Communism may have been collapsing around them, but Russian football was healthier than ever writes Saul Pope

The long-term significance
By the time the season ground to a halt in November, football was not the first thing on most people’s minds. During August, President Gorbachev had been held under house arrest for three days as his (and Soviet) power ebbed away. A few weeks after the end of the football season, on Christmas Day, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time and the USSR was no more. The turmoil that followed spawned a corrupt economic and social system that would soon lead to one former Soviet citizen being able to buy a leading English team and overnight become the richest man in football.

Story of the season
Despite the summer unrest, football was not affected and the country’s final championship finished as scheduled with a familiar sight at the top of the table, as Russian and Ukrainian sides took the top six places. This was CSKA’s first championship since 1970. The side had spent much of the intervening 21 years in relative obscurity, including two spells at the second level during the Eighties. Spartak reached the semi-finals of the last knockout European Cup, beating Napoli and Real Madrid on the way and commencing what would be a good European period for the club. Torpedo Moscow beat Monaco to reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup.

For the record books
Dynamo Moscow’s Igor Kolyvanov was top scorer with 18 in 30 games, including five in the home game against Dnepr, a joint Soviet record that he could have taken outright had he taken the penalty awarded in that game. Hapless Lokomotiv were humbled 5-1, 5-0 and 6-1 by Moscow neighbours CSKA, Torpedo and Dynamo respectively, but were not relegated and finished fourth in the newly formed Russian league in 1992, qualifying for Europe as a result. Dynamo Kiev won the most Soviet championships, 13, compared to Spartak Moscow’s 12, confirming to Ukrainians that theirs was the most fertile footballing land in the USSR.

Same place today
Nobody is in exactly the same place following the USSR’s collapse, though of the teams remaining under Moscow administration CSKA and Spartak still occupy the top places in their league, along with Champions League regulars Lokomotiv, Moscow football’s poor relation in 1991. The team formerly known as Spartak Vladikavkaz, Alania, remain the only side from outside Moscow to have won the Russian league, but nowadays are perennial Premier League strugglers and seemingly in constant crisis. Dynamo Kiev are regular Ukrainian champions, having won more league titles than any of the other clubs from the 16 since the break-up. Despite having bought half the Porto team, the Dynamo Moscow side of 2005 look as mediocre as their 1991 counterparts. With the country’s Premier League set to span eight time-zones in 2006, for the Russian teams at least regular long-haul flights are not a thing of the past.

Moved furthest away

Geographically, Pakhator of Uzbekistan is now one of the teams furthest removed from Moscow control, their home ground being approximately 1,737 miles from the former Soviet capital. The country is currently in 57th place in the FIFA rankings (44 places above Northern Ireland), but the domestic league suffers from all the best players leaving to play in Russia. Dynamo Minsk, having formerly entertained huge crowds and enjoyed reasonable success in the Soviet era – they were champions in 1983 – are now not even the second best team in Belarus and average home gates of around 1,600.

Went on to greater things
Oleg Salenko ~ The USA 94 Golden Boot winner - five of his six international goals came in that one game against Cameroon - and future Rangers player scored 14 goals for Dynamo Kiev in 1991.
Alexandr Mostovoi ~ "The Czar" was playing for Spartak Moscow in 1991 before heading for France and Portugal then making his name at Celta Vigo. Played 50 times for Russia, but his international career ended when he was sent home from Euro 2004.
Sergei Rebrov ~ The future Spurs and West Ham player and current amateur radio world champion was starting out at Shakhtar Donetsk

Disappearing from view
Pamir Dushanbe ~ This was their best season ever and one of only three in the Soviet top flight, but in 1996 the side were removed from the Tajikistan championship, before being reborn as SKA-Pamir.
Soviet Football ~ The USSR team played their last match in November 1991, beating Cyprus 3-0 away in a Euro 92 qualifier, leaving a “Commonwealth of Independent States” side to take their place in Sweden and fall at the first hurdle. An indoor tournament for the champions of each former Soviet country is held every January in Moscow, although it is set to be wound up this year due to poor attendances.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month

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