Saturday, August 2, 2008

Club Focus - Spartak Moscow

If Dynamo beat Drogheda in the Champions League their next opponents will be Spartak Moscow. In the days of the Soviet Union this was the biggest match of any season. Dynamo and Spartak were the 2 most successful teams and the 2 best supported clubs. Unfortunately I won't be in Kyiv to see it, but it should be a very interesting match indeed.

Spartak were founded as a meat processors' team in 1922 by Nikolai Starostin. They quickly became known as 'The People's Team' in Russia, as they weren't affiliated to a branch of the party and were seen as an alternative to CSKA (army), Dinamo (Police) and Lokomotiv (Railways). Starostin was always keen to promote the image of the team as the downtrodden and cheated, although some of his statements about match fixing against Spartak seem to be a bit exaggerated given the success the club had. He also claimed that the name Spartak came fro his reading of the book by Raffaello Giovagnoli, and he was inspired by the story of the slave who stood up against the Romans. This also seems doubtful though as there were already several clubs in the Soviet Union called Spartak.

Starostin did manage to sufficiently anger the authorities and Beria, Stalin's second in charge especially, when in 1939 they beat his beloved Dynamo Tblisi in a cup semi-final. Spartak went on to win the cup against CSKA Moscow, but were ordered to replay the semi-final and won it again. 3 years later Starostin and his brothers were sent to the gulag allegedly on the orders of Beria for attempting to kill Stalin, which also seemed ridiculous. Starostin spent 10 years in the gulag before returning to Spartak.

Starostin himself was not whiter than white, as on one occassion in the 60's Spartak needed to beat CSKA Moscow to win the title; they did, and not long after most of the CSKA team moved into new flats provided by old Nik's mates.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Spartak were the main men in Russia and won the Championship 9 times in a row. I lived in Moscow at this time, and Spartak were the only Moscow team able to draw respectable crowds in the capital and had many great players including Andrei Tikhonov and Dmitry Alenichev. The man behind the success was Oleg Romantsev, who during the period somehow managed to balance being the President of Spartak the head coach and the coach of the national team, as well as a chronic alcohol problem. His first priority was to develop talented Russian players and then sell them to the West for vast profits. For most of the time the policy was successful, although in 1995-96 the obsession with this policy may have robbed Spartak of European glory. Spartak had won all of their games in the group stage, but over the winter break they sold most of their best players and then lost in a very tame game against Lyon. Another worrying aspect of the Romantsev era was the extent of doping going on at the club. Several players have since come out and complained that they were unknowingly doped by the clubs doctors with a drug that was used in the Soviet war against Afghanistan to keep soldiers alert. Egor Titov, the very symbol of Spartak was made the scapegoat for all this and served a one year ban.

Things started to go bad for Spartak in 2000 when Romantsev sold his shares in the club to the oil magnate and football novice, Andrei Chervichenko. Spartak have since came back and they remain the most popular team in Russia, but clubs like CSKA, who were the first Russian club to win a European tournament (UEFA Cup 2005), Zenit who won the UEFA Cup this year and Lokomotiv have all found their sugar daddies and have gained fans as well as trophies.

One thing remains though Spartak v Dynamo Kyiv is a mouth watering fixture that will have 2 nations glued to their TV sets.

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