Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 4 part 2) – Eleven is Our Number

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 chapter four, Starostin discusses team selection, while he also share the story of how he temporarily retired and later how Spartak were rebuilt with legendary head coach Konstantin Beskov. This is part two of the chapter.

Read chapter one: A Hint to the Future

Read chapter two: Captain’s Memory

Read chapter three: Who Should Govern Football?

Read chapter four (part 1): Eleven is our number

I remember the year in League 1 with pleasure. Our team grew and matured in the environment of a very interesting tournament struggle. The head coach was very experienced, and I think that helped us to win the league. Also, the newcomers were supported by players who had a lot of Higher League experience – Evgeny Lovchev, Alexander Prokhorov, Valery Gladilin, Vladimir Bukievsky, Viktor Samokhin, Evgeny Sidorov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Kokorev. We didn’t look head and shoulders above all other League 1 teams, but this was for the better: a sudden surge in results looks more suspicious to me than the gradual growth of playing class.

Yes, I’m aware that there were some people who said with mysterious smiles, “Spartak was dragged back to the Higher League!” I’ve always wanted to ask, “helped by whom?” Though I know that I won’t get an answer, because there’s no answer. There was nobody to “drag” us, nobody to score goals for us. And we scored a lot of goals that season. Yes, there was one thing we asked of the referee association: appoint only the best referees to Spartak’s away games: I didn’t want to jeopardize our hard work with a young team with referees’ mistakes. But the team itself gave the best refutation to those allegedly “in the know”: after returning to the Higher League, it became one of the leaders of Soviet football, and it still is. No long-term success can be achieved if you rely on behind-the-scenes help.

Many authors, both experts and journalists, wrote that Spartak wasn’t just stronger and younger when it emerged from League 1: it had new tactical ideas that freshened our football after a period of stagnation. I’ve already warned you that I lack expertise in such matters. But, as a human resource worker, I should say that team selection was mostly very good. The young, unknown players were anxious to prove themselves and realize their potential, and we had no famous stars with their quirks. Soon, we had another bunch of new young players: Rodionov, Cherenkov, Morozov, Pozdnyakov, Sochnov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Novikov.

Yes, we did make mistakes, invited some players without much checking, and then parted with them without much sadness. Such mistakes should be minimized, though I must say that they can never be reduced to zero, especially in a team that constantly challenges for the championship.

Have we “stolen” anyone from the Higher League teams? In nine seasons, there were two transfers that caused some stir: Sergey Shvetsov from Zenit and Aleksandr Bubnov from Dinamo Moscow.

Here’s what I have to say about Bubnov: he’s a true football fanatic. If there were more players like him, we’d get far ahead. For instance, he often stays at the Tarasovka base to train with the youngsters who live in a dormitory there rather than going home.

And so, this determined, tenacious, stubborn man had a falling-out with some of the Dinamo Moscow bosses and several players; thus he decided to leave. His decision was so firm that he didn’t listen to anybody. He wanted to play in an environment where nothing could hinder his growth. So, he filed a request to let him go to Spartak Moscow – as far as I’m concerned, it was because he believed in Beskov as a coach. Bubnov missed two seasons and made a lot of sacrifices to get what he wanted. Finally, after countless squabbles, he was allowed to go.

In this case, I don’t see any fault on Spartak’s part. Bubnov’s decision to leave Dinamo was the driving force of this transfer. He could have wanted to join Torpedo Moscow or CSKA, for that matter, but he chose Spartak. We didn’t “entice” him or “lure him away”, and he’s not the kind of man who overly relies on advice.

I think that this transfer was good from both a sporting and personal point of view, and it’s a pity that the proceedings dragged for so long, turning into collision of ambitions. I’m sure that if someone expressed his unwillingness to stay in Spartak, we wouldn’t try to hold him. I can even show you an example: Boris Pozdnyakov, who came out of the Spartak youth system and grew into a national team player, decided to leave Spartak. We easily let him go, and he joined Dynamo Moscow without much ado.

The Shvetsov case is harder for me to explain satisfactorily. But I did warn you that our transfer system is so imperfect that sometimes we are allowed or essentially forced to forgo our principles for sporting gains. I’m not going to hide my head in the sand, and so I’ll tell you the whole truth – this case is quite valuable in its own right. So, Beskov took an eye to Shvetsov back when he played for the Torpedo Kutaisi reserves: a tall, lean striker with smooth technique. But Shvetsov suddenly joined Zenit. Nevertheless, Beskov still imagined him at Spartak, hoping he would score a lot of goals.

Long story short, we tried to lure Shvetsov in. The young man listened to us and went to Moscow. Zenit wasn’t challenging for the championship back then, and Spartak looked like a great destination for a young forward. There was a conflict; satirical articles appeared in the Leningrad newspapers. They weren’t entirely baseless, for that matter: we didn’t comply with all the transfer regulations. Still, Shvetsov moved to Spartak.

And what’s the lesson here? We acted according to the proverb “Let’s first get him, and then we’ll find a use for him”. Frankly, I don’t believe in that proverb, I prefer another one: “Measure seven times, cut once”. But I was told that it’s how everyone works now, and “when in Rome, act like a Roman”. Our rash decision didn’t bring the intended results. Shvetsov’s technique was indeed very fine, but he lacked the personality necessary for a striker.

This case only reinforced my view that you should only invite players in accordance with existing rules and after careful consideration. But for that, we need a new special clause in the transfer regulations: teams qualified for the European competitions need to have the right to invite a few players for a trial. It’s good from a practical point of view and could prevent mistakes. If the player doesn’t fit into the new collective, like it happened with Grachev after transferring to Spartak from Shakhtar Donetsk, he could just come back to his former team.

I do not share the popular point of view that for successful performance in European competitions, Soviet football needs superclubs with the right to get any player they want, even from other Higher League teams. This can cause irreparable harm to the teams that would lose their best players.

Also, in recent years, we have seen that the very term “top team” has become much more fluid than before. There was a time when nobody could compete with Dynamo Moscow, CDKA, Spartak and Dynamo Tbilisi. But later, Torpedo Moscow and Dinamo Kyiv joined their ranks, and we started to talk about “the Big Six”.

But then Spartak went through a bad period, Dinamo Moscow almost got relegated, CSKA did get relegated, Torpedo hasn’t won a medal for a long time, Dinamo Tbilisi is in disarray, and even our most solid club, Dinamo Kyiv, spent two seasons in midtable.

As we say, a holy place is never empty, so Dinamo Minsk and Dnepr rose up the ranks.

I’m also glad that Leningrad football, which is my second love after Moscow football, finally gained its footing and started to produce exciting young masters.

I strongly disagree with anyone who thinks that when a team outside the Big Six becomes a champion, our championship “sinks to our new low”. On the contrary, we should be glad that this tight “elite” circle doesn’t exist anymore, that the geography of high-class football widens.

I think that not everyone sees and admits these progressive trends. It’s most obvious in the process of team selection. (As you see, I didn’t diverge.) In my youth, people used to call many lawsuits “sensational”. And now, it seems, there’s nothing more sensational than the transfers of football players from one team to the other.

Formally, everything looks decent: the federation presidium approves the transfers, which have been previously scrutinized by the Sports Technical Committee (STC). Oversights do seem to exist; we even have the transfer instruction. However, transfer regulations change so often, sometimes several times a year, that keeping up becomes literally impossible. Even during the season, after the transfer deadline, you might see a player in some team who wasn’t registered in time, and you think that there was probably a call from the high cabinets that allowed this “extra signing”. Couldn’t they at least explain the reason in the newspapers?

I’m troubled and alerted by another thing. There were player transfers for as long as I remember. There was a time when all transfer deals were respectable and decent; all necessary talks were held openly, and the wishes of the players were the main consideration. Can’t people of all professions change their jobs for good reason? Why then can’t a football player ask to go to a different team? Life is life, and football is a part of life.

But now, we have “selection” (I don’t like this word as used in football) and “selection coaches” (scouts). Quietly, behind the backs of team officials, hiding from the public (the scouts have to hide because they know that what they’re doing is wrong), they’re headhunting all more or less talented youngsters (sometimes without seeing them in person and relying only on rumours). The scouts promise them a lot of things: flats, cars, university enrollments, foreign travel, even a place in the national team. What does all this lead to? Such predatory “scouting” destroys provincial football, demoralizing the football school staff there.

How can we fight it? All these regulations and hearings in STC and federation presidium help only partially.

A new tradition has now formed: young players who were seduced by those promises get punished – because it’s the easiest thing to do. But those who make promises remain unscathed and even unnamed. Of course, when a young man secretly runs away from his team while lying to everyone about it, he should be punished. But it’s an open secret that he was confused, and was probably told that both laws and decency are nothing and he’d get any help necessary. There’s a whole lot of such shady dealers who essentially undermine our football. Sometimes a player just openly and honestly says that he wants to join another team. What follows? He immediately gets reported, and when you read such a report, you wonder how such a licentious man could even play football, let alone work in a team? And most of those accusations are usually false.

I think that we should objectively, thoroughly and openly discuss the most controversial transfers, to learn the truth and punish the guilty, if there are any. Why don’t we invite lawyers to such discussions, who can evaluate the situation from their professional point of view? There was a time when it was enough to appeal to sporting decency. But now, to restore order in our football society, we need more than instructions we write ourselves: we need to follow the state laws. I know for a fact that in Western professional clubs, many aspects of their operations are overseen and controlled by lawyers. But our football “law enforcement” is a complete mess.

Our football is too public – it’s watched by millions of eyes, especially young eyes – to make rash, ambiguous and inconclusive decisions that only provoke ironic smiles. Football isn’t just a tough sport or an entertaining show: it also has pedagogic value. The news and rumours about football’s inner workings influence people as much as what happens on the pitch. There are much more rumours than there should be, and this is our weakness: we give too little information to our audience, if any. Without bold, truthful information, there’ll never be order.

Still, having said that, I understand that the teams should be constantly strengthened with fresh players. And I know very well that the Sokolnichesky district of Moscow, where our historical Shiryaevo field and new training arena is located, can’t possibly give enough players for a team such as Spartak.

Even our school cannot satisfy our demands in full: we need more than a bunch of well-trained players, we need talents. Another peculiarity of Spartak is that we have to annually send a group of young players away to serve in the army.

So, player transfers remain a necessity for us. Maybe sometime in the future, when the conditions are ideal, we won’t need that anymore. But for now, we do need that.

I think that such an important question should be discussed collectively. I should emphasize again that a player’s open and honest desire to leave should be the main consideration.

Player swapping is another possible variant. I remember one example. Spartak needed a new centre forward. We had an eye to the very young Yuri Sevidov, who played in Dinamo Minsk at the time, coached by his father Alexander Alexandrovich Sevidov. We reached an agreement with the senior Sevidov: we got Yuri, and in exchange, we gave away a few of our reserve players: Eduard Malofeev, Leonard Adamov, Igor Remin, Yuri Pogalnikov. It doesn’t matter who won or lost financially at the time. Yuri Sevidov helped Spartak to win the 1962 Soviet championship, and the former Spartak players grew into good masters and helped Dinamo Minsk to win third prize in 1963 – it was a great success for Dinamo Minsk back then.

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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