This is the thirteenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
There was a citywide party on Sunday night in Moscow that local reports are calling historic—and if you’ve ever been in the capital of a footballing nation on the day that its team wins a knockout World Cup match, you know there’s a good chance the reports were not exaggerating. It’s especially poignant that the people who were getting their collective freak on were the Russians, for no stroll through the country’s recent history will reveal an event that could as thoroughly and unexpectedly unite its citizens across political and social lines as the national squad’s upset defeat of Spain in the World Cup’s round of sixteen at the city’s Luzhniki Stadium. There was no precedent for the celebration just as there was no precedent for the result.
That the Russia team and its coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, did it with the only formula at their disposal—by “parking the bus” (stacking the defense with virtually the whole team), a tactic that La Roja’s recently appointed manager Fernando Hierro willingly walked his side onto, thus ensuring a supremely dull match with a few dodgy refereeing calls—made the whole outcome even more unlikely.
What the result did not do is permit a reimagination of the state of Russian football as positive, or arouse the more knowledgeable core of a fanbase that’s exploded overnight to suddenly begin dreaming of hoisting the FIFA World Cup trophy. They may all have enjoyed sending home the practitioners of the infinitely overrated tiki-taka, Spain’s short passing game, but Russians also know better than to try operating outside the comfort zone of their skill level. And unlike recent footballing arrivals, those young sparkling belles of the ball from Africa, Asia, and even North America who’ve recently come to soccer prominence with athletic grace and marketing dollars and twenty-year plans, Russians have known their limits better for a long, long time.
Despite having one of the world’s oldest organized footballing cultures (it’s been a member of FIFA since 1912), the Russian republic and its twentieth-century albatross, the USSR, have only once won a major international competition (the UEFA European Nations’ Cup in 1960). Its competitive football soul was once handsomely enough rewarded, with a fourth-place finish at the World Cup in England in 1966, and a spate of runners-up medals in the European Championships, the last being in 1988. But the historical record tends to conceal just how strong a grip Russia’s football culture has had over its people’s sporting imaginations. Answer: not much.
For Russia and its people—my people—have long had a fickle relationship with the game. They’re educated consumers and investors, but finicky admirers, whose hearts wander at the drop of a puck and the first hint of snow. Certainly, the boys with whom I ran around the courtyard of our apartment building in central Leningrad—a palatial eighteenth-century block whose floor-through apartments once provided a home to Aleksander Pushkin, but was now a communalka, split to house five to seven families on each floor—were not vested in football. When hockey sticks appeared, they’d fight bitterly over which of the CSKA forward line they would impersonate, with Valeri Kharlamov the demigod most in-demand. Yet no single Russian footballer brought such mythic power to our pick-up games. The only Soviet player who could compete for the imagination of little hooligans with such supreme beings from abroad as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and my eccentric personal favorite, Gerd Müller, was not actually Russian but Ukrainian: Oleh Blokhin, the superlative Dynamo Kiev striker.
This hints at some of the difficulties in the country’s relationship to its football identity. A lot of it was, technically, not its own. When Soviet football and the national squad was at its best, at the height of the Cold War, it was teams and players from Georgia, Armenia, and especially the Ukraine that dominated the game. The Dynamo Kiev squads of the late 1960s and early 1970s that Blokhin scored 266 goals for, were the closest thing to a footballing dynasty known in the world of my youth; and Blokhin’s spectacular solo goal against Bayern Munich in the 1975 UEFA Cup Winners Cup Final was the team’s international “Eureka!” moment. (And Blokhin’s, too: 1975 was the year he won the Ballon d’Or, as European player of the year.)
Yet day-to-day admiration of Blokhin, or one of the moderately skillful players at other professional clubs like Dinamo Tbilisi, Ararat, or Shakhtar Donetsk—the idea of rooting for any team from Moscow, center of the Soviet state, was antithetical to our highly-politicized Leningrad household—was also acknowledged as a cheap high. By contrast, watching Munich, Barcelona, or Ajax, as we sometimes could on state-run TV, especially when they were thrashing a Soviet team in one of the many European club competitions, was to glimpse something that seemed even more majestic than anything I absorbed during countless evenings at the Mariinsky Ballet, to which I was dragged as a child. That is not to minimize the pleasure that the six-year-old son of a sportswriter could take in Swan Lake—even after watching the Dutch star Johan Cruyff perform one of his balletic turns on TV—but to mean that, once confronted with the footballing sublime, a return to the merely adequate felt deeply disappointing.
There is, of course, an argument to be made—a rather shopworn one, perhaps—that such fascination with Western glamour and greatness helped to hasten the end of Soviet communism. But it was also the key to developing critical thinking about sports and culture that I was raised on. The habits of making fair but ruthless judgments, of strident aspirationalism, of discarding all relativist nuances, were not, I eventually learned, characteristic simply of my own household, but of the nation at large.
The Russian high bar may have been set decades or even centuries before, but the bar is the bar. All novelists are judged against Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, all choreographers against Diaghilev and Balanchine. And so it is with football. In Blokhin, or the long-time Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Lev Yashin—for whom FIFA’s goalkeeping award is named—the USSR had footballers who were worthy of belonging to the game’s pantheon. Other luminaries of the Soviet era—players like goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev, defender Aleksandre Chivadze, midfielders Igor Belanov and David Kipiani, and striker Eduard Streltsov—shone for a time, too. But after the Soviet Union splintered in 1990–1991, and the former republics went their separate ways, Russian football’s moments of light became rare indeed.
One exception came in 2008, when the post-Soviet era’s foremost Russian footballer, the diminutive playmaker Andrey Arshavin, led Zenit St. Petersburg on a miraculous march toward the UEFA Cup trophy. He went on to marshal, Zidane-like, the Russian team in its surprising showing at that year’s European Championships. After transferring to the leading English club Arsenal in January 2009, Arshavin capped his year with a legendary four-goal performance against Arsenal’s Premier League rivals, Liverpool. The following year, he was one of Russia’s ambassadors to FIFA during the campaign to bring the 2018 World Cup the Moscow. Like other temperamental geniuses, though, Arshavin was prone to miserable lows as well as exhilarating highs. After the Russian side he captained failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, his form collapsed and his increasingly sporadic bursts of genius could no longer mask his weight-gain and apparent disaffection.
These days, Arshavin is no kind of ambassador for the Russian game, and the mix of impudent improvisation and footballing brains that he brought to the pitch is nowhere to be found on it. Though the twenty-one-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder Alexander Golovin has been demonstrating superior vision and great verve throughout the Cup—he was among the few attacking highlights against Spain, and will surely be important if the Russians want to continue dreaming—he remains no more than a youthful prospect, a name for the future.
It says much about the state of the country’s game that the one Russian name most global football fans do recognize is not that of a player, but of a mega-corporation: Gazprom. You’ve seen the oligarchy-aligned oil conglomerate’s advertisements on pitch-side placards throughout the Cup, during the UEFA Champions League, and at stadiums in all the top European leagues. Gazprom also co-owns the leading Russian club Zenit, sponsors Red Star Belgrade in Serbia and Schalke in Germany, and runs a Russian youth football development program. “Green-washing” its fossil-fuel billions in the sport, Gazprom is, in effect, the anti-environmental equivalent of the mob. When the only football-associated name the world sees is a state-sanctioned corporation that threatens to shut off its pipelines to Western Europe every time Vladimir Putin has a geopolitical point to prove, a fanbase as cultivated as Russia’s recognizes the style in play.
At the moment though, with the world threatening to spin off its axis, the Cup a sparkling success, and Russia improbably in the quarterfinals, consider Putin’s point proven. At least to his domestic audience. After all, no self-respecting football culture will refuse a winner’s celebration simply because the dour tactics strangled the inherent beauty of the game. There may be no footballing talisman on Russia’s horizon, and the ability to entertain may be long gone, but in these hyper-nationalist, fake-news times, results like Sunday’s speak for themselves.
An earlier version of this essay misstated that neither Russia nor the USSR had ever won a major international football competition, overlooking the European Nations’ Cup in 1960; it also misstated that Lev Yashin played for Spartak Moscow; it was Dynamo Moscow. The article has been updated accordingly.