Domm NorrisComment


Domm NorrisComment
Moscow is a cavernous footballing city. Within its crowded borders exist four of Russia's most important sporting institutions, who share equal levels of desire to succeed ahead of one another. Domm Norris examines the rivalry between two of them. 

It's easy to argue that Zenit St Petersburg and Rubin Kazan have recently managed to infiltrate the stronghold of the capital however without Moscow's clubs the landscape of Russian football would be a very different kind of masterpiece.

As football has developed within the Russian capital two names have come to the fore and become regarded as the most popular - and successful - clubs in the nation's history. Those sides are Spartak Moscow and their bitter rivals CSKA. It would be easy to assume that the rivalry between the two sides grew out of the successes that they achieved on the pitch and while - in the modern era - that could be argued to be true, it is the historical significance of both clubs that is of great importance.

The history and growth of Russian football is one of the most intriguing topics in the European game. The significant level of politicisation that has spilled into the foundations of the sport have served to create an 'onion-like' sense of layering - whereby one issue can be peeled into another and so forth. The deep focus and relationship between politics and football is a key aspect in describing just why the rivalry between CSKA and Spartak came to prominence and it is a story that must continue to live through the era of the oligarch.

CSKA are one of Russia's oldest football clubs. Formed in the summer of 1911 - under the guise of Общество Любителей Лыжного Спорта or in its English translation the Society of Skiing Sports - CSKA began with few affiliations to the institutions that they would later become associated with. The progression of the club from its formative years to the early 1920's was predominantly made competing in local competitions in the capital as a national championship was yet to be created.

In 1923 the club was to change considerably as - in the wake of the destruction of the Tsarist autocracy - the newly formed Bolshevik government aligned itself with the blossoming sporting institutions of the time. This led to CSKA undergoing a series of transformations - as during the 1920's the club changed its name on three separate occasions, as the government sort to mould it in a manner that would best represent their views.

It wasn't until 1928 that CSKA began to manifest itself into the club that we recognise today as another rebranding saw the team given the name the Sports Club of the Central House of the Red Army - or CDKA for short. It was through this renaming that the football club became the official offshoot of the Soviet army in a blatant expression of the severity of the politicisation of the sport at the time.

However as CSKA were in the strong grasp of the communist government there was a football club developing free from the clutches of politics - that club was Spartak. The development of a club from Moscow who came to prominence due to the fact that they refused to bow to the government's wishes struck a chord with a significant portion of the capital's population. The influence of the, now legendary, Starostin brothers - and the consequent political violations made against them - led to Spartak being labeled as 'the people's club'.

Spartak were an expression of independence and during the 1930's played in a manner that few Russian football fans had ever witnessed. The defensive, negative approaches of the likes of CSKA and Dinamo were made a mockery of as the red and white side of Moscow quickly became renowned as an elegant, attacking outfit, making them a particularly intriguing prospect. Such a flamboyant style of play was, however, frowned upon by the Soviet government who believed it to be an expression of support for the capitalist ideals of the west - and so Spartak were tarnished with the filthiest of cloths.

The inaugural Soviet Top League - which was established in 1936 - was split into two separate parts. The first was held in the summer while the autumn played host to the second group of fixtures. Despite Dinamo winning the initial 1936 Top League title it was during the autumn that Spartak began to exert their growing authority upon the Soviet game - as they pipped Dinamo to the post. It was perhaps telling that while the 'people's club' basked in their success, CSKA were left to rue finishing bottom and in doing so disappointing the political powers that be.

However the the remaining years of the 20th century proved to be kind to both Spartak and CSKA as while the latter were made to wait until 1946 to experience their first league title - it would prove to be a spell of dominance for the club as they won the Top League 5 times in the next 6 years. However following this period of sustained success, CSKA found themselves in a relatively barren spell as they won the league title only twice more during the Soviet era and it wouldn't be until 2003 that they would achieve similar success within Russian football. On the other hand Spartak remained one of the most successful outfits in the Soviet Union and amid the likes of Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Moscow remain widely regarded as one of the most important clubs of the time.

Fast forwarding to the present day has seen a strong shift in fortunes for both sides. Spartak's imperious record during the early Russian era slowly dwindled at the turn of the century and the club have gone some 10 years without a league title. CSKA on the other hand are among the firm favourites to lift the Premier League trophy come the end of the season - a victory that they could line up alongside 3 further league titles, 6 Russian Cups and the UEFA Cup - all of which have been won since the beginning of the 21st century.

The successes and downfalls of these two powerhouse footballing institutions may be the sole reason for the intense rivalry that exists in the modern era. However it would do the past a disservice to simply ignore what has come before. The underlying meaning of both CSKA and Spartak remains deeply entrenched within their identities and when both teams step out into the cauldron like atmosphere on Sunday the conflicts of the past will again be brought to the fore.
Domm is a regular contributor to IBWM, and can be found on Twitter @footballglobe