on soccer

The distinction between Spartak and their local counterparts was that they had pizzazz. Their guys dressed in zoot suits, went out on the town after game night, and occasionally even toured the West, where they went on covert shopping sprees…”


by mike morgan


There’s a real rollicking read out there and it’s about soccer, but not about this most recent World Cup or things current. The book is called “Spartak Moscow: A History of the Peoples’ Team in the Workers’ State.” It’s written by a chap called Robert Edelman.

The central character in the tale is the founder and creator of the club, one Nikolai Starotsin. There were three soccer teams that mattered in the Soviet Union, Spartak, Dinamo, and CSKA Moscow. This competition started in the 1930s. Spartak was the most popular, a spontaneous favorite of the Soviet man and woman in the street. Dinamo was the NKV or KGB team, and Lavretny Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police, hated Spartak because they were the better team. CSKA Moscow, the third squad, was the Red Army team.

In 1942, Starotsin was woken up one morning by two pistol waving goons who hauled him off to Lubianka prison. He was originally ridiculously accused of conspiring with the Nazis to assassinate Stalin, but that got dropped to a more benign swindling, bribery and theft charge, which earned him ten years in the Gulag. Starotsin did pay his players out of his own pocket, and he bribed officials to keep them out of the army, which is how these allegations came to be. In the prison camp, he was a celebrity, so his time wasn’t that hard. He was even temporarily released by a Stalin son to coach the Air-Force unit. Spartak Moscow was then considered to be the peoples’ team, a semi-autonomous institution. 100,000 spectators at one of their games was not an oddity.

One such match entailed a contest between Spartak and a touring Basque team in 1937 to raise funds for the Republican cause in Spain. Spartak won 6-2 and this was the talk of the town. But the real competition lay in that between the Moscow teams. This was nothing like the Yankees versus the Mets, or the Jets versus the Giants. Perhaps Manchester City playing Manchester United, or Barcelona against Real Madrid might be a little bit closer, but not by much.

The distinction between Spartak and their local counterparts was that they had pizzazz. Their guys dressed in zoot suits, went out on the town after game night, and occasionally even toured the West, where they went on covert shopping sprees. And it wasn’t like Nikolai Starotsin was a toadie for the Voice of America or whatever. He wined and dined with Central Committee hacks and spoke the lingo. What was happening in Soviet soccer was that real peoples’ aspirations were getting played out on the field. So whatever the internal contradictions were within the society, these manifested themselves at the stadiums. Spartak won the day here.

My sister Jenny once made a film in the early 1990s about the Orlando Pirates, Joburg South Africa’s most popular black soccer team. Long before the Oakland Raiders and that chump Al Davis, the Orlando Pirates team flag was the buccaneer with the eye patch. The Orlando players of the 1950s are revered old men in the townships. These guys took their gals dancing on Saturday night, hired the only Chevy in the hood to get them there, and looked like Dino’s Rat Pack. During the state of emergency, the Comrades would call a cease-fire against the police and army if the Orlando Pirates were playing.

The film is terrific, because it anecdotes that history and then it walks the viewer though the preparation for an upcoming game and the game itself. The Pirates get walloped and the coach blames the players, the players blame the coach, and they both blame the fans for not being vociferous enough. There is a sense of mourning, like a death in the family throughout the township that day. It’s spectacularly funny and sad too. This explains why the Bafana losses at this last World Cup were more than just upsetting to black South Africans. My other sister Bronnie, who lives in Port Elizabeth, S.A., said that in one of the shellackings, the sentiment was such that people wanted to run onto the pitch to help the players win. Losses like these rub salt into a deeper, gaping wound. Punting for the soccer team is all that some people have, everything else is a grind…a tough life made even more depressing by the soccer squad going south.

Nikolai Starotsin outlived ’em all. He died in 1996 at the age of 98 years. He managed to maintain control of Spartak until close to the end of his life. Soccer’s popularity in Russia died during the Glastnost years. The protagonist lived through it all, Stalin’s insanity, the Kruschev waffling, and the Gorbachev drift. He was never a capitalist, but Spartak had gimmicks at their games like “guess the score” and raffles that had an attraction. They sold tickets too, very cheaply, because their matches were always sold out. They also never received state funds which the other more disciplined state-sponsored teams got. Spartak was an alternative to the boring grayness.

One of the favorite slogans of Spartak fans shouted out at games and translated into English was “Make Soap out of the Ref.” Perhaps some supporters of various World Cup 2010 team might agree with this sentiment after a host of bungled calls.

Most books about professional sports aren’t that compelling. They either dwell on hero-worship, hard luck stories, rags-to-riches themes, or just sprout the cliches of the industry and the sports press. Now and again, a gem comes around. If you want more like this one, read “Dancing Shoes is Dead” by Gavin Evans about black boxing in South Africa. He wrote another goodie called “Prince of the Ring” about Naseem Haseed. Gavin Evans is white South African…we weren’t all miserable yes-men.

Originally published:
Issue Sixty
April 2011


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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