Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 2) – Captain’s Memory

Monument of Nikolai Starostin and his three brothers inside Spartak Moscow's Otkritie Arena.

Monument of Nikolai Starostin and his three brothers inside Spartak Moscow’s Otkritie Arena.

Nikolai Petrovich Starostin (1902-1996) was a Soviet football player and official. He was the co-founder of Spartak Moscow, which turned into the most popular club in the USSR and Russia, and worked as its head administrator for most of his life. Starostin is considered one of the most legendary and universally revered figures of Soviet football.

In 1986, he published the book ‘My Football Years’ with Lev Filatov, and even well into his eighties, he retained a keen understanding of the game, spotting and predicting most of the modern football trends. The book also offers some fascinating insights on the history of Soviet football, related by someone who’d seen it in its entirety. 

Every Tuesday, we bring a chapter from the book.

In the second chapter, Starostin looks back at the beginning of Soviet football and explains what being a captain taught him, and how he used it for his work at Spartak after he hang his boots on the shelf.

Read chapter one: A Hint to the Future

Captain’s Memory

I’ve never aspired to be a publicist. I never could (and still, cannot) systematise all my arguments and insist that my views are right. So I’ll say right away that I’m not going to lecture anybody, and my views are strictly my own. They might seem subjective or even controversial, but I’ll be glad if they give someone food for thought.

I’ve seen the entire history of Soviet football with my own eyes. I’m not exaggerating: I first set my foot on a real football field at age 16, in the spring of 1918.

The field was called the Goryuchka (“The Burn-Out”); it was basically an empty clearing located near the modern Moscow Zoo; my team was called RGO (Русское гимнастическое общество, Russian Gymnastic Society). I made my debut in the reserve team of that club as an inside right forward. Here’s the short version of the story: I and my brother Alexander started ice-skating at the Patriarshiye Ponds, where RGO’s pavilion was located. The society’s executive secretary, sprint skater Nikolay Timofeevich Mikheev, was also an avid footballer. RGO had no field of its own, the team itself was quite poor. I and my brother knew all the surrounding district, so we showed Mikheev the Goryuchka. That clearing had quite a bad reputation – it was frequented by hooligans and card sharks. When the clearing was occupied by footballers, it was quickly gentrified. So, basically, football performed its cultural mission even back then. After a while, RGO was merged with OFV (Общество физического воспитания, Society for Physical Education) of the Krasnopresnensky district. Back then, there was a search for the best form of a sports organisation, and various reforms were abounding. It wasn’t surprising: there was a revolution in sports as well, with working-class people getting mass access to the stadiums. The Krasnaya Presnya team had a small wooden stadium with a capacity of 5,000; now, there’s Moskovskaya Pravda publishing house building on its place. When I’m visiting the former Goryuchka or the editor’s office of Vechernaya Moskva newspaper, I’m still feeling the fields where I used to play sixty-odd years ago with my feet. The landscape is totally unrecognisable, but my memory is still alive and thrilling.

What did the Krasnaya Presnya team look like? It was a small club that united people who just wanted to play football more than anything. Our entire budget, so to say, was financed by ticket sales. The club provided one jersey for a year, and we protected them like holy relics. All other equipment we had to buy ourselves. When the team travelled (most often to Leningrad), our boss Ivan Timofeevich Artemyev would ask, “Can you scrap any money for tickets?” And then he’d immediately ask us to buy tickets for those who couldn’t “scrap” anything. We were poor in a monetary sense, but not spiritually. Our stadium was the second home for us, our wives and kids came to our training and matches, everyone donated what they could to the club – we were ardent patriots. Our stadium didn’t just exist – it lived. One of our players had enough money to afford a coachman to come to the games. Everyone would run out to the street and scream, “He’s going, he’s going!” I can’t help but remember that when I see our team’s luxurious Icarus bus and the row of Lada and Volga cars the players ride on…

I also remember that old Krasnaya Presnya, bustling with activity, each time when I see our beautiful modern stadiums almost empty when little boys aren’t let in. I can’t understand it.

I think that many young people in our football environment look at the past with irony. With much aplomb and using, for some reason, a lot of foreign words, they say that both world and Soviet football had completely changed almost overnight, and now they have all the knowledge, they’re the main movers and shakers of progress, which began only after they came by.

What is there to say? The changes are indeed dramatic. But it’s very naive to think that all of those changes came about in the last few years. They happened gradually, during the entire history of the Soviet football. I daresay that I’m in the best position to notice that.

In the last years, our football got almost everything it could ever dream about. Big stadiums, training bases with the most modern scientific equipment, a network of kids’ academies covering the entire country, scientists and doctors collaborating, participation in all international competitions, support from the party, Soviet, trade union, Komsomol organisations. Our football is well-equipped, well-financed, cared about. Millions of people come to the stadiums, and I don’t know how much more watch football on TV. I’ve visited stadiums in many countries, and I can surely say that I’ve never seen such a sympathetic, fair and patient crowd as in our country.

More than twenty years ago, I formally had the right to quit football and enjoy my retirement. If I did that, I’d probably be looking like a grumpy old man now, fixated on the past, and my comparisons would seem naive to the readers, especially young ones. But I’m still working actively, my club is one of the best in the country, producing players for the Soviet national team.

Of course, many things from the 20’s and the 30’s are now obsolete. For instance, I remember a time when teams had no coaches, and the team captain did everything. It’s impossible to imagine now. I was 23 years old, playing as a right winger, enjoying my games and scoring goals, and then the team suddenly elected me as a captain. Our former captain, Ivan Artemyev, joined Dynamo, our famous striker Pavel Kanunnikov was expected to succeed him, but he refused adamantly. I was next in the succession line. And don’t forget that we were all amateurs, we worked full-time – for instance, I was the head of the financial department of the Moscow branch of the Nizhny Novgorod Governorate’s the Village Credit Union.

My duty to score goals still remained. Of course, I’ve never missed training and matches. And as a captain, I’ve also now had to represent my team in the Komsomol district committee and district executive committee, be aware of my teammates’ needs, asking their employers to let them off work earlier to go to training, solve their family issues, finding money for them in case of financial troubles. And the most difficult thing of them all was determining the starting eleven. We’re all comrades, we’re equal to the field, we’re fighting, winning and losing, all happiness and sadness is common. But, while still being one of them, I’m now determining who’s going to start the game and who’s on the bench. How could a captain get by? Only by being fair and impartial.

Later, I also became the captain of Moscow team and USSR national team. It was even more brutal. Everyone was a star, and, of course, everyone wanted the honour to be included in the starting lineup. There was also the rivalry between Moscow and Leningrad: who contributed more players to the national team? And I had to compile the team list and then get it approved in the physical culture council.

In the modern times, piling up such responsibilities on one player is, of course, looks like total nonsense.

Still, I must say that the elected captains possessed a lot of authority, they were obeyed; if someone thinks that there was total anarchy in the teams back in that time, they’re mistaken. No, we had discipline, and we played with all our heart and soul; all the troubles were quickly sorted out on the field, without waiting for the half-time break.

The main thing I’m trying to get across is that the experience I gained at the very beginning of the Soviet football still helps me today. Football’s external appearance has changed a lot, but its inner workings are largely the same. Football is still played by humans. And I know: the brighter is the footballer’s individuality, the more difficult is his personality. The skill of influencing people’s morale will always be valuable. Let’s also remember that these difficult personalities are prone to showing during an intense struggle, competition, unavoidable losses when emotions finally break through. Both captains of the old times and head administrators and coaches today have to control the relationships and feelings, always remembering that they’re working with human beings, not some faceless numbered figures.

I’ve been working as Spartak’s head administrator since the end of 1954. I think nobody can match my work record. In most teams, head administrators come and go even more often than the head coaches, without leaving any memory or trace of themselves, as though they were never there. I’m saddened and concerned by that.

What’s the secret of my longevity? The question is very serious and important, even for our football as a whole, so I’ll try to answer it, basing on my experience.

First of all, I’ll daresay that I know almost everything in football. I say “almost” not because I’m trying to keep decorum or show humbleness, but because I respect the football profession: no matter how much knowledge you accumulate, it constantly gives you unexpected situations and conflicts that leave you completely perplexed at first, forcing you to adapt. I’ve had to make a journey along my football “Volga” from Valday to the very Caspian Sea, and not on a motor ship, but as a bargeman, with a tow rope in my hands.

Secondly, I’ve been working as a football administrator since my youth up until today. I don’t know, perhaps I had some talent for that, but I certainly learned a lot on the job. I’ve had the honour of being one of the creators of Spartak sports society and one of its executives, while still remaining a player.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m tired or bored of this non-stop, endless work? It’s probably tiresome. But the job is my flesh and blood, I don’t look at it as a burden, it’s more like a habit, a second nature to me. At first, football was just a hobby, but then, it became something even bigger than a job – almost a purpose in life. So, I never feel burdened with any organisational or managerial work. On the contrary, it makes me feel like I’m still making a difference.

Thirdly, my education is very useful for my job as a head administrator. In my youth, I graduated from Mansfeld Brothers’ Commercial College with an economics degree.

We aren’t accustomed to discussing financial issues. I don’t know why. They’re passed by, almost considered shameful. But the finances very reliably show how well the team plays and how good its work is organised. Isn’t it good that we at Spartak manage to cover all our expenses and even put 250,000 – 300,000 rubles a year into our savings account? We don’t just cover all our expenses, but also financially support our sports society’s hockey team and Krasnaya Presnya, our farm club from League 2. We’re doing all that because we sell a lot of tickets.

I don’t want to boast with our club’s successes. On the contrary, I’m sure that Spartak could have, even should have met our supporters’ expectations: we haven’t won a single championship since 1979, even though we clearly could. Still, ever since 1977, when Spartak was relegated to the League 1 (I’ll return to this story later), and until now, our club has a lot to offer to the spectators. So, the financial issues can’t be viewed separately. It’s much more pleasant to count the profits than to cover expenses.

So, I think that those three conditions are necessary for a football team’s head administrator. Most probably, people can’t stay long on that job because they don’t satisfy all three condition. I’m more than sure that there’s a lot of people who satisfy all three conditions, but nobody’s searching for them. And nobody’s searching for them because they aren’t deemed all that necessary.

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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