Soccer—The Game of the Working Class (2)

Spartak play an exhibition match in Red Square, 1936

A further extract from Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR by Robert Edelman (1993)- reproduced without permission.

The Problem of Professionalism Before the League's Formation

The creation of the league that spring would force Soviet players and coaches to organize their efforts in a more consistent and permanent manner. They were now to devote the bulk of their energies to sports, a change that meant less time for work and raised the issue of professionalism. While the extent of the league's demands on players' time was indeed new, many of the practices and customs of professional sports had been common in Soviet soccer well before 1936. As early as the 1920s, Soviet athletes were being paid, and this fact was generally known among the sporting public.
Competition for the best players had been keen throughout the NEP period. Under-the-table payments, no-show jobs, and better housing were just a few of the standard inducements employed by the leading clubs, and these matters were widely discussed in the press. While accounts of professionalism were nearly always critical, they were such a journalistic staple that there can be no doubt that the practices they condemned were widespread. The semi capitalist world of the NEP had its shady operators who found in soccer a
ripe object for fun and profit. As Moshe Lewin has said, "NEP had its share of venality, crooked business deals, and ways to spend the profits, including night clubs, cafés chansants, gambling dens, and houses of prostitution."
Inevitably, as in the West, less-than-upright figures were drawn to so significant an object of public attention as soccer. While some of this activity slacked off during the First Five-Year Plan, it quickly resumed, even before the creation of the soccer league.
In any competitive situation, amateur or professional, teams seek to attract the best possible players within, and often outside of, the rules agreed upon by the competitors. Even if early Soviet soccer had been amateur, some player movement would have occurred, but in a fully amateur situation, one could expect most players to stay with their original clubs. Movement from group to group, not to mention city to city, signified that players put their individual welfare above that of the collective. This practice was seen by
many critics as a sign of professionalism, a negative development. However, in the conditions of the NEP, gate receipts were still an important element of a team's survival. As everywhere else, excellence on the field meant success at the box office. Semicapitalism gave rise to semiprofessionalism.
The demand for good players appeared very quickly, and the ablest soon found their services in demand. They could shop themselves to the highest bidders. As early as 1926, Krasnyi sport lamented that this process had been going on for some time, and it stressed that the methods of attracting good players were primarily financial:

These "well-known" players move about according to their own taste. Little by little, with the approach of the close of the transfer period, a small but substantial number of players appears, ready to sell themselves to whomever they want to, whenever they want. [They ask] only the highest price. . . .It is especially shameful that organizations that are not what they seem to be take part (of course not openly) in the financing of these "commerical" operations. These organizations are interested in setting up strong teams for their groups in
the name of "hurrah patriotism" and with the aim of collecting thousands in gate receipts.
Two years later, the weekly Fizkultura i sport lamented this same process and remarked that many players had played for a different team every year. The magazine also ran a large editorial cartoon that satirized the annual movement of players from team to team.
At the heart of this process was the phenomenon that became known as chempionstvo. The members of many sports societies began to object that their organizations were devoting too much attention to attracting and supporting elite athletes. As a result, the physical education of the working masses was being neglected. This criticism was not directed simply at those athletes who, by virtue of their talents, happened to be successful: "The dispute is not simply about 'champions' but about those 'champions' who, having achieved something, bargain for themselves, seeking a comfortable place from the institution for whom they will appear. . . . It is necessary to struggle decisively against those organizations engaged in the 'buying and
selling' of champions. . . ."
The abandonment of the New Economic Policy did little to stem this phenomenon. The market for stars may have been less overtly financial with the coming of the first Five-Year Plans, but by the mid-'thirties, top athletes still found many suitors for their services. In 1933, the sports press was again complaining about this practice, and two years later, Krasnyi sport detailed an elaborate ring of "sports businessmen" who traded in players. Both the businessmen and the players received such sizable sums as three thousand rubles for these "transfers." By the end of 1935, the practice had become so widespread that the Central Committee of the Komsomol and the All Union Council of Physical Culture (VSFK) published a resolution decrying player transfers.
Rewards of this sort were not entirely unreasonable, since big-time soccer was in the process of becoming a full-time occupation. Nikolai Starostin has recalled that, in the early 'thirties, teams practiced three times a week and played games on Sunday. Players on city selects and national teams would be taken from their work for long periods of time, and the top teams would spend as much as a month preparing for the season in the south.
Mikhail Iakushin recounts that he enrolled in an engineering institute in 1935 but soon found that soccer demanded so much time that he had to abandon his studies.