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Khorosho: On Moscow, Russian Football And Its Four Sentinels

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - AUGUST 23, 2016: Russia's presidential special representative for environment and transport Sergei Ivanov, FC CSKA's Pontus Wernbloom and Alexander Golovin, and president of the Russian Football Premier League Sergei Pryadkin (L-R) attend an award ceremony for the 2015/16 Season Russian Football Premier League. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander ShcherbakTASS via Getty Images)

There is a word in Russian that has entered the mainstream: Khorosho (pronounced ho-ro-sho), meaning “Nice” or “Wonderful.” When you think of Russian club football, there are three cities that come to mind that are the essence of khorosho.  There’s Rostov-on-Don, whose young side FC Rostov is preparing for its first-ever foray into the UEFA Champions League. There’s St. Petersburg, the most European city in the Federation whose flagship club Zenit has served its nation well domestically and internationally. And then…there’s Moscow.

The capital of Russia, Moscow, is home to four storied clubs that have had different histories, different destinies, heartbreak and triumph, but all of who, together, have a massive influence on the game in Russia then and now. The first of these Moscow clubs we will highlight is FC Dynamo Moscow, based in the suburb of Khimki. They are the old man of Russian club football, having been founded on April 18, 1923. Fueled by Power in Motion, its club motto, Dynamo’s roots go back all the way to the old Russian Empire in 1887.

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Despite not winning the Russian Premier League as of yet, and despite being relegated to the second division for the very first time in their entire history last season, Dynamo Moscow has had it share of high times. As a member of the Old Soviet Top League, Dynamo won 11 championships: 1936 (spring), 1937, 1940, 1945, 1949, 1954, 1955, 1957 1959, 1963, 1976. It has won the Soviet Cup/Russian Cup seven times (1937, 1953, 1967, 1970, 1977, 1984, 1994-95) and the Soviet Super Cup in 1977. Dynamo’s most famous victory came in 1945, when it defeated Arsenal 4-3 at White Hart Lane. During that tour of Britain, it also drew 3-3 with Chelsea and 2-2 with Rangers.

Managerial turnover and Financial Fair Play violations felled Dynamo, culminating  in their relegation at the hands of none other than Zenit St. Petersburg. Since then, under manager Yuriy Kalitvintsev, Dynamo Moscow has experienced a resurgence in form. Through 10 matches, they are 7-2-1 (23 points) and are at the top of the table. With their form, don’t be surprised if this is the only year Dynamo are in the Russian Football National League.

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Dynamo will be looking to join the other sentinels of Moscow in 2017. One of the other three still standing is FC Lokomotiv Moscow. They are the Steam Locomotives, the Railroaders, the Red-Greens that were founded back in 1922, on July 23. True to their moniker, Russian Railways own this club, currently managed by Yuri Semin. Lokomotiv are no strangers to relegation, having been sent down to the Soviet First League following World War II. When the club rebounded in the 1950’s, FC Lokomotiv did its share of touring the world, taking on opposition from Europe, Asia, Africa and the States.

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After their heyday of going around the world in a manner Lisa Stansfield would be proud of, Lokomotiv went into decline again, going between the first and second divisions. With the Soviet Union breakup, FC Lokomotiv returned to their grand form of the past, taking part in European competitions, all thanks to the engineering wizardry of Semin.

In fact, Semin’s body of work was so great at the club that when he left to manage the national team, the club’s form suffered. Eventually, he would return to keep the train running. Semin left again in 2011, and once more, the revolving doors meant that Semin was once again the conductor of the red and green train that is Lokomotiv Moscow. Over the course of its history, Lokomotiv have won the Russian Premier League twice (2002, 2004), the Soviet Cup/Russian Cup eight times (1936, 1957, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2007, 2015), the Russian Super Cup twice (2003, 2005) and the old Soviet First League three times (1947, 1964, 1974).

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Before we move on to the other two sentinels of Moscow club football, let us spare a thought for FC Torpedo Moscow. Once considered among the greats in its country, Torpedo are now playing in the third division of the pyramid, the Russian Professional Football League, Center Zone. Torpedo had a tough year last season, finishing 8-6-12 (30 points), good for 12th out of 14.

Once upon a time, FC Torpedo had been a force in European club football, competing in the UEFA Cup (now UEFA Europa League) as recently as the 2003-04 season. Torpedo won the Soviet Top League three times (1960, 1965, 1976 Autumn), the Soviet Cup/Russian Cup seven times (1949, 1952, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1986, 1993) and the Soviet Super Cup in 1967.

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Torpedo’s fans are twinned with the fans of FC Spartak Moscow, another of the four sentinels of the city. Spartak play their patches at the Otkrytie Arena and are managed by Italian Massimo Carrera. The Red-Whites, the People’s Team, Spartak Moscow were founded in 1922, on April 18, by the four Starostin brothers. They were cut from the cloth of the Spartak sports society but are now are an independent organization. A great deal of the Soviet Union’s success in football at the Olympics, particularly Melbourne 1956, came from Spartak’s list of players at the time.

As with Dynamo and Lokomotiv, Spartak also experienced a period of decline in the 1960s and 1970s and was relegated in 1976. One of the most difficult events in Spartak’s history came in 1982, when a stampede occured between FC Spartak and a now-defunct club in HFC Haarlem (whose successor club is FC Haarlem-Kennemerland, founded six years ago). There were 66 casualties in all, an event considered to be the Federation’s worst sporting disaster to date.

Between 1992 and 2001, FC Spartak flew the flag for Russia, competing in the UEFA Champions League. Political infighting and inconsistent results have led to changes in first team personnel and coaching personnel. Despite its recent periods of transition, Spartak are currently 4-1-0 (13 points) and are an early favorite to return to the Champions League, after being eliminated in the Europa League by Cypriot club AEK Larnaca.

Throughout its history, Spartak have won the first division 21 times (1936 (autumn), 1938, 1939, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1962, 1969, 1979, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001), the Soviet Cup/Russian Cup 13 times (1938, 1939, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1958, 1963, 1965, 1971, 1992, 1993–94, 1997–98, 2003) and the Russian Super Cup three times (2004, 2006, 2007).

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That turns us over to the last of the Moscow sentinels, the current, defending champions of the Russian Premier League, CSKA Moscow, or PFC CSKA Moscow if you will, managed by Leonid Slutsky, who also tried his luck at managing Russia’s campaign in Euro 2016, only to see it unravel right in front of him, resulting in his resignation.

CSKA, historically, are the team of the Red Army, the Soviet Army. They are the Horses, the Red-Blues, the Militarians. Unlike the other Moscow clubs, and other Russian clubs for that matter, CSKA has won a major trophy in European competition, the UEFA Cup, back in 2005. That trophy was part of treble CSKA won. CSKA Moscow’s history goes back to 1911, when they were founded on Aug. 27, which means the champions of Russia celebrated their 104th year of existence a few days ago. Not to mention…their basketball counterparts are the current champions of Europe.

At CSKA, there are expectations, and paying the price for poor performances is par for the course. In 1952, after the Soviet Union flopped at the Helsinki Olympics, CSKA were forced to withdraw from the competition as punishment. The club also experienced time in the second division in the 1980s. Aside from that, CSKA’s relevance in Soviet football and Russian football has remained constant, and fron 2004 through 2006, Roman Abramovich’s Sibneft gave CSKA a cash injection.

All in all, the club has won the league 13 times (1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1970, 1991, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2015–16), the second division twice (1986, 1989), the Soviet Cup/Russian Cup 12 times (945, 1948, 1951, 1955, 1990–91, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013) and the Russian Super Cup six times (2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2014) to go with their UEFA Cup won.

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And this season, CSKA will be playing at their new stadium, the Arena CSKA, whose skyscrape is based on that exact UEFA Cup won more than a decade ago. It is a stern reminder to the entire Russian Federation of this message: “We made history winning a European championship. Who’s next, comrades?” CSKA is scheduled to go through their Champions League group stage gauntlet against Bayer Leverkusen, AS Monaco, and the tenants of the aformentioned White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur. Through five matches, CSKA are 3-2-0 (11 points), good for second in the league.

Those are the four sentinels of Moscow football: CSKA, Spartak, Locomotiv and Dynamo. They’ve been through high times, they’ve been through low times. But the support from the fans, and the passion they create at every match at home and abroad is the reason why these teams, whether in the top flight or the second division, will always have a say in the future of Russian club football. But then again, that’s what truly makes football in Moscow…khorosho.

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