Staunton, June 9 – Vladimir Putin’s use of sports and especially international sporting events for political purposes, now very much on view again as the World Cup competition begins in a dozen Russian cities is generally viewed as an extension of the well-know Soviet practice of doing the same thing.
But in the case of football, the history of such political use of the game has even deeper roots and extends back to tsarist times when the authorities hoped it would “distract workers from revolution and drunkenness” and win Russia international respectability, two Lenta news agency journalists report (enta.ru/articles/2018/06/09/empirefootball/).
Georgy Oltarzhevsky and Petr Kamenenko say that football spread into Russia from England and other European countries via the European workers who were brought in to manage Russian factories. The first football squads appeared in Western Europe in the 1870s and appeared in Russia shortly thereafter first in the capitals and then throughout the empire.
By the early years of the century, there were enough squads in Russia, both foreign-manned and domestic, to form leagues, a development pushed by the industrialists and the government as a wonderful means of “distracting workers from widespread drunkenness and Marxxism and improve the quality of their work.”
St. Petersburg and Moscow had their first match in 1907, when the squads played to a tie. Five years later, both squads wanted to go to the Stockholm Olympics, they again tied in a playoff, and the Russian authorities were prepared to send both teams. Eventually, in a compromise, a mixed squad was sent.
But it didn’t do well: It lost to Finland, Italy, and Great Britain and suffered the most humiliating loss to Germany in the history of Olympic football. The German team scored 16 goals; the Russian team did not score any. One commentator at the time said the Russian team was “prepared to lose with honor.” That didn’t happen either.
Controversies continued over the use of foreign players on Russian squads in domestic competitions. In the first all-empire championship game, Odessa beat St. Petersburg 4 to 2, but the capital squad complained that Odessa had used too many foreign players and so the game was annulled and the championship not awarded.
World War I prevented additional all-empire competitions, but neither that nor the ensuring Soviet regime changed what had been true of Russian football from the beginning. Russian teams seldom did well, and when they did win, it often turned out that they had cheated one way or another.