would follow. The beautiful game was the cipher, the anti-Enigma Machine through which Russia could be decoded.

Over the years, I gradually became a fanat, the names of Russian teams and players, once unpronounceable, becoming as familiar as those of friends and relatives.

Despite my growing interest in the Russian game, I was not always able to fully share my enthusiasm with friends and family back in the UK. Although the British media was increasingly full of Russian oligarchs and spies, Russia, and its football, remained the Great Unknown, isolated by geography and language, culture and history.

For me, though, no matter what has happened – the economic crisis of 1998, the Chechen War, the Abramovich/Chelsea story, the Beslan tragedy – through good times and bad, football has remained a constant; linked, invariably, to the events, yet at the same time providing a sometimes welcome distraction.

This book, then, is an attempt to convey something of my passion for football in the world’s largest country. There have been many fine books on Soviet-era football, but this is the first devoted to the modern Russian game. Although it has proven neither possible nor desirable to totally ignore the Soviet period, the main focus is firmly and unapologetically on post-perestroika Russia.

For a foreign writer lacking official Russian press accreditation in a land where documents are accorded a particular reverence, collecting the interviews and information necessary for this book was a particularly daunting undertaking. At the time, I had never interviewed anyone in my life, and I was more than a touch apprehensive at the prospect. If Russian football is terra incognita for the world at large, then the country’s top players are a mystery to their own people, their lavish lifestyles and gigantic salaries granting them a Brahman-like status in a land where, despite the wealth in Moscow and other major cities, the average standard of living still lags far behind European norms.

Nevertheless, I was not to be dissuaded, and I began contacting clubs, explaining my mission to press officers and the like. I arranged meetings with players and trainers, but also with journalists and hooligans, fans and businessmen – anyone, in fact, with the slightest connection to the game in Russia. From the great rivalry between CSKA and Spartak to the irresistible symbolism of a Chechen side lifting the Russian Cup, from the ‘Dutch Revolution’ transforming the national team to the Soviet-era curse on Dynamo Moscow, I travelled through Russia and its football. In the majority of cases, confounding my initial expectations, people were both helpful and ready to talk, if perhaps somewhat surprised that an Englishmen should be so taken with their national game.

A confession. The stories of corruption and the tales of bribery and violence that I heard while researching this book did nothing to lessen my fervour. My affection for football in my adopted homeland, like that for a lover with a scar, or a woman with an unpredictable nature, was undiminished and, in a way that remains tantalising and (perhaps rightly so) beyond analysis, somehow even enhanced.

CHAPTER ONE

Spartak is a religion

‘Football is the ballet of the masses.’

Dmitri Shostakovich

IT IS 8 a.m. on a November morning in Moscow in 2006, and the first snows have just fallen. I am walking through the underpass at Smolenski Bulvar when I see the Spartak fan. Standing alone at the top of the concrete steps, face red from either alcohol or the cold, he is shouting with all his might: ‘Spartak! Spartak! Come on! Come on!’ the last syllable in ‘Spartak’ stretched out for an eternity. ‘You can catch CSKA,’ he finishes, but quieter now, as if he doesn’t quite believe it himself, a random oath, directed at Spartak’s perennial rivals, escaping his lips as his proclamations come to an end.

Unlike in Western Europe, the Russian season runs from March to November, and there are just two games left to play in the 2006 campaign. Spartak Moscow are in second place, trailing CSKA by three points, and while few people give them a chance of overtaking the 2005 UEFA Cup winners, hope, as the Russians are inordinately fond of pointing out, dies last.

Just as there are those who welcomed the end of Spartak Moscow’s domination of the national game, there are as many who took the side’s fall from grace as a personal insult. I look back at the fan once more before turning the corner, and he gives me the thumbs up, drawing breath before resuming his early morning declarations of faith.

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Spartak Moscow were formed in 1922 as MKS. In 1935 they were renamed and reorganised by the club’s acknowledged founders, the Starostin brothers, the elder brother, Nikolai, deriving the club’s new name from Spartacus, the slave who led a revolt against Rome. Obsessively honest figures, the principles of fair play and sporting behaviour that the Starostins believed in remain, despite the manifest corruption in the Russian game today, an essential part of the Spartak ethos.

In the USSR, Spartak were the only side not directly affiliated with the Soviet regime. While the remaining teams were all exclusively connected with, and financed by, one of the many state organisations or industries, Spartak were sponsored by civilian organisations, by the trade unions; for many, supporting the ‘Red and Whites’ was seen as a way of covertly expressing dissatisfaction with life in the USSR. It was during this period that Spartak earned the moniker of the ‘People’s Team’.

This legend lives on today. Although now no more or no less attached to the prevailing system than the majority of other Russian sides, there is a romanticism about Spartak that most other teams simply do not possess.

Though one of the top clubs in the former Soviet Union, Spartak really came into their own in the 1990s, after perestroika. They dominated Russian football, winning the championship every year but one between 1992 and 2002, coasting to the title most seasons.

‘Spartak – Champions!’ was their supporters’ chant, and at the time it sounded like a mere statement of fact rather than a boast or a promise. The side enjoyed such a grip on the Russian game in the 1990s that the shockwaves are still being felt today. Throughout my journey, I found that all, or practically all, roads led to Spartak, and I had little option but to make the club’s offices my first port of call.

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Sergei Dmitrievich Shavlo, Spartak Moscow’s general director, sits in his office surrounded by cups, trophies and oversized, framed photographs. Directly behind his desk is the USSR Cup. He seems possessed by the room, by the history around him. The ceilings are impossibly high and, indeed, the entire building is a Kafkaesque sprawling maze of corridors and turnings, so much so that his secretary laughed when I told her I would find my own way out after the interview. In the nineteenth century the building was a military barracks, and then lay unused for many years, but now, like many things in the largest city in Europe, it belongs to LUKoil, one of Russia’s biggest oil companies.

One of the first Soviet players to sign a contract with a foreign club, Shavlo played in Austria for more than a decade. Before this he was a striker with Spartak, playing for the team until 1985. He only became general director of Spartak Moscow in 2005, but gives the impression of being a man whose entire life has always revolved around the Red and Whites, or ‘Meat’, as they are affectionately known as by their fans, a reference to the side’s supposed origins in the catering industry.

‘Spartak is a religion,’ is one of the first things he says, before offering me a plate of chocolate biscuits and calling for tea.

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The collapse of the USSR in 1991 meant more than just the end of the world’s first socialist state; it also signalled the disintegration of Soviet football. This was, to some, far more significant. The Soviet Union, while never having lifted the World Cup, had been one of the planet’s most respected teams, producing players such as Lev Yashin, Oleg Blokhin, Andrei Kanchelskis and others. Overnight, the Soviet Union’s players found themselves deprived of the centralised state system which had nurtured and encouraged them, and thrust into a new, exhilarating and sometimes frightening world.

The USSR Championship, a multi-ethnic league spanning fifteen republics, had been perhaps the most diverse national competition on earth: a complex spectrum of footballing styles and attitudes, from the brawn and bustle of the Baltic states to the technical, short-passing game of the Russians, from the eccentric, dribbling frenzy of the Caucasus to the pedantic, almost crude football played in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But, as each newly independent republic formed its own respective FA, the great inter-Soviet rivalries of the past were brought to an abrupt and premature end.

In 1992, the Russian Football Federation held its first league championship. Without the Ukrainian champions, Dynamo Kiev, the Georgians, Dynamo Tbilisi, and others, the new competition had a parochial feel about it. Gates were down, and money was tight.

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‘Around the time of perestroika,’ began Shavlo, ‘all the teams were strongly supported by the state, through industry and other governmental structures. Naturally, when problems began to arise in the country, this financial assistance was mostly cut off.’

Football does not exist in a vacuum, and I tried to imagine what would happen if the capitalist, secular Christian society that is Britain today suddenly buckled under its own weight, to be replaced with something initially indistinct, all the certainties stripped away. How, I wondered, would Rooney and co deal with that? In Russia, there occurred a football brain drain, with many of the country’s top players leaving the country.

‘It was a catastrophic period for Russian football,’ continued Shavlo. ‘The players who left, they saw the West as their saviour, but by leaving they in effect took their experience with them, and as a result were unable to pass this onto the next generation. For the majority of clubs, Spartak excluded, the early 1990s was a terrible time.’

So how did Spartak avoid this fate? How did they continue to attract top players and, in some cases, even hang onto them?

‘Spartak were the richest side in Russia because they were the best. It was a blessed circle. Champions League football meant cash. And cash meant the best players, which, in turn, meant more titles, and more European football. We managed to collect the top footballers from the former republics, the best Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks and others. We could offer them financial security at a time when half the country was starving.’

But now, with Russia producing around nine-and-a-half million barrels of black gold a day (although it remains to be seen how much the 2008 financial crisis will affect Russian football), Spartak are no longer the wealthiest team in Russia. The other clubs have found, or been found by, sugar daddies, super-rich individuals willing (directly or indirectly) to support them and their dreams of glory. Football is prestigious now in Russia, and the oligarchs, the men who carved up Russia’s assets amongst themselves during the turmoil of the immediate post-Soviet period, want in. CSKA Moscow were sponsored by Roman Abramovich’s Sibneft before signing a deal with the Russian Bank of Foreign Trade in 2005, while cross-town rivals Dynamo Moscow have been showered with cash by Alexei Fedorichev, the filthy-rich owner of Fedcom, and Zenit St Petersburg are owned by Gazprom, the gas giant with bottomless pockets.

This new reality has made it hard for Spartak. The country’s new wealth, or rather the affluence of its minuscule upper class, has brought about a democracy in Russian football. Now, other teams can offer the kind of wages that only Spartak could once afford. The ceiling has, in fact, been raised, and the top Russian clubs can now contend financially with their Western counterparts and, in many cases, outstrip them.

Following the end of more than seventy years of Soviet rule, for the first time in history, foreign footballers began to sign contracts with Russian sides. In the first few seasons after perestroika, the quality of these imports was low to say the least, but as Russia’s economic clout has grown, footballers of genuine ability have begun arriving in Mother Russia.

‘A real problem for us a few years ago,’ recalled Shavlo, ‘was that players would come from Africa, from Latin America, sign contracts, and then not perform. Start hanging out in nightclubs, and so on. Now we are a lot more careful with our transfer policy. The professionalism of the footballers we buy has to be of the highest standards.’

As Egor Titov, the only player left in the side from the glory days of the 1990s, would later tell me, ‘In the early days after the break-up of the Soviet Union, clubs would just pick up foreign players, “legionaries”, as we call them, from anywhere. We had Brazilians in the team who had been, literally, spotted playing on the Copacabana, or wherever,’ he said, laughing at the memory, ‘and they didn’t really have any interest in fitting in with the rest of us. They paid them well, much better than us, simply because it was prestigious to have foreigners, especially South Americans, in the side.’

In 2000, Spartak signed a sponsorship deal with LUKoil. The resulting oil dollars have kept Spartak near the top of the pile in financial terms, but the success to which they were once accustomed has been slow in coming. Spartak fans were shocked by their team’s third-place showing in the 2002 Championship, and then horrified as the side came in eighth and tenth the following two seasons. From 2005 to 2007, they exhibited signs of a revival, and finished second three years in a row. However, while the fans welcomed this relative turnaround in fortunes, there was no hiding from the fact that the days when Spartak were assured of the championship before a ball had even been kicked were long gone.

But then, so was Oleg Romantsev.

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Anyone who watched European or international football in the 1990s will be familiar with Oleg Romantsev, if not by name then as the morose figure who sat puffing away on cigarettes as Spartak, or the Russian national side, did battle. A stern man, hailing from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Romantsev ruled Spartak supreme. He was not a man given to levity, or euphoric outbursts of joy, despite the team’s monopoly on success.

Romantsev, a former Spartak player and Soviet international, was the manager of the side during the glory years, as well as being the club’s president. This last fact, according to my already fading copy of the 2000 football yearbook Moscow Clubs, is what made Spartak so successful. Romantsev was in a unique position in European football. The only man who could fire Romantsev the manager was Romantsev the president, and he was hardly likely to give himself the axe just because a few results failed to go his way. With the freedom this gave him, Romantsev was able to experiment; to build arguably the greatest club side Russian football has ever seen.

Oleg Romantsev all but disappeared from Russian football in 2005, after brief unsuccessful spells, post-Spartak, at Dynamo Moscow and Saturn FC. This chain-smoking symbol of the Russian game has retired to the countryside, rarely in contact with journalists and the world of football. Technically, he is still involved in the sport. He is a consultant at Nika, a side from the third echelon of Russian football, but in reality the most successful club manager in Russian history has retired from the game.

Naturally, I wanted to speak to him.

‘He’s living his own life now, he rarely answers the phone,’ Shavlo told me, dampening my hopes of an interview.

‘Even if I could contact him, he wouldn’t agree to an interview. Especially with a foreigner,’ was the response from the editor at the Russian daily sports newspaper Sport-Express.

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I took a rickety electric train out of Moscow to Spartak’s Tarasovka sports complex in the autumn of 2006. The out-of-town training camp was enclosed behind a high fence, and were it not for the gigantic ‘Spartak’ emblem on the gates, it would have resembled nothing so much as a military training camp or a hush-hush scientific research institute.

I was there to attend a Spartak training session and to speak to Egor Titov, the club’s captain. In 2003, after a Euro 2004 play-off against Wales that Russia won 1–0, Titov tested positive for bromantan, an attention-enhancing substance produced for Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. He maintains his innocence to this day, claiming that the club doctor had simply failed to properly check his diet. He was, however, banned from football for a year, during which time he became a regular on Russian chat and reality shows. The club doctor was subsequently fired, and a special commission was set up by the Russian Football Federation to investigate. However, commissions have a funny way of dragging on in Russia, and this one is no exception. The commission members have yet to announce their results, and it seems unlikely they ever will.

Egor Titov is now back in the Spartak side and playing as well as ever. He smiled wryly when I asked him about his former manager, the man who had made him one of the most successful players in Russian football.

‘Oleg Romantsev was extremely hard to please,’ he said, in what turned out to be something of an understatement. ‘For example, if we were winning 5–0, and then conceded a goal in the last minute, he wouldn’t say anything about the five we had scored, just go on and on, yelling at us about the one we had let in. But that wasn’t all. Once, we had to get a point at home to become champions for the third or fourth time in a row, and we won 1–0, but almost gave away a goal at the end. We played badly, but we won the title that day. We looked around for Romantsev to do a lap of honour with him, to, you know, throw him up in the air in celebration as is the tradition here, but he was nowhere to be seen. We eventually found him in the dressing room, face as black as thunder.

‘“What are you lot so happy about?” he shouted, as we came in, looking for the champagne. “You going to play like that all the time? You have a Champions League match against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, and that kind of football won’t get you anywhere!”’

Was it, I wondered, an effective way to manage?

‘Absolutely,’ said Titov. ‘You could never let yourself relax. There was no euphoria, no danger of underestimating your opponents.’

Curious, I asked Titov why he had never played abroad. Bayern Munich, I knew, had been interested in him, and he had also had enquiries from English clubs.

‘Honestly? I was afraid to go to Oleg Romantsev’s office and tell him I was leaving. At that time, Romantsev was looking to keep the side together. Up until the mid-nineties, he had had a develop-and-sell policy, but after this period he craved success not only at home, but also in the Champions League. He didn’t look kindly upon players deserting his team. Dmitri Alenichev (a member of the victorious 2003 UEFA Cup and 2004 Champions League Porto side managed by Jose Mourinho) did it when he left for Roma, but he had already signed the contract before he plucked up the courage and walked into the boss’s office. Romantsev was angry about it for a few years, but finally forgave him.’

In 1995, during their 3–0 Champions League defeat to Spartak, Graeme Le Saux and David Batty of Blackburn Rovers came to blows on the snowy touchline of the Luzhniki Olympic arena. It is one of my earliest memories of Russian club football, and I asked Titov if he remembered the incident. The Spartak captain laughed. ‘Yeah, I was on the bench for that game, but I remember we all cracked up. I’d never seen anything like that before, and I still haven’t. It was still the first half, the score was 0–0, but Romantsev said that we would win easily after that and, well, he was right.’

Ultimately, the pressure of combining posts got to Romantsev, and both his health and Spartak’s results worsened as the twentieth century drew to a close. It was around this time that rumours of a drink problem began to circulate.

Drink problem or no drink problem, the Spartak manager’s behaviour had always been erratic – as one story has it, after a friendly between Belarus and Russia, a Sport-Express journalist went up to Romantsev, who was standing alone next to the team bus, puffing away on a cigarette, and requested an interview.

‘What? Can’t you see I’m talking to the doctor?’ yelled the Spartak manager in reply.

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In 2003 Oleg Romantsev was fired from Spartak. Problems had begun with the death of Nikolai Starostin seven years earlier. Romantsev inherited the entire Spartak enterprise from the club’s founder, but sold on his stock in 2000 to the LUKoil executive Andrei Chervichenko, a man who had made his fortune in the early 1990s during the country’s ‘bandit capitalism’ phase.

‘I brought Chervichenko to Spartak,’ Romantsev stated at the time, ‘and I am glad that the right investor has been found.’

However, the two men’s relationship soon began to deteriorate. Romantsev started to give interviews criticising Chervichenko’s policies, accusing him of lacking respect for the ‘Spartak tradition’. The final straw came when Romantsev gathered a group of journalists together on the eve of the 2003 Russian Cup Final and claimed that Chervichenko had been attempting to sell the following day’s match. The day after the game, which Spartak won, Chervichenko, who had promised not to comment on the Spartak manager’s comments until after the final, fired Romantsev.

I went to visit Andrei Chervichenko at his offices not far from Bakunin Street, named after the revolutionary Russian anarchist. Chervichenko had long given up the Spartak presidency, cutting all ties with the club, yet the team’s emblem still adorned the gates to his business premises.

‘I just got sick of football,’ he told me, after I had been ushered through to his office by a chunky, monosyllabic bodyguard. ‘I got tired of paying inflated wages. Russian football doesn’t invest enough in the grass roots. Everyone is obsessed with the search for stars who aren’t going to perform even if they can be persuaded to come to Russia in the first place. We have a different way of life here, not at all European, and it is hard for foreign players, no matter how much you can afford to pay them. Russia’s infrastructure simply isn’t conducive to getting the best out of world stars.

‘I got tired of hearing that Spartak under my control transformed into an evil empire. But look, when I took over the club, for example, all the financial records of the team had simply been wiped clean from the computers. As for the cup claims, well, we won, didn’t we? Romantsev even named the price I was supposed to have been asking. One and a half million dollars. Complete nonsense.’

Despite all the bad things I had read about him, Chervichenko cut a sympathetic figure, and I couldn’t help feeling that he had been used as a scapegoat for all the side’s troubles. His name remains a dirty word amongst Spartak supporters to this day.

It was during Chervichenko’s reign that Egor Titov was suspended for failing a doping test, and the ex-Spartak owner explained how this had come about. ‘That,’ he said, ‘was one of the club doctors’ fault. I always used to moan that our players were too slow, that they didn’t move around the pitch fast enough. After my complaints, it seems that they got together and decided to solve the problem in their own unique way.’

Chervichenko, for all his claims to be sick of the sport, is a man obviously still in love with football. On the wall of his office hangs a CSKA pennant. I recalled the theory put about by Spartak fans, enraged by Romantsev’s sacking and by the decline of the undisputed 1990s Russian champions, that Chervichenko had been sent to them by their rivals, CSKA. His mission? Destroy Spartak from within. The proof, they claimed, is that he now openly roots for CSKA, even allegedly draping himself in the ex-Red Army team’s flag whenever they take on Spartak.

‘I don’t support CSKA,’ countered Chervichenko, obviously weary of the accusation. ‘It’s just that, well, my memories of Spartak are not all entirely good. To be honest, I’m glad I’m out of the game. Now Russian football is simply a war between oligarchs, between businessmen. They don’t care about money, because all Russian sides make a loss. It’s all about prestige, about one-upmanship. And they are ready to use any means necessary to achieve their goals. Football in Russia has become a lot dirtier in the last few years, that’s for sure.’

We spoke again of Romantsev, and Chervichenko’s expression changed, becoming suddenly morose. ‘He was a great manager, the best of his generation in Russia, but he just lost it with the drinking. To be honest, I felt sorry for him.’

Shortly after Chervichenko’s takeover of the club, Romantsev’s alcohol problem become an open secret, as the once genius trainer descended into an alcoholic haze, detached from reality and the players around him. During a Champions League match against Liverpool at Anfield in 2002, Romantsev’s son reportedly sought out Chervichenko in the VIP Box. ‘Papa wants vodka’, he said. ‘If he doesn’t get it, he can’t guarantee the result.’

History remains murky as to whether or not Romantsev got his dose, but Spartak lost 5–0 that day, the side showing no spirit or fight as Liverpool scored almost at will. For a side that had once won six group games out of six in the tournament, this was unforgivable.

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Russians have always been famed for their drinking, so much so that Mikhail Gorbachev felt obliged to introduce prohibition in the Soviet Union in May 1985 in an attempt to put a halt to the rampant alcoholism that was already taking its toll on the nation’s economy and health system. His efforts to steer the Soviets to abstinence were ultimately unsuccessful, however, and the illicit production of moonshine – ‘samogon’ – rocketed, not to mention a sudden rise in sales of medicinal and industrial spirit. The never-popular policy of prohibition was later quietly dropped.

However, deprived of the safety nets that socialism provided, the New Russia quickly found itself engulfed in an epidemic of alcoholism of catastrophic proportions, as what was already a serious social and health problem transformed into something on an apocalyptic scale.

According to the Russian Ministry of Health, the per capita consumption of pure alcohol in 2007 was around four gallons per person. Around 50,000 Russians die of alcohol poisoning every year, compared with, say, the US, which has a population almost twice as large, but where the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning remains stable at around 300 every year.

In the mid-1990s, breweries began pumping out super-strength versions of their beers, and it is a common sight to see secretaries, builders and businessmen swigging down these concoctions first thing in the morning. Until relatively recently, beer was considered, both from a legal and social point of view, a soft drink.

The Russian word for ‘a bender’ – as in the sustained consumption of alcohol – is ‘zapoi’, yet the English word struggles to fully describe either the proportions or the commonness of its Russian counterpart. ‘Zapoi’ is the plague of the Russian provinces, where whole months are routinely lost in alcohol-induced mists. Romantsev’s poison, it was said, was vodka with champagne chasers.

Another figure springs to mind. Another legendary manager cut down by drink, another manager not afraid to speak out of turn, similarly obsessed with success in Europe. As far as I know, Oleg Romantsev and Brian Clough never met, yet if they had, they would undoubtedly have had much to discuss.

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‘Romantsev used to read five books a day,’ claimed Titov, out of the blue.

‘Five?’

At first I thought I had misheard, but Titov nodded in confirmation. ‘He slept a maximum of four hours a night.’

Still hoping for an interview, I asked the Spartak playmaker if he was still in touch with the bookworm genius of Russian football.

Titov looked genuinely sad when he replied, ‘To tell you the truth, I haven’t spoken to him for quite some time.’

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The image comes of its own accord …

Oleg Romantsev in some tiny, remote Russian village, sitting by the river, incessantly smoking. Gone from football. He focuses on the water, the ripples, and sees the crowds, the human waves, the days of title after title. But he cannot allow himself to return. His health will not bear it. And besides, football is different now in Russia. Now, half the teams are made up of foreigners, and he doesn’t know how to communicate with them. How can he be an Iron Fist to a player if he cannot speak his language? That was why he never trained abroad. The offers were there, from Spain, Italy, but he never went. What would he have done there? Away from Russia? He lights another cigarette.

‘The Russian people need an Iron Fist!’

Anyone who lives in Russia for any amount of time is bound to hear this sentiment expressed. Russians, or so supporters of the idea would have it, are too undisciplined, too prone to drinking and other vices to be suited to the democratic, relatively liberal systems of government favoured by the West.

As Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of one of the largest political parties in Russian today, said in 2003 when attacking liberal opposition figures, ‘Russia wants and needs authoritarianism. So calm down and go and give lectures abroad. We are not the West. We have our own civilisation. You are all subjects of his majesty in the Kremlin. You should accept that for all time. There will be no democracy in Russia. No independent courts. No press freedom. Either accept it or leave.’

This longing for order imposed from above is the reason why Stalin remains popular in Russia today. In a recent survey, one quarter of Russians said that, were he still alive, they would definitely or probably vote for the former dictator, the man responsible for the deaths of twenty million of their compatriots in the Gulag.

Stalin’s popularity shows no signs of slipping, either. In 2007 the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta