The tumultuous history of the Soviet League

The Soviet football championship is probably unique in the variety of formulas used in the league. After recent comments by Leonid Fedun, who recently discussed league reform in-depth and offered a two-stage league formula similar to Belgium, I decided to go into the depths of history and show the various quirks of the Soviet football officials.

There actually were tournaments called “Soviet championships” before 1936, but they were contested by town and city teams rather than clubs (clubs only played in city championships). 1936 saw the first championship contested by “show teams of masters” (показательные команды мастеров); by all means and purposes, these “teams of masters” were football clubs, but this term arose only much later.

Nominally, all Soviet clubs were amateur; in actuality, of course, football was the main occupation of most players of these “teams of masters”, though a few players did have a second job.

And now – a timeline of early Soviet championship formula and name changes. At first, they were quite frequent.

 

1936 Spring (“Group A”): 7 teams, single round-robin. 3 points for a win, 2 for draw, 1 for defeat, 0 for no-show.

Seven teams took part in the first ever Soviet championship: four from Moscow (Dinamo, Spartak, CDKA and Lokomotiv), two from Leningrad (Dinamo and Krasnaya Zarya), and Dinamo Kyiv. Dinamo Moscow won all six games and finished ahead of Dinamo Kyiv and Spartak Moscow. In the lower leagues, some teams did no-show their games, receiving zero points.

1936 Autumn: 8 teams, single round-robin.

Krasnaya Zarya was scheduled to play a relegation play-off against Dinamo Tbilisi, winners of the Group B, but both teams ultimately joined the autumn championship.

1937: 9 teams, double round-robin.

CDKA Moscow finished last in the 1936 Autumn championship and were replaced by Metallurg Moscow, winners of the Group B… but then, by a special resolution of the All-Union Physical Culture and Sports Committee, CDKA were reinstated in the top flight (after already playing two games in the Group B) by probably the flimsiest excuse ever. This document, unearthed by Aksel Vartanian, the great historian of the Soviet football, merits quoting in its entirety;

On Revision of CDKA football team of masters’ relegation from Class A to Class B:

Taking into consideration that CDKA is the only football team of the RKKA [Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия, Workers and Peasants’ Red Army], and examining the data yielded by investigation of CDKA players’ triple duty in the 1936 autumn season (they played for a) Soviet championship; b) RKKA championship; c) Moscow garrison championship), which led to unavailability of a number of players due to traumatic injuries and unacceptable physical overload of players, and also taking into account that CDKA had remained among the strongest teams of the Soviet Union for many years, for instance: 1. Won the 1935 Moscow championship; 2. Finished fourth in the 1936 spring championship, contested by the strongest Soviet teams; 3. Finished only half-point (?) behind the seven strongest Soviet teams in the 1936 autumn championship; 4. In the 1937 Soviet Cup, they reached the semi-finals and only conceded one late goal against the finalists, Dinamo Tbilisi; 5. Won an official game against the incumbent 1936 champions Spartak Moscow; 6. In the same season, defeated Dinamo Moscow, the winners of the Soviet Cup, 4-1 in a friendly, the All-Union Physical Culture and Sports Committee decrees:
1. Promote the CDKA football team of masters from Class B to Class A.
2. Rearrange the Class A calendar to include CDKA matches.
3. The games of CDKA in Class B against Spartak Leningrad and Stalinets Leningrad to be considered friendlies.
Acting President of the All-Union Physical Cluture and Sports Committee Elena Knopova.
4th August 1937.

All in all, this didn’t help CDKA. This time they finished dead last, five points behind the next-to-last team, and were in line for relegation again, but, luckily for them, the formula changed again.

1938: 26 teams, single round-robin. 2 points for a win, 1 for draw, 0 for defeat

There was a lot of discussions before the season. Various formulas were tossed around like hot potatoes: 12 teams in a double round-robin; 12 teams in a single round-robin and a playoff round; 20 teams in two divisions, then a playoff round. Finally, just a month before the championship, the officials finally settled on a 26-team single round-robin tournament.

Nine teams that played in the Group A last year were joined by:

Six teams from Group B (Spartak Leningrad, Dinamo Rostov-on-Don, Temp Baku, Stalinets Leningrad, Stalinets Moscow, Torpedo Moscow – Dinamo Kazan was excluded);

Six teams from Group C (Dinamo Odessa, Lokomotiv Kyiv, Stakhanovets Stalino, Lokomotivi Tbilisi, Spartak Kharkov, Selmash Kharkov – Dinamo Dnepropetrovsk, Traktor Kharkov, Dinamo Kharkov and Dinamo Gorky were excluded);

Three teams from Group D (Traktor Stalingrad, Krylya Sovetov Moscow, Burevestnik Moscow – nine other teams were excluded);

Two non-league teams (Pischevik Moscow and Zenit Leningrad). Pischevik Moscow shouldn’t be confused with Pischeviki Moscow, one of Spartak Moscow’s former names. The Zenit Leningrad team of 1938 championship is not related to the current Zenit St. Petersburg team (their precursor was Stalinets Leningrad).

CDKA finally stopped being relegation battlers: they finished second in the league, behind only Spartak Moscow.

1939: 14 teams, double round-robin

The 1938 experiment failed, so most of the teams joining from the lower groups got relegated back. At first, there were only 12 teams to remain in the league, but first, Elektrik Leningrad (formerly Krasnaya Zarya) were reinstated in the Group A, and then Stalinets Leningrad were also brought back (they had identical points with Elektrik, and after the latter team was re-promoted, they filed a protest and were re-promoted too).

1940: 13 teams, double round-robin

The first time the league formula didn’t change… sort of. Two teams (Elektrik and Dinamo Odessa) got relegated, two teams (Krilya Sovetov Moscow and Lokomotivi Tbilisi) were promoted in its place… but after 20 rounds, Lokomotivi Tbilisi, who scored just eight points, was abruptly removed from the league “for low technical results”, and all their results were annulled, and so the championship finished with just 13 teams.

1941: 15 teams, unfinished

The 1941 championship wasn’t finished because Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June. But the league formula and lineup changed again. The number of teams increased to 15, but this wasn’t the most significant change by any means.

Lokomotiv, Torpedo, Metallurg and Krilya Sovetov Moscow were disbanded and combined into two trade union teams: “Profsoyuzy-1” and “Profsoyuzy-2”. The same fate befell Krasnaya Zarya, Avangard and Zenit Leningrad, but the “Leningrad Trade Union Team” was quickly renamed back to Zenit. Stakhanovets Stalino and Traktor Stalingrad lost some players to the Moscow Profsoyuzy teams. CDKA was renamed into Krasnaya Armiya (Red Army).

Later, Group B as a whole was disbanded, and its teams were transferred to the republican tournaments. Pischevik Odessa and Dinamo Minsk, who finished 5th and 6th in the Group B, were promoted to Group A over Stroitel Yuga Baku (3rd) and Dinamo Kharkov (4th, disbanded before the tournament). Spartak Kharkov, who got relegated from Group B (!) in 1939, was also for some reason included in Group A.

Only ten full rounds were played in the 1941 championship. The last games took place two days after the war started: on 24th June, Dinamo Tbilisi defeated Dinamo Leningrad 3-2, and Stakhanovets lost to Traktor 2-3.

1945 (“First Group”): 12 teams, double round-robin

There were serious talks about continuing the unfinished 1941 championship around 1944, but the officials finally decided against it. The club structure was shaken up once again: the Moscow trade union teams were divided back into Lokomotiv, Torpedo and Krilya Sovetov (Metallurg Moscow, sadly, didn’t survive in the top division, though they did compete in the lower leagues for a time).

Most teams in that championship represented the Russian SFSR. There were only three non-Russian teams, all belonging to the Dinamo society: Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgian SSR), Dinamo Minsk (Belorussian SSR) and Dynamo Kyiv (Ukrainian SSR). Stakhanovets Stalino were also invited into the First Group, but after some lobbying from Lazar Kaganovich, the minister of railways, were replaced by Lokomotiv Moscow. This didn’t help Lokomotiv though: they finished dead last, scoring just 5 points in 22 games.

1946: no changes

The first time the league formula didn’t change at all for two consecutive seasons – nobody got added during the championship, or removed during the championship, or anything.

1947: 13 teams, double round-robin

Dynamo Kyiv finished last in the championship (not dead last though, they had equal points with Dinamo Minsk). In spring 1947, without any explanation, Dynamo was reinstated in the First Group.

This championship was famous for having been decided by the tiniest margin possible: 0.0125 (1/80) goal! The main tie-breaker in that season was goal ratio: goal scored divided by goals conceded. CDKA went to play last round already knowing the results of their main (and only) rivals, Dinamo Moscow. They needed to defeat Traktor Stalingrad 5-0 or more… and they won exactly 5-0. Their final goal ratio was 61/16 (3.8125), while Dinamo had 57/15 (3.8000).

1948: 14 teams, double round-robin… sort of

Before the 1948 season, there was again much discussion. I don’t know the details, but the officials probably thought that the tournament called “Soviet Championship” should be more representative of the whole Soviet Union. In 1947, 6 of 13 teams in the league were from Moscow, and only three were non-Russian – the aforementioned three Dinamos from Tbilisi, Kyiv and Minsk. And so, in early 1948, it was decided that there would be an epic 30-team regionalized championship, with all republics (including the newly-assimilated Baltic states) and big industrial centres represented. The games even started, but – this is probably too much even for Soviet Russia – no formal calendar was agreed upon. Finally, after two weeks of limbo, the 30-team formula was abandoned, and the league was continued in 14-team format: 13 teams from the previous championship plus Lokomotiv Moscow who got promoted from the Second Group.

For historical purposes, here’s the list of teams that entered the 1948 championship but then were expulsed:

  • Avangard Sverdlovsk. Currently Ural Ekaterinburg. Their first and only Soviet top-flight season was in 1969 (Uralmash Sverdlovsk), after that, they only reached Russian top flight again in 1992.
  • Dinamo Alma-Ata. Disbanded in 1954, precursor to the more well-known Kairat Almaty.
  • Dinamo Chisinau. Currently Zimbru Chisinau. Renamed Burevestnik in 1950, first promoted to the high league in 1956. Also played in the Soviet top flight under names Moldova and Nistru.
  • Dinamo Riga. Fate unclear, some players later joined Daugava Riga.
  • Dinamo Stalinabad. Last mentioned in 1971 as Dinamo Dushanbe, later disbanded.
  • Dinamo Yerevan. Currently Ararat Yerevan. Joined the First Group in 1949 after league extension.
  • DO Tashkent. Army team from Uzbek SSR. Played in the lower leagues of Soviet football as ODO Tashkent, SKA Tashkent and Sverdlovets Tashkent.
  • Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk. Renamed Avangard in 1953, disbanded entirely in 1957.
  • Kalev Tallinn. Still exists under this name. Played two seasons in the Soviet top division (1960, 1961).
  • Lokomotiv Ashkhabad. Currently Kopetdag Asgabat. Never played in the Soviet top division. Won several Turkmenistan championships in 1990s and 2000s.
  • Lokomotiv Kharkov. Qualified for the Soviet top division next year and spent several seasons there. Disbanded in 1954, most players transferred to Avangard Kharkov (future Metallist).
  • Neftyanik Baku. Currently Neftçi Baku. Joined the First Group in 1949 after league extension.
  • Shakhter Stalino. Currently Shakhtar Donetsk. Returned to the First Group in 1949.
  • Spartak Vilnius. Currently Zalgiris Vilnius. First qualified for the Soviet top division in 1953.
  • Torpedo Gorky. First qualified for the Soviet top division in 1951. In 1963, Torpedo Gorky and Raketa Sormovo were merged into Volga Gorky (no relation to the current Volga Nizhny Novgorod). A team named Torpedo Gorky or Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod later competed in the local oblast championships.
  • Zenit Frunze. Currently Alga Bishkek. Never played in the Soviet top division. Won several Kyrgyzstan championships in 1990s and 2000s.

1949: 18 teams, double round-robin

Krilya Sovetov Moscow got relegated (and disbanded) at the end of the 1948 season. They were replaced by 5 teams, in a more tame effort to make the Soviet league more representative: Lokomotiv Kharkov (the only team that actually qualified from the Second Group), Neftyanik Baku, Dinamo Yerevan, Daugava Riga and Shakhter Stalino. Lokomotiv were the best-placed team of these five, finishing 12th.

1950 (“Class A”): 19 teams, double round-robin

Nobody got relegated at all, and the 18 teams of the last championship were joined by Second Group qualifiers Spartak Tbilisi.

1951: 15 teams, double round-robin

The experiments of two last seasons were probably deemed unsuccessful, so six teams were relegated at once (Dinamo Yerevan, Lokomotiv Moscow, Lokomotiv Kharkov, Dinamo Minsk, Torpedo Stalingrad, Neftyanik Baku), and only two were admitted in their place: VMS Moscow and Torpedo Gorky.

Torpedo Stalingrad would return to the Soviet top-flight only 48 years later, under the name Rotor Volgograd.

1952: 14 teams, single round-robin

The first half of the year was devoted to preparing the Soviet national team for their international debut at the 1952 Olympiad. After the Soviet team lost in Yugoslavia, CDKA Moscow, forming the bulk of the national team, was disbanded by the government officials. They played three games and won them, but the results were annulled.

Almost the entire championship, sans two games, was held in Moscow. Home ground helped only Spartak, however, as they won their first league title since 1939. Lokomotiv and Torpedo barely avoided relegation, and VVS (along with Daugava, Shakhter and Dinamo Minsk) even got relegated.

1953: 11 teams, double round-robin

This was the last top-flight season in the Soviet and Russian league when a team was expulsed during tournament (let’s hope that Amkar don’t suffer the same fate this season, some 65 years later). MVO, which represented Kalinin (Tver) last season, moved to Moscow and incorporated many former CDSA players. This wasn’t left unnoticed, and the team was axed after just six games.

During this season, probably the most bizarre club renaming in the Soviet top-flight history happened. Krilya Sovetov Kuibyshev were renamed Zenit Kuibyshev after the first leg of the tournament (presumably Zenit and Krilya Sovetov sports societies were going to be united). But next season, Krilya reverted back to their old name (and never changed it again).

1954: 13 teams, double round-robin

Dinamo Leningrad was suddenly disbanded before the season and replaced by Trudovye Rezervy Leningrad. Otherwise, nothing really noteworthy happened.

1955: 12 teams, double round-robin

This system (shockingly) lasted for five seasons, from 1955 to 1959. In 1955-56, two teams got relegated from the Class A, but then, the number was decreased to one.

The 1955 and 1957 season was notable for being the only two where top 5 comprised solely of Moscow teams: Dinamo, Spartak, CDSA, Torpedo, and Lokomotiv (in 1955) and Dinamo, Torpedo, Spartak, Lokomotiv, CSK MO (1957).

1960: 22 teams, 2-group double round-robin with four play-off tournaments

What didn’t work out in 1948, was finally put into motion in 1960. No teams were relegated (it was the second time Shakhter Stalino escaped relegation after finishing last in the league), and 10 more were added: best teams of Russia (Admiralteets Leningrad), Armenia (Spartak Yerevan), Ukraine (Avangard Kharkov), Uzbekistan (Pakhtakor Tashkent), Lithuania (Spartak Vilnius), Kazakhstan (Kairat Alma-Ata), Belarus (Belarus Minsk), Latvia (Daugava Riga), Azerbaijan (Neftyanik Baku), and Estonia (Kalev Tallinn). Best teams from Tajikistan (Pamir Leninabad), Kyrgyzstan (Spartak Frunze) and Turkmenistan (Kolhozchi Ashkhabad) were snubbed.

After playing a double round-robin tournament, two groups were divided: top three teams of both group were sent to the championship play-off, next three teams competed in the 7th-12th place play-off, then there was 13th-18th place playoff, and finally, bottom 2 teams from both groups contested 19th-22nd place.

Only the lowest-placed Russian team (Krilya Sovetov Kuibyshev) got relegated. Shakhtar Stalino won the Ukrainian relegation play-off and remained in the Class A.

1961: 22 teams, 2-group double round-robin with two play-off tournaments

The multiple play-offs were probably quite hard to follow, so next season, it was easier. Top 5 teams from both 11-team groups went into championship play-off, and all the remaining teams played in the relegation play-off. Also, the results of the group stage were carried over to the play-off, so in the play-off round, the teams only played against opponents from the other group.

Trud Voronezh got relegated as the worst-placed Russian team (despite finishing above all non-Russian teams in the relegation play-off except Shakhter Stalino), and Kalev Tallinn lost relegation play-off tournament against two best teams from the Soviet republics and got replaced by Torpedo Kutaisi.

1962: 22 teams, 2-group double-round robin with two play-off tournaments

The formula was again tweaked a bit. Now, top six teams from both 11-team groups qualified for championship play-off, and two bottom teams, no matter what republic they represented, just got relegated.

In other news: Dinamo Leningrad just sort of replaced Admiralteets Leningrad in the championship.

1963 (Class A, First Group): 20 teams, double round-robin

The biggest ever tournament in the history of Soviet league (it was only equaled in 1968). The play-offs were probably too confusing to follow, so the football officials returned to the old round-robin formula.

1964: 17 teams, double round-robin

What’s it with Soviet championships and odd numbers? Perhaps Leonid Fedun studied the old history quite hard before offering his 7+7 idea? Anyway, a 20-team league was too cumbersome, so 5 teams got relegated, and only two were promoted; it was one of the few times in the Soviet history that two new Russian SFSR teams qualified into the top division at once. Both got relegated very next season though and never returned to the Soviet top flight (though Shinnik did play in the Russian top league for a time).

1965: no change

Shockingly, the championship formula did not change in 1965, except for one nuance: only three teams got relegated instead of four (this still remains a record number of teams exchanged between first and second tier of Soviet/Russian championships without championship formula changes).

1966: 19 teams, double round-robin

In the last entry, I wrote that three teams got relegated in 1965. Well, they should have, but in early 1966, all three teams (Lokomotiv Moscow, Torpedo Kutaisi, SKA Odessa) were exempted from relegation.

1967: no change

Despite the huge number of teams, only one of them got relegated. The Soviet league looked rather like a closed league at that point, especially after…

1968: 20 teams, double round-robin

…Zenit Leningrad, despite finishing dead last in the previous championship, were not relegated because it was the year of October Revolution 50th anniversary, and Leningrad being the cradle of revolution and all that. They did manage a more or less respectable midtable position, and the newcomers Dinamo Kirovabad were relegated back with one of the worst scores in all Soviet league history (just 19 points in 38 games, or 25% points).

1969: 20 teams, 2-group double round-robin with two play-off tournaments

38 games (involving travelling to Tashkent and Alma-Ata, among other things) compounded by European fixtures were deemed too much, and so the league was again divided into two groups. This time, top seven teams of two 10-team groups qualified for championship play-offs, and bottom three of each group played in relegation play-offs.

1970 (Class A, Higher Group): 17 teams, double round-robin

The return to regionalized formula was very ill-received, so the Soviet league again reverted to simple round-robin system. Four teams got relegated from the last year’s play-off, and only one joined them – Spartak Ordzhonikidze (future Alania Vladikavkaz). This was, thankfully, the last-ever season with an odd number of teams.

1971 (Higher League): 16 teams, double round-robin

Only in 1971, the Soviet league finally found the format that is still in use today: 16 teams, double round-robin, two teams get relegated. It was also the first season where the tournament got its modern name, Высшая лига (Higher league).

1972: no change

Yes, it was that simple. Nothing changed. This was the year of Zorya Lugansk’s first (and last) Soviet championship.

1973: post-match penalty kicks introduced

In order to combat the staggering number of draws (many of which were suspected to be fixed beforehand), the teams were ordered to decide the final outcome on penalties. Only the winners of penalty shootout received 1 point for the draw; the losers got zero points. Kairat Alma-Ata were incredibly successful in the penalty department: they won 10 shootouts out of 11. Torpedo Moscow performed the worst, winning only 1 shootout out of 8.

1974: post-match penalty kicks abolished

The penalty rule was widely unpopular. It was made slightly milder in the 1974 season: penalty shoot-out was only necessary if the match ended 0-0; both teams had to take only 5 penalties each; and, if the score was equal, the draw stood. As a result, all four 0-0 draws in April resulted in 3-3 penalty draws; the rule was abolished altogether after Evgeni Lovchev, in a penalty shootout between Spartak Moscow and Dinamo Tbilisi, deliberately kicked the ball towards the corner flag, showing he had no intention to convert the penalty.

1975: no chance

9 teams out of 16 made more than 10 draws in the season. It was already obvious that something had to be done.

1976: two 16-team single round-robin championships

Like in 1952, the championship was restructured due to special needs of the national team, which was preparing for the Olympics and European championship. This time, though, the teams did play each other twice.

Nobody relegated from the spring championship. It was won by Dinamo Moscow, and even now, 40 years later, this remains their final league win.

The autumn championship, as usual, had two teams relegated (among them Spartak Moscow, for the first and only time in their history), and top teams qualifying for European competitions. It was won by Torpedo Moscow; like Dinamo, they haven’t won a single Soviet or Russian championship since then. Perhaps that season was cursed?

1977: 16 teams, double round-robin

The Soviet High League reverted to its familiar formula next season. The draw problem became truly egregious: even the champions, Dynamo Kyiv, had more draws (15) than wins (14). Only three teams (Chornomorets Odessa, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Krilya Sovetov Kuibyshev) drew less than 10 of their 30 games.

1978: draw limit introduced

To combat the alleged match-fixing, the teams were allocated points only for their first 8 draws; beyond that, they received no points. The rule worked rather well: only five teams out of 16 drew more than 8 games (Dynamo Kyiv, Dinamo Moscow, Chornomorets Odessa, Torpedo Moscow, and Lokomotiv Moscow), and the teams scored much more goals in general.

1979: 18 teams, double round-robin

The league was extended to 18 teams in 1979. The draw limit remained at 8 games though, and it was super-harsh: only six teams (Shakhter Donetsk, Dynamo Kyiv, Dinamo Minsk, CSKA Moscow, Neftchi Baku and Krylya Sovetov Kuibyshev) had no points deducted. Spartak Moscow, the champions, had a must-win situation in the last round because of that – they already drew 10 games, so if they didn’t win, they received 0 points and allowed Shakhter to catch up to them, necessitating a play-off.

This year, 15 players of Pakhtakor Tashkent perished in a plane crash over Dneprodzerzhinsk. All Higher League teams sent players to Pakhtakor out of solidarity, and the team was exempt from relegation for three years.

1980: draw limit changed to 10

A less harsh draw limit was optimal for everyone. Only a few teams got points deducted for going over the draw limit. Dinamo Moscow were hit the hardest, losing 4 points (and being pushed from shared 8th to shared 14th place as a result).

1981-1984: no changes

The six 18-team seasons (1979-84) were probably the most exciting in the Soviet football history. Five teams won the championship during that time: Spartak Moscow (1979), Dynamo Kyiv (1980-81), Dinamo Minsk (1982), Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (1983), and Zenit Leningrad (1984).

1985: relegation formula changed

Perestroika had begun. The championship was quite controversial this season; Dynamo Kyiv did win the league fair and square, but there were suspicions that Dnipro played fixed matches to help Oleg Protasov beat Nikita Simonyan’s record (Protasov scored 35 goals in 33 games, 28 of which he scored in last 16 games). Torpedo Kutaisi also won 6 of their last 7 games and managed to remain in the Higher League, despite winning only 5 games of the previous 27.

1986: 16 teams, double round-robin

This season was unique in that zero teams got promoted from the second-tier league. The league got reduced to 16 teams (allegedly, “in the Sbornaya’s interests” again); bottom two teams got relegated directly, and the 15th and 16th teams of the Higher League played a play-off tournament with the two winners of the First League. The First League teams failed to qualify.

Also, this edition of the Soviet League featured only four Russian teams: three from Moscow (Dinamo, Spartak, and Torpedo) and Zenit Leningrad. A far cry from the 1950s league indeed.

The draw limit wasn’t changed, which kind of defeated its purpose. What’s the point of having a draw limit if you could: a) draw a third of your games without repercussions; b) draw any games where you played with a weakened line-up (with two or more players called up to the Sbornaya) without repercussions as well?

In 1987-88, nothing changed in the formula.

1989: draw limit abolished

In 1988, only one team was punished by the draw limit: Lokomotiv Moscow, who drew 12 games (Spartak Moscow and Dinamo Minsk were exempted due to the national-team players rule). So, it was decided that draw limit wasn’t necessary anymore.

1990: 13 teams, double round-robin

The Soviet Union was starting to crumble at that point. Teams from Georgia (Dinamo Tbilisi and Guria Lanchkhuti) and Lithuania (Zalgiris Vilnius) declined to take part in the Soviet championship (Zalgiris did play one game, and then withdrew), but the officials decided not to replace them. So, the penultimate Soviet championship was contested by just 13 teams, 10 of which were from Russia and Ukraine. A call back to the 1950s, of sorts.

1991: 16 teams, double round-robin

The last Soviet season was “back to normal” of sorts. Four teams qualified from the First League (three directly, and Lokomotiv Moscow defeated Rotor Volgograd in play-offs). But the country was already falling apart; a large part of the championship was played after the August putsch, which more or less ended USSR de facto.

So, that’s it. “Tumultuous” is probably the best word to describe the history of Soviet league changes.

And, for good measure, a timely reminder ahead of possible restrusting of the current Premier League.

Author: Alexey Spektrowski

I’m a Spartak Moscow fan who dabbles in Soviet/Russian football history (mostly numerical and statistical). Contributed some data to the Spartak Moscow museum at Otkrytie Arena.

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