RED SOCCER: HOW THE SOVIET AVANT-GARDE USHERED IN MODERN FOOTBALL

RED SOCCER: HOW THE SOVIET AVANT-GARDE USHERED IN MODERN FOOTBALL

In the brief period between the two World Wars, the nations of the West faced the twin crises of global capitalism and the survival of parliamentary democracy. The future of the prevailing socio-economic system suddenly seemed uncertain, untenable even. On multiple fronts – political, economic, and epistemological - it faced defeat. Italy, Germany, and Spain fell to Fascism. In the face of this darkness threatening to swallow up the whole of Europe, the USSR inaugurated what was perhaps the most ambitious planning project in the history of human civilisation – the first five-year plan.

In 1918, in the midst of civil war, an international economic blockade, and foreign military intervention in the new Soviet Republics, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in “An Open Letter to the Workers”, wrote: “The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities.  The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons. The ruined cities await new builders[…]To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?”

For modernist and avant-garde architects, the enormous budget of the five-year plans provided the opportunity to realize their visions at the level of totality. In the midst of revolution, economic depression, political uncertainty, and the collapse of the old world, the modernists felt they were being granted their deepest wish of erecting a new society on the ashes of that which preceded it. In the words of I. Chernia, “Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality.”

In the years of the civil war, avant garde artists frequently celebrated the socialist government in public spaces – architect Nikolai Kolli, for example, symbolised the revolutionary war with the sculpture of a red wedge breaking a white block. El Lissitzky celebrated the murdered communist leader Rosa Luxemburg with a monument in the form of various polygonal shapes flying around a central red circle, and designed a lithographic poster now popularly known as Beat the Whites with a Red Wedge, which has a red wedge smashing into a white-and-black block. Between 1928 and 1937, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of the world gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals of how to construct the cities of a radically new society. It was believed that from this new environment would emerge the new, emancipated man.  

Meanwhile, the already popular sport continued to grow, and soon, football, alongside art and literature, became an important cultural exponent of Soviet Russia. Football in Tsarist Russia was heavily influenced by the British, and after the revolution, the USSR was restricted from playing foreign sides. Thus, as the world shifted to Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation, teams in the USSR kept playing with a 2-3-5. All that changed when, in 1937, at the height of the civil war in Spain, a Basque national team toured the USSR to raise funds and create awareness about the republican resistance to Franco’s fascist forces.

The Russians were in for a horrible surprise. The Basque side steamrolled Lokomotiv Moscow 5-1 and beat Dynamo Moscow 2-1. Although Leningrad XI managed a 2-2 draw, the embarrassment was complete when Dynamo Central Council’s Select XI – which many considered to be the best side ever assembled – were beaten 7-4.

Inspired by Mayakovsky’s war-cry “The streets shall be our brushes – the squares our palettes!”, several Russian avant garde artists and architects rejected the idea of art as an autonomous entity and wanted to “construct” art for social purposes – put simply, art in the service of the revolution. One of the many inspired by this Constructivist movement was the famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who, about football’s relationship to revolution, once said, “We pin our hopes on the sporting public. Make no bones about it, we have our eye on those huge concrete pans, filled with 15000 men and women of every variety of class and physiognomy, the fairest and shrewdest audience in the world.”

As an increasingly popular cultural exponent, victory in football thus attained tremendous importance for Soviet pride and culture. Otherwise prevented from playing foreign teams, this tour was their opportunity to put Soviet football on the world map. The Soviet government was furious with the results, and put tremendous pressure on the head of Spartak Moscow’s coaching council, Nikolai Starostin, to end the humiliation. Spartak was the last hope to save face.

Starostin realized that the Russian sides were at a disadvantage because they played with an obsolete system. To restrict the Basque centre-forward, Isodro Lángara, Starostin converted his central midfielder into a third defender. Spartak had tried this defensive version of the W-M in a tour of Norway, but reverted to the 2-3-5 after losing a derby to their rivals Dynamo Moscow. The gamble, however, paid off. Spartak beat the Basques 6-2.

Boris Arkadyev was appointed manager of Dynamo Moscow in 1936. However, after the Basque tour, he, like all other Russian managers, was forced to rethink how to approach the game. Spartak, meanwhile, had learnt from its victory over the Basque side, and while rivals Dynamo struggled mid-table, they were crowned champions in 1938. Lavrentiy Beria, the then-head of the KGB, who was also a club benefactor, put pressure on Arkadyev to solve things and start getting results.

Arkadyev decided that a better strategy was more important at that moment than focusing on better quality of players. He decided to improve on the W-M, and in February 1940, at Camp Gagry, he spent hours briefing his squad on tactics and on how he wanted to approach the game. Arkadyev noticed that while many sides had started to use roaming players while attacking, there were some players who, due to their superior strength or speed, automatically went beyond their designated zone of play, even if they were not specifically asked to roam. These players disrupted the standard movements by switching between channels. While this made it difficult for defenders to mark them, it also meant that the attacking forwards had an extra man to pass to.

Arkadyev encouraged his players to roam around the pitch as much as possible. His teams adopted a fluid style of play, with quick tempo and short passes, designed to pull opposition teams apart – giving birth to what the press referred to as “organized disorder”.  Opposition teams tried man-to-man marking to combat Dynamo, but Arkadyev just asked his players to roam more, breaking defensive formations and opening up space; in the words of Daily Express journalist Frank Butler, “it was a Chinese puzzle to try to follow the players…they simply wandered here and there at will, but the most remarkable feature of it all, they never got in each other’s way.” The results came instantaneously – in 1940, Dynamo were crowned champions of the Soviet Top League, with only four losses and a staggering goal difference of +44.

In 1943, Arkadyev shifted to CDKA (now CSKA) Moscow. He continued to hone his tactic and tweaked it over time to make it more effective. One of his midfielders became a proto-central defensive midfielder who dropped down to shield and support the back three while one of the inside-forwards dropped down to occupy the space left by the defensive midfielder. Thus the W-M gradually shifted to a 3-1-2-1-3. Many historians also contend that Arkadyev was also the first in the world to deploy a flat back four.

The influence of the Soviet avant-garde is most evident in the ethic of Arkadyev’s teams. He introduced a system where, after every match, players would write critiques of their own performance as well as that of their teammates. This enabled each player to understand both himself and his teammates better contributing to building cohesion in the team. The concept of the whole team as one single unit – in both defence and offence – was an important feature of his strategy. Like the Soviet avant-garde, Arkadyev’s teams evoked a fantasy of collective efficiency and industriousness.

While Soviet and modernist architects were designing and building projects according to the principles of functionalism - i.e. the idea that, in the words of architect Augustus Pugin, “there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety” - Arkadyev introduced this idea on the football pitch. Mikhail Yakushin, Arkadyev’s successor at Dynamo, once explained, “The principle of collective play is the guiding one in Soviet football. A player must not only be good in general; he must be good for the particular team.”

Pugin, while addressing the question of ornamentation in architecture, had declared that “all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.” When asked about Sir Stanley Mathews, Yakushin reportedly said, “His individual qualities are high, but we put collective football first and individual football second, so we do not favour his style as we think teamwork would suffer.”

In the 1950s, Gusztáv Sebes took Arkadyev and Yakushin’s tactics and used them for his Hungary national side. The press called the football style of the then-communist Hungary “socialist football”. Sebes didn’t pick the best player for each position – he picked the best possible team, i.e. players who could work with each other the best. Hungary went unbeaten for five years, and on 25 November 1953, in a packed Wembley Stadium in London, demolished England 6-3, marking the death of the W-M formation.

In the early 1920s, the First Working Group of Constructivists, which included figures like Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko, developed a theory of Constructivism as a combination of faktura – the particular material properties of an entity – and tektonika – their spatial presence. While the conception of space on the football pitch is evident in the approach used by Arkadyev, it was best theorized (and applied) by Valeriy Lobanovskyi  – who would later bring the Cup Winners’ Cup to Kiev – in the 1960s.

In The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, which he co-authored with statistician Anatoly Zelentsov, he wrote: “It’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.” To control the space, it became important to focus on the players, their positioning and ability (the faktura) and also the position they occupy with respect to each other and their opponents (the tektonika).

After Dynamo’s post-war tour of England, Brian Glanville had written, “From first to last, their football remained cogent and incisive, a triumph of socialism over individualism, for the ball was never held by one man, but transferred bewilderingly and immediately to another.” This was largely true for most of the Eastern European teams in the heyday of Soviet football. Like the leftist avant-garde, which sought to destroy all established bourgeois and feudal conceptions of art, Russian managers used similar principles to infuse a sense of rebellion against dogmatic football tactics, resulting in the eventual destruction of the schematic W-M. Against the individualistic “craftiness and cunning” of the criollo style championed by teams of South America, Soviet football introduced discipline, teamwork, cohesiveness, and collective offence and defence.

The next stage in the development of football tactics focusing on collective play and the manipulation of space was brought about in 1965, when an ex-forward would be appointed manager of AFC Ajax of Amsterdam. He was a Dutchman clearly influenced by Sebes’ Hungary and perhaps even aware of the work of Lobanovski. His name was Rinus Michels.

By IBWM Senior Writer Shirsho Dasgupta

Header image was originally used in 2016 on IBWM. 

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