The New Yorker's Sean Williams reports about the potentially existential problems facing Dynamo Moscow, problems possibly part of Russian soccer generally. The teams' economic bases are too narrow, it seems.
The Russian soccer team Dynamo Moscow has its roots in a factory club that was founded in 1887, at the Morozov mill, on the city’s outskirts. In the spring of 1923, the club was co-opted by Vladimir Lenin’s feared secret police, the Cheka, and given its current name. (The playwright Maxim Gorky is credited with coining the club motto, “Sila v Dvizhenii,” or “Strength in Motion.”)* By the mid-thirties, Moscow was home to five major teams, four of which represented different arms of the Soviet state: CDKA, now CSKA, was the team of the Red Army; Dynamo, the secret police; Lokomotiv, the state railways; and Torpedo was the club of the city’s sprawling Torpedo-ZiL automobile factory. The exception was Spartak Moscow, founded by the Young Communist League and the local soccer hero Nikolai Starostin, who named his club after the gladiator who revolted against Roman rule. Spartak forged an identity as “the people’s club,” which is why, even today, it has more fans at its games than any of its rivals can boast.
Dynamo, led by Lavrenti Beria, a vicious sexual predator and head of the N.K.V.D.—the police force that succeeded the Cheka, and was succeeded in turn by the K.G.B.—won the first Soviet championship, in 1936. A bitter rivalry between Beria’s Dynamo and Spartak—support for whom represented a small act of everyday protest against the politburo—ensued. The enmity reached its peak in 1939, when Beria ordered a cup semifinal that Spartak had won to be replayed, one month later. Spartak won the replay, 1–0, and went on to win that year’s trophy. In 1942, Beria wreaked his revenge, sending Starostin to the gulag for ten years for “praising bourgeois sports.” (Upon Stalin’s death, Beria was arrested by Nikita Khrushchev, and, in 1953, at the age of fifty-four, he was executed.) Dynamo dominated in the nineteen-forties, but it has not won the domestic league since 1976.
In October, I visited Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, to watch the latest installment of Dynamo versus Spartak, known as Russia’s oldest derby. The prestige of the contest has dimmed as Dynamo has been eclipsed by crosstown rivals CSKA and by Zenit St. Petersburg, a team founded in 1925 and bought, in 2005, by the state-owned gas company, Gazprom. Zenit is now littered with stars and competing well at Europe’s top table, the Champions League. Meanwhile, both Dynamo and CSKA are playing their matches at Arena Khimki, an eighteen-thousand-six-hundred-and-
thirty-six-seat stadium built to house a club from the surrounding suburb, and awaiting new arenas of their own. As I watched Spartak come back from a 2–1 deficit to win, 3–2, on what was practically the final kick of the match, a local writer turned to me. “It’s the curse,” he said, referencing Beria, for whose sins Dynamo, many say, has yet to atone. But the club’s predicament owes more to the topsy-turviness of Russian soccer than to some historic hoodoo.
Russian soccer has rarely been run in parallel with its European neighbors. The Russian Premier League took shape during the Soviet era, and it is studded with clubs run not as businesses but as the playthings of oligarchs, despots, and, chiefly, the Russian state. However, a landmark ruling last year by the sport’s European governing body, UEFA, may, eventually, change that. Under the organization’s Financial Fair Play (F.F.P.) rules, Dynamo, which is funded by a state bank and by Boris Rotenberg, Russia’s hundredth-wealthiest person and Vladimir Putin’s former judo partner, was found to have grossly manipulated its finances and, consequently, was expelled from European competition.
Now its biggest international stars have left for teams in other countries, and the once-powerful side is languishing at the bottom end of the Premier League table. What’s more, people have begun to speculate that the fall of Dynamo could precipitate trouble for the country’s other major teams. For Russia, the timing of the case could hardly be more awkward: in just a few years, it will host the World Cup, and the Kremlin is keen to project global power and prestige. With Dynamo shamed, and more teams potentially to follow, the standing of Russian soccer could be in tatters before a single ball of the tournament is kicked.