Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jim's Moscow memories

Jim's Moscow memories.
I once entered 'The Rising Dough Bakery', a small establishment in central Cardiff, wearing an Ajax t-shirt. The old Dutchman who worked there, well into his '70s at least, took one look at my attire and said with a wistful smile, "I used to play for them, you know."

Half incredulous, I demanded he told me more, so he rolled off a string of hazy memories of football in wartime Amsterdam. I took his word for it but I still don't know if that old baker was telling the absolute truth and I didn't have the time to delve into the KNVB archives of a generation ago to put my mind wholly at rest.

The latest edition of When Saturday Comes repeats similar doubts raised over the veracity of Jim Riordan's memoir 'Comrade Jim: The Spy Who Played for Spartak,' in which the author, former university professor of Russian and British Communist Party member, recounts how he played twice for Spartak Moscow in the early 1960s.

Having interviewed Riordan for Soccerphile, I can only say he came across as an honest man with a plausible life story.

His recollection of Spartak's opponents and/or the time of year the two games he played in might appear to be mistaken, but given it was 46 years ago, I think this is understandable. I have fond memories of playing Italian amateur football 15 years ago but couldn't tell you exactly who I played and when.

The lack of paper proof places inevitable question marks over Riordan's story, but Russia is a country which refuses to address its past in a way we cannot comprehend. The USSR was not exactly renowned for its transparency at the height of the Cold War, and its football clubs were surely bent enough to have slipped in the odd unregistered player when required.

In his interview with Soccerphile, Riordan addressed his naysayers thus:

"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 (the Spartak coach) 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. 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."

Riordan also cited reminiscing with his ex-Spartak teammate Igor Netto when he was visiting England about them playing together, and former Russia captain Alexei Smertin telling him he had met people in Moscow who remembered his cameos for the club.

His recollection of dates might be a little shaky half a century on, but I find it hard to believe a university don who has written and lectured on Russian studies for 30 years has gone to such trouble constructing such an elaborate and audacious falsehood as some have claimed.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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