Nikolai Sokolov – The Founder of Russian Goalkeeping

Lev Yashin is considered perhaps the best to ever play football, but even before him, the Soviet Union has had a long line of great goalkeepers. One of these is Nikolai Sokolov, who both Nikolai Starostin in Football Stars and Anatoly Akimov in The Goalkeeper and his Role in the Team name as the founder of the Soviet goalkeeping school, which later gave birth to Yashin, Rinat Dasaev and many others.

Sokolov was born in Moscow on May 12, 1897. At this time, football wasn’t a sport for Russians but a hobby. In the capital of the Tsarist empire, Saint Petersburg, a group of Englishmen had created their own club, The Saint Petersburg Football Club, in 1879, but it wasn’t until October 1897, five months after Sokolov’s birth, that the first football match in the country was organised. At the Vasilievsky Island in Petersburg, a team of Englishmen named Ostrov, meaning island, met a team composed of Russians named Petrograd. The Englishmen won 6-0, proving that Russian football still had a long way to go.

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Football game on the ZKS field (oldmos.ru)

However, the beautiful game was slowly becoming increasingly popular, and clubs began to emerge in both Saint Petersburg as well as in Moscow. Sokolov joined the youth department of one of Moscow’s first clubs, Zamoskvoretskyi Club Sporta, ZKS.

Like most of his teammates, the young Sokolov wanted to score goals, but his small size pushed him on in goal; ‘Look, go between the posts. There you have only to remain standing. As usual…’, he later recalled being told in his book First Team Goalkeeper.

‘I wanted to scream after the insult, but I wiped my tears in silence. At the dawn of Russian football, the player put in goal was considered unsuitable to play on the pitch. There was little respect for goalkeepers…I first complained, angry at my unhappy fate, but then I realized that I liked to keep my goal as an insurmountable obstacle in front of the ball, ripping the attackers’.

Sokolov had to fend all alone, learning the basics of the profession while battling the total lack of recognition of the goalkeeper position. Other players, such as striker Vasily Butusov, and known to be the first goalscorer in the history of the Russian national team in an official match, made the same observation;

‘Everyone wanted to be striker, nobody in goal. That’s why, for a long time, that Russia didn’t have any good goalkeepers. Favorsky, Boreysha, Matrine, Nagorsky were considered the best goal keepers, but couldn’t catch the ball firmly and pushed it’.

The only way to progress as a goalkeeper was to look what the others were doing. At this time, the Russian Championship did not exist. The competitions were organised in cities such as Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and it wasn’t until 30 June 1912 that the national team played its first official game as they took on Finland in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, which they eventually lost 2-1. Lev Favorsky (Club Sokolniki), Aleksandr Martynov (EKS) and Dmitriy Matrine (Union Moscow) became the first goalkeepers to play for the national selection. While they probably wouldn’t be considered good today, seeing them play helped Sokolov evolve.

Nikolai Sokolov

Nikolai Sokolov (rusteam.permian.ru)

After entering the international football world, all Russian players had to develop their tactical approach to the game, especially goalkeepers. In his book, Sokolov recalled a game in April 1914 between  a team of English students from London, invited by the Moscow League to play a few games, including Muscovite side Orekhovo Zuevo, who had won the Moscow championship in the previous four seasons;

‘What I looked the most at was the english goalkeeper, Williams. Imposing, skillful, solid, he wonderfully guarded his goal. He acted like an old school goalkeeper: He had to move. Even if the danger wasn’t present, Williams was walking from one post to the other, easily, with enthusiasm. But as soon as the danger approached, Williams stopped, turned and followed the actions of the game. I liked the boldness in his actions. He did it quickly and always guessed the right moment to interfere. Williams mostly used his fists, and rarely catched the ball but safely guarded his goal’.

For Sokolov, watching the English goalkeeper was a real eye opener, and both he and the rest of Russia learned much from the founders of the game;

‘For us it was a lesson. Great football. The games against the English team have shown us once again that football is a history of tactics and strategy. It was time to think, to learn and integrate something. Those games have, no doubt, contributed to modify our technical approach and our tactics, and for our  young players, a need to create new game systems’.

And so, the Russians began to work on. Within the teams, tactics were developed, the defeat brought players to begin to think about their game plan, which reinforced the idea that they were on the right path. Then the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 happened, and while deadly for many players, these events didn’t prevent the young people to modernise their style. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union had a passion for football, and the number of clubs continued to grow all over the country.

The development, of course, included the goalkeeper position, which was no longer just the physically weakest player, and Sokolov contributed during the first years of the USSR to work on the technique for goalkeepers. He became the first to throw the ball with both hands from above head when the common tactic was to throw the ball under-arm as far as possible. He was also the first who proposed his defenders to pass him the ball, thus contributing in the build-up play. While these things sound simple these days, they were revolutionary at the time, and many teammates and opponents thought it was weird. Fedor Selin, a teammate of Nikolay Sokolov remembers;

‘At the beginning of Russian football, the game was more or less direct, only forward. Thus, when Nikolai Sokolov proposed us to pass backwards to him, we didn’t understand. We even laughed at him. But life showed us  that he was right and we were wrong’.

Thanks to this, ‘he was able to manage the actions of its defenders, to unify his defence’s efforts and to improve the overall defensive shape’ according to Spartak Moscow legend Nikolai Starostin. Sokolov also developed a training method for goalkeepers, which included both passing and receiving the ball. His great technique and his responsiveness even made him a master of saving penalties.

Sokolov stayed with ZKS until 1922, before he went to play for the Yacht Club Raykomvoda and the MSFK before moving to Dinamo Leningrad in 1925, where he stayed until 1931. During this time, he won several trophies, and he finally earned Russian goalkeepers the recognition and respect they deserved.

International Recognition

In the following years, the Soviet Union became increasingly aware of the crucial role of the goalkeepers, but outside of the country’s borders, Soviet football remained unknown. A series of international tours changed this promptly, however.

‘In the early years after the revolution, people abroad didn’t know anything about Soviet football’ Nikolai Starostin said. The championship in the early 1920s was very unstable with clubs changing names or merging with each other constantly. However, this didn’t impact the quality of the players, so when a Soviet selection consisting of players from Moscow and Leningrad went on tour to Scandinavia, Germany, Poland and Estonia eight months after the birth of the country, in 1923, and inflicted many, heavy, defeats upon its opponents, the press was marveled by the talent of the Soviet players, and especially Sokolov.

After a 5-0 victory against a Finnish trade union team, Finnish media wrote; ‘The Russians played perfectly. Every player touched the ball artistically’. Later, Swedish media wrote;

‘They were good players. They quickly took control of the game with accurate passing and breakthroughs in the axis. In attack, they made beautiful combinations. The trio of Butusov-Isakov-Kanunnikov was excellent’.

Another report, again in the Swedish media, highly praised Sokolov in particular;

‘We saw in this team a lot of talents, but honestly, the goalkeeper Sokolov was a real miracle. Any professional team in Europe, any club on the continent, even in England, would consider it an honour to have such a goalkeeper’.

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The Soviet selection in Stockholm, 1923 

The Soviet team was so dominant that some Swedish newspapers criticised the organisation of the tour, blaming the guests for picking too weak opponents. On 21 August 1923, a final game was arranged in Stockholm. This time, the opponents were not a trade union team, but the best players in Sweden and the Soviet team still won 2-1. The friendly is considered the first game in the history of Sbornaya.

During the tour, the Soviet team managed to score 85 goals, while only conceding 23. A stunning 35 of these goals were scored in Sweden alone, proving that the Swedish press was probably right regarding the level of the opponents.

Nevertheless, the tour proved to be spectacular for the development of football in the country and the quality of the players.

Master and Pupil’s

In Anatoly Akimov’s fantastic book The Goalkeeper and His Role in the Team, he details the goalkeepers who followed in Sokolov’s footsteps, inspired by the great Muscovite. Akimov, himself being one of the greatest goalkeepers in the 1930s and an Honoured Master of Sports of the USSR, knows what he’s talking about.

Fedor Tchulkov

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Fedor Tchulkov (fcdinamo.ru)

KFS player (Krujok futbolistov Sokolniki) from 1922, he is famous for co-founding the Dinamo Moscow first team and is considered as the founder of the goalkeeper’s school at Dinamo, which developed Yashin. He won the Moscow championship three times, one Soviet league and one Russian SFSR championship. He played seven games for the national team.

One was one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation. His size allowed him to compete well and recover the ball in the air.

Ivan Ryzhov

Goalkeeper at the TsDKA Moscow (the current CSKA) from 1928 to 1934, he took part in the victory against the Czechoslovakian team Zidenice Brno (currently Zbrojovska Brno). He then moved to Spartak Moscow, with whom he won the fall championship of USSR in 1936, he finished his professional career at the club Pishchevik, where he later became a coach.

Tall and physically strong, he took advantage of the opponents in his penalty area. Spartak had an excellent goalkeeping training camp, which Akimov himself confirmed while assisting the training sessions, claiming he was a ‘charismatic man, who did not allow players to leave, who exhausted, begged him to stop training’.

Valentin Granatkin

Valentin Granatkin

Valentin Granatkin (rusteam.permian.ru)

A great athlete as a football player, hockey player and at bandy, Granatkin was a man who tried to change the footballing system of the Soviet Union.

He had incredible reflexes, he was excellent in one-on-one situations. With an impressive strength of character, Akimov said that in a game between the Moscow Selection and Leningrad, he suffered a broken finger during the match but played on.

Evgeny Fokin

Master of Sports of the USSR, Evgeny Fokin spent the majority of his career at Dinamo Moscow. From 1930 to 1944, he won four Moscow championships, two Championships of the USSR (1937, 1940) and a Cup of USSR (1937).

Fokin was a temperate man, quiet and shy, he was a studious worker, serious in everything he did, including in his preparation at the training. When facing a striker directly, he was very often successful.

Roman Norov

Born in Nikolaev in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, Roman Norov first played from 1913 to 1922 for the Nikolaev club, Union. He reached the semi-final of the Championship of Ukraine against Shturm from Kharkov but lost 4-0. He played the next four seasons for Shturm and in 1924, he helped win the USSR championship against Leningrad. He finished his career at Dinamo Kharkov in 1930.

Considered as the founder of the Ukrainian school of goalkeepers, his style of game was different from the Moscow and Leningrad goalkeepers. He tried to counter the ball with the foot when the striker opponent was one-on-one and tried to fall low to the ground as seldom as possible, preferring to stay on his feet.

Anton Idzkovsky

The renowned Ukrainian goalkeeper played the majority of his career at Dinamo Kyiv from 1928 to 1945. He played 73 USSR league games, and in 1931, he won the Championship of Ukraine. After his playing career, he worked as a coach at Dinamo until 1955 and then for the Ukrainian Football Federation.

Rigorous in his work, Anton Idzkovsky practised with strong discipline. Developing specific exercises that foster the development of reactions, coordination, agility, and flexibility, he created a personal training program. Even during his leisure time, he trained to catch, no matter what. He utilised hard work in order to compensate for his small size (174 cm or 5’3).

Aleksandr Babkin

Aleksander Babkin. Picture from metalist.ua

Aleksander Babkin (metalist.ua)

He spent the majority of his career within the team of the locomotives building plant of Kharkov from 1928 to 1934 and then at Lokomotiv Kharkov from 1936 to 1937. His career was rather short since he devoted himself thereafter to a role in the sports Committee in the city of Kharkov. His game against Turkey in 1932 for the national team, was one of his feats of glory. Nikolai Starostin regretted his short career.

With an incredible sense of the placement, his technique and his style of play are more similar to the Russian school of goalkeepers.

To this day, football fans all over the world still have a lot to thank Sokolov for, because had it not been for his hard work in developing his position, perhaps the beautiful game would have been cheated for some of its finest athletes later on.

 

You can read more of Vincent’s writing on Soviet goalkeepers in French at our friends at Footballski right here.

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Author: Vincent Tanguy

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