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

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. First off is the introduction.

READ MORE: Nikita Simonyan – How the son of an Armenian illegal immigrant became the ‘Grandfather of Russian Football’


Introduction – Football – Is It Just a Game?

Just a game, my father was sure of that, and a hooligan’s game it was. Nobody could persuade him otherwise because he would look at my battered (“Battered? Again?”) boots in the corner of the room. He didn’t even want to understand what power made me run away from the house, to the pavements of Sukhumi – no boots could survive running on their stones!

And what kind of power that was? Many people wanted to understand the magic of football. Many books about football or footballers’ lives begin with trying to answer the question: why millions of people love playing football so much, and hundreds of millions more love to watch them play?

What constitutes football’s mysterious magic? The brave sporting struggle of eleven players, united as a team? The sudden successes and failures of teams? The unpredictability of matches? The silky dribbling and unsaveable shots?

“…We love this entertaining sporting game, full of inner drama and vibrant, spectacular action. We love this game that requires both dashing bravery and subtle calculation, sophisticated individual technique and unconditional unity with a collective of teammates, sudden bursts of creativity and the strictest discipline, momentary impulses and long-term willpower, strong muscles and strong personality”, Lev Kassil once wrote, who infected many generations of boys with excitement for football. Both before and after the war, they would read his Goalkeeper of the Republic, imitating Anton Kandidov, and they still read it now. Everyone confesses their love for football in their unique way, and sometimes these confessions can be so lyrical!

“The beauty of football is in the bright blue sky of early summer, when fresh plants smell juicy and intoxicating, and the grass is washed by a recent rain, and the stands haven’t completely dried yet, and we spread newspapers over them to sit down, and the footballers in bright jerseys, whose white legs haven’t tanned yet, slip on the wet grass for the first few minutes, but then everything gets normal, the game goes sort of okay, in the spring sort of way, but then someone randomly scores a goal, and the fans cheer and applaud, a dove flies up, someone whistles, and the goalkeeper wearing a cap with a wide hood runs up lazily and kicks the ball, and the resonant, leathery thud is heard loud and clear…

“There’s spring again”, says the artist as he looks at the bare earth covered with reddish, wet last-year leaves.

“There’s love again”, says the girl as she prepares for her legal theory exam.

“There’s football again”, says the man as he buys an umbrella in the shop, glad for some unknown reason.”

That’s how Yuri Trifonov describes football.

And Ilf and Petrov say in the Fan’s Honest Word, with their characteristic irony, that “everyone praises the sport they particularly love”, and then paint a picture of widespread transformation as soon as the “soul-grabbing, languishing four-note referee’s whistle” sounds at the great grass field of the Dinamo stadium, telling everyone that a big football match is underway. Do you remember? Tennis player, forgetting about his “half-Chamberlain” manners and his favourite white pants with “perennial” fold, grabs the handrail of a streetcar and becomes fierce as a leopard. We see that an honest football heart is beating under his facade. The “adherents of progressive ideas in gorodki”, the “fat men manipulating buffer disks” – all of them occupy whole trams to get to the stadium quick… And the stands were “united by the football spirit”.

It seems that everything was already said about loving football. But it’s not the case. Everyone’s feelings are unique. And if you asked me… Though that’s not an interview, that’s my book, and I can ask questions to myself. You tend to ask more and more such questions as you age. What is football for me? I can answer: at sixty years old, I would give anything to answer to that “languishing” referee’s whistle not as a coach or as the national team’s head administrator, but as a player. I’d give anything for the noisy crowds, for the encouraging screams “Go Nikita!” For the collective celebration of the team: “We won, we won!” For the glory. I won’t shy away from saying that: any person’s striving for success and recognition is only natural. No sportsman ever dreams of mediocrity.

Now I’m looking at football with different eyes compared to when I began in my youth. Now I understand how much of a high art it is, and I could master this art much better than I had in my playing years. Oh, how much I could do with this wisdom and quick feet of my youth!.. But first things first.

Many people asked me why I haven’t written a book yet. They said that even people in their thirties are already describing their footballing life in print. “Don’t you have anything to remember, to tell us?” But I’ve always thought that there’s too much written about football already. What new thing can I say? But then, I started to understand more clearly that every person’s experience is unique, and everyone has their own view of the same events. And football events always draw a lot of interest.

This is a book about football. It’s also a book about other things: about my life, the people who played a major role in my life, influenced my development. The book about the things I’ve never regretted and the things I remember with much regret and bitterness. About good and bad luck. About hardships and overcoming them. About choices that everyone has to make constantly and what they use for guidance in such situations. You can’t live your life anew, but I think you shouldn’t regret the life you lived. Let the reader draw their own conclusions.

As I think about all that, I’m hoping that my story would be interesting not only to those who saw me on the football field and supported me as a player and manager but even to those who weren’t born yet when I hung up my boots.

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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