I’ve been interested in Russian football for a long time now. The game here might not boast the high profile, or indeed quality, of its English, Italian and Spanish counterparts, but it far outstrips them as far as intrigue and scandal go.
Before I moved to Russia, I knew all about Lenin, Stalin and all those other guys. I had studied them, I could tell you all the facts and figures you wanted to know about the October Revolution. I’d read almost everything by Dostoevsky and Gogol, and I’d managed to force myself to stay awake through most of respected Soviet-era director Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. What I wasn’t so clued up on though was the country’s football.
Of course, as a child, I knew even less about the beautiful game in Russia. If I thought of Russia at all, it was in terms of the Cold War, or as an excuse to annoy teachers by professing to being a Young Socialist and refusing to study on the days that Soviet General Secretaries passed away. And in the 1980s there were many such opportunities; three of them, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko shuffling off to the great Party Congress in the sky between 1982 and 1984.
As I got older, the Soviet national side vaguely made itself known, but I had no real interest in the team. They were, basically, quarter-finalists and, in my mind, differed little from fellow under achievers such as Belgium or Yugoslavia. (Granted, the Soviet Union reached the 1988 European Championship Final, but as Khrushchev said regarding uncertainty over the exact number of victims of the purges in 1930s Russia – ‘No one was keeping count.’)
Later, in my early twenties, I began to cultivate a mild obsession with Russia, with its history and its writers. Eventually, in 1997, I decided to put my growing, yet unproven, love to the test and move to Moscow. I initially planned to stay for a year, to get a taste of the place, and then to move on, perhaps to Vietnam, or South America. That was more than a decade ago.
Upon arriving in the Russian capital, in the midst of the chaos of the Yeltsin era, speaking little of the language and surrounded by a foreign way of life, I was immediately drawn to one of the things that was instantly accessible to a white, twenty-something male – football. Over the years, I gradually became a fanat, the names of Russian teams and players, once unpronounceable, becoming as familiar as those of friends and relatives.
No matter what has happened – the economic crisis of 1998, the Chechen War, the Abramovich/Chelsea story, the Beslan tragedy – through good times and bad, football has remained a constant; linked, invariably, to the events, yet at the same time providing a, sometimes welcome, distraction.
Despite my growing interest in the Russian game, I was unable to fully share my enthusiasm with friends and family back in the U.K. Although the British media was full of Russian oligarchs and spies, Russia, and its football, remained the Great Unknown, isolated by geography and language, culture and history.
However, despite the seemingly homogenous nature of the world’s favourite sport, there was a certain something, inaccessible to the casual observer, at the core of the Russian game. This was encapsulated, for me at least, in the form of the terrace chant –‘Sudyu na milo!’ – that the fans would invariably begin to shout whenever a decision went against their side.
‘Sudyu’ – ‘ref’ – ‘na’ – ‘on’ – ‘milo’ – ‘soap’. ‘Ref on soap?’ I slowly, incorrectly, translated, struggling to fathom the expression. What could they possibly mean? Perhaps ‘soap’ here was slang for something? But what? Bribes? Steroids, maybe? But no, ‘ref’ was in the accusative case. Whatever was going on, it was happening to the man in black. Exactly what this was, I was unable to determine, although the fury in the fans’ voices led me to suspect that it was something deeply unpleasant indeed.
Not having been in the city long, I was forced to go to my first games in Moscow alone, and I had no one to turn to for an explanation. It was only later that I found out the idiomatic phrase was correctly translated as ‘Make soap out of the ref!’ and referred to the Soviet practice of producing hygiene products from the fat of slaughtered stray dogs, a fate that the enraged supporters deemed only fit for the object of their righteous indignation.
The satisfaction I felt upon solving this riddle was immense. Life in Moscow can be frustrating, at times incomprehensible, and if I could crack the intricacies of the country’s football then, or so I reasoned, everything else would follow. The beautiful game was the cipher, the anti-Enigma Machine through which Russia could be decoded.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.