A day after Russia crashed out of Euro 2016, losing to Wales, a country quarter the size of Moscow, the Communist Party of Russia, who are the chief political opponents of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, forged a parallel with the game and realpolitik. “The team is as soft as the United Russia Party and good only for internal use,” it posted on its Twitter handle, with an artful collage of footballers in military stripes and crutches. (Full Coverage: FIFA World Cup 2018)
Vladimir Putin, too, has his own concerns about the state of football. Recently, when someone pointed out that his home club Zenit St Petersberg was playing “beautiful football”, he retorted, ” You’ve got eight foreigners running across the pitch, playing for Zenit in the Europa League, well done.”
It’s in this context that the World Cup comes to Russia. Football has yet again entered the highly political world of Russia where sports has been traditionally used as a political vehicle and an emotional tool to hark back to an idealised past.
The day after its twitter outburst, communist party figurehead Gennady Zyuganov fumed in a press conference: “Why does the national team perform like this? It’s because 11 millionaires are running around the field with half-bent legs, who want to earn a lot and don’t want to work like a real athlete should.” His sweeping solution: “We need a Stalinist mobilisation. Mental, physical and hard strength.” Soon after, the far-right nationalist party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky joined in, urging Russia to recruit players from eastern Ukraine, held by Russia-backed separatists. “We need people who are pissed off, with a national motive.” In the end, the top football club bosses met, and as a compromise, a separate Crimean league was set up.
Football, in Soviet Union was not an obsession, unlike the Olympics, rather it seemed didactic indulgence, a larger triumph of their societal values. No longer, though, in the post-communist era, where football precipitated to a metaphor of crony capitalism. Most of the clubs are private ventures, owned/funded by oligarchs, with enough clout to decide the national team’s coach—Roman Abramovich pressured the federation to appoint Guus Hiddink as the national coach.
Much of the handwringing comes from nostalgia for the bygone Soviet glory, which coincided with the zenith of their football—between 1956 and 1972, they won the Euro, reached the finals twice, and finished fourth-placed in the 1966 World Cup.
The popular narrative goes that soon after the second World War, a football match was organised between Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, their once cordial diplomatic ties on the brink of distrust. A few days before the match, Joseph Stalin, Russia’s most iron-fisted leader, barged into the dressing room and laid out his vision of the football he wanted them to play. “Collective football first, individual next. You win as a state and lose as a state. No one takes the blame (of defeat), we take it,” he asserted.
Buoyed, they defeated the artistic Yugoslavians, and for the next several decades, coaches repeated Stalin’s speech verbatim in the dressing room. They genetically loathed “flair players,” a reason, football writer Jonathan Wilson feels, stifled the national career of the most idolised Soviet playmaker, Fyodor Cherenkov, who won 500-odd caps for his club Spartak Moscow but represented the country only 34 times.
Not that Russia were strictly ever a footballing powerhouse — apart from winning the maiden Euros in the Krushchevian era, they haven’t specifically impacted the game, with neither a game-defining ideology like the Dutch nor a dynasty like the Brazilians. It meant the footballers were relatively not put under insane public pressure. Unlike their other sportspersons, Russia’s footballers never went into a tournament with their heads on the chopping block, except when they played against Yugoslavia and the USA—like when a defeated Yugoslavian goalkeeper bantered, “I just saved 11 souls”.
The downward spiral of the game (and the country), the old apparatchiks believe, began with the Soviet Union’s collapse—afterwards they reached a solitary Euro semifinal and failed World Cup qualifications twice.
Even Putin doesn’t dispute the legacy of Soviet football, conveyed in Igor Gurovich’s official World Cup poster, a post-constructivist graphic featuring Lev Yashin, the irrepressible working-class hero, the epitome of Soviet Union’s functional footballing style, which’s still valued than the game’s aesthetic affinities. The communist party had even condemned the Euro 2008 semi-finalists for their “selfish style of play”.
Wilson, in his seminal work Inverting the Pyramid, gives a more non-political rundown. “Soviet football lies in teamwork to which there is a pattern, so that it doesn’t favour the style in which teamwork would suffer.” So ingrained is the doctrine that despite the influx of more progressive coaches, like Hiddink and Fabio Capello, Russian football’s psyche remained enslaved in the clutches of Soviet sensibilities.
Stalin himself was no football fanatic. But he found in football an ideal egalitarian template—when no one is above the other, each serving each other for the larger cause of the state. The government set up sports societies based on the trade unions: Spartak for white-collar workers, Lokomotiv for railway workers and Torpedo for car workers. His successor, Nikita Krushchev, persuaded the youngsters to embrace the sport and often borrowed Vladimir Lenin in his rousing speeches: “Healthy bodies, healthy minds! Neither monk nor Don Juan, nor the intermediate attitude of the German philistines. You know, young comrade…?”
Contemporary Russian football is closer to what the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote, “a model of individualistic society.” The grouses are endless—the oil barons rigged results, bribed referees, murdered unbending officials; ministers and regional governors administering top-tier clubs, unrestrained hooliganism et al.
Though the amplifying discontent wouldn’t imperil the immediate political future of Putin, who has entered his fourth presidential tenure, it would compound his predicaments. More than ever before, Russia’s political alignment and policies are viewed with increasing skepticism in the west, what with proxy conflict in Syria, the double-agent murder in London, Putin’s supposed clout in swaying elections in the US and the anti-LGBT laws. England fleetingly deliberated to flunk the tournament and Donald Trump advised the travelling fans to “think twice”. Some political experts even foresee the onset of new Cold War, and stitch exaggerated parallels with Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games.
So the last thing Putin would want is a perennially cynical opposition, seeing in the defeat an allegory of societal rot. There wouldn’t be an army of red flags storming the Kremlin during the tournament, but the corridors of the Kremlin will reverberate with the need for Stalinist mobilisation and Krushchevian anecdotes.