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Home|Football News|Football Interviews|Jim Riordan



Jim Riordan Interview

Sean O'Conor

Comrade Jim

'Comrade Jim -the Spy who played for Spartak' is a most engaging book, despite the misleading title.

Jim Riordan was not actually a spy but went to Moscow because he wanted to do his bit for the global communist dream. In his five years in the USSR, he met the likes of Guy Burgess, Yuri Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev and remarkably, played twice for Spartak Moscow.

Eventually he found himself ostracized and denounced as anti-Soviet in a Kafka-esque scenario, and returned to England, where he went on to become a Surrey University professor of Russian. His eye-opening autobiography is a first-hand account of a key period in post-war history, with an amazing football story at its heart.

Now 71, retired and back in his native Portsmouth, Jim Riordan spoke to Soccerphile about his Moscow days and the rise of Russian football today.

How did 'Comrade Jim' come about?

John Foot had published a book on Italian football (Calcio) and I thought I could bang out a book on Russian football, which I thought was far more interesting than Italian football.

The publishers were not interested in that but asked me four times if I wanted to write my life story, which I thought was not that interesting.

I was somewhat hesitant because many of people I had met, including British ex-communists and Russian footballers I had known very well did not want to talk about the past. They claimed to have had an illness and could not remember - absolutely incredible.

Being asked to come and start for Spartak Moscow after you had played a Sunday league match the same day is an amazing tale.

I was really dumbfounded but so many things happened in Moscow that when you look back you think why weren't you just knocked for six? A couple of days before I had been at the funeral of Guy Burgess as a pallbearer alongside Donald Maclean and I was meeting all sorts of people like that, and doing extraordinary things, so this tallied with that.

Some of the players weren't terribly friendly I have to say, especially the captain Igor Netto, whom I met many years later playing in a veterans team here in Portsmouth. He remembered me at once and instead of saying 'Oh Jim, how nice to see you' he said 'You weren't fit, you let us down!'

On the day they just told me to stand in the middle and not get caught out against a pacy centre-forward. Fortunately I didn't have one against me.

I played again two or three weeks later so I obviously wasn't that bad. I think we drew one and won the other.

You played regularly with British Embassy staff in Moscow. Wasn't it odd for a communist to be knocking around with the UK diplomats? Did they never suspect you of being a spy?

I had never believed there should have been no contact between fellow British, whether journalists or whoever, in Moscow and I did not go around with a communist badge on my chest. The British were quite amazing. As long as you had a passport, come on in mate and have a pint and join our football team on the Sunday! I was amazed Burgess and Maclean got away with spying for so long but their old school tie protected them from suspicion.

So I had started having kickabouts on the practice pitches behind Spartak's stadium and one morning this mate of mine who had been assigned to help me in my PhD on the history of Russian sport, Gennady Logofet, who was a Spartak and national team right back, was there on the touchline.

Gennady is another who has 'lost his memory' of that period and wouldn't be in Moscow recently when I was there. And he was my best friend. It is absolutely incredible and painfully sad.

Anyway, he was standing there with this big black-haired Armenian-looking fellow Nikita Simonyan, the manager of Spartak, who invited me along to the training ground, called Tarasovka.

I thought that was very kind of them so I went along and joined in a bit but tried not to get in the way. Then that Sunday I got this phone call - 'Can you come along this afternoon?' So after I had played for the Diplomatic Corps with a load of Brits and Irish, I went over at 2 o'clock all sweaty and dusty and this bombshell was dropped.

I've read people questioning you ever played for Spartak

I know. I've even read people questioning whether I was ever at the Higher Party School. Fortunately when I went back with the BBC for a documentary, I found a copy of my school registration in their archives, which I put in the book.

At Spartak, our kit was always taken from us. Sometimes there would be a little slip of paper with the lineups as you went in but often there wasn't. There was no TV coverage.

The crowd relied on the stadium announcer for the team news and I was told I was introduced as 'Yakov Eeordahnov', a Russian version of my name.

There was an enormous amount of corruption and not playing by the rules. A friend at the BBC Russian service told me you won't get Simonyan to admit you played because you weren't registered. Spartak just don't want to go there, even this long after the event.

There were riots, bribes, political interference, a team killed in a plane crash which wasn't admitted, lots of things went on.

So if you were unregistered and there was little recorded information, it's not surprising some people have questioned your story.

Alexei (Smertin) has spoken to people in Moscow who said they remembered me. He would have written a preface to my book if the publishers had known who he was! But I still feel a little embarrassment about the fact so many people won't talk about the past in Moscow. Not just my football past but my communist past too.

I am still a member of the communist party. Not that I do anything about it except read the Morning Star now and again and write a journal for Portsmouth pensioners.

You mention this collective amnesia in Russia a lot in your book.

I could have cried. I was sent by the British Communist Party in 1961 to the Higher Party School in Moscow, a secret and prestigious place for training foreign communists, training in Marxism, Leninism, philosophy and the history of the Soviet Union, that is. I went back to do a documentary for the BBC on it called 'School for Communists' and found exactly the same thing there - no one wanted to speak to me about it.

Of the five of us British communists who went, one helped me but one had died, one refused to let me put anything in writing and the other one would not answer my letters at all.

A review in the Morning Star traduced what I had read and slated it as an anti-communist rant! I wrote back and said in Russia they say a country that does not know its past does not know its future and the same goes for a political party.

I was initially denied a visa but have now been back twice with the BBC and just was hit by the amount of old friends who would not recognize me. My wife and I called our daughter Tanya after this girl at the Higher Party School we were very close to, but when I went to Moscow she said 'I can't see you' and put the phone down.

It is the most weird thing, a Russian thing. I lived there five years and have spent 30 years writing and lecturing on Russian politics and history and I still find it baffling. I can make excuses for it but it is bloody painful.

But sadly it is very common. Even Russian players like Rinat Dassayev (a three-time World Cup hero) refuse to talk about their past in the Soviet Union.

You appear as a Spartak player on a cigarette card however.

Yes, later on someone in Moscow who had seen me play for Spartak wrote to me and asked if he could do a fag card of me. Before we had television, that was our way of learning about players.

There seemed to be a real enthusiasm in that age, one that is unthinkable today.

A third of the world lived under communism then. Cuba and a lot of African countries had chosen socialism rather than capitalism. It felt like communism was on the march and that the Soviet Union was on a par with the US, at least militarily. But it was also ahead in various industries - gas and steel for instance.

But before long the cracks began to appear on the social side of things. There was the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and those in Poland and East Germany of course and the crimes of Stalin were also coming to light.

Because I had a degree in Russian from Birmingham University, I was aware of the cost and was always skeptical whether Soviet communism was the one I wanted. Now I am absolutely certain it was not.

Turning back to football, Russia is on an upward curve - Zenit St Petersburg are UEFA Cup holders and the national team excelled at Euro 2008. But why has it taken so long for them to make an impact?

Stalin concentrated in the period up to 1941 when they entered the War on the workers' sports movement and criticized the Olympics and World Cup as bourgeois institutions, so there was virtually no contact between Soviet and world football at all.

After the War, when Hitler had more or less destroyed all the worker organizations, Stalin changed his mind and joined the Olympic movement in 1951. He concentrated on the Olympics quite openly to prove that the Soviet sports system was superior to the capitalist one. Apart from initially in space technology, sport was the only arena where they could beat the West. But football had not yet been deemed that important by the USSR.

Though the USSR did win the first European Championship in 1960 - you hardly mention that in your book.

I was just finishing my PGCE at the Institute of Education in London and was about to leave for Moscow then! Until Stalin died in 1953, there was an attitude that if we can't win we won't take part. But the ridiculous thing was that when Moscow Dynamo came to Britain in 1945, they dazzled, yet the Soviets did not capitalize on that at all. I think they were as astonished as the Arsenal and Chelsea fans were at how well they had done.

How do Vladimir Putin, the de-facto president & Roman Abramovich fit into it?

I'm a bit uncertain about Putin because he is thoroughly undemocratic and there is an enormous amount of corruption, but he has reined in the oligarchs and he has taken heart from the old Soviet policy of using sport in the Olympic Games to demonstrate superiority over decadent Western nations.

Putin feels there is a need for an injection of patriotism so he has forced the oligarchs to invest in the major sports like basketball (CSKA are European Champions), ice hockey (Russia are world champions) and especially in football and tennis. He has forced Abramovich to pay almost all the wages of Guus Hiddink, the national team manager by implicitly threatening to take his Sibneft (Siberian Oil) assets from him if he does not. There are plenty of examples of Russians who did not play ball with Putin who ended up poisoned or died in mysterious helicopter crashes.

Are we right to assume there is a sinister hand behind recent Russian soccer success?

The Russian press reported there were 5,000 hit killings in Russia the year before last without anyone being charged. Several of those were in the scramble to gain control of Russian and Ukrainian football teams. Shakhtar Donetsk were taken over by a mafia boss who was blown to smithereens for example.

The managing director of Spartak was shot dead at her dacha. The CSKA owner was murdered and his son had to flee abroad. The clubs are trying to become more respectable now but the threat is still there that you could end up like Mikhail Khordokovski, the Yukos boss who was charged with tax evasion and given nine years in a Siberian prison camp.

Abramovich is so rich and like many of the oligarchs he does not know what to do with his money anyway so he uses football as a form of money-laundering.

Is the new Russian money about to propel its soccer into first place in Europe?

Things have settled down as the oligarchs who have invested in clubs know they are not going to make a profit out of them, because very few people are going to watch Russian football.

Last season the average gate for a Russian Premiership match was only 11,000. Now 50,000 came to watch me! This is a very big drop since Soviet times. And they are not making a lot of money from television because they have matches from all over the world on TV at the same time.

It's a gloss on the oligarchs' more nefarious activities. Abramovich is also paying about £10m for a new national stadium along with other oligarchs. My mate Alexei Smertin was telling me he has just been up to his home town in the Altai region not too far from the Chinese border and he went around to various junior sports schools which Abramovich has set up on artificial grass. He seems to have invested in about 150 sports schools in a project called 'Operation Excellence'.

So the new money the oligarchs are investing in football is showing in the results. The Russian national team was about 45th in FIFA's World Rankings not too long ago and now they have moved into the top ten, while CSKA and Zenit St Petersburg have now won European trophies.

There must also be a patriotic urge beyond the oligarchs' self-aggrandizement when it comes to Russian football

Russia felt humiliated by 1991 because the buffer states had broken away and 14 of the 15 states of the old Soviet Union had left too. Russia had been enfeebled militarily and it felt it had completely lost its place as a world power, so there is a lot of desire to bring glory back. To that end, football is looked upon as a medium for doing that because it is so much in the public eye.

Three or four years ago Spartak's team was all made up of foreigners, second-rate Brazilians and Africans and so forth. But now they have passed a regulation saying the majority of players on the field must be Russian. When Zenit played Rangers in the UEFA Cup Final, there were six Russians in the side.

They are very keen to send Russian players abroad in order to get experience of top football and also to help any future bid for a World Cup.

Will the World Cup be in Russia soon then?

I think it is almost certain that they will bid. FIFA will be looking to make some money after South Africa and Brazil where they won't make much, and in the money stakes, Russia will win hands down. Politics will come into it of course but they certainly have the bribes and the money to win a few people over.

Those vast Russian amphitheatres of football are unmistakable

During the thirties there was a concentration on building Russia into an industrialized nation as millions of peasants from the countryside poured into the towns. There was a feeling that you needed bread and circuses and cults of personality. There was a spirit of gigantism. I hesitate to make comparisons with Franco and Mussolini and the way they used football, partly because it is thanks to the Russians we defeated fascism, but there is a lot of similarity with the giant stadia they built in Russia and what was going on in places like Italy and Germany at that time.

Russia did build the Stalin stadium in 1936 (now the Dinamo Stadium) and then began to build 100,000-seater stadia in various other parts of the country. Kiev had the Khrushchev stadium and Leningrad had one of the most beautiful stadia I have been to. They also started to build a 350,000-seat stadium in Moscow but it was never completed.

At the same time they pulled down the old cathedral in Moscow and began to build the Palace of Sovietism which would have been bigger than the Empire State Building but it fell down after two stories had gone up. That was then turned into this enormous outdoor swimming pool, which the current Mayor of Moscow, another mafia boss called Yuri Luzhkov, has taken down and replaced with a new cathedral.

What sticks in your mind from the day you got that phone call in Moscow?

It was forty years ago but I can still see Netto in the dressing room giving a sort of political motivating talk to the players and I recall my shirt not being long enough. The second game I was up against a very beefy centre-forward who was boss-eyed and a dirty bugger! He would nudge me in the back when we went up for a high ball.

I remember the crowd whistling. We didn't have whistling in British football. I wasn't sure if it was for me or against me. That was the end of my Spartak career though I did play a few times for the reserves.

I am still the only Englishman to have played for a Soviet football team!

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