Last month (on Wednesday, May 18th) CSKA, The Central Sporting Club of the Army, which was founded by the Red Army in 1923, beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 in the UEFA cup final. In Moscow the celebrations broke out at 1:30 in the morning. Cars hooted their horns and singing woke up those who had not followed the match. “From the Taiga to the British seas, the red army is the strongest of all,” went the chorus of the fans’ favourite song, which was first sung during the civil war when the red army was founded.
But only the words of the song reminded you of the club’s origins. Drunk but happy fans poured into the centre in their thousands, blocking the traffic on Tverskaya street with its expensive boutiques and restaurants, a symbol of capitalist Russia, and headed down to Manezh Square. It was a bonanza for bars, which sold up to six times more beer than usual and champagne for 3000 roubles. Taxi drivers also did not miss out, doubling their fares home.
In North Ossetia where CSKA trainer Valerii Gazzaev is from, bars bought special wide-screen TVs to show the match, an investment paid for by the night’s takings. In Vladikavkaz, the republic’s capital, people danced in the streets and fired pistol shots into the air in salute. Governor Dzasokhov announced a public holiday on the Thursday explaining his decision on the grounds that no one would have worked anyway.
USSR 3:1 Russia
While CSKA’s victory is the first time a Russian team has won a European cup, Soviet football enjoyed some notable success. Dynamo Kiev won the Cup-winners cup in 1975 and 1986 and Dynamo Tblisi won the same trophy in 1981. This success was in fact based on the planned economy, which provided the resources for the development of sport. Of course, money on its own cannot guarantee victory in a game as unpredictable as football but no team from Georgia can seriously imagine winning a European cup today. This is not for a lack of players There are still many skilful players from Georgia and the Ukraine but now that the planned economy has been torn apart, the best players play abroad for richer European clubs.
In the 1920s the Red Army founded CSKA, the railway workers’ union Lokomotive, the ministry of internal affairs Dynamo. With a low budget these clubs developed football as well as other sports. Today Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has spent millions of dollars on buying new players for Chelsea, who are now Premier League champions. Everyone knows his fortune was acquired from asset-stripping the Soviet economy, and it is a sign of how parasitic and degenerate Russian capitalism is that such wealth is not re-invested back in industry or infrastructure but on nothing more than a hobby.
This is not to say that everything in the USSR was perfect. The bureaucratic blindness of the Stalinist system led to the ministries that had sports clubs to use administrative measures off the pitch to give their side an advantage. The army called up talented sportsmen who played for other teams while the police arrested rival stars.
But the situation today has not improved. Dynamo’s board is chaired by the assistant director of the FSB (the old KGB) Vladimir Pronichev, while former FSB chief Sergey Stepashin is chair of the club’s football board. (Current FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev recently became a key organiser of the volleyball federation.) Since Russian football does not function as a profitable business all this means that government ministries are using state revenue to finance their clubs.
And if clubs are not financed by ministries they are financed by oligarchs. One example is “Krylya Sovetov” (Soviet Wings), a club in Samara with the biggest crowds in Russian football in recent seasons that qualified for next year’s UEFA cup. Its owner German Tkachenko used to be vice-President of a metal group owned by billionaire Oleg Deripaska, which bought a factory in the town and was elected to represent the region in the Federation Chamber. Earlier this year the factory was sold and Tkachenko was no longer able to finance the club himself (he owns 75% of the shares.) The club has accumulated debts and is set to sell key players to stay afloat, and may not even be eligible to play in the Russian Premier League next year. The local government owns the other 25% of the shares and is set to initiate an ugly battle to kick out Tkachenko.
Football and politics
The experience of Russian football shows that decisions are not taken in the interests of the game or a club but in the interests of different groups within the elite. A prerequisite to becoming the national manager is to be loyal to the President. Georgy Yartsev, a member of United Russia, rescued Russia’s campaign to qualify for Euro 2004 and was hailed as a hero. During the competition Russia was knocked out in the group stages, despite beating eventual champions Greece, before losing 7:1 to Portugal (in the same stadium as CSKA’s victory) last October in a world cup qualifier. United Russia officials feared their cause would be damaged rather than strengthened by their ties with Yartsev and he resigned, along with the head of Russian football Vyacheslav Koloskov.
The way that the Kremlin uses football as a tool in an attempt to manipulate people leads some on the left to conclude that football itself is reactionary. Communist Party leader Gennady Ziuganov did a lot not to dispel this myth in the aftermath of CSKA’s win. Not to be outdone by United Russia in his commitment to football he declared euphorically “CSKA’s footaball players have made the whole country happy with their victory. The long-standing dream of our supporters has been realised. I have always been a CSKA supporter. It’s a strong club, the players have been in top form and, of course, coach Valerii Gazzaev has been magnificent.”
Why do people need a football match to make them happy? Why can’t the CPRF make people happy instead? The sweetness of victory is not so much the result of a football match as a reflection of how little people have to cheer about. It is a temporary feeling that we are having our way in life. In football, as in other branches of the arts and culture, people can temporarily forget their real, routine life and express hopes and emotions they cannot express otherwise, such as happiness. This shows how hollow all the talk about the joys of capitalism really is.
Apart from insecurity about the future, which applies to individuals and to football clubs, the transition to capitalism has led to a collapse in the cultural level. And one example of this malaise is the violence that surrounds football. Many clubs have networks of hooligans who go to matches not to watch football but to fight with fans. It is such thugs as this that the new pro-Presidential youth organisation is reported to recruit from. Such so-called fans as these have been responsible for racist violence, including the pogrom at Tsaritsyno market in Moscow in 2003 and, following Russia’s 2:1 defeat against Japan in the last world cup, the smashing up of shop windows in Tverskaya Street and beating to death a man who looked foreign.
Such thugs give football a bad name. They are also used as an example in the media to give the working class a bad name. This is obviously rubbish. Firstly many of these thugs in Russia are angry, lumpen teenagers, whose ranks have grown with the deindustrialisation that has taken place due to the collapse of the USSR. Secondly, a fact that confounds middle-class social historians in the west, many hooligans come from the middle class, the enraged small traders who have seen their position in life come under the hammer of large-scale business competition. Of course some hooligans are from the working class but this does not mean that the working class itself is reactionary or that the conscious, democratic management of the economy and society by the working class is impossible in the future. It means that capitalism is reactionary, and the ugly phenomenon of football violence is yet one more reason to fight against it.
Thus, football, just like other sports or forms of culture, is neither progressive nor reactionary in itself. It is another example of how capitalism, apart from limiting our possibilities in life, shapes our dreams in life as well. And on top of this, as with other forms of entertainment, it commercialises football and exploits the pleasure that the game gives us, both as players and fans, to make a profit, not only for clubs but also for big sports companies like Adidas and Reebok and TV companies. It is a game played by millions but controlled by a narrow layer of businessmen and politicians. In Russia today it is a toy of the elite and it is spoilt by the elite’s vanity and is another example of the difference between the society we live in now and the opportunities that the Soviet Union opened up but was not able to realise.
The future of football, and every other aspect of life, lies in finishing with the anarchy and cultural oppression of capitalism in the context of a democratic and planned global economy in which every branch of culture will acquire a free and many-sided character. Instead of the temporary, illusory elation and common identity that exists among victorious fans today we will have a deeper, truer solidarity among people based on a higher form of human relations.