Many teams have faced make or break, do or die, must-win games – but few have found their battle for existence quite as starkly determined as Krylya Sovietov Moscow. The Krylya Sovietov brand (the name means ‘Wings of the Soviets’ in Russian) was established as the Soviet aviation sector took off in the inter-war years. The rapidly industrialising socialist state made great strides in air transport, and the industry employed thousands in the manufacture of aircraft. Two major centres for this work grew up: one in Moscow, in the area between Semyonovskaya and Aviamotornaya metro stations; a second in Kuibyshev (now Samara), on the Volga. Each formed a football team – Krylya Sovietov – and each sought to play in the USSR’s big leagues.
This proved unworkable: aviation was not a profitable sector and there simply wasn’t the cash to fund two teams. By 1948 things came to a head and it was decided that the team with the best head-to-head results that season would survive while the other would be axed. A draw at home and a defeat in Kuibyshev spelled the end for the Moscow club.
Or did it? The Salyut aviation factory, manufacturers of engines for turbo-prop and later jet aircraft, kept going. Its sports field, just opposite the factory gates, was still in use and the factory sports club continued to offer workers the chance to put their free time to productive, politically-correct use by taking on a wide range of sports. Even today, a court for Gorodki, a once-popular pasttime that slightly resembles skittles, still operates, along with ballroom dancing and seasonal ice pads. In the midst of all this, the football ground, complete with its faux-classical entrance and Soviet-camp statues, survived … and ultimately so did the team.
Today Krylya Sovietov play in the Russian amateur leagues. Division 4 (Moscow), to be precise. It’s about as far down the Russian pyramid as you can get, and so low that they don’t even get to use their own stadium. Instead of well-tended grass before a decent-sized, colourfully refurbished stand, these young hopefuls are banished to a distant spot of astroturf, flanked on two sides by a gas pipe. The main stadium is used for the annual celebrity charity tournament ‘Under the Flag of Kindness’, and occasional contests involving factory teams. Once, in about 2008, it hosted some second-tier games when Sportakademklub, now playing at the bizarre Soviet fantasy of the Izmailovo Stadium, tried to storm the pro leagues. Attempts to step inside for a quick photo were rebuffed by a security guard who insisted that it would need clearance from unspecified directors. The chain link fence was more accommodating to cameras.
A 10-minute walk from the resident jobsworth, the game was just kicking off on its undistinguished field. Krylya, in an all-white kit unadorned by any decoration save for a discreet manufacturer’s logo, faced the yellow-shirted Smena. The local support wasn’t hugely attentive, nor hugely optimistic. A couple arriving just before half time asked the score and seemed shocked to hear the Krylya were leading courtesy of an early free kick. Aesthetically there wasn’t much to get excited about either although standing behind the goal gave a pleasing geometric pattern, with the rectangle of the goal frame echoed by the larger frame that supported the netting around the field and, in the distance, a pair of typically foresquare post-war apartment blocks. Down the side the view showed where we could have been. The brightly coloured seats of the main arena were visible in the background.
Spectator facilities were predictably limited. Fans who weren’t early enough to grab one of the three park benches had a choice between perching on that gas pipe or stand around the perimeter fence. No electronic scoreboard either – a rare absence even at this level – although there was the start of a manual one. The team names were in place, but nobody bothered to add any numbers as Krylya eased to a 4-0 victory. Mr. Mobile Phone, another common sight at this level, was nowhere to be heard: perhaps even the bookies had lost interest in this fixture. So had many of those watching. One girl, sitting bored with her boyfriend, texted incessantly until halftime before they both left, leading their dog as they went. A group of old-timers reminisced about European ties of the 1980s, the days when Dynamo played Rapid Vienna. For Krylya Sovietov Moscow, history stopped decades earlier and has yet to really restart.