?ed ?eview: Spartak – The dream of the people

What is the greatest satisfaction of winning a league title? Is it the sense of achievement and reward a season of hard toil brings? Or is it the feeling of status that you are the best team around? Or, more cynically, is it being able to have the bravado and arrogance to turn and look at your rivals and say: ‘we are better than you.’

In a self-appreciating sort of way it is all three plus many more besides and behind every champion there is a desire to win but a conscious motivation to out-do. Across football, across time and across the world, behind so many teams there is the incentive to do for yourself, but just as much, to do for someone else. Football rivalries stem from geographics, demographics, political, historical and sociological facets, yet they are all fuelled and flamed by on-field success, and results always matter more against those whom mean more.

Spartak Moscow are by far Russia’s most decorated club. With twelve Soviet titles and another nine Russian titles attained since perestroika, the Meat and their fans duly claim to be the best football club in Russia. In the old Soviet regime, Spartak – named after Spartacus, the slave who led a revolt against the Romans – were the only Moscow club who were not directly affiliated with a particular regime. Unlike CSKA Moscow, who were ran by the army, and Dynamo Moscow, operated by the interior ministry, they remained neutral, and as a result where seen as ‘the people’s club’ – leading them to become the most heavily supported team of the nation.

Following the fall of the former Soviet Union, Spartak were thus able to stabilise themselves in the financial chaos which inevitably came with the total breakdown of the world’s largest country. They won the first Russian Premier League in 1992 and made it a hat-trick by winning the next two. Those titles coincided with the birth of the Champions League and the corporate riches to be had there. Spartak became a cyclical dominance under the management of the moustachioed, chain-smoking, vodka-swilling Coach Oleg Romantsev. They won the league, got money from Europe, strengthened, won the league again, got back in Europe and so forth, and so, for the entire 1990’s, Spartak dominated the whole Russian scene, winning 9 of the first ten championships.

There ninth and last championship came in 2001, precipitated by not only Romantsev’s mental and physical deterioration, but also the big bucks the black gold that is oil brought. After playing second fiddle for over a decade, CSKA could suddenly turn to Evgeni Giner and Zenit St Petersburg were spoilt with Gazprom cash. The gap between Spartak and the rest was eradicated in no time and they were forced to release their perch to their bitterest city rivals CSKA. The Army Men took three out of four championships and secured the 2005 UEFA Cup to go with it. After years of winning based on their own good practices, Spartak’s legacy was essentially wiped out by cash, and this resentment has harboured ever since.

Spartak fans still see their club as some sort of protector of fair play and principal. They pour scorn on the way CSKA have bought what Spartak bred, and vocally accuse their arch enemy of foul play – bribing referee’s and strong-arming games. The Meat cannot lay claim to being the country’s top team for nine years now, and with every failed attempt to wrestle back the mantle their desperation grows. However, simply winning the league for the sake of it will not do. Spartak wish to be the pinnacle of football in Russia, achieved in the manner and spirit of the people, and therefore not just hold a sporting supremacy over CSKA, but a moral stance too.

This utopian dream of lovely football in a green grass, birds tweeting world has so far failed to materialise. Spartak have finished second in four of the last five seasons and have earned themselves a bridesmaid tag of recent years – the good guys falling short. Once again this term they are not exactly convincing with their assault on top spot and their chances suffered an eye-watering blow after capitulating to a 5-2 reverse away to lowly Alaniya Vladikavkaz last time out. Such results have done for managers in the past. Valery Karpin’s predecessor Michael Laudrup was given the boot after a 3-0 loss to Dynamo and before him, Stanislav Cherchesov was gone after a 5-1 beating by CSKA. For the moment it looks like Karpin has been spared a one-man game of Russian roulette, but patience to return to the summit is wearing thin.

There is only one round of fixtures left in the Premier League before the competition dissolves for a few weeks for the World Cup. After ten completed rounds, Zenit are unbeaten, top and have opened a nice four point gap going into the break after stitching together four wins on the bounce, the latest a 2-0 win at Amkar Perm. CSKA are trailing Zenit after coming off second best when the pair met a few weeks back and champions Rubin Kazan are the only other unbeaten side in the league having only conceded twice all year. Dynamo have yet to register a win under new boss Miodrag Bozovic, but have announced they will be joined by German international striker Kevin Kuranyi when the season resumes.

The last set of fixtures before the break-up sees CSKA travel to Rubin in a battle to see who will pursue Zenit, who themselves will look to maintain their four point lead at home to Anzhi Makhachkala. Lokomotiv Moscow will hope to end a miserable first period by beating Alaniya, and Spartak can write the wrongs of last week’s debacle against Alaniya when basement boys Sibir Novosibirsk travel to the Luzhniki.

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