Nikita Simonyan Biography: Football – Is It Just a Game? (Part One)

Nikita Simonyan (back row, third from the left) here as part of the 1958 USSR Cup winning squad. Source: ProSpartak.

Nikita Pavlovich Simonyan (1926-  ) is the current vice president of the Russian Football Union, and one of the most noteworthy figures in Russian and Soviet football. Between 1949 and 1959 he became the highest scoring player ever for Spartak Moscow, with whom he won four Soviet championships, and he was also one of the stars on the Soviet national team that won the 1956 Olympics and finished fourth at the 1958 World Cup. 

He later went into coaching and he won three Soviet championships with Spartak Moscow and Ararat Yerevan while also being in charge of the Soviet national team between 1975 and 1977. 

After ending his coaching career in 1985, he became one of the most important figures in the Football Federation of the Soviet Union and later of Russia. He has even acted as president of the Russian Football Union, and to this day he remains an influential figure despite being 91.

In 1989, Simonyan published his memoirs in Football – Is it just a game?. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share the book part by part, which gives an excellent insight into the minds of one of Russian football’s most brilliant minds. Here is Part One, in which he discusses his time with Spartak on a tour of South America in 1959. But first, read Introduction linked below if you haven’t had a chance yet.

READ MORE: Nikita Simonyan: Football – Is It Just a Game? (Introduction)


Part One – I Want to Play

I can’t say that I wrote a lot of travel diaries. However, I found a small journal from Spartak’s old South American tour in a pile of old magazines and newspaper clippings – I’ve been collecting everything written about my team – and remembered one of the hardest day of my life. I still remember it well, and time, as you know, cures old wounds. But how I felt then, on that day?

Fragile pages, half-erased pencil entries get me back to the 1959 season. It was pretty bad for Spartak. In 1958, we won both the championship and the Soviet Cup. And suddenly, after all those wins, we stumbled into a losing streak. We managed one good game, against SKA Rostov with their great players – Viktor Ponedelnik and Oleg Kopaev, among others… We won 3-1, in the purely Spartak style, with great playing, but this turned out to be our swan song. After that, more defeats came our way.

You surely can understand the mood of both coaches and players. The only thing that made us joyous was the upcoming tour to Brazil, Uruguay and Columbia to play against their club teams. We wanted to both visit new countries and see the stunning Brazilian football on their home turf. Perhaps we would see the substrate on which the Brazilian players’ talent and mastery grew on?

All in all, we were pretty anxious to go to that tour. There was a tragicomedic episode that almost cost Sergei Salnikov the tour. In a training game, someone hit him on the nose. Imagine the scene: a player falls down with a broken nose, and screams, “But what about the South America?” We ran up to him: “Serega, what are you talking about, what America? Your nose is broken!”

He was taken to hospital, and upon returning, he said proudly, “Zoya Sergeevna Mironova herself set my nose back!”

Even back then, the “magical” Dr Mironova was famous. She fixed such difficult dislocations and fractures that she could probably be credited as a co-author of many sporting records. But Sergei’s nose had us baffled.

“It was straight and pretty”, we said, “and now it’s a bit crooked.”

“Yes, I think it’s crooked indeed”, said Sergei as he looked in the mirror. “But I think it’s even better for travels: I’m looking like a gangster now.”

And so, we took flight. Landings in Paris, Seville, Dakar, and then twelve more hours across the ocean. The way was long – the speeds were much slower back then.

In Rio, our team was living in the Luxor hotel at Copacabana, the city’s most beautiful place: a six-kilometre beach on the ocean shore, hotels the size of ships. We were immediately surrounded by journalists. They were asking questions, and we were asking back, defying their asking privileges.

Of course, we were interested in everything about the Brazilian football, about their national team, what the World Cup-winning players were doing now”, I wrote in my journal at the end of the first day. “We also asked about selling players to foreign clubs. We learned that the club receives a lion’s share of the money.

For instance, Botafogo got $120,000 for selling the famous Didi, and he himself got only $25,000.”

The footballers are still being sold today, but the prices are way higher!

I remember asking why would the club sell off Didi, such a great player? They said that his age was already critical, and it’s unlikely he would be playing at the same level. So the club decided to earn money on him and give him the opportunity to save up some money for retirement.

After selling someone to a foreign club, the Brazilians quickly find a replacement: there are many talented players in the country. But Botafogo was yet to find a replacement for Didi: it was unlikely that someone could fill his playmaker’s shoes.

However, the club refused to sell Garrincha: the player is young, attracts a big crowd, he’s a pride of the whole nation.

We trained at Rio’s various stadiums and watched all games we could.

Here’s a game between Botafogo and Canto de Rio. I think that these journal entries would be interesting to more people than just me: there are football passions and football stars of that time.

At the warm-up, we watched Garrincha closely. Some of us did play against him at the World Cup in Sweden, but we were still amazed looking at his stature. He limped on one leg when he walked, but this was completely unnoticeable when he ran. His left foot was bent outwards, and right foot inwards, and his right leg seemed much thinner than the left.

Another World Cup player, defender Nilton Santos, played in midfield and scored the first goal. Botafogo easily outplayed their opponents. The five forwards, spearheaded by Paulinho, also a national team player, were excellent.

There was much written and said about the Brazilians, their excellent technique, precise playing, the ability to confuse any opponent. But everything we saw in the Moscow matches of Vasco da Gama or Atletico Mineiro was simply incomparable to Botafogo. Here, everything served one purpose: quickly get ahead and score a goal. I haven’t seen any passing just for the sake of passing. An unmarked player five meters away wouldn’t get the ball: the player in possession would look for a sharper continuation and then make a precise, calculated pass. But if there was no such continuation, they would pass to the wing, and the quick Garrincha and Amarildo would dribble past their opponents and cross the ball into the box.

Garrincha was always marked by at least two players. He would very quickly run forward, dribble past and then give a precise pass…”

After the game, Joao Saldanha came up to us (we sat in the stands). We had a long talk, he told us many things about the club and the players, and Nikolai Petrovich Starostin asked him how quickly would Garrincha run 100 meters. Saldanha thought a little, then smiled and answered, “I think Garrincha cannot run 100 meters…”

In the match against Canto de Rio, Garrincha amazed us with his starting pace. I don’t know any other player who could so completely outrun the defender on a distance of 5 or 6 meters. He had some kind of tight spring inside him. He would start his run, quick as a bullet, then pass the ball away or shoot at the goal. One of his shots turned out to be so strong and quick that the goalkeeper had no time to block it with his hands, and the ball hit him straight into the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. The doctors immediately ran to the field, and the game resumed only a few minutes later.

We didn’t only watch the games of famous clubs.

The guys play right on the sand, with numbered shirts, but barefooted. That’s the Copacabana district championship. The crowd stands there on the sidewalk, and talent scouts are also here, looking for the future Garrincha, Didi and Vavas…

Here, at the Copacabana sands, the boys play with balls for all day, often joined by grown men and even girls. Football became flesh and blood of the Brazilians, everyone plays it here.

You have ballet, we have football”, they would tell us.

On Sunday, there’s a lot of people on Copacabana. The entire beach is full with bathers. And everywhere, there are boys with footballs, standing there and juggling the ball with their feet. A good example for our boys who just love to run and kick the ball.”

We couldn’t help but watch these boys. They could keep the ball in the air for hours. Sergei Salnikov finally couldn’t stop himself and decided to show them his skills too. The young “Garrincha” easily repeated all his tricks despite being 12-13 years old at most. Afterwards, we said to him, “They could easily repeat what you can do, but you can’t repeat everything they can do”. We joked, of course – his technique was impeccable and stunning.

I can’t remember how I managed to find time to write in the journal between training sessions, interviews (“How do you like Brazilian football? Who do you think was the best player at the World Cup?” The Brazilians were proud of their boys winning the World Cup, they have even put plaster casts of the footballers’ feet at the Maracana’s entrance), the games we watched and the games we played. We were drunk with Brazilian football, and we tried to drink in as much as we could. My entries about the games with local teams were much more austere.

And now, we’re in Uruguay, in Montevideo, then we get to Argentina, then to Brazil again, and from Rio, we fly to Bogota, Columbia.

“Bogota is 2700 meters above sea level” – it wasn’t an accident that I wrote this piece of geographical trivia in my book. We immediately felt the height. “It’s hard to breathe. You climb some stairs, and the breath immediately quickens, you even feel a bit dizzy. Yes, it’s going to be hard to play here… Such team as Vasco da Gama lost 1-3 here, and Real Madrid only managed 1-1. Very few visitors managed to win in Bogota due to difficult climatic environment.”

I search for the pages where I described Spartak’s game against Santa Fe. What did I write about the match itself and what happened afterwards?

We were down 0-1, won the first half 3-2, then went on to win the game 6-3.

I have to say that the Columbian press rated Spartak’s playing very highly. The audience was warm and very objective to us. They would applaud any good combination of ours. And when the referee favoured Santa Fe or Millionaires, the crowd booed him. “Viva Russia!”, they would chant from the stands when we increased our lead.”

After the game, a huge crowd applauded us at the bus. Everyone was trying to pat us on the shoulder, shake hands with us or just tell us how excited they were…

Today, we’re leaving the hospitable Columbia”, I read on the next page. Strangely, there was nothing about the milestone event in my life that prompted me to search for this old notebook in the first place. Why? Perhaps I wasn’t used to pour out my heart on the pages? Or maybe it was just too hard to write about what happened.

After the game, I came to the dressing room, hung up my boots on a nail and said, “That’s it! I’m retiring!” There was a confused murmur in the room – the guys couldn’t decide if I was serious. But they knew that I never used any strong words lightly.

The first one to object was Nikolai Nikolaevich Ozerov.

“That’s stupid! Do you understand that it’s criminal? You just played one of the best matches of your career, and now you’re retiring?! You can’t!”

Did I make my decision right there on the spot? Yes and no.

When I ran up to the green field under the sun, when I greeted my opponents, I didn’t know that I’d say “That’s it” less than two hours later. The goal I scored was, by everyone’s accounts, quite beautiful. On the other hand, what does “beautiful” mean? A goal is a goal. Any ball that goes between the opponent’s goalposts is beautiful. And if some fan scorned me after the game, “You should have shot more prettier!”, I would usually retort with, “Did they disallow my goal?”

But in Bogota, everyone was talking about the beauty of my goals, the press was raving, but I still decided to retire.

I didn’t discuss my retirement with anybody, but still, despite the seeming spontaneity, my decision was well thought out.

I’ve already said that Spartak was playing way below its level in 1959, and, as usual, they started looking for reasons. There was a question: is the team too old? Aleksei Paramonov was forced into retirement, and they looked at other veterans – me and Sergei Salnikov – with suspicion.

Nikolai Alekseevich Gulyaev, the head coach, and Nikolai Petrovich Starostin, the head administrator, even made a compromise: only one of us should be playing at a time – either Salnikov or I. They usually preferred Salnikov.

But I desperately wanted to play in that summer! Perhaps I felt that my career was winding down, I don’t know. But I would constantly say to the coaches, “I want to play! If you don’t put me into starting lineup, let me play for the B team! I want to play!”

I was thirty-three, and this was considered a disadvantage. Now, the footballers are judged by their playing level rather than age. But back then, in the 1950s, lowering the average age was considered something of a panacea. They seemed to forget that Dementiev or Sokolov still played on the highest level even after turning thirty-five. There was a trend: if you’re older than thirty, you’re too old and should retire!

Officials of many clubs did a lot of stupid things – they kicked out many good players, the playing level was devalued. They didn’t even consider a very important factor: young players grow faster among the veterans. But what’s the use stating the obvious? Now obvious. Back then, the “oldies” weren’t valued. So, it’s time to bow out then, before you’re asked to leave. Dignity is a good thing. I wanted to retire without looking pitiful. And the moment was very fitting. It’s best to go out on a high point.

During the tour, I played calmly, without much enthusiasm. But in Bogota… I don’t know what happened to me. Did I catch a second wind in the difficult climate? Or perhaps my wounded ego made me mobilize my strength? All in all, I played very well. After a good game, you enter an inexpressible state, as though flying above ground. On that day, I played very well. I scored a goal, heard the cries of admiration, applause. So, my retirement didn’t even turn out too bitter.

I didn’t know what waited ahead. Coaching job? There were no offers, and I was yet to finish the physical education institute. As any retired player, I was starting my life anew. Will I find myself in it?

Ozerov would approach me several times, holding the Columbian newspapers.

“The translator says that everyone writes about you as one of the best forwards. What are you doing?”

“There’s no way back”, I answered. “I’ll have to do that eventually. If not today, then tomorrow.”

But if someone asked me what I wanted the most, I’d answer, without hesitation, “I want to play!”

Author: Alexey Spektrowski

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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