CSKA v Spartak: The battle for Russian football supremacy

From 1999 onwards, CSKA (photo) began to present a serious challenge to Spartak. Source: RIA Novosti

From 1999 onwards, CSKA (photo) began to present a serious challenge to Spartak. Source: RIA Novosti

In a rivalry that can be compared to Mohun Bagan v East Bengal, Moscow’s two clubs fight it out for pride and bragging rights.

The most important derby in the Russian football calendar – CSKA v Spartak – was played for the 174th time last Sunday (April 21) at Luzhniki Stadium. The nominal hosts, CSKA, who were on top of the Russian Football Premier League, were at one point losing 0-2. They, however, made a giant effort to escape defeat, with star midfielder Alan Dzagoyev putting away a penalty in injury time to snatch a point, much to the delight of the 30,000 ‘red-and-blue’ supporters in the stadium and the millions of fans watching on TV.

Despite the fact that Moscow’s Spartak (‘red and white’) has not won the national league title since 2001, the team has the most impressive army of supporters in Russia. And so when they played CSKA – in what was officially an away game for them – there were more Spartak supporters there, 40,000 of them. After the first goal, a deathly hush descended on the red-and-blue stand, which then gave way to anger directed at Moscow referee Sergei Karasev.

But this anger was nothing compared with the personal insult that the CSKA supporters had dished out to their opponents. The day before the match, some CSKA fans set fire to one of the biggest banners bearing the Spartak logo, and at the match itself they unfurled a huge sheet with a picture of Andrei Tikhonov, long-time captain of the red and whites. The former Spartak player was depicted with his mouth torn and was the target of abusive chanting. The Spartak fans tried to respond in kind, abusing the CSKA faithful throughout the match. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened in the long history of this rivalry.

One of the most memorable incidents happened in 2009. The red and whites were making an enormous banner that resembled Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, except that in the middle of the picture was the Spartak badge. CSKA fans found out about this and even discovered where the banner was being made. They descended on Spartak supporters and set fire to the banner, which only needed a few more finishing touches. The red and whites were thus left without their piece of performance art less than a day before the most important match of the season. This wasn’t the end of the story, however. Spartak fans mobilised all their forces and spent the whole night working on a new banner. The result of their incredible efforts was that they managed to restore the banner just in time for the match. When the players walked out onto the pitch, they saw this big epic picture in the stands – and also a small banner that said “Masterpieces don’t burn.”

An even more unusual incident happened in 2007. Not many people know that Luzhniki has a walkway that runs right round the stadium behind the top row of seats. To get to it, you have to climb over a fence, which is about two-and-a-half metres high. This barrier proved no obstacle to the small group of Spartak fans who tried to stage a raid on the other side’s stand during the match. About 12 red-and-white supporters managed to get round the stadium without being noticed and infiltrate the CSKA supporters’ area. Finding themselves in enemy territory, the Spartak fans grabbed the red-and-blue banner and brought it back to their own stand, where they set it on fire. After this incident, the raiders became heroes.

It hasn’t always been like this. For many years, the Spartak v CSKA derby was overshadowed by CSKA’s rivalry with Dynamo Moscow and Spartak’s with Dynamo Kyiv. But after the collapse of the USSR, it was the Spartak v CSKA derby that gradually became the key fixture in Russian football.

From the beginning of the 1990s right up to the year 2000, Spartak reigned supreme in the Russian league, winning one title after another. But from 1999 onwards, CSKA began to present a serious challenge to the red and whites: CSKA has had far more success over the past 13 years than Spartak, winning the league three times and bringing home a prestigious European trophy – the UEFA Cup.

According to Andrei Malosolov, one of the leaders of the CSKA supporters’ movement, relations between the fans are becoming even more enflamed. “The supporters of the two clubs no longer have anything in common,” Malosolov told RIR. “When CSKA began to climb rapidly towards the top of the table at the beginning of the 2000s, our club started to get a new generation of supporters. I think that, in terms of the number of fans, CSKA now has the second-biggest following in Moscow. The CSKA–Spartak derby has gradually started filling stadiums, and that has led to various actions by the fans against each other. Burning banners is also part of the derby. This isn’t the first such act, not even the tenth, and it comes from both sides. About ten years ago, the fans would fight, but now there is a substantial police presence at these matches. The fans are always under surveillance. One might say that the rivalry has moved away from its ferocious forms towards gentler ones.”

The Moscow City government gives credence to Malosolov’s words, drafting in as many police officers as it can to the Moscow derby. There were 2000 police at the latest match.

Long-standing Spartak supporter Ilya Molokanov believes that CSKA fans’ insult to his club’s long-serving captain was overstepping the mark. “Andrei Tikhonov is a legend at our club, who always treated our rivals’ fans with respect,” said Molkanov. “I don’t understand why the CSKA fans decided to get at us like that. Let’s see how the football authorities react to it.”

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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