Soccer—The Game of the Working Class (3)

Football by Yuri Pimenov (1926)

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

The Conduct of Players and Fans

In the early years of Soviet soccer, matches were taken very seriously, and gentlemanly play was far from the norm. Player conduct on the field was often extremely rough and undisciplined, and the situation was made all the worse by the fact that skilled and experienced referees were few. As a result, fights and other forms of "hooliganism" were common. Perhaps the most famous incident of this sort took place in November 1926. The Moscow selects were invited for two games in Odessa against that city's first and second teams. In the first few minutes, it was clear that the Muscovites were far stronger than the second Odessa team, and, to compensate for their lack of talent, the Odessa players began to foul regularly. Soon one of the Moscow stars was seriously injured, leading to the disqualification of the guilty Odessa defender. In the second half, the Muscovites lost their patience and began to retaliate. Several Odessa attackers
were brought down in their tracks by Moscow defenders, and eventually one member of the Moscow team began to kick an Odessa player who was lying on the ground. This action provoked a riot, and the crowd invaded the field—from which they were cleared only with great difficulty, by mounted policemen. An investigation ultimately found the causes of the incident to be weak refereeing and (what would become a constant theme), "insufficient educational work" among the players.
Fights, dirty play, and other transgressions were not just products of the supposedly lower moral standards of the NEP period. Unnecessary roughness was still common in the 'thirties. In one game during the 1935 Moscow city championship, a player was disqualified for kicking an opponent in the head.
A year before, a game in Leningrad dissolved into a mass brawl and had to be abandoned. At a game in Simferopol, two "notorious hooligans," the Bolsenov brothers, began to beat up their opponents' goalie. When the referee intervened, the brothers punched the referee in the mouth. At other games in
Simferopol, players showed up drunk and kicked opponents in the face.
 In what would become a familiar theme, Krasnyi sport attributed these incidents to. . . the low cultural level of the players. During the game and after it they are to be found in the closed atmosphere of the sporting crowd. . . . No one is surprised by the corrupt, hooligan jargon of these players. It is considered a normal part of our sport. . . . Sport is not only a pleasant way to pass time. It is a weapon of culture, a means of education, and a way to organize the cultured leisure time of the masses.
Soccer, in particular, was not a sport of the intelligentsia. Those who played it were largely a rough-and-ready crowd who had not accepted the values of orderliness and discipline that the authorities sought to inculcate through sports. "Cultured" (kul'turnyi) sportsmen did not kick prostrate and injured opponents, nor did they punch referees in the mouth. Educational (vospitatel' nyi) work was required of team captains and leaders, but their efforts were miminal and ineffective.
The citizens who came to see these games also did not watch them with any special regard for official values. Very early, the public, especially the working class, adopted favorite teams and players, whom they rooted for with a passion and intensity not unlike that of their counterparts in capitalist countries. The vicarious and not always healthy pleasures of fanship were much the same as they were elsewhere in the world. For some workers, their identity as followers of a team became more important than their identity as proletarians, as the diseases of diversion and apoliticism emerged even within postrevolutionary society. Passive watching, as opposed to active participation, was, in official eyes, something to be feared. In 1927, Krasnyi sport described a hypothetical worker they called "Ivan Spiridonovich":
What could be Ivan Spiridonovich's relationship to sport?. . . Does he run the hundred meters or pole vault? No, he is a soccer player. And not the kind of player who runs on the field in shorts. Quite the opposite, he is part of the public.... By his profession, Ivan Spiridonovich is a metal worker but in his true essence he is a food worker [pishchevik]. "The food workers, there's a soccer team," he says. And sure enough the food workers [Pishchevik] do have a team.
Given its importance to workers, sport was supposed to play a role in raising the cultural level of the proletariat, and soccer's popularity among the working class made it especially important but potentially problematical.
Krasnyi sport noted this fact in 1927: 
"Let's take a big factory center like Orekho-Zuevo or the workers' suburbs in Leningrad. We will see that sport, and football in particular plays a role of the first importance in the leisure time of the worker. At the last trade union congress it was noted that big games draw so many spectators that the mines in the Donbass are completely empty on the days of important matches."
For this reason, it was especially unfortunate that the experience of watching a game was difficult and testing for the spectator. Not only were most stadiums less than comfortable, they were poorly run. Only one or two ticket windows might be open, and the same held true for entrances. On big game days, the box offices and entryways were the scenes of what Krasnyi sport called "real battles." In this crowded and disorderly atmosphere, any confrontation on the field or act of bad refereeing could have serious consequences for public order. Riots were by no means uncommon, and drunkenness and hooliganism were very much part of the sports scene throughout the 1930s.
By the end of 1935, it was clear that Soviet soccer had its share of problems on and off the field. It had become, by far, the Soviet Union's most popular sport, but clearly it could not continue along the semi-professional lines of the past.
 A change in course was required. The leaders of the game finally took action early in 1936.