It is strange to hear so much more about the fans of a footballing nation than about the actual footballers, but this is very much the case with Russia. The country is hosting the next FIFA World Cup in 2018, and yet it may be a struggle for many to actually name a starting XI for the Russia team. I recall Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko coming to the English Premier League after shining at UEFA Euro 2008, I guess Yuri Zhirkov was at Chelsea for a while… But that’s about it. However, in the United Kingdom, we hear all too much about the fans that travelled to UEFA Euro 2016 and wreaked havoc; it is why many are nervous about the next international tournament being held in Russia at all. But there is a lot that we do not know about, decade-long grudges that any British derbies could relate to. Scratch the surface of Moscow, Russia’s capital city, and there is a fascinating history of footballing rivalries, which have ebbed and flowed between not two, but five teams.

Dynamo Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Torpedo Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow and CSKA Moscow make up this footballing pentagon. Five teams, one city. Their rivalries have had more layers to them than Christopher Nolan’s Inception managed… but it all began with Dynamo Moscow, the oldest football club in Russia. Owing its roots to a number of local clubs dating as far back as 1887, the name ‘Dynamo Moscow’ was first used in 1923. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the club came under the authority of the then-Soviet Union’s secret police, and as a result, they were often thought of as deeply affiliated with the authorities. In the terraces, nicknames from rival fans included derogatory slang words for ‘police’, or even ‘scum’, but on the football pitch itself, there was one who emerged to create Russia’s oldest footballing rivalry. That club was Spartak Moscow.

Spartak Moscow are often thought of as the underdogs, the club of the people fighting against the system, and there is some basis to this romantic image claimed of the team. The club was formed by trade unionist workers and were nicknamed ‘Meat’ by rivals due to their connection to meat factories. Most importantly, they were formed independent of connections to the authorities, naming themselves ‘Spartak’ after the Roman gladiator-slave Spartacus who led a rebellion against Rome.

An early match between Dynamo and Spartak, one of many in a fierce rivalry that has lasted for decades.

Spartak have had a complex relationship with their rivals Dynamo, to say the least. For one thing, Dynamo were the team of the police, while Spartak were the team of the workers – and they struck a chord with the public due to this apparent connection to them. The rivalry really came to the fore with the establishment of the Soviet Top League in 1936, a competition featuring teams from across the Soviet Union. There were two league seasons that inaugural year, the first won by Dynamo and the second by Spartak. Dynamo won the first Soviet Top League game between the two sides 1-0, playing in front of 60,000 spectators at the Dynamo Stadium. The seasons were then made annual, and the following four seasons were all won by one of these two Moscow sides.

Tensions were high whenever the teams played, and this soon spilt over onto a bigger stage than the football pitch. The rebellious nature, success and overall popularity of Spartak with the public started to irk Dynamo, who of course had close connections to the secret police (and later on, the KGB). Regardless of Dynamo’s connections, Spartak’s apparent representation of the exploited did not sit well with the higher authorities, and soon there were attempts to control sporting matters more closely. One such example came in 1939 when Spartak were forced to replay a cup semi-final that they had won through a disputed goal, after they had already won the final. The original referee was arrested, and Spartak essentially had to re-win the cup by again playing Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi. Spartak won the replay 3-2, but worse was to come. In 1942 Spartak’s popular founder, player and manager Nikolai Starostin was arrested along with his brothers, accused of being involved in a plot to kill the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union were known to make political arrests on dubious grounds, and now it was spilling more and more into the sport. After two years of interrogations, Starostin and his brothers were sent to labour camps in Siberia for ten years. This was a key moment in both club’s histories, solidifying a bitter rivalry that had gotten personal.

Nikolai Starostin remained convinced that this and his initial arrest was pushed through due to politician Lavrentiy Beria, right-hand man to Stalin, head of the secret police and, most importantly, honorary president of the Dynamo Moscow club. Some claim Beria bore a deeper grudge against Starostin, having played against him for a Georgian side in the 1920s and getting humiliated on the pitch by Starostin and his opposition team. During his time in the Gulags, Starostin served as a coach at various camps, as his reputation had led to him being high in demand. Indeed, in 1948 Joseph Stalin’s own son, Vasily, brought Starostin back to Moscow so he could coach the Air Force’s football team. After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Starostin and his brothers were released with their sentences declared illegal.

A modern-day encounter between Spartak and CSKA.

Spartak were severely affected by the loss of their founder. They won only one league game in the decade of 1940-50 against Dynamo. After securing back-to-back league and cup doubles in 1938 and 1939 and winning the adulation of the people, it seemed that Spartak were destined to lose to the political system as much as their rival club.

And they weren’t the only ones affected; another Moscow team suffered for their success, and they were called Torpedo Moscow. Formed in 1924, the club enjoyed success in the 1960s due in no small part to Eduard Streltsov, the attacking Torpedo player known as the “Russian Pelé”. Thought to be the best outfield player that Russia has ever produced, Streltsov rose to prominence in the 1950s but was sentenced to twelve years in the Gulag system of forced labour camps due to a controversial rape scandal when he was just 20 years old. Despite inconclusive evidence, the player had confessed under the promise that he could play at the imminent 1958 World Cup. This promise was quickly rescinded, and he was sent to a labour camp. Some believe his arrest was due to a grudge held against him by a high-ranking political official, while others even think he was framed for refusing to leave Torpedo and sign for local rivals Dynamo – to this day people debate what really happened, and whether Streltsov’s name can ever be cleared.

Streltsov was released five years into his sentence, but despite brutal prison beatings and years away from the sport professionally (prison guards had him play in matches occasionally to calm down the prisoners), he returned to Torpedo in time for the 1965 season. Remarkably he would lead the side to the league title that year, in his first season back. The player entered Moscow footballing folklore, using an adept footballing brain to dictate play in the absence of his trademark pace and strength that had faded after his long imprisonment. While they remained secondary to the fierce Spartak-Dynamo rivalry, Torpedo Moscow enjoyed their moment in the sun in the 1960s, winning two of their three Soviet Top League titles in this period.

A statue in the Spartak stadium of the four Starostin brothers, in honour of their incredible contribution to the club. Nikolai is the one furthest to the left.

But it would be Nikolai Starostin and Spartak Moscow that would have the last laugh of all the teams, as Spartak re-built and resumed competition with Dynamo. Starostin returned as president of Spartak in 1955, a position he maintained until 1992. After decades of closely-fought competition with Dynamo, where they shared twenty-three Soviet league titles with Spartak, Dynamo would fade in importance in the late 20th Century, and the Spartak-Dynamo rivalry would lose its significance in the footballing calendar.

Dynamo have not won a league title since 1976, and they have never won the Russian Premier League, the new league that was formed in 1992 in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. Spartak have won the new league nine times, and last season to the delight of Spartak fans, Dynamo were relegated from the top tier for the first time in their history. Some Dynamo fans have grown to call this the “Beria Curse”, referring to their former honorary president Lavrentiy Beria. After Stalin’s death, Beria was executed for crimes against the Soviet people, and it is believed that Dynamo are to this day being punished for the sins of Beria. Spartak, on the other hand, have gone from strength to strength – it seems that, in this instance, the little guy won. However, this was just the beginning of the footballing battle for Moscow.

Enter Lokomotiv Moscow. As the name suggests, the club has a strong relation to transport, as during the communist rule the Lokomotiv Voluntary Sports Society was owned by the Soviet Ministry of Transportation through the Russian Railways. After a relatively quiet start to their footballing existence, Lokomotiv came to prominence in 1951 when they gained promotion to the Soviet Top League, in the midst of the rivalry and dominance of Spartak and Dynamo. But Lokomotiv very much maintained its own identity in Moscow; while other Soviet clubs very rarely played foreign teams amidst the tense political backdrop of the 1950s, Lokomotiv often played friendly matches against teams in Europe, Africa, Asia and even North America.

Moscow legend Yuri Semen at the Lokomotiv Stadium.

Despite this quasi-ambassadorial role, Lokomotiv were insultingly known as the so-called ‘fifth wheel of the Moscow cart’, the weak link of the capital city. This all changed towards the end of the 20th Century when they evolved from the weakest link to the best football team in Russia in just over a decade. Having never won the Soviet Top League, in 2002 they won the Russian Premier League, and much of this was down to manager Yuri Semin. He is currently enjoying his fourth tenure in charge of Lokomotiv, having first joined the club as a player in 1975. Like some kind of Russian William Gallas, Semin played for three of the capital city’s clubs – Spartak, Dynamo and Lokomotiv – and has even managed two of them (and you thought Sol Campbell moving to Arsenal from Spurs was a big deal) in an illustrious and, clearly, entirely fearless career.

A number of smart signings and business decisions in the 1990s led to a growth in support for this forgotten Russian club. This peaked in 2002 when Lokomotiv played another resurgent local rival named CSKA Moscow (don’t worry, we’ll get to them) to decide who would win the Russian League title. In an incredible season, both sides finished with the same points, so a ‘golden match’ was played in front of a sell-out crowd at the Dynamo Stadium. Lokomotiv captain Dmitry Loskov scored early on, and this goal decided a cagey match that sealed Lokomotiv’s first ever league title.

While they won the league once more in 2004, the main Moscow madness doesn’t come from Lokomotiv these days. It doesn’t come from Dynamo either, they are now lagging behind in the lower divisions, as are what’s left of Torpedo. There is a fifth team in this merry-go-round of success and failure that has barely been mentioned so far, who have risen up to become the new challenger to Spartak Moscow, forming the main rivalry in the modern footballing calendar of Russia. CSKA Moscow, similarly to Dynamo, first formed with close ties to the authorities. Translated into English, CSKA literally stands for ‘Sport Club of the Army’, as they were the official team of the Soviet Army during the communist era. ‘The Army Men’ enjoyed moments of success in the Soviet Top League, winning five league titles in six years between 1946-51. However, it is in the modern era that they have truly emerged as a force to be reckoned with, winning six Russian Premier League titles in the last thirteen years, their most recent title coming last season. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the club has become privately owned, with the Ministry of Defence as a shareholder, and Russian businessman Roman Abramovich’s Sibneft corporation even working as a leading sponsor of the club from 2004-06.

A fan lights a flare during a recent volatile encounter between Spartak and CSKA.

Unfortunately, CSKA’s games against Spartak are not just memorable for the football, as rival fans often clash in the form of footballing ultra groups. These groups, much like the ones seen at Euro 2016, have been the source of a number of violent clashes that have led to as many as 1,100 security guards being deployed at derby matches. Some scores, it seemed, aren’t settled on the pitch. This newly dominant Moscow rivalry has seen 67 wins for Spartak to 64 from CSKA, with 36 draws. The two sides have accounted for 15 of the 24 Russian Premier league titles since it began in 1992, with their most recent encounter finishing 3-1 to Spartak. The game had to be halted for five minutes in the second half, when flares were thrown by CSKA supporters into a Spartak section of the crowd. With Spartak currently leading the league table and title holders CSKA close behind in third position, the tension only looks set to build as the season progresses, with the sides set to meet again in April.

We’ve looked at almost a century of footballing history in Moscow, where the fortunes of five clubs have fluctuated more than an Arsenal fan’s opinion of Arsene Wenger. Teams have risen, fallen and risen again, so it is hard to say if any side has truly ‘won’ the battle for Moscow. Spartak are the only side to truly remain at the top, and despite various hardships, they are arguably Russia’s most successful club… but even Spartak have experienced slumps. Meanwhile, Torpedo have split into multiple clubs and reside in the lower divisions, along with the once-mighty and now-fallen Dynamo. Current league leaders Spartak will still see CSKA as a threat this season, while Lokomotiv are performing solidly in ninth position of the top division – but with Yuri Semin back, fans will believe anything is possible.

So after all this, do you have a favourite of the Moscow clubs? Is it the self-proclaimed team of the people Spartak, or perhaps the possessors of supreme talent at Torpedo? Is it the late bloomers of Lokomotiv and CSKA, or do you even feel a soft spot for the often-labelled bad guys, Dynamo? I mentioned that all we hear in the UK concerning Russian football is the negativity surrounding the more extreme fans; and while that has formed part of the story, it is by no means the whole story. Even the most high-ranking political officials recognised the importance of football, trying their best to influence it over the decades – and just as social classes and political ideologies have risen and fallen in Russia, so too did the fortunes of these core clubs. All of them have a rich history to share that have at times transcended sport, and for every team, there is hope for a return to the top of the tree. In the cauldron of Moscow, the battle for footballing supremacy in the city rages on, as the Russian Premier League returns soon from the cold winter break. If history has taught us anything, it is that whoever sits on this capital city’s footballing throne… had best not get too comfy.

For more stories like this one, please check out our latest Box to Box magazine… Issue 3: The Rivalries, available to order now!