History of Russian football : an introduction

Really-From: Steven Main (
Date: Fri, 1 Sep 1995 12:28:13 +0000

"It is just under 85 years ago (1911 in actual fact) that the first representative international match between England and Russia took place in what was then the capital of Tsarist Russia, St Petersburg (Leningrad). The English team that toured Russia at that time was made up of some of the best players in England and was called "The Wanderers". When the English side arived in Russia in September 1911, they played three games in the month and won them all convincingly. The last game they played was against a side representing "all-Russia" and, in the words of the relevant newspaper report from "The Times", this game represented the first time that England had played Russia on the football field. Despite atrocious weather conditions, the English side easily overpowered their Russian counterparts, winning 11-0! However, it could have been an even more resounding victory: in the words of the newspaper report, "the Russian goalkeeper saved at least five goals." Despite the defeat, though, at the official reception held after the game, the representatives of the Russian football clubs, who had invited the English team over, "expressed their hearty appreciation" to the English side for visiting Russia.

Unfortunately, that game was to represent the first and last time representative national sides from either of the two countries were to play one another for over 45 years - the gap being a result of revolution, wars, international isolation, etc. The next encounter between the two teams was to occur in Moscow on 18th May 1958, and was an international friendly.

In many respects, the visit of a team from the British Isles to play in the USSR was long overdue. After all, even the most cursory analysis of the introduction and development of the game in pre- revolutionary Russia reveals the importance of the British. By the late 19th century, due to the expansion of trade between the two countries, "colonies" of British people had not only established themselves in the two main cities of the Russian Empire, namely St. Petersburg and Moscow, but also in Odessa, deep in the south of Russia, as well as in a number of the other major industrial and commercial cities of the Empire.

Given the lifestyle of the British residents in Russia at the time, with its increasing emphasis on sport as part of their more leisurely pursuits, it was not to be too long before the British began organising sports' societies for their own benefit. There was a large degree of exclusiveness in the formation of these sports' societies; on the whole, they were the preserve of the local foreign community. However, within a few years, the Russians began forming their own sporting organisations. Hence although 1879 is the date given for the creation of the first football club in the Russian Empuire, namely the St. Petersburg Football Club, this was a club virtually reserved initially for the local British residents of the city. Russians were not encouraged to join. Thus, whilst the British certainly introduced the organised game into the Russian Empire, they certainly did not introduce the spirit of egalitarianism that went with it. It was to be some time before the British "allowed" the Russians to actually join their sports' societies and inter alia, allowing them to, literally, join the team.

In these early days, given the obvious paucity of other teams to play against, the newly-created team had to make do with playing matches against the crews from British ships, recently berthed in St. Petersburg. Thus, for some time, there was a severe restriction on the growth in popularity of the game. It was not until the 1890s when, as a result of both the increase in the number of British residents in Russia (a fact which, in itself, lead to the direct creation of new football clubs in Russia) as well as the Russians taking the first tentative steps towards forming their own football clubs, that football began to grow in popularity amongst the broad mass of the population. Indeed, according to one source, by the mid- 1890s, the best teams in Moscow could expect a regular attendance of 12,000 at an ordinary league game, some 30% of the spectators being women.

As stated above, several new clubs were created in the 1890s by the British community in St.Petersburg: these were the Nevsky Cricket, Football, Hockey and Tennis Club (founded by English employees of the local cotton mill); Nevka (a Scottish football club, consisting entirely of Scots working at one of the large factories in the city) and Victoria (despite its English name, this was a combined Anglo- German side).

From the point of view of the Russians, though, the most significant new clubs created were the ones created by the Russians themselves, proving that, despite some initial scepticism, the Russians were getting to grips with the game: in May 1897, the first distinctly Russian (as opposed to Anglo-Russian) football club was created. It was called "Kruzhok liubiteley sporta" (literally, the "Circle of Sport Lovers") and was based in St.Petersburg. However, it was not too long before another Russian-organisd football club was created in the city, namely the "Peterburgsky Kruzhok Sportsmenov" (lit. "the St.Petsrburg's Circle of Sportsmen"). It was created in early 1898. The first challenge match between these two clubs took place on 13th September 1898, but an examination of the team lists of the players who actually took part in the game, once more reveals the reliance of even these Russian clubs on British players resident in the city: for instance, among those who took part were men named Harten, Webb, Wardrope, Ross, etc. Within less than 3 years of that particular match though, the St.Petersburg Football League had been created and the city had its own champioship (1901). Winners of the first St.Petersburg Football Championship were the English Nevsky Club.

The development of football in Moscow proceeded along somewhat different lines to what had occured in St.Petersburg. In 1887, a prominent English mill owner, Clem Charnock, brough a ball over from England, inflated it in the presence of a group of his mill workers, kicked it high into the air and, as it landed with an almighty bang, watched as his Russian workers fled! However, this early fear was quickly overcome and, with the assistance of his other relatives, especially James and Harry Charnock, out of their own workforce at the "Vicoul Morozov" mill, situated to the east of Moscow, they created their own football team, called the "Morozovtsi" which, in the immediate pre-WW1 period, was arguably the best team then playing in Russia. From 1910-1914, it won the Moscow Football League Championship (created earlier in 1909) every year and, at its height, an examination of the regular team list reveals the importance still of the British residents in the city: of the regular 11 who won the Championship, for instance, in 1912, 6 were British and only 5 were Russian. (It may be of interest to note here that the National Library of Scotland has, in its possession, a championship winning medal from the 1912 Moscow League Championship, won by the Scot, R Bruce-Lockhart, then working in the British Embassy, later to become one of Britain's top Soviet experts). Amongst the other British residents who played for the "Morozovtsi" in 1911 was one Capt. Wavell, then seconded to learn Russian on an interpreting course. He was to become much better known to the world as Field Marshal Earl Wavell.

Soon, football clubs were to appear all over the Russian Empire and, on the eve of WW1, the first all-Russian national champiuonships had already been held, won by "select" teams from St.Petersburg (1912 winners), Moscow (initially won by the team from Odessa, but disqualified on a technicality, 1913). A national championship was played in 1914 but, obviously due to the war, was never completed. Russia also began stepping into the international arena and, apart from playing the representative side from England in 1911, also playyed against Finland in Stockholm in the 19212 Olympic Games (Russia joined FIFA in 1912), as well as Germany, Hungary and Sweden. Despite the poor results - for instance, in the 1912 Olympic qualifying game, the Germans hammered the Russian national side 16-0! - the Russians never lost their appetite for the game and, even by then, in no small thanks to the efforts of the British, the game had already become Russia's No 1 sport.

Obviously, the effects of war on Russia were to be more lasting than on many other European nations but, at least one thing that did not change due to the war or the revolutions that followed, was the Russian love for football! Despite the events of 1917-1920, football competitions con#tinued to be played even during the days of revolution, Civil War, famine. When peace at long last descended on the country at the beginning of the 1920s, it then became possible to attempt to reinvigorate the game and, slowly but surely, all the porper steps were taken to ensure the re-creation of both a vibrant domestic football scene and, eventually, a healthy reputation abroad, as the Soviet national side re-entered foreign competion, beginning in 1952.

As the influence of the British, like the influence of all foreigners, faded away and memories of the early days of the history of Russian football became more and more distant, still, reading through the relevant Russian press reports, there could be no hiding the real pleasure felt by the Soviet public when, for the first time in their history, the USSR beat England at Wembley in June 1984, long regarded by many in the USSR as the home of football. It was as if, as a footballing nation, they had realised that they had "come of age": the pupils had now become the masters."

Copyright © Steven J Main, 1991.

Comments to : Oxana Smirnova, oxana@quark.lu.se