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© RIA Novosti. Vladimir Rodionov

The Arthurian legend of Russian football

by Vladimir Kozlov at 26/01/2012 21:24

Earlier this month, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Football Union was celebrated in St. Petersburg with an event attended by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, FIFA head Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini. The guests reportedly raised a glass to the union’s first head, Arthur MacPherson, whose life story epitomizes that of Russian football, with both glorious and tragic chapters.

Not many in modern Russia know of MacPherson – a Russian sport enthusiast of Scottish ancestry and a victim of the Bolsheviks.

MacPherson, later nicknamed “Arthur the Iron Hand,” was born in St. Petersburg in 1870. His grandfather Murdoch MacPherson immigrated to Russia from Perth in the late 1830’s and owned a steelworks and shipyards in St. Petersburg.

Arthur MacPherson grew up to become a well-known merchant and director of the St. Petersburg Commercial Society, and he was always interested in sports, particularly football, which in the early 20th century was still new to Russia.

“From 1901, teams from Britishowned weaving mills in St. Petersburg played in a football league on Sundays – allegedly to stop them from drinking too much vodka in their free time!” Gareth Ward, Britain’s Consul General in St. Petersburg, told The Moscow News.

“Arthur MacPherson lived in St. Petersburg at that time and was a keen sportsman – [he was into] rowing, tennis and football,” Ward said. “He was elected the first President of the Russian Football Association in 1912. Russian football soon outgrew British influence and took its own path.”

MacPherson chaired the St. Petersburg football league from 1903 to 1905 and from 1912 to 1913. He served as President of the Russian Football Association through 1914.

Nikolai Komarov, a spokesman for the Russian Football Union, told The Moscow News that MacPherson played a crucial role in the development of football in Russia, particularly in bringing together the Moscow and St. Petersburg enthusiasts of the sport and forming the first national football organization.

MacPherson also chaired the All-Russian Tennis Union from 1908 until the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. In 1911 he was elected to be a member of the Russian Olympic Committee.

With the destruction of imperial Russia, MacPherson’s world was also destroyed. He was arrested by the Bolsheviks after the revolution, allegedly for serving British interests, and thrown into a Moscow jail for several months. According to some sources, he was later released and then arrested again. In prison, MacPherson contracted typhoid and died in a prison hospital in late 1919.

“His body then disappeared,” The Times of London reported. “Some weeks later, three British soldiers, who had obtained permission to look for it, discovered it in one of the prison cells, buried beneath 40 others. They recognized it, as before his death Mr. MacPherson had pasted a piece of paper around his wrist, bearing his name.”

Over the past 100 years, Russia’s Football Union, which survived the revolution, a civil war and two world wars, has seen its own share of highs and lows. The Soviet squad, which featured such highprofile players as Lev Yashin and Eduard Streltsov, won the 1956 and 1988 Olympic gold and the 1960 UEFA European Nations Cup.

The Starostin brothers, who were four prominent players of an earlier era, were sent to the Gulag by Lavrenty Beriya due to competition between Spartak and Dinamo – Beriya was a Dinamo fan, and the brothers played for Spartak.

And TsDKA Moscow, a precursor to CSKA Moscow, was disbanded in 1952 following the humiliating defeat of the Soviet squad by the Yugoslavs in the Olympic Games in Helsinki.

Russia’s successful run at the 2008 European Football Championship and Russia getting the right to host the 2018 World Cup may be signs that the Russian football is going through a “good” phase. But already this summer the Russian squad will have to prove its mettle at the Euro in Poland and Ukraine, while the huge task of preparing the nation for the world’s biggest football tournament lies ahead.

“I look forward to visiting Russia in 2018 for the World Cup and supporting my team then (Wales I hope, and certainly England),” Gareth Ward, Britain’s Consul General in St. Petersburg, told The Moscow News. “But before then we will see Russian athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics in London 2012. That will be a celebration of sport that MacPherson would have enjoyed – after all, he was also a member of Russia’s first Olympic Committee.”

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