From Moscow to Madrid: Football Stadiums Under Totalitarian Regimes

International Issues Sport

Image description: Drawing of a man saluting in a stadium.

We are all too aware that football stadiums are eerily quiet and artificial crowd noise is just not capable of replacing the presence of football supporters. Football grounds are focal points for communities, and this is not the first time that governments have had to be wary of what goes on in the stands; football stadiums have frequently provided centres for resistance against totalitarian regimes.

The Camp Nou is perhaps the most famous football ground in the world, the home of Barcelona, it was opened in September 1957 during Franco’s reign. Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital city, succumbed to the dictator in 1939 and suffered under his despotic regime until his death in 1975. El Generalissimo callously repressed the Catalonians, removing their autonomy, banning their language, and supressing their culture, his soldiers brutally murdered Josep Sunyol, the club president and representative of a pro-independence party.

Franco, meanwhile, closely affiliated himself with a club based in the capital, at the heart of his regime, Real Madrid. At the same time, he banned the Catalan flag from the Barcelona crest and forced them to change their name to the more Castillian sounding ‘Club de Fútbol Barcelona’. Despite this, the Nou Camp became the one place that the people of Catalonia could defy their tyrannical leader.

The El Clásico derby with Franco’s Madrid association, took on an even more poignant meaning; to the people of Catalonia the Real players were Franco. The Nou Camp was the only place in Spain where Catalan was still spoken and, in a country where you could be shot for anti-Franco talk, the opportunity to howl at the Real players in your native tongue was the greatest form of resistance available.

When it comes to football, Spain and Armenia are rarely equated but stadiums in both countries proved havens for anti-totalitarianism. Many of the Republics of the Soviet Union had only one team in its Premier Division. Still, Yerevan Ararat in Armenia, Dynamo Tblisi in Georgia, and Nevchi Baku in Azerbaijan all became focal points for nationalist sentiment.

In 1974, Yerevan won the prestigious Soviet League and Cup double with a dramatic last-minute goal in the Cup final. The Armenian population spilled out onto the streets to celebrate the victory and forbidden nationalist songs were played. A favourite chant for the crowd was ‘Ararat’, not only the name of the team but of a mountain in Turkey that had once belonged to Armenia. Football provided an opportunity for nationalist sentiment repressed elsewhere in society.

With Gorbachov’s ascent to power, nationalist movements within the Soviet Union sensed an opportunity for freedom. The chants on the terraces were frequently heard at independence rallies this included shouts of ‘Hayer!’, meaning ‘Armenia!’, followed by three claps; an appropriation of the famous Ajax song. During games, the Yerevan Ararat fans would also vocally support the independence struggle of fellow republics by chanting ‘Lithuania!’ or ‘Estonia!’ depending on their opponent.

The Armenian population spilled out onto the streets to celebrate the victory and forbidden nationalist songs were played. A favourite chant for the crowd was ‘Ararat’, not only the name of the team but of a mountain in Turkey that had once belonged to Armenia. Football provided an opportunity for nationalist sentiment repressed elsewhere in society.

There was a similar experience across the republics in the Soviet Union with football stadiums becoming centres for nationalist movements. In Lithuania, the Zalgiris Vilnius fans used home games against Russian opposition as an opportunity for nationalist protests. There would be a procession from the ground following the game with Lithuanians singing folk songs and holding torches as they marched on the town centre, upon arrival they would be greeted by the batons of militiamen.

However, it was often a forlorn fight, a former Lithuanian Prime Minister, Andrius Kubilius, who had taken part in the independence movement acknowledged how unfortunately “the demonstrations had no consequences.” Admitting that: “When Sajudis (the Lithuanian independence movement) became strong, sport came in second place.” Nevertheless, until the prospect of lasting change becoming a reality, football stadiums were a site to keep the dream of independence alive.

Soviet citizens using football as an escape from totalitarian rule was also prevalent in the capital. Living under communism you don’t get many choices, in fact, your football club may be your only one.

Most football clubs in Moscow had well defined fan bases: CSKA Moscow was associated with the Red Army, Dynamo Moscow with the KGB and Lokomotive Moscow with the railways. Spartak Moscow, however, did not have a single core constituency and were consequently known as ‘The Club of the People’. Its founder, Nikolai Starostin’s story is extraordinary, his rivalry with Lavrentiy Beria, honorary president of Dynamo and head of the Soviet Union’s secret police, led to him being sent to a Siberian gulag. Following the death of Stalin (and Beria), Starostin returned to Spartak to become a legend of Russian football. Supporting Spartak was a way to say ‘No’ to the regime.

As in the newly independent Eastern states the end of the Soviet regime in 1991 saw a reduction of the significance of football. The average Spartak attendance in 1989/90 was 27,800. This plummeted to 7,274 in the 1991/92 season. But what caused this drastic change?

Football and football stadiums are integral to national culture and in totalitarian regimes they are often the only means for people to express themselves. Armenian anthropologist, Levon Abramian explained that: “the normal psychological state of a Soviet citizen was one of frustration.” However, following the fall of the Soviet Union, “once you are free to express yourself as you like, you don’t actually need to do it”.

The fragility of football attendances should be a warning to those in the game at present. Following football is a habit, one which can be broken. The return of fans to football grounds is eagerly awaited, but it must not be taken for granted. The cost of tickets needs to be regulated and the average fan cannot be priced out otherwise, eerily quiet stands could become the everlasting new normal.

Image Credit: Khadijah Ali

 

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