Bend it like Yashin Lufthansa Exclusive
© Sergey Novikov

Bend it like Yashin

  • TEXT ILJA BEHNISCH
  • PHOTOS SERGEY NOVIKOV

Before the World Cup kicked off, the Russians asked themselves questions like: What could they expect of their national team? And also: Was there such a thing as a Russian soccer soul? A report from the heart of the country.

Front-row seats to be had: At FC Bologoye, northwest of Moscow, spectators get a close-up view of game

Front-row seats to be had: At FC Bologoye, northwest of Moscow, spectators get a close-up view of game

© Sergey Novikov

With complicated issues it’s a little like with matryoshkas, those typically Russian wooden nesting dolls: It takes a while to get to the heart of the matter. But let’s begin with the core question anyway: Is there such a thing as a Russian soul? Maybe the traditionalists will all now reply with an emphatic “Yes!” Others, who regard the whole thing with suspicion anyway, will mutter a hesitant “well, you know …..” So let’s ask the experts, the people who evoked and still evoke for us our image of Russia: Russian writers. Let’s ask Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “ I think that the paramount, most basic spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, constant and unslakeable suffering, everywhere and in everything. I believe that the most important, the main spiritual need of the Russian people is the need to suffer, always and incessantly, everywhere and in everything. They seem to have been infected with this longing to suffer from the very first. Their stream of suffering flows through their entire history; it comes not only from external misfortunes, but also springs from the depths of the national heart. The Russian people seem to enjoy their suffering,” the graduate military engineer wrote in 1873 in his Diary of an Author. Is that all there is to is? Suffering? Should we give credence to someone who lost his parents when he was just 17 and later spent more than four years imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp?

After all, it was in fact a Frenchman who coined the phrase “Russian soul.” In his The Russian Novel (1886), Vicomte Eugène­Melchior de Vogüé, a diplomat in czarist Russia, compared the country and its people to the traditional okroshka: “Everything exists in this soup, both the delicious and the disgusting. You never know what you’ll be spooning out of it next.” The situation was very much the same with the Russian soul, opined de Vogüé, who described them as a mix of so much, mysticism and common sense, everything and nothing – and, one might imagine, melancholy! We still have a third voice to hear, a more modern one. Asked whether the Russians were an unhappy nation, author Alina Bronsky, who was born in 1978, replied: “Yes, they are suspected of being melancholy. That suspicion is expressed in Russian art and literature. But like all other people, the Russians are well acquainted with the entire spectrum of human emotions.” So is the “Russian soul” just a blanket term? “When talking about mentalities, we have to be open to diversity and nuances,” says Bronsky, “and an altogether mystical/religious word like “soul” is in my view somewhat misplaced here since it posits human idiosyncrasies as inherent and virtually impossible to change.”

Handshakes, bleachers and fixture posters:

Handshakes, bleachers and fixture posters: ...

© Sergey Novikov
... The soccer culture lovingly nurtured between the Urals and Saint Petersburg

... The soccer culture lovingly nurtured between the Urals and Saint Petersburg ...

© Sergey Novikov
... has little in common with the ballyhoo of a major competition

... has little in common with the ballyhoo of a major competition

© Sergey Novikov
Young fans in Ar’ya, Nishni Novgorod district/borough

Young fans in Ar’ya, Nishni Novgorod district/borough

© Sergey Novikov

  Ice hockey was the most popular sport in the country in the days of the late Soviet Union, but that has now changed. Russia has in fact been increasingly involved in international sports since the 1990s; the soccer boom is a global phenomenon, and even the proud Russian wants to belong and to be loved. Russian enthusiasm for soccer is not entirely new. Russia’s national soccer association was established long ago in 1912 and joined FIFA in the same year – in other words, at the same time as the great soccer power Argentina. At the time, there were already just under 200 clubs with a good 5000 players. At the foundation meeting of the German football association on January 28, 1900, only 86 clubs were represented.

For all its tradition and broad popularity: Soviet and Russian soccer successes are few and far between. There has been the odd exclamation point – Dynamo Kiev’s 1975 and 1986 European Cup wins, for example, and those of ZSKA Moscow in 2005 and Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2008 – but the national team barely profited from them. And the only title it did earn, that of European Champion in 1960, came with an extremely bitter aftertaste. After all, England, Italy and Germany did not even play in the first European Championship. On top of all this, Russia’s quarter-final opponent, Franco’s Spain, refused to travel to the Soviet Union so that the Russian side, the Sbornaya, made it uncontested into the semifinals. There they beat Czechoslovakia 3:0, and at the final in Paris, Yugoslavia 2:1 after extra time. Victor Ponedelnik, 23, scored the winning goal and was immediately dubbed the “sword of the Sbornaja” by the Russian press, inspired by the team’s “shield,” goalkeeper of the century Lev Yashin. A short time later, Ponedelnik was at the top of the Eiffel Tower when a man asked him if he would like to play in Spain, for Real Madrid. That man was Santiago Bernabéu, president of the “royals” and the person for whom the club’s stadium is named. Even then, Real Madrid was one of the best club teams in the world.

But Ponedelnik had no business wanting. For Eastern Bloc players, international transfers were out of the question.

The Russian people seem to enjoy their suffering

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), Schriftsteller
Bend it like Yashin Lufthansa Exclusive
© Sergey Novikov

A team with an error rate of less than 15 to 18 percent cannot be beaten

Valery Lobanovsky (1939–2002), soccer coach

  At least the striker whose home was in the south, in Rostov-on-Don, did succeed in resisting transfer to a top team, as was usual in those days. There was a massive scandal, and even Mikhail Sholokhov, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the sport minister stood up for Ponedelnik. Ultimately, he beat the functionaries and was allowed to remain in Rostov, but he never again played an international game.

Obedience or gentle resistance to the omnipotence of the state – this was an issue that divided Soviet soccer. Most clubs were assigned to an administrative authority (ZSKA to the army; Dynamo to the police) or to an operation (Lokomotive to the railroad). Only a handful of clubs, including Spartak Moscow, were “free,” and they were the most popular in the country. Being a Spartak fan also meant softly saying “No.” In other words, in the Soviet Union, soccer was always in a sense opposition – and otherwise plenty of indifference.

The prospect of a little distraction, of passing some time, along with the yelling, swearing and laughing – that’s what brings most visitors into the stadiums these days. The Russian soccer fan likes to follow in the footsteps of the great writers and composes derisive verses, disparaging chants far coarser than those of their forefathers. The best-loved fan chants are the ones that insult the opponents and the referee.

In Kurganinsk, not far from the Black Sea, the soccer god is orthodox – that, at least, is what the banner on the sidelines proclaims

In Kurganinsk, not far from the Black Sea, the soccer god is orthodox – that, at least, is what the banner on the sidelines proclaims

© Sergey Novikov

Fans naturally expect better results from the Russian national team

Wladimir Putin, russian president

  In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper takes a look at sport’s significance around the world. His anthropological approach is revolutionary in the field of soccer literature, and the British magazine FourFourTwo even named it the “best soccer book of all time.” While his concept is not entirely wrong, isn’t it all too simple? The German? A disciplined endurance runner. The Italian? A hot-blooded tactical genius. The Brazilian? A life-affirming player of the beautiful game. All of this was true for a long time and was reliably confirmed on the pitch. And what about the Russian? Hard to say…

In the Soviet era, the dabbled in the game and in the state: with strict plans laid out for years to come, drill and restriction. Later, under Dynamo Kiev’s once-in-a-century coach Valery Lobanovsky, who also coached the national team, science found its way into the changing room. The players were precisely analyzed by computer to determine their ideal position on the field. Lobanovsky’s motto: “A team with an error rate of less than 15 to 18 percent cannot be beaten.” On Lobanovsky’s watch, the seeds were sown for what was for a long time the soccer DNA of all Russian teams: action, action, action. Ever since, the players have scurried around like ants, constantly attempting to make their teammates “an offer.” But what has also manifested itself since then is a blatant failure to follow through to score. The better Russian national teams have always impressed with the way they plow across the turf – only to miss out on a goal and fail in eternally useless virtue.

  It could be argued that the globalization which has taken over and dominates soccer would rule out the possibility of a country having a typical soccer culture of its own anymore. The German team is more of a poster child for an open, multicultural society than the mirror image of the Teutonic fighter cliché, quite apart from the fact that its members long since ceased to play exclusively German league soccer – and can therefore field some of the world’s best players. It’s a very different picture for the Russian team. The forays into the West of top Russian players are a thing of the past: Igor Belanow, Europe’s Footballer of the Year in 1986, played for Borussia Mönchengladbach and Andrej Arshavin for FC Arsenal – but the present generation of players remains loyal to the Russian premier league. There’s money enough to be earned in Russia these days, thanks to the patrons and businesses that finance most of the clubs. What’s more, the state – partly because the country is hosting the World Cup – is doing everything to improve conditions. Today’s players have hardly any reason to leave their native comfort zone, so the only hope now is for a soccer talent to make it at a top European club. What ails Russian soccer is that its players are unwilling to suffer. Ironic! How untypical, if we share Dostoyevsky’s view. But not all clichés have to apply. It will be enough if the World Cup bears out another cliché: the Russian reputation for warm hospitality, which also has something to do with the soul. The conditions for a successful World Cup could be less auspicious.


This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.

LHE Cover June 2018