Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 5) – The Reputation of Football


 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 five, Starostin discuss the ghost of match fixing in Soviet football as well as rivalries and how clubs should treat each other. 

Read chapter one: A Hint to the Future

Read chapter two: Captain’s Memory

Read chapter three: Who Should Govern Football?

Read chapter four: Eleven is Our Number part one

Read chapter four: Eleven is Our Number part two

The Reputation of Football

I’m stepping on yet another minefield.

I was once visited by Vsevolod Mikhailovich Bobrov. We sat at the kitchen, drinking tea and discussing football. I shared some ideas on how to help our football, and he suddenly replied with a sigh, “You’re such a naive man. You’re assuming that all games are played fair, but such terrible things happen now… I don’t want to even tell you, it’ll make you too upset.”

He didn’t continue, but I remembered his sigh for a long time.

Our life is simple, but in the eyes of football fans, it always looks mysterious, or romantic, or adventurous. I got used to various stories and tall tales and always listen to them without being surprised or offended; I think that people even do us an honour by paying attention and fabricating stories, however childishly naive they are.

But when you hear on the stands or in the metro that yesterday’s match was a dogovornyak (fixed), it chills you to the bone. Let them say anything, but not that. Let them say that they saw some player drunk (footballers do drink, after all), or heard another player saying he hates his coach’s guts, or that yet another player demands a new bigger flat each year, threatening to quit the team otherwise. Or something similar. Good footballers can be bad people, and ever so often, we see satirical articles in newspapers about our football stars’ “exploits”.

But rumours about fixed matches open a completely new can of worms. They cast a shadow on football itself, its decency and reputation, not only individual players. This is both insulting and dangerous for our game’s well-being.

There have been a lot of such rumours lately. I think a lot of them are exaggerated, snowballing out of control. Those rumours are sometimes started by overly paranoid coaches and football officials. They start looking for some nonexistent things. I’ve seen innocent players blamed for things they’d never do, and these baseless accusations didn’t exactly help them play better. Still, our football as a whole is far from innocent. The very existence of the draw limit is evidence enough. Let me remind you that the draw limit was introduced after the 1977 championship (Spartak played in League 1 at the time), in which almost a half of the games were drawn – not because the teams were too weak, but because of the coaches “agreeing to a draw” beforehand to let their teams rest a bit more. In that year, “peaceful cheating” peaked, and our football hit the rocks. It wasn’t an accident that our national team failed to qualify for both World Cup and European championship around that time.

I approve of the draw limit. It certainly had a sobering effect, limiting the opportunities for match fixing. Yes, you can say there’s also another way to share points: each team just wins their home match. But this is harder: each loss makes fans and officials angry, while a draw just slips by unnoticed.

The draw limit is a good measure, but still, to really do good, I think we need a public investigation of at least one fixed match with harsh consequences for everyone involved, like it was recently done in Czechoslovakia. I don’t want to believe that this plague is rooted too deeply, but still, a public process could have deterred some people and made others stop.

I think that honesty is a basic requirement for any activity. It’s utterly incomprehensible for me how someone can be in charge of a team after telling them “Today, we’re giving away a point”. You lose any kind of moral ground, and any words you might say after that sound hollow.

I’m always disheartened when I see tensions between teams. Sometimes teams seemingly prepare not just to outplay the opponents, but prove some other, non-football point. Constant rivalry is, of course, the harsh reality which can’t be avoided. For instance, Spartak considered Dinamo Moscow their main rivals for decades, then Dinamo Kyiv replaced them. Both officials and players always remembered that. This is sporting life. But I’ve always thought that we had more in common with any rivals than we had differences. In everything – playing schedule, hard work, emotions. Everyone has their hard days. Sometimes I listened to other team administrators complaining and thought, “I could say the same about Spartak…”

Where does the enmity and tension come from, then? I can understand if a team wants passionately to prove its tactical worth, show technical superiority, or avenge previous losses. But if this tension is based on two coaches not being on speaking terms, on something that originated off the football pitch, on a critical remark in the newspaper, this makes life harder for everyone.

I can say this for sure: I remember many games where our opponents played aggressively and in a completely unsportsmanlike manner. Sometimes I did ask what the reason was, and the answers left me bewildered. “Your coach doesn’t respect our coach”, or “your players are too cocky because of playing for the national team, so we showed them!”, or “The referee awarded you a dubious penalty in Luzhniki, and now you’re going to pay!” And I also know for certain that the players themselves aren’t particularly aggressive: they are being provoked by their superiors. Not long ago, the head administrator of one non-Moscow team asked me to lend them our bus. I helped him, and someone suddenly said, “You shouldn’t have. You’ve lost a point against them.” Why? I honestly can’t understand.

There was a time when Torpedo Moscow were always super-bellicose against us. Even when we didn’t compete directly in the league, the Torpedo bosses always deemed it a great honour to defeat Spartak. It’s not that bad in principle, but they were always overly emotional. The famous football historian Konstantin Esenin noticed that Torpedo would always perform poorly after defeating Spartak. In autumn 1985, history repeated itself again. They probably exhausted their nervous energy in our match. And you should be able to control it.

The moral atmosphere that surrounds football always depends of its organizational base. And I’m not alone in my opinion that our organization is quite weak.

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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