I pronounced the word "Spartak" for the first time after I said "Mummy" and "Daddy", that's for sure. But I can swear it was not much later. 

It couldn't have been otherwise in my family. Bright and naughty Odessa, where my parents were born, had never really followed the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The capital of humour in the Soviet Union, it always called itself a "free city". That most people there supported Spartak Moscow as opposed to their main rivals, Dynamo Kyiv, was one of the indications of this inner freedom. 

Of course, odessits supported the local team, Chernomorets, too. But they didn't have much success. So, in the Russian or Ukrainian mentality, you have to choose as your second team one of the big guns. There was a reason that the best Odessa footballers, if they had freedom of choice, left mostly for Spartak and not to Kyiv.

My family also left, before I was born. Not to Spartak, of course, but to Moscow. But, actually, it was more or less the same thing. 

More than 40 years earlier, my uncle, a popular Soviet lyricist, left a Moscow maternity home where his daughter just had been born. Garik, as he was called in the family, was, deep down, a little bit sad. He had wanted a son who could have prolonged the family tradition of supporting Spartak. Because of some important meeting my uncle couldn't stay too long, but his parents, my grandfather and grandmother, saw through the window how he stopped abruptly in the garden outside the maternity home and started to discuss something with a stranger, gesticulating passionately.

Growing anxious, they decided to go to check everything was all right. As soon as they heard the first sounds of a conversation, everything became clear. A devoted spartakovets, Garik had met a fan of Dinamo Moscow. Words followed upon words — and in a few minutes the debaters were surrounded by a crowd. The birth of his daughter and an important meeting were shifted to the back burner...

Could you imagine, after this story, that I had any chance to support another team?

In our family all the men were spartakovtsy — two grandfathers, my dad and my uncle. Even my grandmother wasn't indifferent. She said that when all the family was watching a game on TV, and the Krasno-Belye (Red-and-Whites) scored, our simultaneous shout could have cracked the walls of nearby buildings. Finally, in 1981, they decided to take me, then eight years old, to the stadium for the first time. My family tried to pick the right moment. I had been a ‘TV-supporter' already for two years, but they didn't want a first live experience to be a disappointment for the kid. They didn't want there to be any possibility that I would lose interest in football and Spartak. Or, even worse, to start supporting another team.

But the game they chose looked safe: Spartak against SKA Rostov in the final of the Soviet Cup. Rostov were outsiders, a team from the bottom of the league. Spartak had once had the reputation of being a ‘Cup team', but before 1981 they hadn't won it in 11 years — and they were awfully hungry for the Cup. The final took place on Victory Day (9 May, the anniversary of the Nazis signing the Act of Capitulation in the Second World War). So, two grandfathers, veterans of the War with all their orders and medals, my dad and me walked to Luzhniki — slowly, prolonging the pleasure...

...Spartak lost. Their central defender Alexander Mirzoyan failed from the penalty spot for the first time in his life and near the end the Rostov striker Sergey Andreev converted the only chance his side created. In the struggle between father-in-law and son-in-law — the manager of Spartak, Konstantin Beskov, and his inexperienced opponent from Rostov, Vladimir Fedotov — the younger man was the winner. I howled. I couldn't imagine that a couple of decades later I would be able to discuss that game with all its heroes, or that Fedotov, who wounded me in the heart, would become Spartak manager — the manager most loved by Spartak fans in the last decade.

Contrary to the fears of the grown-ups, I didn't stop supporting Spartak after that black afternoon. The drama I suffered, rather, drew me even closer to the team. The same year my father found somewhere a home-made Spartak logo and sewed it onto an ordinary red T-shirt. At that time we didn't even dream about real merchandise, so I loved that T-shirt more than anything in my life. I played football and went to tennis classes in it. It there hadn't been a standard uniform for Soviet schoolchildren, I would also have studied in it.

At 14 I started to attend Spartak home games regularly. At 16, when Valery Shmarov scored from a free kick in the last minute of a decisive league game against Dynamo Kyiv, I lost my voice for a week. I also remember how, a year later, in the autumn of 1990, the legendary Soviet TV announcer Vladimir Maslachenko took me, a 17-year-old rookie reporter (I had just interviewed him), to the commentators' booth in the Luzhniki for a game between Spartak and CSKA Moscow. I felt in seventh heaven, helping the famous man with some stats. At times it felt like I'd be blown up from the inside I was struggling so hard not to shout but to whisper — and this was being broadcast to the whole Soviet Union.

But I withstood the test. And in the second half, as I became a bit calmer, I started to understand what it means to watch football with the objective view of a journalist, not a fan. At that time, the situation forced me to do that. It was only much later that I'd start to enjoy it. 

You can love Spartak in different ways. You can do it somewhere deep inside, not deafening your neighbour in the stands with heartrending yell of "Go-o-o-al!", not abusing a referee, not screaming disgusting curses about an opposition team. You can love Spartak while rating highly those who play against them. And you can calmly acknowledge that an opponent was stronger on the night.  

In the summer of 1990 I went on a trip along the Volga River and met a lad the same age as me from Kyiv. For two weeks we argued all day long about what's more important in football — spectacular performance (the Spartak way) or pure result (Dynamo), beautiful combinations or powerful breaks on the flank, a manager of football art like Beskov or a strict mathematician like Lobanovskyi. But during this argument, putting forward our own views, we came to feel respect not only for a counterpart but also for his club, a club we had previously seen as an enemy. Football for both of us became much wider and, for me, I think, it made the transition from fan to journalist much faster. One of my best friends, a successful scientist, has lived for years in Germany. But wherever we meet, we remember that trip on the Volga, which made us a little bit wiser. Because it was then that we learned to respect other people's beliefs, while not giving up our own. 

Spartak had never been for me just the team I support. It was my life philosophy. 

Spartak for me is the USSR striker Nikita Simonyan who, after winning the 1956 Olympic final, tried to give his medal to the young Eduard Streltsov. Streltsov had played in Simonyan's position in every game except the last one, but there were only 11 medals and they were given only to those who had played in the final. Streltsov refused to take the medal, but Simonyan's offer sums up the Spartak spirit.

Spartak for me is the USSR captain Igor Netto, who approached a referee during the USSR v Chile game at the 1962 World Cup to tell him that Igor Chislenko's shot had gone into the goal through a hole in the side netting, and that he should give a goal-kick, not a goal.

Spartak for me are the Starostin brothers, the founders of the club. One of them, Andrei, once uttered a phrase that became an idiom: "Everything is lost except honour." The fact that the Starostins were sent to the gulag by the head of the KGB and Dinamo Moscow, Lavrentiy Beriya, also became an important part of Spartak's history. 

Spartak for me is also a sad 1976, when the club for the only time in its history left the top division of the Soviet championship. There were enough important supporters of Spartak to lobby for the top division to be expanded ‘as an exception'. It had happened before when Zenit Leningrad retained its place in the top flight in 1967 despite finishing last, on account of it being the fiftieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution — the Bolshevik mutiny which radically changed Russian and world history. But the Starostin brothers took a principled decision not to make this humiliating appeal for mercy. A year later, Spartak, under Konstantin Beskov, returned to the top flight. Two years later they were Soviet champions.

Spartak for me is Beskov, who approached the defender Sergei Bazulev after the loss of the decisive league game in 1983 against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. The winner had been scored by the Dnipro striker Oleh Taran, who had run away from Bazulev. The defender's last chance was to foul Taran from behind, but he didn't do that. And in the dressing room, which was seething with negative emotions, Beskov told Bazulev, "I don't reproach you. Your decision was right."

The youngest generation of football fans usually follows winners. That happened in the nineties, when Oleg Romantsev's Spartak became champions almost every year (nine times out of ten from 1992 to 2001). Supporting them was an every-ticket-wins lottery. But there was a great paradox in the wild popularity of Beskov's Spartak of the eighties. Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kyiv, not Spartak, were the most successful Soviet club that time: during Beskov's management the Krasno-Belye won only two titles (meanwhile, they set a record, finishing in the top three nine times in a row), whereas Kyiv at the same time took five gold medals. The Spartak of the Beskov era, though, acquired millions of supporters throughout the Soviet Union. They were stunned when Spartak beat Arsenal 5-2 at Highbury in 1982, and the home fans gave Spartak a standing ovation after the game. We understood that England, the home of football, appreciated the style of our beloved team.

A few years ago, the Spartak veterans team went to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and drew 20,000 spectators at the stadium. After the collapse of USSR and war in the central Asian republic, that sort of crowd had never appeared at any football game. But they came to see the veterans, because the memory of Beskov's football couldn't be eliminated even by war.

And Beskov never decided games off the pitch. His Spartak pulsed with a naïve, childlike purity in the musty Soviet football of seventies, when the authorities even limited the number draws from which a side could take points to try to fight the scourge of draws agreed in advance. Valeriya Beskova, the wife of the manager, told me, "Beskov always spoke about Lobanovskyi with respect as a professional. But he openly criticised him for his tendency to fix games. That was always the difference between them." 

Perhaps some beautiful legends, which surrounded Spartak, were exaggerated at first by viewers, then by their interpreters. But the whole point is that for decades Spartak taught its followers to be honest and respectable people. That is exactly what is meant by the term "Spartak spirit".

In a recent television programme about the Starostin brothers, the famous Russian writer Vasily Aksenov said, "Those who supported Spartak indirectly showed their antipathy to the KGB and other structures of repression." Most theatre actors were Spartak fans. A lot of cultured people, who tried to feel free at least deep inside, had loved Spartak since the 1930s. I was always proud that my uncle, Igor Shaferan, was clearly not the last in that list. 

One of the best classical pianists of modern times, Denis Matsuev, is such a devoted fan that one day he astonished the world of symphonic music. Imagine the following scene. The famous Moscow concert hall named after Tchaikovsky filled with stars of jazz and classical music. Tailcoats, bow ties, stiff collars — everything as it should be in this situation, with just one exception: all the participants wore Spartak scarfs.  Believe me, it's not my imagination. It happened in the second part of a concert dedicated to the 30th birthday of Matsuev who, at 15, agreed to move to Moscow from his native Irkutsk in Siberia only after his parents explained that he'd be able to watch his beloved Spartak live. He began a new life five hours' flight from home, studying in the Conservatory and, more importantly, attending each Spartak home game.

The hard core of spartakovtsy considers me one of the biggest enemies of Spartak. Many times I've been accused of betraying the club. For most fans, the love a journalist has for a team means flattery. If he praises it any time, regardless of whether their club deserves it or not, he is a real spartakovets. If he criticises and speaks about defects, he is an enemy. 

A journalist and a fan look at football from different angles. I'm a journalist. I'm not indifferent to Spartak, and I love it in my heart — but I am a journalist. And I can express my love of Spartak by sharing my pain for its crises with others in the newspaper and in my books. If I was cool-blooded, the fans wouldn't let my stories into their hearts and would have forgotten them immediately. The thing I fear most when I write is indifference. 

Even in the nineties I got the feeling that respectable people were starting to turn away from Spartak. For that audience the team always embodied freedom, but at that time it turned in something official, ostentatious, showy. After wins its dressing room was full of bigwigs and politicians. The stinking term "the people's team" appeared from nowhere and started to be used everywhere. 

Yes, Spartak has always been the most popular club, loved by all sections of society because it never belonged to any official department in the way Dinamo represented the police and the KGB and CSKA the Army. But Spartak never before boasted of its popularity, never proclaimed its all-nation ambition, not least because to do so implied that other teams were anti-national. Spartak and its fans have were never so arrogant before the mid-nineties.

In the 74 years of Soviet power, it became inappropriate for a humble person to refer to "the people". Awful things were done in the country under that banner; it was used specifically when the will of the people had nothing to do with what those in authority were doing. For me, talking of "the people's team" was a bad sign. What happened next confirmed my sense of foreboding.

In my parents' house there is a ‘nostalgia wall' and I look at it several times a year to remember how things were many years ago. On the wall are dozens of pennants featuring portraits of Spartak stars of the eighties which, as a fan, I look on with delight. On the wall is a poster of the brilliant Spartak team of 1992-93, which looked sure to play in the Cup Winners' Cup final only for the Portuguese referee Jorge Monteiro Coroado to give a mysterious penalty to Royal Antwerp in the semi-final. You remember that, and your heart bleeds. On the wall is a huge black-and-white photo of my favourite footballer of all time, Fyodor Cherenkov, taken at the Tarasovka training ground in 1990 after I'd conducted one of the first interviews of my life. In the background behind us you can see the statue of Lenin and a wooden building, both of them destroyed 20 years ago.

I'll never forget those teenage years, when the thing that could make me happiest was a Spartak win and the most terrible sorrow I could face was a Spartak loss. But it's impossible, of course, to get that back. Spartak and I have both become different, grown apart. But for a fan a beloved team is something sacred. He wants to be proud of it and to bring up his children with its example. Even though I'm no longer a fan but a journalist I desperately want Spartak to return to this ideal one day. And I don't want my kid to ask me a question about Spartak that I can't answer for shame. And that's why I'm writing this story.

The autumn of 1991. The Uefa Cup home game against AEK Athens ends in a boring 0-0 draw. The team gloomily leaves the Luzhniki dressing room and refuses en masse the fans' requests for autographs. 

The 37-year-old manager Oleg Romantsev is the last to leave the dressing room. He approaches frustrated fans without a second of doubt. He apologises for the result, the performance and the players' behaviour with a sad smile, answers all their questions and signs dozens of autographs.

It's a strange feeling: 20 years ago I saw that happen, and yet now I can hardly believe that it did, so great was the change in the coach and atmosphere around him. I can trust my memory only after looking at a photo from 1992 in which Romantsev is playing chess with the forward Dmitry Radchenko and nearby his strike-partner, the future star Valery Karpin, and the assistant coach Viktor Zernov are light-heartedly laughing. It would be impossible to fake the sincerity the young coach radiates in that picture, and yet in a few years it would be gone forever.

The change in Romantsev's personality is tied to the distressing story of Spartak's downfall. The creator became a tired guru and, instead of being a coach-brother who shook the hand of his players even if they'd been sent off, he became the angry stepfather, thrashing his stepson even for the smallest fault. Worst of all, those thrashings were public. The defender Yevgeny Bushmanov, for instance, having played poorly in a Champions League match against Lyon in 2000, found out from the post-match press-conference that he was "finished with football".

In his first years at Spartak, Romantsev spoke with pleasure about Dostoyevsky and other writers. He respected the opinions of others even when they differed from his own. His counterpart at Lokomotiv, Yuri Semin, remained the same and so when things went wrong for him the media reacted with far more warmth. But nobody showed any pity for Romantsev.

Every season the drug of victory destroyed his openness and his humanity. Compare the following four statements. "Spartak," he said in 1992, "has always been a team with a special human atmosphere. I shouldn't take credit for creating this atmosphere. That's wrong. I just didn't prevent these lads from uniting." Then, in 1994, he said, "When I invited these players to the team, I told them right away that first of all we'd consider their interests. People are more important for me than money... You have to remain a normal human being both in football and in life."

By 2000, though, his attitude had changed. Asked if he loved his players, he replied, "Why do I have to love them? I just have to treat them professionally. That's enough." And the following year he said, "When I started to coach, the great ice-hockey manager Anatoly Tarasov said to me, ‘Oleg, in our profession we must be able to "cut the meat".'"

The first two statements and the last two stand like the opposite banks of a river of changes in the personality of the Spartak coach. At the end of the eighties his warmth and naturalness ‘unfroze' players after the severity of the guru Beskov, but by the beginning of the 2000s, many footballers admitted they had never had a one-on-one conversation with Romantsev and that his anxious and unpredictable reaction to the slightest word or a gesture turned Spartak into, as one player put it, "a room of fear". In the early days under Romantsev, Tarasovka had been visited by famous Spartak fans from the world of science or art, but within a few years Spartak became an inaccessible fortress that lived under military rule.

Romantsev's image was of a football person pure and simple, far removed from other problems. People used to talk of him as a grateful, if wayward and at times unbearable, successor of the Starostins, who was above taking money. People forgave him for saying things like the status of a Spartak reserve was greater than that of an Olympic champion. Yes, such words suggested an arrogance and single-mindedness but that just meant Romantsev was a man who was totally devoted to Spartak and absolutely honest with it.

But the public personality of the best Russian coach of the nineties was only part of it. There was another Romantsev who was not purely about football. That Romantsev in the mid-nineties quietly changed from being a successful coach to the main shareholder of a closed corporation called "Spartak", and the shares came to him for free: it was a special time in Russia. Ten years later Romantsev, with the same silence, sold his shares to the scandalous Andrei Chervichenko, who sacked him soon after. 

A long time before the Chervichenko affair, the secret Romantsev surrounded himself with people of dubious reputation, such as the former vice-president Grigory Yesaulenko whom Sir Alex Ferguson accused of having offered a £40,000 cash bribe while he was the agent of the winger Andriy Kanchelskis to force through a move to Everton.

Is that the sort of person who should be second in command at "the people's club"? When Romantsev was sacked in 2003, he told the press that it was necessary to "go back to the good times we had recently, when everyone at the club did his job and took responsibility for it". Yet in the nineties a CEO of the club, Larisa Nechaeva, was shot by a hitman, while the Attorney General's Office opened a case into the disappearance of the money Spartak received for the transfer of the midfielder Dmitry Alenichev to Roma.

Having said all that, it would be unfair to forget about the first Romantsev. After working with him, Karpin, for instance, said that, "Before Romantsev I didn't know anything about football." Many other players have said the same, including Alenichev who scored in both finals when Porto won the Uefa Cup and Champions League under José Mourinho. For all of them, Romantsev remains the ideal coach. So why did the second Romantsev beat the first one?

The key moment in the history of Spartak in the nineties was when Romantsev, as well as being head coach, became club president. Much later, people found out that he was also the main shareholder. It was the perfect concatenation of roles, because it meant he couldn't be sacked. It's a very Russian situation: Spartak, with a heritage that touches millions; Spartak, where the Starostin brothers created a unique democracy for Soviet football clubs; suddenly turned into the empire of a single person. And because of the absolute nature of his power and the absence of control, both the club and the man began to decay.

The club's founder Nikolay Starostin was too old to interfere. He had appointed Romantsev as head coach in 1989, but by 1993 he was 91 and didn't have the same power. At first, the decision to name Romantsev as president was presented as a temporary measure to persuade the players not to leave before the first Champions League campaign in Spartak's history. But in Russia there is nothing more constant than temporary.

In 1995, the new CEO, Larisa Nechaeva, took from Starostin the red BMW the club had provided and gave him instead a Zhiguli, a dreadful Soviet car. Romantsev didn't intervene. Starostin himself took a breath and said, "God will punish her" — although he surely didn't imagine she would be killed by a murderer's bullet.

Starostin died in February 1996. For the last two years of his life, he didn't attend pre-game meetings, which previously would have been unthinkable. His presence and his short speeches before the players left the dressing-room were a ritual for decades; he had a remarkable knack of geeing up the team with a single phrase or anecdote. Before one game against Dinamo in the sixties, for instance, Starostin listened to a rambling tactical speech from the coach, then noticed a fly on the dressing-room wall. He took a newspaper, killed it with a single swat and said, "We'll do the same with this damned Dinamo." And they did.

Romantsev didn't directly prohibit Starostin from coming to the pre-game talks, but he did recommend that he stopped attending. Perhaps he felt the old man was becoming a distraction, but in retrospect it looks like he couldn't accept anybody's influence over Spartak was greater than his.

Romantsev started to "cut the meat" in 1999, by which time he was a year into his second stint as Russia coach. The first to go was Ilya Tsymbalar, a skilful odessit who was the captain and an idol of the public. He was ousted from Spartak after Sergei Pavlov, Romantsev's assistant with the national side, told his boss that he'd been found slightly drunk at Tarasovka before a Russia B international.

That decision had a serious impact on morale and not just because it was the captain who'd been got rid of. There seemed a terrible disparity between crime and punishment. Only four months earlier, it had been Tysmbalar's brilliant pass to Karpin at the Stade de France that had made Romantsev a national hero as Russia beat the world champions France in qualifying for Euro 2000. But suddenly, he was exiled from the training ground. 

The following year the process continued on a mass scale.

The incident that generated the most headlines came when Andrei Tikhonov, a charismatic leader and a hero of the fans, was dismissed midway through the season. A decade later, with Tikhonov serving as assistant coach to Karpin and Romantsev employed as an advisor, it's still discussed. The previous year Tikhonov had scored 19 goals and proved himself probably the best forward in the country, but Romantsev threw him out, referring to him as "used material". He kept playing for another eleven years; Romantsev's managerial career lasted only another four.

Every year, Romantsev's meat cleaver worked faster and faster. In 1997, Romantsev used 24 players. In 1998, he used 22. In 1999, 24. What happened later couldn't be explained by the appearance of a new owner, because Romantsev still had absolute control. In 2000 there were 30; in 2001, 36, in 2002, 35. In three years Romantsev used 50 new players. One of the characters in Vladimir Voinovich's book Ivan Chonkin dreamed of creating a vegetable called "The Way to Socialism", a hybrid of potato and tomato. In those years it seemed that character had moved into football, even though Romantsev had previously been sensitive in his handling of players.

Romantsev and the media is a special topic. For the last seven or eight years of his time as coach he regularly ignored the obligatory post-game press conferences, for which the club had to pay fines to the league. But even when he did turn up, the media had to create a whole science of what kind of questions could be asked.

For instance, if you took a risk and asked why a particular player had played badly, there was no chance of an answer: only he, he said, could evaluate whether a performance was good or bad. The question had to be phrased differently — "What did you think of a particular player's performance?" — or he would simply reply with an icy, "Next question."

After one question the next had to follow immediately; if there was the slightest pause, he would get up and leave.

The story of my relations with Romantsev is typical. If life has turned you from a fan into a reporter, there must be a line in the way you deal with players and managers; you have to be able to separate mutual respect from becoming overfriendly or sycophantic even if you're writing about your favourite team. And believe me: if you follow a team too closely, disappointment is inevitable.

In the first half of the nineties, I was a regular visitor to Tarasovka with some privileges. In the summer of 1994, for instance, Romantsev gave me his first exclusive interview as Russian national manager. To get away from my many colleagues, we hid in the toilet of the Russian Olympic Committee.

But a couple of phrases were enough to tear our relationship. In the first game of the Champions League in 1994-95, Spartak played Dynamo in Kyiv, a repeat of the old Soviet clasico. At that time, Spartak were comfortable leaders in the league, 10 points clear under the old two-points for-a-win system. The two regular centre-backs, Viktor Onopko and Yuriy Nikiforov, were suspended for the game in Kyiv, but with such a comfortable lead, Romantsev had plenty of opportunities to give their reserves a run-out in the league. He didn't take them and the inexperienced pairing of Rashid Rakhimov and Sergei Choudin ended up letting in three goals as Spartak threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2. I noted that failing in the paper. I wasn't aggressive or directly critical, but that was it. Romantsev didn't say anything to my face — that wasn't his style — but I heard from other people that I was now on the outside. The same thing happened with many other writers who had been close to Spartak; Romantsev needed only tame reporters who didn't have opinions of their own.

Many people still remember what happened with the TV show Football Club after Spartak had been beaten by the weak Slovakian side Košice in the qualifiers for the Champions League in 1996-97. They did nothing more than show Spartak fans chanting "Romantsev, go away!" but he imposed sanctions against them and the whole national channel.

He would have players send collective letters or boycott the press after one critical story. He would refuse to attend press-conferences, something he explained at an away game by saying, "In Moscow there are a few faces who are only waiting to get in some provocative question."

Many examples of his obstructiveness became famous. In the mixed zone in Kazan, after a game between Rubin and Spartak in 2003, a television reporter — live on air — asked him as he approached, "Oleg Ivanovich, could we ask a few questions for NTV Plus channel?" Romantsev answered cheerily, "Of course!" even as he walked past and got on the team bus.

After a friendly game between Belarus and Russia a colleague of mine from Sport-Express approached Romantsev, who was standing smoking next to the bus, and asked if he could ask a question about the game. "Can't you see I'm speaking with the doctor?" Romantsev snapped back, although there was nobody within 200 metres.

Then there was the episode after a game between Zhemchuzhina Sochi and Spartak in the middle of 90s. The Krasno-Belye took on their charter flight a correspondent of Sport-Express, who had to dictate the match report to the paper straight after the game. There were no mobile phones at that time so a journalist had to find a landline and ensure he was the first in the queue to relay his report. After dictating his copy, my colleague flew like a bullet to make sure he caught the Spartak bus to the airport. As he got to the car park, the bus pulled away. The journalist ran towards it and waved at Romantsev, who was sitting in the front seat. He waved back and the bus drove on.

The strangeness of his behaviour became more and more pronounced with each passing season, but there were reasons.

January 2001. Romantsev attended a press conference at the tournament between the champions of former Soviet nations. At the time, it was a great rarity to hear him, so the large press room was packed. What happened next was incredible, for the reporters and for those who watched a few weeks later on television when, after thousands of requests, the conference was broadcast.

"Granovsky," Romantsev said, "will overrun that guy… what's his name?" He turned to the press officer and asked a question, before eventually continuing. "…Roberto Carlos."

He couldn't recall who had finished second in the Russian league two months earlier. He insisted that Spartak's new stadium — which still doesn't exist — would be built that year along with a new training ground. And he invited all the reporters to go fishing at the training ground, promising the lake there would be full of sturgeon. Romantsev, it was obvious, was extremely drunk.

Ordinary fans were shocked, but for those in football the only surprise was that Romantsev was unable to control himself publicly.

One of my newspaper colleagues, who went to Tarasovka to talk to Romantsev after Russia's poor 2002 World Cup campaign in Japan and South Korea, came back a little stunned. Over the course of the entire interview, which took place in 30-degree heat in a room without air conditioning, the manager drank vodka and washed it down with champagne without eating anything. Predictably, the content of the interview raised a lot of questions.

There were a lot of rumours about how Spartak doctors acted as alcohol addiction specialists between lunch and afternoon training, coaxing him out of his drunken condition so he could take sessions. Many heard a story about the Champions League game away to Liverpool in autumn 2002, when Romantsev's son supposedly approached Chervichenko before kick-off and said, "My dad asks for vodka, otherwise he cannot guarantee the result." Spartak lost 5-0.

Before the start of the 2000 season, Spartak flew to a training camp in Turkey. Tsymbalar, having been sacked the previous autumn, understandably wasn't part of the group. But one evening Romantsev called him and told him to come urgently and to be ready to work. A delighted Tsymbalar got on the next flight, but after one night in Turkey, he flew back to Moscow. "I had a conversation with Romantsev," he said diplomatically, "but we didn't understand one another."

Club officials later admitted what had really happened. Romantsev had called Tsymbalar while drunk; the next day he was shocked to see him in Turkey and sent him home again. A few days later, Tysmbalar signed a deal with Lokomotiv, for whom he soon scored the winning goal in the Cup final against CSKA.

Given what was going on, it's not surprising Romantsev was losing one of his greatest attributes as a coach — his eye for a player. When Karpin and Alenichev came to Moscow, they were a long way from the stars they became, but Romantsev could see their potential and developed it.

In the winter of 2003 a promising youngster from the provincial city of Tambov came to Spartak for a trial. His name was Yuri Zhirkov. In football circles, there was already something of a buzz about him. He played in a friendly game against the reserve side and scored a superb goal. Some witnesses claim that the assistant coach, Vladimir Fedotov, who would later become head coach, said immediately, "We have to take him." But Romantsev, who was sitting next to Fedotov and was, according to those same witnesses, "in bad shape" that day, didn't take to Zhirkov. Nobody knows the truth of that, but what is known is that two years later Zhirkov scored the winner for CSKA in the Uefa Cup final, that five years later he was one of the players of Euro 2008 and that six years later he won the Premier League with Chelsea.

Romantsev later said that the reason he didn't sign Zhirkov was that the player didn't have a passport and the team was about to go into overseas training. That would be unconvincing anyway, but given that passports can be produced for footballers at a day or two's notice it seems particularly odd.

He had little knowledge of — and seemingly little interest in — football outside of Russia, which is why so many mediocre foreign players passed through Spartak in his later years. It was simple for persuasive agents, or even his assistants, many of whom had a financial interest in players, to convince him that, for instance, the Nigerian Flo Okon Essien was held in the same esteem in his homeland as Jay-Jay Okocha. He managed 14 games for Spartak and now, aged 29, is playing in Vietnam. It soon became apparent that Romantsev needed around him fewer people who were competent than people he found good company, which, of course, meant he deprived himself of just the sort of people who could have protected him.

Romantsev's departure from Spartak didn't change his habits. He made an extraordinary impression on players at Saturn. On one occasion, before an away game at Rostov, after a heavy drinking session, he came into the dressing-room and said, "Did you really come here to win? How can you do that if you can't play?" His side lost 4-0. During a post-match session of analysis with the squad, he stopped the video and started to laugh loudly. "You're clowns!" he said. "Where did you come from? I've never worked with such funny guys."

At Saturn, where Romantsev replaced Vitaly Shevchenko when he was mysteriously fired a couple of months before the end of the 2003 season, he took over a team that was a serious challenger for third, perhaps even second. They lost their first game 3-0 to Torpedo-Metallurg, though, and immediately crumbled. Romantsev stepped down after a sixth-place finish. 

It was a similar story at Dinamo. Romantsev hasn't worked as a manager since May 2005, even though he is still only 57. A former Spartak captain, he started his coaching career brilliantly, leading the Krasno-Belye to the 1989 Soviet title against a very strong Dynamo Kyiv in his first season, aged just 35. His last trophy, the 2003 Russian Cup, came when he was 49. The same day he was fired after a public row with Chervichenko.

Things could have turned out very differently for Spartak. A year before Chervichenko's appearance, Romantsev was approached by another investor — Evgeny Giner. Romantsev rejected him, but welcomed Chervichenko.

So what happened? Club employees say that Giner set out his plan straightaway, and told Romantsev that he wanted to make him a head coach with a normal contract. Romantsev, desperate not to lose power, rejected him. Chervichenko was more cunning. First of all his friend Alexander Shikunov, a former Rostov player and official, became the club's director of football operations. At some point the energetic and sociable Shikunov suggested to Romantsev that there was a businessman, a Spartak fan from an early age, who wanted to finance his beloved club without any personal ambition.

The financial aid was accepted. Soon Spartak came to depend on it. After a year or two, the club couldn't exist without it. And that was when Chervichenko started to act.

Meanwhile Giner, in 2001, became president of CSKA, at the time a moderate Russian team. Since then they have won the league three times and the Cup five. Most importantly, in May 2005, CSKA became the first club from Russia ever to win a European trophy as they beat Sporting in Lisbon to lift the Uefa Cup.

Spartak and Romantsev had far more European experience than CSKA. Spartak played in the semi-final of each of the three traditional European competitions at a time when CSKA could only dream of such progress. For Spartak fans, who see CSKA as their arch-rivals, it was heartbreaking that the first silverware should go to a team with such a comparative lack of European history.

Some of the anecdotes perhaps seem amusing, but in fact they are very sad. There aren't many as gifted as Romantsev. Personal conflict, the dire performances at the 2002 World Cup or Spartak's abysmal showing the Champions League that year, when they lost all six group games with an aggregate goal-difference of 1-18, should not overshadow his achievements.

They shouldn't overshadow Valery Shmarov's goal against Dynamo Kyiv in the last minute of their clash at the Luzhniki in 1989.

They shouldn't overshadow the decisive penalty Alexander Mostovoi scored against Diego Maradona's Napoli on that snowy November day at a packed Luzhniki in 1990.

They shouldn't overshadow the goals scored by Ilya Tsymbalar and Yegor Titov in the win over Real Madrid in 1998, at a bitter moment for the country, when the ground fell from under the Russian people because of the economic default and Spartak gave them back at least a little pride.

They shouldn't overshadow the goals of Dmitri Radchenko and Shmarov at the Bernabéu that earned Spartak their place in the European Cup semi-final in 1991.

They shouldn't overshadow the two wins against Liverpool in 1992 in the Cup Winners' Cup and the two against Ajax in the Uefa Cup in 1998, or the six wins out of six in the group stage of the Champions League in 1995-96, or the 4-1 demolition of Arsenal in November 2000. 

And they shouldn't overshadow Russia's successful qualifying campaigns for Euro 96 and the World Cup in 2002, or the Euro qualifying triumph at the Stade de France.

Romantsev became a god for a whole generation of fans. In the tough period after the break-up of the USSR when its football collapsed, he was the one who carried the flag, playing an attractive style and achieving good results with it. We should be grateful to him for that.

Many Spartak fans believed that at Saturn and Dinamo, Romantsev would rise again. He himself often said, "Everybody thought the lion had died, but he had just lain down to rest." But it didn't happen, and he lasted less than six months at both clubs. He was a stranger not just at Saturn and Dinamo, but also in the football of the 2000s. The regalia of the 1990s turned him into a monument to himself. There's a Russian proverb that says, "You can go to sleep being talented and wake up being useless." For all his unquestionable talents, it applies to Romantsev.

He changed with the times. When he started to coach Spartak, the whole of the USSR was mad with the smell of freedom. What people valued most wasn't money but things like the TV show The Glance, the comic Asterix or the magazine New World. That was the time when the whole country delighted in the courage of the young and fearless deputies of Boris Yeltsin's Inter-Regional Group, when the battle for the chess world title between the young Gary Kasparov and the experienced Anatoly Karpov felt like a clash between the new life and the old, and Yeltsin's speech from a tank in front of the White House during the attempted Communist putsch became a symbol of the era.

As the years passed the faces of those deputies and television journalists became round and satisfied. The chess genius, motivated by money, broke up his world into tiny hostile kingdoms. The president surrounded himself with greedy courtiers and conducted a German orchestra, staggering drunkenly in the wind.

I'm convinced that the same happened with Romantsev. The situation not only in the club but also in national football and the whole country, where there were no restrictions or necessary counterbalance, allowed a talented coach to turn into an inadequate autocrat. 

Of course, Romantsev's drama was only the first step to the real shame that followed, like the doping scandal of 2003 and the years of underachievement. But if the most successful manager in the club's history, who meant so much to the Krasno-Belye, had remained the same, it surely wouldn't have been possible