Spartak’s Implosion and the Imposter Syndrome

Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Photo: Открытие Арена

Just ten days ago, Spartak Moscow seemed to have everything. A good winning run that brought them within striking distance behind leaders Lokomotiv and ahead of other main rivals and a seemingly clear road to the Cup that they haven’t won for fifteen years.

Many things changed in those ten days. Spartak lost both league games against midtable opponents, letting CSKA get ahead, and got eliminated from the Russian Cup on penalties. Moreover, two of those three games were played at home, where Spartak have been virtually unbeatable for the majority of the last two years.

The situation begs the question: What’s behind this mysterious implosion? Some fans are quick to point fingers to either certain players or the manager, but we’ll come back to that later.

I don’t have any inside access to the team, so I can only guess and speculate. And my guess is that, as any catastrophe, it’s been an accumulation of small things that eventually snowballed out of control.

The first thing contributing to the current situation seems to be, strangely enough, the ill-fated match in Samara that didn’t take place in February due to weather. As a result, in April Spartak got three far-away matches in a row: in Samara (800 km from Moscow), Kaspiysk (1600 km) and Ekaterinburg (1400 km). The players did look more tired than usual in the last few games, so Carrera and his coaching staff likely made some mistakes in training and rehab. Among other things, this resulted in small injuries that plagued Selikhov, Melgarejo and Luiz Adriano.

But further than that, Spartak seem to have been hit with a bad case of impostor syndrome. The team’s fans have been suffering from it for a number of years (aided in their malady by sports press and Spartak veterans), infecting the players too. Many fans think along the lines of, “Any wins or even strings of wins are undeserved coincidences, and any defeat or even loss of points shows what a bunch of losers we really are.”

Massimo Carrera somehow managed to stave off this line of thinking for one season and win the league, but even his motivational powers are not unlimited. He admitted this much at most of the latest press conferences, repeatedly emphasizing the squad’s lack of attitude and passion.

After the Tosno win, Carrera claimed;

The score is the only thing that satisfied me today. Our approach to the game was wrong. We didn’t play as a team that understood the importance of this match. The players decided that they have already won. During the half-time break, I told them that they didn’t look like a title-winning team. I said that nobody gifts anything in football, as in life. If you want to win something, you have to take it. Nothing is predetermined. Games are never easy. You can’t win them before you play.

Then, after Anzhi;

If you don’t go on the field with passion, if you don’t do the work you need to do, any difference in class can be compensated. I didn’t like it when we conceded. This is a sign that the team relaxed.

…and Ural (1-2);

We lacked attitude today. I always say that nobody wins anything on paper, you have to go out and play.

…the Tosno loss;

Anyone can win one game. But you have to do a lot of work to win many games. You have to give your best all the time.” – after Tosno (1-1, 4-5 pens.)

…and finally, after the recent defeat to Akhmat;

Last year, we had a lot of passion. We wanted to win games and become champions. But this year, the team’s approach is more like “be that as it may”. If we win, so be it. If we lose, so be it. That’s the difference.

As long as Spartak still had hopes to win the league, they maintained their undefeated domestic streak that began in late August, and Carrera never questioned their will to win. What could suddenly happen in the last March to make them lose that winning passion?

This is, I maintain, purely speculative, but the first thing that robbed Spartak of confidence was probably the “Amkar facing Lokomotiv in Moscow” debacle. Long-tenured Spartak players know well of the siege mentality that prevailed in the club in late 2000s – early 2010s. “No matter how well we play,?they won’t ever let us win anything.?They?will rob us of our best player, or appoint?their pet referee for a hit job, or score as many points as needed to still finish ahead of us.”

Lokomotiv openly paying Amkar for rescheduling the game to their stadium looked like something on par of forcibly buying out Bystrov in 2009 or handing Welliton a six-game ban for a yellow card due to “a letter from concerned teams” in 2011. I even dare suggest that if Amkar played Lokomotiv after the Spartak – Tosno game, and not before, Spartak wouldn’t have been able to win at all. But Amkar shockingly defeated Lokomotiv right before the Spartak game, helping them regain that confidence.

With Loko seemingly having a slump of form, Spartak destroyed Anzhi away, maintaining the chase. But then Loko defeated Dinamo 4-0 with sudden ease the day before the Ural – Spartak game. Spartak still had a good first half in Ekaterinburg, creating some good moments, but then a third thing happened. It’s small compared to the previous two, but, as the proverb says, for want of a nail… On 37th minute, Promes hit the post, and in the very next attack, Eric Bicfalvi opened the score for Ural. Spartak were never the same after that – making a number of uncharacteristic mistakes (even Carrera said that “we made much more mistakes than usual”) and never being close to equalizing.

With their undefeated streak broken (several more, less important streaks were broken that day: Ural haven’t been able to defeat or even score against Spartak since 2015, and Luiz Adriano missed his first match after playing 30 in a row) and the gap with Lokomotiv increased, Spartak still had great hopes: winning the Cup. The way to the Cup never looked easier – Tosno was the first (and only) RPL team Spartak had to face, and even Tosno, with their recent results, seem poised for relegation. Spartak even scored first, made numerous attempts to score the second goal and seal the result once and for all, but then, in a sad reprise of their September game with the same opponent, conceded a late equalizer and then lost on penalties.

And this probably was when the impostor syndrome really kicked in. One subset of fans was quick to point fingers at the players – “look what a bunch of mediocre losers they really are, they have already sabotaged a number of managers and now decided to repeat the feat.” Another subset was as quick to point fingers at Carrera – “his good results were only a coincidence, and now he’s finally lost it.” Players suffered a lot of abuse in their social media accounts, which also certainly didn’t lift the morale.

All this finally came to head in the Akhmat game. Spartak still started the match well, especially in the light of Lokomotiv’s two recent 0-0 draws, but completely crumbled after an early goal from Akhmat. Their insecurity was even more evident than their tiredness as the players made futile attempts to break through the well-organized Akhmat defence, and everything became completely bleak after two more goals on the counter.

There is seemingly still some hope for Spartak, however. Despite lamenting the “let it be” attitude, Carrera still had some praise for the lads after they scored a late consolation goal and created a couple more chances after that. “I’m happy that the team reacted to the situation in the right way, but too late”, he said at the press conference. Last season, Spartak suffered several crushing defeats but always bounced back with win streaks. Now is the right time to do just that again, if they don’t want to lose their Champions League spot – reportedly, Carrera might be sacked if Spartak finish outside the top three.

The team might recover, but the fans’ psychological wounds are much deeper. A whole generation of Spartak supporters grew up without seeing the team winning a trophy, and the impostor syndrome is strong with them. Some have even found comfort in this situation, assuming a moral high ground of sorts and feeling odd satisfaction whenever there’s a target for criticism. I fear that this attitude will take much longer to stamp out than one successful season. Or even three.


Author: Nhà Cái Trực Tuyến Hàng Đầu Châu Á́́Alexey ‘Spektrowski’ Zakharov

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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