The bourgeois game that dazzled the soviets | Global World Blog

Eighth finals of the 1986 World Cup. The USSR plays the pass against Belgium, who wins the match with two clear goals offside. During the match, fed up with the refereeing decisions, a Soviet coach jumps furiously from the bench and shouts fascist to the assistant, the Spanish Sánchez Arminio. The protagonist is Ruperto Sagasti, one of the 3,000 Spanish children exiled in Russia during the Civil War. Sagasti had a brilliant career at Spartak Moscow. After retiring prematurely, he became a teacher at the Central Institute for Physical Culture and helped modernize Soviet football. However, the main changes occurred much earlier, with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The arrival of football in Russia coincided with the last period of Tsarist rule. At the end of the 19th century, the Empire experienced a remarkable industrial development that attracted multitudes of outsiders, especially the British. Football was a breath of fresh air, but it did not catch on with the local population until the revolution. The war would be a turning point. Both the Tsarist Empire and the Bolsheviks viewed it with suspicion, but ended up promoting it due to the need to have good physical training on the battlefield, first in the Great War and then in the civil strife that ravaged Russia for six years, he says. the historian Carles Viñas in Football in the land of soviets (Txalaparta).

USSR soccer team in 1923.

“The reception was dual. The elites of Tsarism rejected it as a foreign sport. For them, football had political connotations, it meant interference. Russia was then a very hermetic place. However, part of the bourgeoisie saw in him a window to Europe, a sign of modernity ”, recognizes Viñas. This professor of History at the University of Barcelona explains that the idea of ​​writing the book arose after the presentation he gave at a congress held three years ago to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. “The objective was to present the story from a different point of view,” insists the author.

Sports boom

Tsarist elites oscillated between passionate interest and contempt for football. At first, it was a game reserved for the wealthiest classes. To participate it was necessary to be registered in one of the existing clubs, which were part of the social and leisure culture associated with the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. The working class was excluded. It was the foreigners who resided in the big cities who founded the first private clubs to practice soccer, but also other disciplines. The rise of sport was made visible thanks to the proliferation of new clubs promoted by industrial promoters concerned with offering their employees healthy activities and thus obtaining a certain social prestige.

Ruperto Sagasti, first from the left, along with other children from the war in Odessa in 1937.
Ruperto Sagasti, first from the left, along with other children from the war in Odessa in 1937.

Cover of the book written by Carles Viñas.
Cover of the book written by Carles Viñas.

The Russians gradually joined football. Most were students, military or industrial employees. The fall of the Romanovs and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state made it a true mass phenomenon. The existence of different evolutionary phases led the author to structure the book in three parts that he titled with the name of the works of youth of León Tolstói: Childhood, Adolescence and Youth. In its almost 200 pages, Viñas maintains that the revolutionary triumph accelerated the nationalization of soccer. Although the fratricidal war between Reds and Whites did not end until 1923, during the war a profound restructuring of the sport was outlined, which was left under the control of the State.

If the Bolsheviks were successful, it was thanks to the creation of the Red Army, a militia made up of workers and peasants among whom physical exercise was promoted to improve combativity. The Bolsheviks went from rejecting this sport to considering it a primary tool to win the war. At the end of the conflict, soccer ceased to be a marginal activity thanks to the incorporation of the popular classes. The communist leaders used it to extol the conquests of socialism, but that did not prevent the clubs from suffering the effects of the change.

The new authorities forced the dissolution of some teams and the rest were forced to change their name. The military victory increased the reputation of the Red Army, which founded its own club: CSKA Moscow. “Soccer was democratized, but you had to join a union to practice it,” clarifies Viñas. In this way, Dinamo emerged, linked to the Ministry of the Interior; the Lokomotiv, to the railway company; the Torpedo, the main automobile producer; and Spartak, the village team. And that of Sagasti, who with the opening of Perestroika in the eighties brought to Spain, his native country, the first Russian players: Dasaev, Karpin or Mostovoi.

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