In the 19th century, Russia’s Tsars began to recognise the link between freedom, trade and prosperity. Merchants from Britain and other European neighbours were encouraged to relocate industries such as shipping, steel and textiles to Imperial Russia’s increasingly open society, and none was more important than Association football.
IN 1879, British expatriates formed Russia’s first football team, the St Petersburg Football Club, and started playing matches against the crews of visiting ships. Soon three new teams, largely recruited from among the labourers and sports-mad administrators of local textile mills, were vying for the Aspden Cup, sponsored by English entrepreneur Thomas Aspden.
‘Nevskii’ was predominantly English, ‘Nevka’ Scottish, and ‘Viktoria’ Anglo-German. Only a sprinkling of Russians turned out for the inaugural season in 1901, in which Nevka were champions; the following season the league’s first Russian side, ‘Sport’, lost every game, with a goal difference of -20.* But ‘Sport’ were crowned champions in 1908, and Russian dominance continued thereafter.*
A combined St Petersburg side triumphed in the first Russian championships in 1912, organised by the newly-minted All-Russian Football Union, a proud member of FIFA.* But then the Great War broke out in 1914, followed by the Marxist revolution, and the Aspden Cup champions of 1917, Kolomyagi, were the last.*
* ‘Saint-Petersburg Circle of Sports Lovers’ (or just ‘Sport’) competed in Russia’s first recognised football game, a 6-0 defeat to city rivals ‘Vasileostrovsky Football Society’ in 1897.
* The highest number of teams in any one season was eight. For a list of champions and teams with their playing records, see St Petersburg 1901-17 (Gottfried Fuchs). Notwithstanding the improvement, in 1911, a team of English professionals called ‘Wanderers’ (not the famous FA Cup winners) toured the city and defeated a combined St Petersburg side on aggregate 32-0 over three games. However, Dynamo Moscow returned the favour in 1945, winning a four-match tour in England 19-9 on aggregate. See Dynamo Moscow gave post-war Britain a footballing masterclass (World Soccer).
* The founding Chairman was Arthur Davidovitch MacPherson, a Russian of Scottish descent who received the first Imperial honour for services to sport. See our post Arthur MacPherson.
* State control and the Soviet Union struggled to replicate what free people and trade had so quickly made. National championships did not resume until 1936.
With grateful acknowledgments to History of Russian football: an introduction.