A TEN-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPION, six-time Russian Super Cup winner and the first Russian side to ever win a European trophy, PFC CSKA Moscow is without doubt one of the most globally renowned and prestigious footballing institutions in Russia. But despite recent success in the Russian Premier League, the Krasno-sinie (Red-blues) have typically played second-fiddle to their Moscovian neighbours Dynamo and Spartak Moscow in the Russian and Soviet leagues respectively.
This has not always been the case, mind you; CDKA Moscow (Sports Club of the Central House of the Red Army), the precursor of CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Army), was a Russian juggernaut, powering their way to five Soviet Top League titles over the span of six years. However, with success came the quandaries of fame, with the club shrouded in corruption, political agendas and even eradication due to one disastrous night in Helsinki.
The history of CDKA dates back to 1911 when members of the Imperial Russian Army with a passion and fondness for skiing founded the Society of Ski Sports Amateurs. The club soon opened up for other sports and games for the soldiers to take part in, including basketball, hockey and most notably football. After a brief hiatus due to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the sporting institution was re-opened to members of the communist Red Army.
The then-Soviet government actively encouraged those in the military to participate in sport, aiding to the growing standards of Russian athletes, granting the club a wider pool of players to choose from. The football arm of the club’s stadium was originally housed by the former royal stables, leading to their most renowned nickname: Koni (Horses).
CDKA Moscow soon faced growing competition. In the early years of Soviet football, other associations in Moscow formed their own clubs; Spartak was founded by trade-unions, Lokomotiv by railroad workers and Dynamo Moscow by the police. Dynamo, coined from the Greek ‘Power in Motion’, would later become a sporting umbrella which many clubs in the Eastern Bloc would adopt, most notably spawning Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kyiv.
Until 1947, the USSR was not a part of FIFA and was therefore using the archaic and British influenced 2-3-5 formation. When Russia hosted the Basque national team as their first stop on their world tour in 1937 – aimed at raising global awareness of the Basque country’s plight in the Spanish Civil War – propaganda and lack of global football knowledge led the Russian public to believe that the Soviet teams would brush aside the Basques with ease. The Basque side would end up thrashing the majority of Russia’s most coveted clubs on home soil, with their superior 3-2-2-3 (W-M) formation making the majority of fixtures a mismatch.
Boris Arkadyev, fresh from a league and cup double with Dynamo Moscow, decided to reconstruct his philosophy after the USSR’s embarrassment at the hands of the Basques. He spent pre-season in February 1940 drilling the tactically superior W-M formation into the players and heavily encouraging the front three attackers to roam – to create unpredictability and stretch the opponents’ defence to create space. After a difficult start, Dynamo Moscow’s form began to pick up; they famously thrashed defending champions Spartak 5-1. The press branded his philosophy as “organised disorder” – a foundation to Total Football and the modern False 9 formation seen today.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Soviet Top League was suspended, with the players sent off to fight Nazi Germany. Arkadyev, then in his 40s, was too old to fight so joined local neighbours CDKA Moscow in 1943.
Under Arkadyev’s leadership and creative vision, CDKA would go on to become one of the most successful sides in Russian history. Utilising Arkadyev’s W-M formation and fluid football philosophy allowed the technical and talented attack of Vsevolod Bobrov, Grigory Fedotov, Valentin Nikolayev, Aleksei Grinin and Vladimir Dyomin to roam and flourish. CDKA would go on to win three titles in a row from 1946-49. Such was the success of CDKA’s side that their entire starting 11 was named in a list of the top 33 players in the country by the USSR’s National Committee of Physical Culture and Sports. Seven of the players were listed as number one.
With success grew envy from rival sides. Fellow Soviet teams would rue the corrupt nature in which the Koni recruited talented players. For CDKA, when they scouted a gifted young player, they would immediately enlist him into the military and given a nominal job so that he could lend his services to the club. The lure and propaganda of the Red Army led to many talented Russians joining CDKA, particularly as the most successful players were promoted to the prestigious rank of Lieutenant.
After back-to-back Soviet titles in 1950 to 1951, Arkadyev was called-upon to lead the USSR for the first time at the Helsinki Olympic Games. The renowned tactician called up the likes of Nyrkov, Bobrov and Nikolayev from his successful CDKA side to aid him in the tournament. After a shaky 2-1 victory over Bulgaria, the USSR were drawn against social and political rivals Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia were dominating the USSR, leading 5-1 with 30 minutes left of normal time when CDKA and USSR captain Vsevolod Bobrov scored a hat-trick in the dying minutes to secure a replay. Unfortunately for Arkadyev, Bobrov and in-turn CDKA Moscow, the USSR lost the replay to Yugoslavia 3-1.
Joseph Stalin branded the result a disgrace, expecting the USSR national team to win the tournament. Yugoslavia was a country rebelling against the USSR’s line of development, with the defeat a factor which fuelled the Tito-Stalin split that led to Yugoslavia disbanding from the Soviet Union. So angry was Stalin that he banned the USSR media from reporting on the nation’s defeat.
Following the USSR’s poor Olympic campaign, Stalin blamed Arkadyev and CDKA for disgracing the country. He stripped Arkadyev of his Master of Sports title and disbanded CDKA Moscow completely and ordered its best players to transfer to rivals Dynamo Moscow and withdraw from the Red Army. The club would not compete again until 1954, after Stalin’s death.
After briefly losing their club and the majority of the squad, CDKA eventually rebranded to CSKA, but never recovered to the standards of their golden age – winning just two Soviet Top League titles until the dawn of the Russian Premier League. Rumours from the USSR at the time suggested that the leader of the police force and key supporter of Dynamo, Lavrentiy Beria, was key to Stalin’s decision regarding CDKA, causing a bitter tension to develop between the two clubs; a tension that holds to this day.
CDKA Moscow was a cornerstone in both football and political history, demonstrating one of the earliest examples of Total Football while playing a part in Red Army propaganda and political disputes in the Soviet Union. While CSKA Moscow has often struggled since, the club are showing signs of a renaissance with back-to-back Russian Premier League titles over the past two seasons.
Free of political dogma and united once more with strong management and talented players, the Krasno-sinie may be ready to dominate Russia once again.
By Tom McMahon. Follow @TomMc_Sports