Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 1) – A Hint to the Future

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. 

Over the next eight Tuesdays, we’ll bring you one chapter every week. 

In the first chapter, Starostin looks back at the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico, where the USSR won its group ahead of France, Hungary and Canada, but lost 4-3 to Belgium after extra time in the ensuing Round of 16, discussing the future of world football.

Introduction 

First of all, I’d like to state my intentions.

I think that my readers will expect a memoir: I spent my entire life in football, so it would be only natural for me to delve deep into my memories and slowly and gradually tell you about everything I saw in football in my 68 years of work. I had two year-long pauses in my work with the team, and I used one of those pauses, in 1966, to write the book Звезды большого футбола (The Stars of Big Football), which was indeed a memoir. And then, up till now, I’ve been Spartak Moscow’s head administrator. This job doesn’t leave a room for any kind of vacations. I can say with certainty that I haven’t been on a vacation for about 50 years. So, to be honest, I have neither the time nor mood for any kind of epic memoirs.

But the state of our football isn’t as great as to allow me to just concentrate on working with my team alone and soothe myself with the notion of having done everything I could for it.

I hold the potential of our football in high regard; this feeling is in my blood, acquired through my experience as a player, administrator, bystander, even writer. I don’t share the nihilism of some of our football officials and fans. Still, I’m very much disheartened with the bottlenecks that slow and distort the natural evolution of football.

Football doesn’t live on the pitch only. It grows on the soil that is mostly hidden from the viewers’ eyes, but nevertheless, this “soil” defines both the quality of play and the results. In short, this “soil” is the order and morale of the team. I take it as my duty to speak my mind on these subjects. They also fit my job description best.

I’ll begin from my impressions from the 13th FIFA World Cup. It’s still fresh in my mind, and it’s been very meaningful.

A Hint of the Future

The first thing I noticed is that football is becoming more and more fancy and melodramatic; in other words, its emotional impact on the audience is growing. The playing kits themselves have become more colourful and bright; the goalkeepers’ outfits are outright exotic. The players don’t hold back with gestures, as though explaining their actions and failures to the public, and after tackles and falls, they often make a scene to show themselves in a sympathetic light.

Another obvious thing is prematch predictions becoming much more reliable. The usual unpredictability of the games is gone. I, for instance, was only surprised by Soviet Union defeating Hungary 6-0 (I expected a win, but not with such a goal difference), and with England stumbling against Portugal and Morocco. I think that there’s more to it than just simple cautiousness: modern teams prepare for the games very thoroughly, considering everything there is to consider, and now they’re even able to watch the games of their future opponents on video.

At the World Cups, we usually compare the football of different continents. Even in the past, the mutual influence was noticeable. And I think that at the Mexican stadiums, the difference was even less than usual: the Europeans and the South Americans are persistently learning from each other. How? For instance, the Europeans adopted the South American universality, the ability of a player to play in different positions with different tasks, and the South Americans adopted our off-the-ball movement. The Brazilian and Argentinian national teams are now playing at the best European levels.

There’s always this question: what football is more popular, attacking or defensive? My answer is counter-attacking. When one team is behind in the last minutes, they have no choice but to attack all-out. But most often, I’ve seen both teams biding their time, looking for an opening. Only Brazil, France and Argentina had what I’d call independent, sovereign attacking tactics.

Our team played the first two games with brilliance and determination. The Soviet players were young, for most it was their first World Cup, and so their emotions were very fresh. The technical ability, however, was somewhat lacking in comparison with the best teams, but it’s not the team’s fault – it’s our football’s long-time backwardness.

My feelings about USSR v Belgium can be described with one word: resentment. I’m totally sure that our team isn’t any weaker than the Belgians. We had more goal attempts, including those where it was harder not to score.

But, of course, so-called “bad luck” always has real, more mundane reasons. Notice this: Brazil, Argentina and France began the tournament calmly and then became progressively stronger, while our team went all-out from the very beginning (against Hungary and France), and they had nothing to add to that later. It’s not the first time we’ve made a strategic mistake at a World Cup.

Belanov scored a hat-trick against Belgium. What more can you wish for? Alas, our team conceded four goals. I think that in this hard, intense match, when our opponents tried their hardest to win, the fact that our defensive players were unprepared for such an intense struggle showed very clearly. Let me remind you that Bal and Bessonov were formerly midfielders, they’re more adept at intercepting the ball than tackling. Demianenko was very inert. Only Kuznetsov looked like he knew he was doing. Even if Ceulemans was offside when he scored the second goal, the defenders had no right to just stop – they still had to at least try to stop him, it’s one of the laws of their game, and they have carelessly violated it. It was strange and sad to see the Belgians shoot at the goal from point blank range, without any interference.

Six players from the starting eleven – Rats, Yaremchuk, Yakovenko, Demianenko, Bessonov and Dasaev – haven’t played for ten days straight, missing the match against Canada. Such a generous rest didn’t help them at all, they were looking most tired. For that matter, the entire team wasn’t mobilized, as in the first matches – they looked soft and complacent, as though thinking “Well, we can handle that Belgium, we need to save the strength until the quarterfinal.” That’s when it became glaringly obvious that our team lacked an experienced leader who could rally the players and make them concentrate. And, finally, Belanov lacked an equally good attacking partner. Still, I don’t want to say that this disappointing loss negated our team’s previous achievements. Yes, they were eliminated way too quickly, but still showed themselves very well, they got noticed; the French and the Belgians even had to devise special defensive plans to contain the Soviet team.

The World Cup is organized in such a way that each of the 24 teams plays at least 3 games, shows themselves, looks at the others, and compensates the expenses (the Mexicans were keen to visit the stadiums). 36 matches out of 52 were played at the group stage. All of them were quite intense. What did the group stage tell us?

As I already said, the predictions were very reliable. Nothing, with a few exceptions, surprised me. The quality of play wasn’t too extraordinary but gave hope for the future matches. The teams were more concerned with not conceding too much than with scoring. The true World Cup only began at the knockout stage.

I mentioned a “few exceptions”, and one of them was the game between Brazil and Northern Ireland. The Brazilians won 3-0. I hope you’ll understand me when I say that I’m very attentive to small details. So, there was an episode when the Brazilians played a quick attacking combination involving several players, making five one-touch passes in a row. This is the highest possible measure of technical excellence. Imagine: with the very first touch, without stopping or holding the ball, to pass it directly to the partner, leaving the opponents flabbergasted! When Cherenkov and Gavrilov played a combination with two one-touch passes in Spartak, it was deemed a great success. And here, there were five passes! When I met Konstantin Beskov the next day, he immediately asked me, “Have you seen how Brazil played five one-touch passes?”

France v Brazil attracted a lot of attention; some even said that it was the “pre-final final”. What thoughts did it inspire? For me, the match looked like a chess game, there was a very thoughtful atmosphere at the stadium. Both teams, afraid of the opponents uncorking some kind of “home preparation”, played very respectfully towards each other. Their technique was nearly perfect. The team that received the ball immediately became very dangerous: every attack had the potential to end with a goal, like in basketball. There was something prophetic in this game; we were shown the football of the future, and I’m inclined to believe this prophecy. The draw looked like a fair result. Also, the game was very correct. We’ve seen lots of tactical calculations, subtle ball play, the stars’ real leadership.

Still, there were moments when the match’s fate was hanging by a thread. In the second half, the Brazilians were awarded a penalty. The famous Zico came to take the shot. And I immediately recalled the Brazil – USSR friendly at the Maracana in 1980. The score was 1-1, Brazil was awarded a penalty, and Zico came to take the kick. He failed to score, our team then scored the second goal and defeated Brazil for the very first time. I thought, “Will he score this time?” And, believe it or not, he didn’t, Joel Bats saved his shot. I don’t want to doubt Zico’s mastery, but, as you might see, some events have a tendency to repeat themselves.

I also loved Belgium vs. Spain. I don’t know whether it predicted the future of football, but it reminded me about its good past. The game was very attacking with both teams letting each other play, while the players didn’t attack their opponents as soon as they had the ball; I might even say that their behaviour was very friendly, despite the match’s importance. There were a lot of moments for both teams and no big defensive crowds around the goals, leaving the spectators were thrilled. There was no war on the field – only pure sporting competition.

Belgium’s rise to the semi-finals defied all predictions. I think that this team, which finished only third in their group and was considered an underdog by many, was bolstered by their win against the Soviet Union – they probably didn’t even expect it themselves. Still, they played very well against Spain. The Spanish attacked a lot, but without much chances for success; their fiery passion was repelled by Belgium’s cool composure. Another penalty shootout, and Belgium’s goalkeeper Pfaff essentially won the match for his team by saving one shot.

West Germany and Mexico, by contrast, failed to find the purely football-playing arguments; there were a lot of tackles and fouls, which led to a yellow-card spree and two red cards (one for each team). Mexico’s best striker Sánchez didn’t have the best of games, they couldn’t do much in the way of combinations, and individual efforts were easily intercepted by West Germany’s experienced defenders. On the other hand, West Germany failed to offer anything more than power and pressure. They wanted to win very much, but couldn’t, so they resorted to fouls. Not a pretty sight. And again a penalty shootout, with Schumacher saving two shots for West Germany, while his partners converted all their shots into goals.

Only one game ended in 90 minutes: Argentina vs. England, 2-1. This result wasn’t unexpected for me. In the previous games, even though they achieved good results against weaker opponents, the English used only one template: a cross from the flank and clinical finishing from the central forward. They managed to score with this combination against Argentina too, but they were two goals behind at that point. I respect many features of English football, but I must say that such consistency (or monotony?) of play sooner or later does more harm than good, especially at high-level tournaments such as the World Cup.

Maradona’s second goal in that match was decidedly un-English. It was a true star-caliber goal, a goal of the highest quality. The Argentine striker dribbled past three defenders, then got past Shilton and chipped the ball into the empty net. Yes, this goal was an individual effort by Maradona, but his style was very characteristic for the Argentinian team’s play – very interesting and diverse.

I described the four quarter-finals to point out how different they were, even though numerically they were quite similar. Such diversity is a good thing for the World Cup and for football as a whole: there’s nothing more depressing in football than all teams looking exactly the same.

The end crowns the work, as we say, so people always treat the final match with the utmost respect – it serves as the bottom line for all our thoughts. I must admit that I thought that West Germany would win. Above all, I valued the great experience and football culture of Franz Beckenbauer, formerly a great libero and now the national team’s manager. This time, I was mistaken, and I don’t regret my mistake. Later, I’ll tell you why I don’t regret it, and now I’ll tell you why I made this mistake.

The final, Argentina v West Germany, was very dramatic and surprise-rich. Goals aren’t all equal in their importance, so I’m dividing them into categories. The first goal usually determines the game flow and both sides’ morale. So, in this game, West Germany’s strong goalkeeper Schumacher suddenly made a mistake, missed the ball when rushing out, and allowed Argentina to open the score quite easily. This had a considerable impact on the whole game. West Germany tried to equalize the score and attacked recklessly, Argentina managed to launch a sneaky counter-attack and make the score 2-0. In the vast majority of matches, the second goal determines the end result. But this was a World Cup final, and the match was exceptional, flying in the face of common knowledge. West Germany exploited the opponents’ complacency, piled on the pressure, and after two excellent corner kicks they levelled the score: 2-2. But then the Germans made a mistake too: they thought that Argentina were now groggy, and they could finish them off, and so their defenders enthusiastically ran off to attack and, naturally, were punished for that. A quick counter-attack by Argentina, with nobody to defend from it, 3-2, and the championship is decided.

I hope you’ll agree that it was impossible to predict such a dramatic plot. And now I’ll explain why I don’t regret my mistake and why I’m glad that Argentina won the World Cup. I must say that I’m not claiming any ultimate authority, I’m only expressing my own opinion. And so, in my opinion, Argentina’s victory is a victory for all football. This team is creative, skillful, they believe in each player’s self-expression with technical tricks and dribbling, they have a cult of stars, they’re romantic, if you’d like. Their football is entertaining, interesting for the viewers, they can understand it. And now imagine for a minute that West Germany is the champion. West Germany’s main advantages are strict adherence to the plans, scheme and standards, absolute obedience to the coach and toughness. By the way, there’s a very thin line between toughness and brutality in football.

I’m sure that the Mexico World Cup showed us that the world of football is evolving. The addition of more teams was beneficial; with time, today’s underdogs will become new leaders. Difficult technical tricks are now performed by more players, rather than the superstars only. Just remember Negrete’s magnificent goal in Mexico’s match against Bulgaria. Speed isn’t measured by the stopwatch: the main measure is how quickly you part with the ball, how quickly you make your decisions. And the second half of the World Cup final was so fast, despite the unforgiving Mexican weather! It’s not hard to imagine that subsequent World Cups will see further increases both in speed and technique. Of course, watching the games, I’ve been constantly thinking of the state of our own football. I didn’t have the impression that Soviet football was any worse than in any other country.

But why then don’t we have any noticeable, consistent achievements in international competitions? After the World Cup, I was reinforced in my view that in a purely football sense, we’re quite good, we have many promising players. But all that is negated by organizational messes and turmoil, so success is more up to random chance than to any kind of consistent work.

So, let’s return from the Mexican stadiums to our own.

Next week: “Captain’s Memory”

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.

Leave a Reply