Crowned Russian champions in 2017 after a 16-year wait, Spartak Moscow dominated the domestic game through the 1990s. Based at their own recently built stadium, the Otkrytiye Arena, stage for the Confederations Cup in 2017 and five games for the 2018 World Cup, Spartak are now looking to recapture the glory days.
Red-and-Whites, the Gladiators or – to their rivals – ‘Meat’ (Myaso), have traditionally had the broadest fan base in the country. ‘Most entitled football club in Russia’, it says on the English version of the club’s website – which, in a way, makes perfect sense, given the club’s history.
Spartak support stretches far beyond Moscow, thanks to loyalties dating back to Soviet times when the club’s connections with the trades union movement earned a reputation as the people’s team, up against the military of CSKA, the secret police of Dynamo and assorted factory teams.
The most successful Russian team of the Soviet era and then post-Soviet era, Spartak suffered an unprecedented slump until the title win of May 2017.
Above the main entrance of the Otkrytiye Arena, imaginatively displayed within a vintage TV set, is a striking black-and-white image of a classic Spartak line-up, a broad white band proudly spread over players’ chests. For almost the entire post-Stalin era, presiding over them was the remarkable figure of Nikolai Starostin.
The eldest of four footballing brothers, Starostin was a member of the Moscow Sport Circle formed shortly after the Revolution. He arranged for this burgeoning club to gain sponsorship from the food workers’ union – hence the disparaging later nickname of ‘Meat’.
With Starostin as its driving force on and off the pitch, and his three brothers in the team, this club became Spartak shortly before the formation of the Soviet league in 1936.
Wresting the title the following year from Dynamo, headed by Secret Police chief Lavrenty Beria, Starostin’s Spartak instigated a bitter rivalry that saw he and his brothers sent to the notorious Lubyanka prison, then into exile in Siberia.
Coaching prisoners’ teams in the Gulag, Starostin came to the attention of Stalin’s son Vasily, head of the Air Force and its football team, VVS. Despite opposition, overt and covert, from Beria, Stalin junior brought Starostin back into the football fold, via VVS.
After Stalin’s death, Beria’s execution and the closure of VVS, Starostin moved back to his beloved Spartak as president. Now openly revered as the people’s team, with players such as Igor Netto, Spartak began winning silverware again. In 1977, still president, Starostin brought in Konstantin Beskov as coach and instigated a new era at the club.
Beskov brought in players such as goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev, and defender and captain Oleg Romantsev. Winning the title in 1979, Romantsev later followed wily old Starostin’s advice to become a coach.
With goals from Sergei Rodionov and Valery Schmarov, Romantsev immediately led Spartak to the title in 1989. Then, backed by Gazprom, the club dominated the domestic game in the post-Communist era, winning every title but one in ten years. With midfielders Andrei Tikhonov and Yegor Titov, Spartak made impressive runs in Europe, including three semi-final appearances – but the sales of Viktor Onopko and Valery Karpin did the club few favours on the pitch.
Spiky-haired, spiky-tempered Tikhonov returned to Spartak as a player-coach at the age of 40, cheered off after setting up a goal in a 3-0 home win over Krylya Sovietov in 2011.
With Karpin also back, as coach, Spartak still finished top four – but not top. Post-Karpin, Murat Yakin’s unhappy season in charge saw Spartak once again fail to qualify for Europe and ended with the Swiss coach ignominiously fired hours before the team’s final game of 2014-15. That paved the way for Dmitri Alenichev to return to the club where he was a much-loved star in midfield. A devastatingly late goal by AEK Larnaca of Cyprus at the Otkrytiye Arena then dumped Spartak out of the Europa League in August 2016 and in came Massimo Carrera, former assistant to Antonio Conte at Juventus and Italy.
With Dutch winger Quincy Promes hitting top form for club and country, and Cape Verde international Zé Luis knocking in vital goals, Spartak hit top spot early in the season and stayed there. The winning margin of seven points over CSKA barely reflected Spartak’s dominance, beating their city rivals home and away. A slow start to 2017-18 included a 5-1 spanking at Zenit but Massimo Carrera remained in place – until October 2018.
Meanwhile, Spartak’s second string clinched promotion to the National League in 2015. League rules mean they can go no higher, but their success brings second-tier action back to the capital. Spartak II play most home games at the club’s training ground at Maly Oleny Pereulok, near Sokolniki metro. From there, tram Nos.4 and 21 run as far as Maisky Pereulok. Hop off here, and head past the ponds to your right until you reach Maly Oleny Pereulok, then turn left towards the football fields. Oleny is derived from the Russian word for reindeer, and it’s sometimes possible to spot wild deer and elk deeper in these woods, although it’s rare to find them this close to the city. Fixture information can be found at www.1fnl.ru.
The Spartak training ground was also used by Torpedo Moscow for home games in 2016-17.
For most of their illustrious history, Spartak have been homeless. In recent times, they took up a tenancy at the Luzhniki, but the Red-and-Whites have played home games at almost every arena in town (and, on occasion, out of town – one ‘home’ game in 2013-14 was played in Yekaterinburg, two time zones away).
That all changed when Sepp Blatter opened his envelope and announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup. Suddenly the plans for a Spartak stadium on the old Tishino Aerodrome site, proposals that had lain neglected for years, were dusted down as a matter of urgency.
Less than four years later, Spartak hosted Red Star Belgrade in a friendly to inaugurate their new home (Dinamo Kyiv were forced to cancel) and in September 2014, the Red-and-Whites eased past Torpedo in the first competitive fixture at the Otkrytiye Arena.
Since opening this 44,000-seater venue, the club has struggled to fill it. Owner Leonid Fedun even claimed that kick-off times are being deliberately chosen to make it hard for fans to attend the games. Other criticisms include the arrangements for VIP facilities – rather than set up a tier running all round the stadium, the executive facilities take up the whole of one side, which can put a dampener on the atmosphere. Cynics might liken it to the lopsided feel of Kenilworth Road, only on a rather grander scale.
Another snag is that the ground is in the middle of nowhere, served by a single, crowded metro line.
That said, the new stadium is impressive. It’s something of a new departure for Russian football – a purpose-built, large arena that meets the current requirements of top-level sport. Sightlines are good and the concourse areas are more attractive than most. And, unlike most of the other proposed 2018 venues – and the much delayed new stadiums for Dynamo and CSKA here in Moscow – it is at least open for business and hosting games of football.
As befits the best-supported team in Russia, Spartak’s ultras make more effort than most with their banners –but also have a habit of falling foul of the law more often than many. When they held up a banner reading Ovtseyovi (‘Sheepshaggers’) during a game against Spartak Nalchik a few years ago, the regional governor for Nalchik’s Kabardino-Balkaria Republic got involved to bewail the mortal insult his electorate had suffered.
Occasional frontman of metal band Arya and author of the immortal drunken karaoke ballad Ya Svoboden (‘I’m Free’), Valery Kipelov sings the club anthem: ‘Spartak, Spartak Moscow, it’s more than life, it’s our destiny!’ A popular, if initially baffling chant, goes ‘Kto mi? Myaso!’ (‘Who are we? We’re the Meat!’). This references the mocking nickname initially given by opposing fans and since adopted. The opponents have since gone veggie with cries of ‘Moskva bez myasa’ (‘Moscow without meat’).
The stadium is composed of four stands. Home north end B and south end D are behind the goals, C is along one sideline and, opposite, the main A stand is for press and VIPs. Only press and VIPs, in fact, a much-criticised measure.
The Otkrytiye Arena is served by a single, purpose-built and suitably decorated metro station, Spartak. It’s on one of the most crowded lines in the city. With no attractions to slow the crowd’s mass departure after the game, not even an accessible club shop, there’s an uncomfortable surge of people squeezing into metro trains after the final whistle.
The station is on purple line 7, six stops from Krasnopresnenskaya, a hub on the circle line.
Tickets are first sold online to members, then to the general public, before being made available over the counter five days before the match.
If you’d rather not trek all the way to the outlet (daily 11am-8pm) at the stadium, then the club also distributes through the Fratriy shop at Krasnoprudnaya ulitsa 7-9 near Komsomolskaya metro.
You can also try at the club store listed below.
Behind the goals (B and D), prices are set at 700r, rising to 1,000-2,200r in stand C on the sideline.
The main Red-White Store is at the stadium behind stand A, open 11am-8pm daily but closed to non-VIP ticket holders on match days.
In town, there’s an official outlet at ulitsa Krasnaya Presnya 21 (10am-9pm Mon-Sat).
All the main food-and-drink outlets – the Food Court, the Gold and Silver restaurants – are behind Stand A and thus off-limits to everyone except VIPs and press. For the proletariat there are New Yorker hot dogs available on the concourses and the promise of Trekhgornoye (‘Three Hills’) beer. Sadly, licensing restrictions mean that only the alcohol-free brand is available.
In the city centre, the hub of bars near Pushkinskaya Metro is convenient for the Otkrytiye Arena – you can enjoy a burger and a beer in Get Jerry, for example, and be at the ground within 45mins. See the Moscow section for details.