The spring of 1936 wasn’t just any spring for the Soviet football fans. The authorities had finally decided to stage a USSR club football championship. The fan community and the footballers themselves had had to wait long for that day. No other tournament even comes close to a championship in terms of intensity, high stakes and competitive fervour. A championship is a real chance to see some great football. The showdown was between two Moscow clubs, Spartak and Dinamo. This same derby would be the high point of every Union championship for decades. Spartak would win the national championship 12 times, and Dinamo 11, between the years 1936 and 1991. The year 1936 was when it all began.
The standoff between the two Moscow clubs had a political undertow. Dinamo was traditionally patronized by NKVD top brass, while Spartak, named a year before the match after Spartacus, the leader of a popular uprising in ancient Rome, was a “people” club. Dinamo was in the lead with 12 points in the first-ever USSR football championship. Spartak was the closest runner-up with 10 points, followed by CDKA and Kiev’s Dinamo. The top two clubs were both from Moscow – the coincidence that gave the USSR championship its first derby. The game was initially scheduled on 6 July 1936, but a grand physical culture display in Red Square, with Joseph Stalin watching from the top of the Mausoleum, was also scheduled that day. It was decided to move the game to the 11th.
Despite Dinamo’s obvious edge, it was Spartak that was chosen to play an exhibition game for Joseph Stalin on July 6. The influential Nikolay Starostin, one of the founders of FC Spartak, may have had something to do with that. In his memoirs Starostin writes: “The long rivalry between Spartak and Dinamo probably began in 1936, but not in a football field. The heart of the capital, Red Square, was where it truly began.”
But let’s get back to the game in the picture. Krasny Sport newspaper (later renamed Sovietsky Sport) wrote about it on 13 July 1936: "The meet between the country’s top two teams was an extremely intense one. The stakes were too high. Dinamo had to win or tie to seize first place in the championship. A tie would leave Spartak in second place. If Spartak lost, it would have to play Dinamo Kiev over second place.” According to the same report, Spartak had enjoyed a slight edge in the first half of the game. Dinamo didn’t score the one definitive goal until well into the second half.
Examining the minutes of the game and looking at this picture, it is interesting to realize that the people in the picture are not some random footballers, but real shining stars. Mikhail Yakushin, one of the best Soviet footballers in the pre-war years, was better at masterminding attacks than at striking per se. He played a formidable role in that match. Left and right of him, wearing dark jerseys, are members of the opposing team. The man on his left is Gavriil Putilin, a self-made genius full-back who had learned to play football playing with the neighbourhood kids in the yard. He hurt his leg at the 17th minute of the game and had to leave the field. On the right is Andrey Starostin, Spartak’s captain, an exponent of the legendary Starostin family. Yakushin wrote in his memoirs: "Andrey had this uncanny tactical sense, which would land him right in the midst of the adversary’s ongoing attack, just at the right time. Coupled with his excellent physical shape, it made him famous as an impregnable defender. The game could have ended differently, if it hadn’t been for Andrey’s injury during the second half, which put him out of commission for the rest of the game.”
Five minutes before the end-game, Dinamo’s Vasily Pavlov, one of the most prolific strikers in the Union, aced it in the top left-hand corner of the box. And that was that: Dinamo won. A snap of that power kick would totally steal the show. But alas, many of the things photographers can do nowadays, they could not do in the 1930s. What with the manual focusing, the “dark” optics, and the treacherous shortage of film (only 36 frames in a roll), it was nigh-impossible to catch an unexpected goal on film. Perusing the old football photos, don’t judge them by the 21st-century digital standards. But if you look hard enough, you’ll discover no end of interesting nuances. We do not know the name of the photographer who took this picture, but if expressiveness and liveliness are any indication, the guy knew a thing or two about football.