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

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 Two, in which he discusses his childhood in Sukhumi, southern Russia, after fleeing Armenia as a baby. But first, read the Introduction linked below if you haven’t had a chance yet.

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

Part Two – Childhood in Sukhumi

When I became a famous player of the team that won several Soviet championships and cups, I remember being asked, “Do you remember how you kicked the ball for the very first time?” It’s impossible to remember: for my peers, football was something as natural as breathing. I’ve been playing football as long as I remember myself. I can only say where I began playing. In Sukhumi – my family moved there from Armavir.

I was four years old. And probably as soon as I was let out of the house alone, I wound up at the crossing of Mogilevskaya and Kirova streets, where boys played with a ball. Perhaps at first, I would just run after the ball that flew away from the playing field and was happy to kick it at least once, but eventually, I joined the players.

I was a quiet, somewhat shy boy (I must say that this trait, usually considered age-related, would hinder me in life for a long time), but I quickly understood the main objective of the game – scoring goals, so I would frantically run towards the opponents’ goal. Perhaps that’s when a forward was born in me? I don’t know. But I know for sure that “Mikita” was born at the time.

My parents named me Mkrtych. But try and call that name in the heat of the game! While you stumble upon four consonants in a row, the opponent would take the ball from you.

“Why do I have such an unfortunate name?” I would ask my father.

“Your name is beautiful”, he would ask. “’Mkrtych’ means ‘the Baptist’”.

This didn’t console me in the slightest; the street boys wouldn’t be awed by the translation, anyway. They rechristened me on the spot: “Mikita”. “Shoot, Mikishka!”

We played on the street close to my home – before the war, there weren’t many cars on the street, except for a rare truck; on a playground near the school, and on a vacant lot in the town’s center; now there’s a public garden there, surrounding the building of Ministerial Council of Abkhazia.

Our teams, which, of course, changed constantly, were multinational: Russians, Abkhazians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Greeks. My friend Pavel Sichinava’s mother was Armenian, and his father was Mingrelian. Russian was the common street language. At home, I also spoke mostly Russian, which upset my father.

“You should know your native language”, he would tell me.

But the human nature is such that we understand pieces of advice given to us in the childhood only much later.

Afterwards, especially when I came to work in Armenia, I remembered my father and tried to catch up with the language. Yes, you should know your native language and the history of your nation, your roots. This knowledge allows you to better understand yourself and your closest people – parents, family, your home and its way of life. Why it is like this and not different.

Our family was small by pre-war standards: my father Pogos Mkrtychevich, or, as most neighbours called him, Pavel Nikitich, my mother Varsenik Akopovna, my small sister Nina and me. But we shared the house with my granny, dad’s mother, his sisters, Aunt Hermonia and Aunt Meron, and his nephews – my cousins Petr and Akop. Some distant relatives would often stop by. My father was always helping someone. He would often say, “We should help the children to find their way in life” – he meant his relatives’ children, not us. And he helped them with everything he could.

My father went through much suffering. He was born in Turkey and survived the horrors of the Armenian genocide. In 1914, when Turkish government ordered to kill Armenians en masse, he fled to Russia. Because of his own suffering, he would always take others’ woes to heart and pay special attention to the repatriated: in the 1920s, many Armenians scarred in various countries were repatriated into the Soviet Union. Perhaps the very fate of our people made the Armenians’ familial bonds so strong. Of course, I’ve started to think about that only much later.

In the morning, I would often wake up to the sounds of a hammer: my father was already working. He was a shoemaker and made chuvyaky, cheap and popular kind of footwear. With this work, he provided for our family. He wanted me to take up the occupation as well, but when he saw that I showed no interest in his tools and workpieces, he didn’t try to teach me by force.

I was clothed and booted – plush pants, shoes – and would often have a grivennik (ten kopecks) for the cinema. If there were posters for the Goalkeeper movie, we just had to watch it.

How many times did we watch it? Probably as many times as it was shown in our town. The movie was usually shown in summer cinemas without roofs. It was raining occasionally, but it didn’t deter us. The only thing we feared was that the projector would be stopped before we see Kandidov saving that dreaded penalty.

We didn’t just watch Goalkeeper, we would constantly retell the movie to each other in detail. How Kandidov threw the ball forward, how he ran after it… How our team destroyed those Black Buffalos!…

When I grew up and became a footballer, I understood how naive was that movie. Actors playing footballers had next to none football skills. Even later, there was another football movie where footballers were played by actors. I would always wonder, why wouldn’t they use actual footballers? Were their acting skills that bad? I don’t know. At least the games in the movies would look more realistic. How can that be: some overweight man comes on the field, can’t even kick a ball properly, and the spectators still applaud him? When they started using actual match footage in the movies, they became more believable.

But Goalkeeper still has a tender place in my heart. It’s from the wonderful time, the dawn of our sport. Best days of my childhood were spent with Kandidov. We believed that there really was a goalkeeper named Anton Kandidov who conceded only one goal in his entire life. And we had our own “Kandidov”: Volodya Margania, who eventually became Dinamo Tbilisi’s goalkeeper.

We would often gather in my close childhood friend Pavel Sichinava’s yard. Even as a boy, he was already very fair and dependable, so many of us liked him. We played volleyball, tried to learn basketball. Shurka [Aleksandr] Sedov was a great basketball player. He was even invited to Dinamo Tbilisi and other masters’ teams but preferred to stay in his native Sukhumi and now works as a school teacher.

Still, kicking the ball was our main leisure. We worked on dribbling and shots. Our screams were incredibly loud. Nowadays, the grown-ups would have none of that; they most probably would make us stop. But Pavel’s parents and neighbours tolerated us. Sometimes they would close the windows though. We grew up much freer than the boys of today. The grown-ups watched us less, didn’t program our lives to such a degree.

Pavel and I eventually became match organizers: street versus street, district versus district. But the town was too small for us, so we reached the “international” level.

Someone told us that in Gulripshi, twelve or so kilometres from Sukhumi, there’s a great field, almost like a proper football field. And so, we – Shurka Sedov, Albert Vartanov, Misha Datebov, Pavel and me – went there.

There were no suburban trains on the Black Sea shore back then, the trains were rare, and we learned the timetable by heart. We would ask some train conductor to take us on and stood in the tambour. Sometimes, we even took freight trains.

We didn’t have to tell the opponents about our arrival: they would always be either on the field or on the beach. We played without referees, but strictly adhered to the boys’ code of honour: do not strike from behind.

Also, you should forget everything on the field for the sake of the team. No-one of us tried to win the game by oneself. We were tight with praises and didn’t compare our contributions: a win is everyone’s achievement. I remember disliking bullies and presumptuous guys. Even today, I can’t tolerate disparaging attitude and condescending tone.

Nobody, of course, had any kind of clocks or watches, and we didn’t want to limit our playing time anyway – we would play until totally exhausted. When our legs gave away, we remembered about the 12-kilometre way home.

We would always walk back, often by moonlight. We would get hungry because we didn’t think of food when we played, so we would go into someone’s garden and pick some pears and peaches. I don’t think it was stealing – we didn’t cause much damage to the garden owners.

At home, I would be scolded. My father was a strict, even severe man. He didn’t tolerate any disorder. He demanded that me and my sister be home in time for lunch, come home in time in the evening. And here I am, coming home in the middle of the night with battered boots.

“Where can I get so many boots for you!” he would scream angrily. “Will you finally quit this hooligans’ game?”

Many years later, when I lived in Moscow, my father came to visit me. I bought him a ticket: “Look how I play, just once.” We took the tram to Dinamo stadium. I led him to the stands and ran to the locker room.

Spartak played a friendly with Czechoslovakia national team, and it went very well for Spartak. We won 2-0, I scored both goals.

My father was seemingly flattered by all the talks about Spartak around him and the supporters’ cries “Great playing, Nikita!”: he was in a joyful mood after the game.

“Remember how you scolded me for playing hooligans’ game?” I joked.

“I never did that” he replied, probably believing his own words. “I scolded you for other things, you just forgot…”

However, his conviction of worthlessness of my efforts was shattered a bit earlier.

He once walked down the street past a company of vacationers passionately discussing football. There was a colonel among them, an ardent Spartak supporter, and some local told him, “Here’s the old Simonyan, Nikita’s father.” At first, he didn’t believe: “This can’t be!” And then he cried, “Let’s celebrate that!”

They grabbed my father and tossed him up several times.

My mother later told me that he came home somewhat baffled, but satisfied.

“It seems they respect our son in Moscow”, he told her. “So, I got a bit of his fame, too.”

This looks like a happy end for some movie, but it came only much later. In the present, I was ready to cry after being slapped by my father.

“Don’t be upset, sonny”, mom would comfort me. “He’s a kind man. He’s kind to everyone. And how, he just got angry. But you must understand him too: he’s working so much to earn us all a good living…”

My mother was a gentlewoman. She didn’t like quarrels in the house and was always upset when her closest people couldn’t understand each other.

I can’t say that we had our own life, and adults had their own. The war began, and all their troubles and anxieties quickly became our own. Our resort town changed immediately: white paper crosses on the windows, lines in shops where people discussed who was sent to the front and whom we should never expect back. We listened to the Sovinformbureau broadcasts together with adults, and the broadcasts were becoming more and more alarming. The front was closing in, there were battles on the mountain passes. More and more refugees and evacuees were coming, and many families took them in.

We were running to look at the AA guns being installed at the Chernyavskaya mountain, close to our home. Other guns were installed at the lighthouse. The port wasn’t lighting any lights in the evening, it looked as though it was blind. My father, like many neighbours, dug a bomb shelter in our yard – a trench with a flat roof. If we heard the rumble of plane engines, everyone would look up anxiously.

During one of the first bombing raids, a bomb fell just a block away from our home, destroying the party obkom building. When the planes were gone, I ran there with others and saw a dead woman. I was stunned. The war is here!

A damaged tanker came to the port – it was torpedoed by a German submarine. Two torpedoes, looking like six-metre-long cigars, floated onto the shore. One of them would lie on the beach for a whole day until it was disarmed by sappers. Of course, we would run to watch: boyish curiosity always trumps any fear and caution. During the bombing runs, I would put my little niece, whom I took care of, into the bomb shelter and run to the streets…

Even our warm, gentle sea became dangerous. Once, when I sat at the beach, we saw how a small transport ship exploded after being attacked by a submarine. Together with the adults, we would listen to the sky intently: who’s coming? Our planes, or Nazis? The hum of German bombers became a harbinger of tragedy.

The bombs hit a big transport ship coming from Novorossiysk. It evacuated women, children and the elderly from the horrors of the war; it stopped at the raid, waiting to disembark. The town already started preparing accommodations for the Novorossiysk refugees, and then… Three bombs hit the ship, and it sank immediately. Only the smokestacks remained above the water, like a tombstone for the dead. The entire city was in mourning.

After one of the bombings, my father didn’t come home: he worked as a cashier at the Black Sea Railroad. During the bombing run, he was downtown and, together with others, he ran towards the public garden: people seemed to think that they could hide under the trees, that they would offer some protection. The bomb exploded right in the garden, many people were injured, my father was badly wounded. He was rushed to the hospital. He couldn’t stand up for half a year, and then, when he was able to stand, he immediately resumed his shoemaking business: he had to provide for his family and relatives, earn money to buy hominy and cornbread for enormous prices.

The Nazis were stopped, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. But the war didn’t go away, it was still in every home: we received death notices for my cousin Akop, for Derletsky brothers who used to live in our yard…

We understood all the tragedy, but childhood was childhood. Even war couldn’t take away the boyish passion for games, for companies, for interaction. This is a natural human need, we are all born with the desire to grow. It’s not an accident that everyone is going through a lot of hobbies in their childhood and teenage years, trying everything they can.

I took an interest in music at that time and enlisted in a brass orchestra. Though not, I didn’t “enlist”: I just showed up for lessons conducted by Karl… can’t remember his patronymic. Or perhaps I never knew it at all: we never called the singing teacher, a small, grey, very kind man, by his full name, like we would other teachers. Uncle Karl, more often – uncle Karlusha, or even just Karlusha between us kids. Now I understand that his life during the war wasn’t an easy one. You can’t explain to everyone that not Germans are alike, and Nazism isn’t an inherent trait of Germans.

Cigarette in his mouth, raised hand with yellowed fingers, wet eyes: he was always moved when we played the music right on our trumpets.

Karlusha gave me a brass alto trumpet, explained how to make sounds with it, and I made sounds: “Toom-pa-pa, toom-pa-pa…”

After several lessons, he told me, “You’ve got a good ear for music, you’ll play second trumpet.”

A bit later, I became the first trumpet. Stellar career!

Our orchestra would always head our school’s procession at the rallies, and we would raise everyone’s morale with energetic marches. We also learned some songs for school events: “Waves of Amur”, “The Champagne Bubbles”, some foxtrots.

We would also play at much more solemn events: funerals. We never refused if asked, and would always play for free. We were always fed at the wake though. Uncle Karlusha most probably knew about our side job, but never tried to stop us. Perhaps he thought that children shouldn’t be protected from others’ tragedies, they should learn to accept and understand life in all its diversity. Or maybe he just didn’t want to take away the opportunity to eat well from the growing boys.

Music didn’t stop my interest in football in the slightest. We still played football at the playground of our School 7 and on a big empty lot in the town’s centre.

Once Shota Lominadze came to the empty lot. He stood and watched our game intently.

We knew Shota: he played in midfield for Dinamo Sukhumi. He was a short, red-headed, fast-running and resilient man. He was tasked to create a voluntary children’s sports school, assemble a team. So, Shota was watching us. We didn’t know yet that he would become our first coach.

Our sports school was nothing like the modern facilities. We would just gather at the Dinamo stadium for training sessions led by Shota. But we all had Dinamo form. Right after introductions, the coach led us to the warehouse, a small, warm building, and we were given blue trunks, yellow shirts, socks and boots at least three sizes bigger – they didn’t have any others.

The warehouseman told us, “You’ll put the studs on the boots yourselves.”

Of course, I’d do that myself. I wouldn’t distract my father from his work for such “trifles” like football. He would get angry, scream at me that I should finally do something serious, and my mother would get upset after the new scandal… I carved thick studs from leather and nailed them to the outsoles.

Before now, football was just an exhilarating game for us. But now, we started to learn another side of football: discipline, training, commitment.

Shota, despite his quickness at the football field, was a quiet, kind man. He never screamed or insulted us. He quickly recognized defenders, forwards and goalkeepers among us. He tried to teach us everything he knew.

But the greatest school for us were the senior squad games. Dinamo Sukhumi, where our coach played, had a great array of true masters who offered a lot to learn. I watched Avtandil Gogoberidze intently, and I wanted to reproduce and learn all his tricks: dribbles, moves, quick runs. Antadze, Vardimiadi brothers, goalkeeper Sanaya also played there – all these players would later become famous in Dinamo Tbilisi.

Yura Elchidi could probably also play in any of the Higher League teams. But the fate decided otherwise. He’s still living in his native Sukhumi and working as a youth coach. We met recently, and Yura told me about one of his pupils. “You understand”, he said, “the boy has no drawbacks. None – like I didn’t have back then. Tell me, did I have any drawbacks in my youth?” Perhaps he was joking, but I answered seriously, “No, you didn’t”, and I really meant it: I really thought that when I saw Yura on the field.

Shota wasn’t stifling us with any mandatory programs or exercises. He didn’t suppress our individuality, gave everyone an opportunity to prove themselves. It wasn’t necessary to force us to do anything. After the training, we would never immediately go back to the dressing room. No, we remained on the field for a long time, showing each other what we can do, learning new tricks. Shota literally had to chase us down from the field.

I was glad that the coach saw me as a forward, so I worked on shooting for hours. I made shot after shot… Even when my legs ached, I would still kick the ball. Even at home, I would constantly shoot at the wicket with cypresses growing on both sides, like goalposts.

During the matches – we started playing with other youth teams of Abkhazia – I was fully concentrated on one thing: scoring goals. I remember our team winning a friendly game 11-4, and I scored 9 goals.

Our training sessions were often visited by the executive secretary of the town’s Dinamo branch, Mikhail Grigorievich Turkia, a former goalkeeper. He seemed to be genuinely interested in young players, and we were flattered by such attention.

Boys’ football didn’t exist apart from the stadium, from the senior team. Senior squad players knew us: we would visit all matches, meet them before the games and walk with them afterwards. We addressed many of them just by names, like our coach Shota, but we were very respectful towards them, we saw the great distance between their playing level and ours. The war was still raging. But the cultural and sporting life never stopped. People still yearned for beauty. We knew that the people of Leningrad listened to the first performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. We also knew of the football match they played during the blockade. After another failed attempt to capture the city, the Nazis said that they didn’t enter Leningrad because it was dead, and all streets were littered with corpses, and so the Leningrad sportsmen offered to play a football match in the city. And the match did take place – Dinamo Leningrad took on the garrison’s team. Even though Leningrad was tormented by constant artillery fire and hunger, lots of people still came to the stadium to watch. They reported about the match in German; the radio commentator’s voice and spectator noise blared from the loudspeakers at the defensive lines. The Nazis were astonished: the city wasn’t dead, as they were told: it remained an impregnable fortress. Football – is it just a game?…

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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