John Turnbull reports on how a book about a Brit who played in the Soviet Union may not be all it seems

Russian studies expert Jim Riordan includes dramatic tales in his memoir published last year, Comrade Jim: The Spy Who Played For Spartak. Such as a live cockroach appearing in the author’s cabbage salad at Moscow’s Higher Party School, where Riordan, a member of the British Communist Party, had enrolled. He also encounters Nikita Khrushchev, Yuri Gagarin and Lev Yashin and plays cricket with members of the Cambridge spy ring. Journalists and football historians in Russia have said little about these incidents. But regarding the central claim in Riordan’s book – that he started two home matches for Spartak Moscow in 1963, becoming the only Westerner to play in the top tier of Soviet football – they have one word: “nonsense”.

Naysayers have strong evidence for questioning Riordan’s account. They turn to fastidiously compiled match reports and team lists that Spartak make available on their official website. These chronicles, which supporters published after the 2001 season, stretch back to Spartak football’s origins in the post-revolutionary USSR as a workers’ club and rival to Dynamo Moscow, backed by the secret police.

While Riordan recalls his Lenin Stadium debut against Pakhtakor Tashkent in detail – describing instruction from manager Nikita Simonyan (“None of your English rough stuff”) and a post-match excursion to a bath-house, where players flagellate each other with birch twigs – he vaguely places the fixture in late spring or summer, around June 1963. He reconstructs a team that includes himself wearing number five alongside elite Spartak talent. In “dry Moscow heat” Riordan, whose credentials included appearances for the British Army on the Rhine and with the Diplomatic Corps in the Russian capital, struggles with tactical nuance, such as the proper place for a centre-half to stand, and takes abuse from 50,000 supporters.

The Spartak history lacks the atmospherics but offers specifics that Riordan, visiting professor in sports studies at the University of Worcester, declined to address by email in January. One of Riordan’s editors at Fourth Estate said that the publisher stands by the book’s version; a paperback release is scheduled for late April.

Spartak records indicate that the home match against Tashkent in 1963 occurred on November 26, the final day of a 38-game Soviet championship. With Dynamo Moscow having wrapped up the title, just 3,000 showed up on a day almost certainly more frigid than the sunny Sunday Riordan recalls. Spartak and Tashkent drew 4-4 in the official version; in Riordan’s book, the game concludes 2-2 after a late penalty.

Riordan’s name appears nowhere in the exhaustive Spartak team lists for 1963. He claims that Soviet rules did not permit substitutes, but Spartak summaries show otherwise; Simonyan exchanged one outfield player as well as the goalkeeper at various times during the season. Riordan does not appear among 30 listed reserves despite writing that after a second first-team appearance, against Kazakh club Kairat Alma-Ata, he was “demoted to the reserves, then gradually forgotten”. Riordan’s dating and scoring summary for the Kairat match also differs from the Spartak history.

When Moscow-based football writers quizzed him about Riordan, 82-year-old Simonyan was brief: “Never heard of him.” Nor had he heard of Valery Volkov, whom Riordan names as the regular centre-half hung-over before the match with Tashkent. Volkov is also absent from Spartak records.

“It was illegal to field foreigners in Soviet times,” said Simonyan. “I would have had to get special permission from my bosses, who would have had to ask for permission from higher up. If I had just stuck [Riordan] in the team, I would have been sacked and taken to the KGB headquarters. I think I would remember making a decision like that.”

Riordan states that Spartak president Nikolai Starostin approved the historic experiment. Yet Simonyan’s recollection of registering only Soviet players has been confirmed by surviving members of the Spartak side. For his part, Riordan in the book and in correspondence refers to the conflicting versions of the incident as “a weird communist cabal”. He draws a parallel between his absence from official histories and Soviet information control; in the book, a cigarette-card caricature by Riordan’s friend provides the only rendering of him in a Spartak kit. He attributes the lack of confirmation from Spartak players to people “ashamed and weary of their past”.

But to Russians the extraordinary claims look like another example of the West’s stereotyping – the ease with which the English believe an interloper lacking preparation and fitness could step into the first team of one of the former USSR’s most decorated football clubs and, if not thrive, then pass himself off as a member of the collective.

From WSC 267 May 2009

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