In theory, it is Russian football’s fiercest derby. Symbolically, it is the people against the army. When it comes to city rivalries, the Russian game isn’t far behind the Western European leagues. If England has the Manchester derby, Spain has the rivalry between the two Madrids — Real and Atletico — and Italy boasts of the battle of Milan clubs, then Russia takes pride in the Main Moscow Derby.
The rivalry between CSKA and Spartak dates back to the Soviet era, when the teams represented two different segments of the Russian society — the army and the civilians. They get their names, too, from that: CSKA, an abbreviation for Central Sports Club of the Army, was by a bunch of skiers in 1911 before it was rebuilt by the Soviet Army through the 1920s.
Spartak, on the other hand, was founded by footballer and ice hockey player Nicolai Starostin in 1922. He named the club after Spartacus, the slave-gladiator who led the uprising in Rome. The oppressed working class instantly connected with the club and till date, it remains Russia’s most popular — and most successful — team.
There’s another reason that makes Spartak the ‘People’s Club’. Back in the day, when Russia was still part of the USSR, the Moscow-based club was the only one that was not directly linked to the Soviet regime. They were backed by factory workers and trade unions at a time when every other club was either financed by or connected to Soviet institutions and industries.
That didn’t always go in Spartak’s favour — to be seen as opposing the Army, however subtle it may be, was one of the biggest hurdles for the club, for which they routinely paid a heavy price. In the 1940s, the chief of Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria, whose organisation backed Dinamo Moscow, sent Starostin and his three brothers to labour camps in Siberia while CSKA routinely poached Spartak players under the pretence of compulsory military service.
But the collapse of Soviet Union turned the tide in Spartak’s favour. As the power struggles in the Soviet weakened and institutions collapsed after perestroika, Spartak remained largely unaffected. They dominated the Russian league, winning all but one edition between 1992 and 2002. The financial benefits from regular appearances in the Champions League, too, helped them sustain the momentum. That, however, would change at the turn of the century.
As the oligarchs accumulated their wealth through the 90s, they began investing heavily in football. Roman Abramovich, now the owner of Chelsea, became CSKA’s principal sponsor before the Russian Bank of Foreign Trade took over in 2005. The sudden spike in competition meant Spartak, who themselves were financed by LUKoil, were no longer the dominant force as Abramovich used his oil riches to fuel CSKA’s ambitions.
CSKA won the league and cup titles at home and also made their presence felt in Europe by winning the UEFA Cup, now called Europa League. They redefined Russian football, matching the richer European leagues money wise and luring better quality foreign players. In that sense, CSKA became the trend-setters.
Abramovich, who did something similar in England, showed other oligarchs the way. Today, Gazprom, one of the biggest gas producers, own Zenit St Petersburg; Alexei Fedorichev, the owner of Fedcom, finances Dynamo Moscow whereas Anzhi Makhachkala are bankrolled by Suleiman Kerimov, who according to Forbes holds 82 percent stake in Russia’s biggest gold producer, Polyus.
Despite their emergence, CSKA and Spartak remain central to Russian football. They may not represent the sections of society the same way they did in the 20th century, but the rivalry between the Moscow-based sides has added character to the Russian Premier League.
Today, CSKA has an edge over their cross-town rivals, winning the league thrice in the last six years. Spartak may not have won silverware, but the romanticism with the club lives on.