John Terry Champions League Final 2008

As the Moscow rain washed away his tears, John Terry slumped to the sodden Luzhniki turf in despair. In the vast expanse of misery, just metres from where Sebastian Coe triumphed in his titanic tussle with Steve Ovett nearly three decades earlier, there was no hiding place. The cavernous, sweeping bowl seemed to be ominously encroaching on top of him, threatening to swallow him whole; cruelly, however, it teetered out of reach, leaving the elements and endless taunts to rattle around his head.

The penalty shootout technically wasn’t over, but somehow everyone knew that was it. A decade later, he admitted to still waking up in the middle of the night haunted by that moment that robbed him of Europe’s grandest prize, even though four years later he lead his Chelsea teammates to an improbable victory over Bayern Munich in the latter’s Allianz Arena. All that was left for the former England captain was to bury his head between his legs.

While Nicolas Anelka barely flinched as his decisive effort was palmed away by Edwin van der Sar, Terry’s torment was absolute. From his first bullish appearances on the training ground as a precocious 16-year-old YTS to Champions League finals, he has crunched into tackles on World Champions as if they were mere cannon fodder on the playground.

From Manchester United fan to Chelsea legend

Ironically, he grew up as a Manchester United fan, and was even courted by Sir Alex Ferguson as a young teenager with autographs, training sessions with the youth teams, personal dinners: the whole red carpet treatment. Over a decade later, though, his loyalty to the blue of West London couldn’t be questioned.

Twenty years after he made his first tentative steps into first-team football, he has made the last move of his career by returning to the Russian capital to join Spartak Moscow. As a 37-year-old free agent, in some ways he could consider himself lucky to be snapped up by a huge, historic club like Spartak.

A move to Aston Villa saw him permanently separated from Chelsea for the first time in his career last summer, but amidst chaotic financial mismanagement by Chinese investor Dr Tony Xia – and severe restrictions imposed by the Chinese government on overseas investment in football – the expensively assembled Villains stumbled towards the finish line in vain.

It was supposed to have been a glorious ascension, a golden Indian summer to a most English of careers. Unable to face his life-long club as a direct rival, he even negotiated a new clause in his contract towards the end of last season that stipulated he would not be forced to play against Chelsea on the event of Aston Villa’s promotion.

The character flaws of John Terry

Therein lies one side of Terry that exposes a raw, unpleasant element of his character – his hubris. How his detractors laughed when Villa failed to reach the Championship playoffs after his assuming stipulation. Would it have been so difficult to have made a gentleman’s agreement with his manager Steve Bruce, and focussed on actually earning promotion?

His departure from Chelsea in his final appearance at Stamford Bridge was equally crafted to steal every ounce of attention on himself. It was Terry who suggested that he be substituted in the 26th minute of the game to mirror the shirt number he wore throughout his first-team career. A pitchside presentation, a lap of honour after the match, endless flags and banners in the crowd – these would not have been enough for him.

Spartak Moscow

In this light, his latest move makes perfect sense. Known as the People’s Club, Spartak’s famous red diamond is embedded into the conscience of Russian football far more than any others club logo. They were the only major club to enjoy complete freedom from state backing of any kind during the Soviet Union – CSKA Moscow were the Army club, Torpedo Moscow the club of the ZiL automobile factory, Dinamo the KGB’s affiliated team, Lokomotiv were backed by the railways – and as such were instantly afforded a sheen of resistance.

They were founded by four Starostin brothers, all of whom were fabulously talented footballers, with Nikolai even playing for both the Soviet Union football and ice hockey teams. All four were imprisoned and sent to Siberian gulags by Stalin himself under trumped-up charges of attempting to spread bourgeois sport in Soviet society. Initially, a totally fabricated assassination charge purportedly aimed at Stalin himself was presented, but even the Soviet secret police couldn’t make it hold up.

In the gulags, the unswerving popularity of the Starostin brothers exploded. Guards were swayed by their celebrity, while fellow imprisoned inmates flocked to their ideal as independent minds in a rigidly controlled Soviet world. Respite from their Siberian internment came in the most unlikely of places – Stalin’s own son, Vasiliy.

The popularity of the People’s Team

As owner of the Air Force team VVS Moscow, Vasiliy wanted Nikolai Starostin to run the club and arranged for him to be returned to Moscow. When Stalin’s lapdog Laverneti Beria, a short, stout Georgian in charge of the KGB, heard of this, he ordered Starostin to leave Moscow again within 24 hours or face inevitably dire consequences. Forced to flee to southern Russia and Kazakhstan, his seemingly nomadic existence only served to broaden the incredible appeal of Spartak Moscow across the whole Soviet Union.

Titanic battles with Dinamo Kyiv ensued throughout the latter part of the twentieth century; free-flowing independent Muscovite flair versus methodical, precise Ukrainian football science. The epic nature of the conflict between Dinamo – part of the same sports society as its Moscow namesake run by Beria and the KGB – on and off the pitch added endless historic and significance to both clubs. Today, Spartak’s name is unavoidable, with by far the most numerous support.

Fitting into new surroundings

Today, this is the club that John Terry finds himself at in the final throes of an impressive career. His arrival has been heralded by many Russians eager for a first-hand glimpse at an iconic figure of English football. When Rangers edged past Ufa recently in their Europa League qualifier in a fiery second leg, Steven Gerrard was the only topic that mattered. Gerrard and Terry will ironically cross paths in the Europa League group stages when Rangers take on Spartak. There is a ravenous hunger for celebrity in Russian football that will feed directly into Terry’s sense of self-worth.

As a player, there is little question of his ability. Spartak are in desperate need of defensive cover and will welcome his experience after new signing Samuel Gigot ruptured his cruciate ligament. Ilya Kutepov – who surprisingly became a rock in central defence for Russia during the World Cup – is also out of action for a few weeks leaving just Georgi Dzhikia and Salvatore Bocchetti as centre-back options.

His advanced age is the obvious drawback. Even there he will not be caught out unduly; the Russian Premier League is a very slow-paced brand of football, with a predominantly defensive mindset. With a more mobile partner in Dzhikia, Terry’s role would be to command the backline from a slightly more withdrawn role. He has joined on a one-year contract, allegedly with an option for a further year, and despite claims that he has joined for the money he will only be on around ₤30,000 a week – around three times less than Claudio Marchisio at Zenit St. Petersburg.

John Terry and Moscow – chance at redemption?

Spartak contacted Terry about the move as soon as Gigot was injured a few days ago. They are not stupid; the attention he will receive will boost interest in cult merchandise – see Rostov’s carpet fourth kit – and a likely boost in already-healthy attendances. His arrival is not about the off-field antics though. His availability on a free transfer for reasonable wages at short notice make him a logical choice, and given his age, he is unlikely to expect any long-term assurances over his place in the side.

Initial bewilderment at Terry’s last throw of the dice will soon pass. He will be the first Englishman to play in Russia since David Bentley’s brief sojourn at Rostov in 2012 at a time of political tensions between the UK and Moscow. On a societal level, there isn’t the same animosity, and at any rate, the circus of his arrival will kickstart a positive start. Only John Terry knows whether he will be able to erase memories of his last night in Moscow.