By Manuel Veth –
In late summer 2014 for the first time in their history Spartak Moscow played a true home game at the newly-erected Otkrytie Arena against their Serbian allies Crvena Zvezda. Initially, the stadium was supposed to open in 2006, but Russian construction projects are not known for their punctuality and this was no exception. The eight-year delay prolonged a lifelong wait for the club and their fans because, as Edelman writes in his eloquent history Spartak: The Peoples’ Team in the Workers State, Spartak had been without a true stadium of their own throughout their history.
The opening of the stadium was a stately affair with Vladimir Putin among the high-profile figures attending the ceremony, who was later described the arena as “worthy of Russia’s most beloved team.” Indeed the Otkritie Arena, which was built by the German company Hochtief and is similar in appearance to Bayern’s Allianz Arena, is a fitting home for a team that many still regard as Moscow’s most popular club.
The opening of the new stadium intends to represent a much-needed revival for Spartak who have now gone without a major trophy since winning the Russian Cup in 2003, and have not won a league title since 2001.
Ruling Russian Football in the 1990s
Between 1992 and 2001, Spartak were Russian champions nine times out of ten, making do with third place in 1995 behind city rival Lokomotiv Moscow, and surprise winners Alania Vladikavkaz. The club’s continued success in the Russian Vysshaia Liga gave it access to the bountiful riches of the then-nascent Champions League, which provided the club with a stable income that was far above what their domestic competitors could generate.
In economic terms, Spartak had a head start over other clubs in post-Soviet Russia. For instance, prior to the club’s independence from the state the club’s patrons Mossovet (the city soviet) and gorkom (city government) provided Spartak with free apartments for their players. It transpires that, in keeping with the spirit of the post-Soviet great grab in the midst of the anarchy that ensued after the fall of the Soviet Union, Spartak never returned the property with Russian journalist Arkadii Galinskii later stating that Spartak‘s property empire was such that it could constitute an entire city in itself.
With the fall of communism, Spartak’s football operations were placed under the stewardship of legendary coach Oleg Romantsev, who was hired by the club in 1989. The privatisation of the club that year would be the foundation for Romantsev to become Spartak’s de-facto owner by 1993. Over the next decade, the image of Romantsev smoking on the Spartak bench while stoically watching his team would become synonymous with Spartak.
Spartak, Romantsev and the smuggling mafia
Spartak were now a club without any real competition in the new Russian Premier League (RPL) and their domestic dominance also meant that they had a monopoly on Russia’s entry to the lucrative Champions League.
But Champions League money was not the only source of income for Spartak Moscow. In the late 1990s, as a way to subsidise sport clubs, the Russian government under sobriety-averse president Boris Yeltsin had given some sporting organisations within the Russian Federation the right to import alcohol and cigarettes tax-free, as a means of partially financing professional football after the fall of the Soviet Union, with Spartak Moscow one of many clubs that took advantage.
But the club’s import/export licence would bring them into conflict with local mafia groups. In 1997, Spartak’s co-owner and director of finance Larisa Nechayeva was shot dead whilst driving home from the club’s Tarasovka training ground. Nechaeva was a young and ambitious businesswoman who was brought in by the club on the understanding that she could generate money by bringing in high profile sponsors.
Nechaeva’s murder case was never solved and, according to The Independent, it was part of a tussle between mafia-like clans in the Russian Federation over the smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol in which both Spartak and Nechaeva had become involved.
Spartak’s Struggle in Russian Football’s Oil Boom
In 2001, the burly Andrei Chervichenko approached Romantsev over the possible purchase of several shares in Spartak. Chervichenko, through his connections with the now-defunct Krasbank, knew that Spartak were experiencing financial difficulties and offered Romantsev a deal in which LUKoil would become the kit sponsor of the club, with Chervichenko assuming his position as the new vice-president.
However, Spartak were not alone in attracting oil money as their rivals across the city, Lokomotiv and CSKA, followed suit and by 2003 Spartak’s dominance of Russian football was well and truly over, languishing in 13th position in the RPL half-way through the season, much closer to the relegation zone than the European spots. Yet the firing of Romantsev surprised many as just days earlier the club had salvaged some silverware from a humble season, by winning the Russian Cup.
In the end, the decision reflected a power struggle between Romantsev and Chervichenko with the latter describing the former as unapproachable and accusing him of having ignored and abused players.
While Chervichenko’s comments were not entirely objective, Romantsev’s affection for vodka had, by 2003, become an unmanageable issue that could no longer be hidden from the public. Under the circumstances, the club’s board expressed reluctance to release funds for new players if Romantsev remained at the helm. In June 2003, Chervichenko stated diplomatically that Romantsev needed a rest and would leave the club. Spartak would eventually finish the 2003 RPL season in 10th place.
With Romantsev out of the picture, the club were now up for sale and in 2004 Leonid Fedun, billionaire and board member of LUKoil, bought the club. After the takeover Fedun, who is often seen in public with a Spartak baseball cap to accentuate his mullet, moved quickly to fill all major positions at Spartak with people who were also involved with LUKoil.
Spartak and LUKoil – a volatile marriage
The takeover, however, came at a price. The undermining of Romantsev’s role and the ownership struggle between LUKoil and Romantsev meant that the club were being outperformed by the nouveau riche clubs that emerged as the Russian economy started to recover under the early leadership of Putin.
From 2003, city rivals Lokomotiv (led by the Ministry of Transport) and CSKA Moscow (officially owned by Evgenii Giner, but sponsored by Abramovich-owned companies), dominated the league. The two clubs were later joined by Zenit, which, thanks to Gazprom’s billions, are now Russia’s richest and most popular club. In addition, both Zenit, in 2008, and CSKA, in 2005, won the UEFA Cup, making both clubs more recognised continental brands in the modern era than Spartak.
There are several reasons why the above-mentioned clubs have surpassed Spartak. Lokomotiv, for instance, moved into a brand new arena in 2002, a move which symbolised Russian Railways RZhD’s motivation to build a club that could dethrone Spartak as Moscow’s most beloved. As the Lokomotiv Stadium was the most modern facility in Russia, the stadium was also used by the Russian national team, which paid a handsome rental fee for the facility.
The alluring Lokomotiv Arena also brought about an increase in Lokomotiv’s popularity in the city. Lokomotiv were always considered the weakest link in Moscow’s football pyramid and in the 1990s the club registered very low attendance numbers. Since the opening of the new arena, however, attendances at Lokomotiv home games increased from 4,480 in 2001 to around 15,000 in 2010.
Russian clubs also have to be understood as social-marketing projects by their mother companies, and in the case of Lokomotiv the increase in attendance indicated to RZhD that football as a marketing tool would be successful as long as money is invested into both players and infrastructure. The new stadium, therefore became a symbol of intent by RZhD, and the improved atmosphere at home games, together with new training facilities enabled Lokomotiv to attract more foreign talent to play in Moscow including the wayward Scot Garry O’Connor, Uzbekistan-born Peter Odemwingie and Branislav Ivanovic.
In addition Zenit and Rubin had a natural advantage over the Moscow-based clubs as they were the only significant football representatives in their respective cities, and in the case of Rubin the entire Republic of Tatarstan.
Meanwhile, CSKA, thanks to the arrival of Evgenii Giner, were able to merge local Russian talent with expensive players from South America, such as the dreadlocked Brazilian striker Vagner Love, and his fellow countryman and recent World Cup fall guy Jo: a strategy similar to what Shakhtar Donetsk have developed more extensively in Ukraine.
Spartak, now owned by Fedun, were not only left behind on the sporting front but also started to lose their identity as the people’s club even though Fedun has often insisted that Spartak is his project rather than being owned by LUKoil. The strong connection, however, between Fedun, LUKoil and Spartak cannot be denied.
Spartak, throughout Russian and Soviet football history, were often regarded as trendsetters, but the fact that the club have now been without a title for more than a decade means they are no longer in vogue. In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of what happened at Ajax Amsterdam where the Dutch giants went without a title from 2004 to 2011. Ajax, however, have managed to regain some of their domestic glory by winning four consecutive championships since 2011. A similar re-emergence for Spartak however appears highly unlikely.
Spartak to the Future?
The national makeover necessitated by Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup means that many of Spartak’s main rivals will move, or have already moved, into brand new arenas. Spartak has always been one of the best-attended clubs in Russian football. Therefore, realising that a new stadium might not be enough to make Spartak more competitive domestically, Fedun has begun to change the ownership structure of Spartak by floating the club on the stock exchange. This was not the first time that Spartak had toyed with this idea in order to create an open joint stock company (Otkrytoe Aktsionernoe Obshchestvo), similar to a Limited Company in the United Kingdom.
Fedun hopes that by changing the economic structure of Spartak the club will become more self-sufficient and less reliant on the his own continued funding and that of LUKoil. Fedun has admitted that, on average, he has had to spend $60 million a season, since taking over the club, just to keep the club competitive in the RPL, and has invested another $500 million in the construction of Spartak’s new stadium.
In theory, the stock market floatation could be good news for Spartak as the club may be able to generate more income by selling shares. This, together with a new stadium, and the supposed marketing possibilities, could perhaps narrow the gap between Spartak and Russia’s newly rich top clubs.
But there are also plenty of risks. First and foremost, the fact that Fedun is willing to float the club suggests that he is no longer willing to finance the operations of the club himself. In a statement to Al-Jazeera, Fedun voiced his optimism that he could recuperate some of the US$1billion that he had invested in the club. He also hopes that the stock market launch “will increase the club’s profit three or four times by 2017 or 2018.” This statement indeed implies that Fedun is willing to leave the club sooner rather than later, a move that could open up the club to investors and potentially another power struggle at the top.
Despite Spartak’s new stadium, the current season has been another rollercoaster ride for the Krasno-Belye, with their Swiss coach Murat Yakin perilously close to a dismissal before a listless 2-0 victory against Ural Yekaterinburg as the winter break was about to commence. The result keeps the club within five points of a Champions League spot, leaving some hope that a successful season can be salvaged when the ice thaws and the league resumes in March.
Failure to at least qualify for the Europa League would make it difficult for Yakin, if he is spared, to hold on to the club’s best players such as bullish Armenian striker Yura Movsisyan, already linked with a move to the Bundesliga. For Spartak’s fans meanwhile, their club’s place at the pinnacle of Russian football looks set to remain on grainy video footage and creased magazines, rather than in the modern setting of their long-awaited shiny new home.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus