The Englishmen who brought football to Russia

FC Orekhovo Zuevo

Orekhovo-Zuevo’s team in 1913 | Source:

On March 8, 1898, Ivan Shisihkin, a Russian painter famous for his realistic paintings of landscapes died in St. Petersburg. On the same day, the first ever official football game was played on Russian soil at the first military academy parade ground on Vasilievsky Island of St. Petersburg. The game stood between teams consisting of both Russian and English players.

In the years before the game, St. Petersburg – at the time the capital of the Russian Empire – had experienced an influx of foreigners, especially Englishmen, and with them came the game of football. Throughout the Empire, football games were thus organized by the expats who also set up sports clubs to practice their sport during their free time.

As expected, Moscow was not forgotten by the servants of the English throne. In 1895, the English working in the Hopper plant practiced football at their working place. After one year, under the impulse of Robert Fulda, the Georges Duperron of Moscow, and with the support of other sport fans, a commission was established with the goal of building a playing field to practice sport. It was soon after finished in a park in the Sokolniki district in the north-east of Moscow. There, in 1896, Robert Fulda and his friends founded the Sokolniki Circle and played tennis and football. At the time, football was nothing more than a chaotic game of ten players chasing a ball. However, that changed in 1904, when Robert Fulda translated the rules of the game into Russian.

Footbal in the nation reached a zenith in both quality and popularity when in 1912 the newspaper Sport featured an interview with and memoirs from a former player. He told that he had first heard of the game in 1904, when one of his friends came back from a trip to Europe and told him about the sport. The next day, children began playing reds against whites at a playground in Sokolniki.

After this experience, they organized a match between the English and Russian players. Despite a numerical inferiority (seven Englishmen v eight Russians), the English won the match scoring eight goals.

In 1905, nine years after the foundation of Sokolniki Circle, Fulda founded the Sokolniki Sports Club. At the time, several clubs were started by the British under names such as British Sports Circle or the Union, while Russians also started their own clubs. Through these clubs, football underwent a massive development throughout the entire Moscow region.

In 1909 a sports club was set up in Orekhovo Zuevo at the Morozov factory, 89 kilometers to the east of Moscow, and her, the history of Russian football was written.

Religion the main obstacle

Today, the city is still packed with impressive red bricks buildings, which reminds both tourists and Musovites of its glorious industrial past.

Formed by the merger of several villages, Orekhovo Zuevo is one of the oldest textile centers of Russia. In 1890, there were 17 large factories in the city, where more than 30,000 people were employed within. These factories saw numerous social protests as well as important strikes. In fact, it was strikes at the Nikolsky textile factory, that led to the first legislation acts of the Russian Federation’s labour code. Although it was decisive in the social fight, the Nikolsky factory was also going to be important in other areas.

Morozov factory

Morozov factory, Orekhovo-Zuevo | Source: Livejournal

The history of football in Orekhovo Zuevo is closely linked to the Charnock brothers, Clement and Harry. They were born at Chorley in Lancashire, England. Growing up a few miles from Blackburn, the brothers naturally supported local side Blackburn Rovers. The club won five English cup trophies between 1884 and 1891, and it was at this time Clement Charnock moved to Russia to help his father at his textile factory in Orekhovo Zuevo. Clement Charnock was a big football fan and a former member of Blackburn Rovers’ founding organisation, and in 1887 he attempted to organize another football club. Despite all his efforts though, he failed, and the team folded when he returned to England in 1893.

Harry Charnock

Harry Charnock | Source: Livejournal

Just after however, his brother Harry arrived, and he revived the idea. This saw a growing interest in football appear in the city of Orekhovo Zuevo. The workers, foremen, engineers, administration staff and office workers all played together as equals. Not only did this create a sense of unity, it also gave the workers something to do in their free time other than consuming vodka.

Unfortunately, Harry Charnock faced resistance from the local population, where the majority belonged to a conservative part of the Orthodox church. At the Morozov factory, several key positions were occupied by these old believers, including the owner.

These ultra-conservatives were against any form of foreign influence, and the scepticism only grew, when foreigners asked the young people to wear shorts. In 1946, Harry Charnock told an anecdote to the newspaper British Ally;

Jerseys and soccer shoes were ordered in England. Shorts had to be made by the players themselves. As a result, we saw players wearing shorts that went all the way down to the ankle.

Football or revolution?

While the conservatism of the area slowed down the development of the football, it couldn’t prevent it leaping forward eventually.

In St. Petersburg and Moscow, the number of clubs increased rapidly when Fulda presented the game’s rules on paper in Russian. Orekhovo Zuevo took this opportunity to structure itself, but once again not without problems.

Harry Charnock had to be persistent to be able to create a new club as the powerful industrial characters of the city didn’t help him. The revolution of 1905 revealed that the revolutionary movements were more likely to break out in industrial cities, and the authorities suspected that sports organisations could hide revolutionary intentions. Political fear wasn’t Charnock’s only enemy. He also fought against a renowed doctor, who claimed that football increased the risk of lung diseases and various fractures. In the end, Charnock personally went to the regional governor of Vladimir, to persuade him into allowing the club.

Charnock later recalled that he first had to explain the governor what football was. What convinced the governor was a copy of the conservative German magazine Die Woche, which showed the German prince playing football. To this, the wife of the governor told her husband;

This must be extremely good for the healt, and a good way to train. You have to play!

Afterwards the case was settled as the governor expressed his respect for the English and their influence and inventions.

Orekhovo Zuevo club charter, 1910 | Source Livejournal.

On November 16th, 1909, the Sport Club of Orekhovo finally saw the light. The creation charter explained the club’s various sports activities, which included football, tennis, cricket and skating, which would all be enjoyed in the respect of the laws of the Russian Empire. The charter furthermore defined the club’s official colours. Those were to be blue and white, just like Harry Charnock’s favourite club, Blackburn Rovers.

A glorious start

A few months before the club was officially founded, it had played a game against the Sokolniki team, which was subject of an article in the Russki Sport magazine;

The Morozov factory team was half English. The first impression was excellent. Despite the fact that the Morozovtsey played very well, the Sokolniki opened the score in the 16th minute. We may withhold in Morozovtsey the influence of Charnock.

The Sokolniki team won the game 2-1, but the Morozov team had passed its first test.

In 1909, several teams competed in the unofficial Fulda Cup for clubs based around Moscow. The Moscow Football League didn’t start until 1910, and it consisted of three divisions with the Club of Orekhovo competing in the first division as the only non-Moscow club. The teams played eight matches, and the Club of Orekhovo won seven of them, thus becoming the first Muscovite champions ever.

In the book I Support Spartak, Mikhail Romm, a former Russian football player, recalls one of the games of the tournament;

The stadium was totally full. The trees around were turned into additional stands. The supporters of Orekhovo Zuevo didn’t look like the others at all with their jackets, their work shirts and their boots covered with grease, while the public of Moscow was clean with coat and bowler hats. The audience cheered for the players with huge enthusias as they appeared on the pitch for the warm up. The fans cheered for the players as they came out to warm up. They helped them become the best team in Moscow.

The good performance secured six Orekhovo players a spot on the Moscow selection that played two games against a St. Petersburg selection in September 1910.

Muscovite domination

At this point, football had become so popular, that even religious authorities began creating teams of their own. The simplicity of the game attracted enormous crowds and slowly women also began playing football.

Despite the growing interest, Orekhovo Zuevo continued to dominate and won the Moscow Football League in the following three years until the beginning of World War One. The team was built around a core of British players with the Charnock’s being among the stars. It also spoke to Orekhovo Zuevo’s advantage that it was one of the best organised teams in the league, and that it had the best equipment and team managers. Finally, it had fanatical fans, who supported the team passionately when it played at home. This wasn’t always in the spirit of the gentlemen Brits, but it helped the side.

The team performed so well, that Orekhovo Zuevo was considered the third capital of football in the Russian Empire together with St. Petersburg and Moscow.

And the war arrived…

Unfortunately, World War One stopped the development of football. The Orekhovo team saw its players enlisted to defend the homeland, and thus it couldn’t defend its title, which instead went to Zamoskvoretskyi in 1914. The Moscow League continued to exist despite the war, and the political and economic situation of Russia.

In fact, it was politics that stopped the football league and not the war. In November 1917, shortly after the revolution, the club was requisitioned and transformed into a tea room. The majority of the Englishmen left Orekhovo Zuevo and Russia, leaving the Charnocks alone behind.

Harry Charnock remained in the Soviet Union until 1947. During World War Two, he took care of the delivery of textile and footwear in Moscow. Until his death, he practiced football. In 1946, during Dinamo Moscow’s famous tour to England, he published a booklet entitled The Dinamo and the Other, in which he was presented as the vice president of the Moscow Football League.

To this day, the Orekhovo Zuevo remains one of the most important historical clubs of Russian football, and they have the Charnocks to thank for that.

Author: Vincent Tanguy

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