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

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

245 matches, 160 goals, 0 yellow card and 0 red cards. These statistics are but a microcosm of Nikita Pavlovich Simonyan’s career for Spartak Moscow. Simonyan was as a player, manager, club ambassador and, above all else, still is a keen supporter of Spartak Moscow, and throughout this time has acted as a humble sportsman, functionary and gentleman.

Upon celebrating his 90th birthday last season, the club hosted him as a honoured guest and invited him onto the pitch before the match with FC Rostov at the Otkrytiye Arena. Simonyan was presented with a Spartak shirt with his name and 90 printed on the back before being given the honour to kick off at the stadium he longed for and aimed towards for years. Simonyan is still to this day Spartak’s record goalscorer, having plundered 160 goals in just 244 games. Having played for the club for a decade, his career with the Red-Whites’ was trophy-laden. However, it was not just Spartak that he devoted too much of his life playing and working for, but Russian football in general.

Simonyan, over the course of the rest of his career scored ten goals in twenty appearances for the national team as well as nine in 52 for Krylia Sovetov. He was the record goalscorer in the Soviet Top League on top of holding Spartak’s record. Aside from this, Simonyan has also coached the Peoples’ Team, the Soviet national team, Ararat Yerevan and Cherormomorets Odessa, worked as the president of the Russian Football Union (RFU) three times and is currently the vice-president of the RFU. He holds many achievements spanning through his long career, and aside from still today being Spartak’s record goalscorer and the record goalscorer of the Soviet/Russian Top Division (now the Premier League) he, was also granted Honoured Master of Sports of the USSR in 1956, Honoured Coach of the RSFSR in 1968 and the Chevalier of the Order for Services to the Fatherland in 2011. As both player and coach, he won the Soviet Top League six times, the USSR Cup five times and was part of the 1956 Olympic Gold winning team, the side which was victorious in the 1960 Euro Cup, as well as member of the team which made it to the quarter-final of the 1958 World Cup – a competition the team would have won, had  player-of-his-generation Eduard Streltsov been available for selection.

Last week, Simonyan celebrated his 91st birthday, and is rightfully regarded as the ‘grandfather of Russian football’, but if it wasn’t for a series of terrible wars, he may have been regarded as the ‘grandfather of Armenian football’.

Refugees rightly and deservedly decide to flee from war zones, as we have seen recently with the Bosnian War, the Maidan Revolution and the crisis in Syria as just a few examples.  The Armenian populace spent almost five hundred years under Persian rule, outlasting the Safavid, Afsharid and Qajar dynasties, and under all three, Armenian land was disrupted and destroyed constantly between Ottoman-Safavid warfare. From 1828-1918 the region was denoted as Eastern Armenia and ruled by the Romanov dynasty, officially subjugates of the Russian Empire – and once again subjected to great hardship under “foreign” rule.

Armenia in the early-1920s however, suffered particularly from the strain of numerous wars emanating directly from their independence, declared in May 1918. Over 200,000 Armenians fought in the ranks of Allied units during the First World War itself with half of these dying in battle. Even after the Soviet withdrawal after the October Revolution, Armenian troops still fought Turkish forces and were pivotal in stopping the Axis powers reaching the oil-rich lands surrounding Baku in Azerbaijan.  However, from 1918-1926, the nation suffered directly fighting for independence as part of the Russian Civil War, with some regions fighting all the way up to 1926 despite the Soviet Union annexing the First Armenian Republic in 1922.

As a result, in early 1926 Poghos Simonyan fled from the First Armenian Republic to the relative ease of life in Armavir (Krasnodar region) in the southern RSFSR. He immediately found work repairing shoes in a local factory and was able to feed his family, including newly-born son Mkrtych Pogsovich Simonyan, named after his paternal grandfather. They moved south to Sukhumi, today recognised as part of the Republic of Abkhazia – a partially recognised independent authority – and the young Mkrtych became a keen football player and fan, and often played late into the night while his father was away working. Young Soviet players at the time, however, could not pronounce his name due to the difficult mix of Indo-European, Slavic and Indo-Iranian linguistic features within Armenian and simply nicknamed him ‘Mikita’. He changed it himself to Nikita Pavlovich when his father applied for Soviet passports amidst the policy of passportisation in 1932.

Simonyan was invited to play for local team Dinamo Sukhumi, whom, despite being very young and green, he was a star player for. Sukhumi travelled to Moscow and played the old-Krylia in a pair of preseason friendlies in 1946 and scored in each game. As a result, Simonyan was invited to play for the team, and subsequently signed for them before they disbanded in 1949 and Simonyan moved to begin his eponymous spell at Spartak, and the rest is history.

Simonyan, last year upon hearing of the planned celebrations honouring his 90th birthday was typically magnanimous;

For me, it will be just another working day in the Russian football Union. I wanted to have some kind of celebration, honouring… I refused. Don’t want all this hype, I will work.

This small thirty-three-word sentence sums-up Simonyan more than any other; he is a humble and honest man shaped by his experience escaping war-torn Armenia, and the small beginnings in Armavir and Sukhumi. This, coupled with his current position as vice-president of the RFU means his opinion and word on Russian football is respected today more than any other. Even in recent interviews, he has happily stated that he is awaiting a Spartak player to one day overtake him, but alas no current player is even close. Simonyan retired from his managerial career in 1985 aged just 59 in order to take up a role in politics, but this was not to enhance his name or reputation but merely because of his love for football, and his insatiable need for the sport to be steered in the right direction.

In Armenia today, Simonyan is still considered a hero. While manager of Ararat Yerevan in 1973. he led the club to an unprecedented league and cup double, which is still considered as the greatest event in the footballing history of the nation. However, he will still be remembered as one of the all-time Russian greats, and now ahead of the first ever World Cup to be hosted in the nation, it is poignant that the man who scored the nation’s first ever goal at a World Cup Finals is the current vice-president of the governing body.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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