Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (chapter 6) – Club and Team

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 six, Starostin the management of football clubs, sponsorship deals and the weaknesses of the Soviet football system. 

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

Read chapter five: The Reputation of Football

Club and Team

I returned to work as a football club administrator in 1954. I’ve already mentioned that date; I’m repeating it here to show how little changed in our football’s organizational structure in those thirty-odd years.

Nevertheless, the football life changed a lot.

Before 1958, Soviet teams only played occasional friendlies with foreign teams; after that, our national team regularly plays in the World Cup and European championship. Since 1965, best Soviet clubs have been participating in European club competitions. Our youth teams also regularly play in international competitions.

Before 1960, the Soviet championship was only won by three Moscow clubs: Dinamo, Spartak and CSKA. The Moscow football was much stronger than the periphery. Three leaders were quite satisfied with themselves, and nobody else could compete with them. There was a certain mindset among the players and coaches.

Since then, eight more teams have won the Soviet championship, the power balance shifted, there’s no more “periphery”.

Because of all that, our way of life had to change. Trainings became much more intense, there are almost twice as much matches played, there’s a lot of travelling involved. The games themselves demand more energy. Finally, each win became much more valuable, especially at the international level; the football itself is more prestigious now, so we spend a lot more nervous energy too. However, despite all those changes, we still live by old, even ancient regulations. To be fair, we must point out that football players can get higher education (mostly Phys. Ed.) while still playing. This is indeed very good. But this alone can’t solve all our problems.

There were efforts to bring more law and order in our footballing life. We wanted to introduce three-year contracts between players and sport societies. But this ultimately led to nothing, since the parties’ rights and responsibilities weren’t guaranteed by anything.

Then, we had another idea: create independent, purely football clubs. This idea was much discussed in the press, it had many proponents. I spent two years helping to develop it. Our offers were heard out by the Sports Committee, but were neither approved nor declined, but rather suspended in the air.

The Spartak Moscow city council is overseeing 40 (!) different sports, football included. I can’t complain, our interests are always prioritised, but still…

Let me show you a couple of examples. First: there was a long pause between two official games, and so we decided to play a friendly match in Orekhovo-Zuevo. Before that, we gathered the team at our training base in Tarasovka. And that’s what we had to do to get the Moscow Trade Union Council approval for that friendly:

– Write a letter to the chairman of the council, with the player list attached.

– Develop a project of the presidium’s decision in six copies.

– Send a written order to the Tarasovka base director.

– Send a written order to rent a bus.

Even though essentially, we needed just one phone call to make it happen.

Second example: we’re registering a new player. We have to send his registry sheet to the Moscow Sports Committee, the Russian SFSR Sports Committee, the Trade Union Voluntary Sports Societies’ Council, the Russian Spartak Society Council, the Central Spartak Society Council, and the Football Department of the State Sport Commission of USSR. Six copies to six different addresses!

We’re drowning in the paper sea: sent, received, with so many copies that they don’t even fit into desks anymore. I’m completely sure that any Higher League football team has grown out of such a micromanagement long ago. Long ago, it was perhaps necessary, but now, with the range of goals and responsibilities increased, we also need more autonomy to accompany it. The lack of autonomy hinders the teams severely.

And so, instead of a sports society’s football team, we organize a football club. It’s managed by a board of respectable people who know football inside and out, with an honorary chairman and executive deputy. The club rents its base and stadium from the society and remains under control of the society presidium. The club’s viability is determined by ticket sales (essentially by the team’s quality of play and the board’s quality of work).

Of course, the club board will have to work a lot on popularizing football and attracting new viewers. I think that such a board would never have allowed anything like what once happened before our match with Chernomorets Odessa. Imagine: a supporter came up to me and showed me three different tickets for that game: to Luzhniki, Lokomotiv and Torpedo stadiums, saying that to get each of those tickets, he’d had to endure an hour-long line. I could only offer him my sympathies – the venue of the game was indeed changed several times. You can’t sell out a stadium this way.

I once asked the stadium director in the autumn, “How are the sales?” And he said, “I don’t know.” I was surprised; he said, “Why? We have already fulfilled our plan.” I have no doubt that their planned sales were underestimated. If there was a club board operating, it wouldn’t let it slide: their main interests should be profits, frugality and economy.

We aren’t enterprising in football’s promotion. Only occasionally, newspapers and the Futbolnoe Obozrenie (The Football Review) TV program say something about the importance of the national team’s next match. They should regularly evaluate the chances of both opponents, give predictions, like Izvestia started doing recently. It’s easy to say “Win several games in row, and you’ll surely sell a lot of tickets”, but if you say that, you obviously don’t know football too well. The English have a saying, “Before a good game, comes a bad one”. I believe this saying, it’s backed by the century-old experience. Sometimes even we, people who dedicated their entire life to football, can’t clearly predict which match would suddenly turn out good.

Let me return to the club. The main advantage of a dedicated football club, as I see it, is an opportunity to solve all problems, big and small, with the help of knowledgeable people, specialists, experts. In the current state, when football floats among many other sports, it becomes dependent on the people who don’t know it well enough. Such people, even when they love the game, can’t see many subtle nuances, and so they try to influence it from some “general considerations”, which usually doesn’t turn out good. Football business is now too multi-faceted to manage without specialized knowledge and experience. By my observations, anyone who comes into football from outside needs at least five years to acquire the minimum necessary knowledge. I don’t doubt that after creating specialized football clubs, our football life would become more businesslike. We’d give much more thought to playing conditions and calendar. We haven’t still decided which days are optimal for playing: Saturdays, Sundays, maybe Mondays in the summer? Nobody knows the exact profits and losses of football teams; football clubs would calculate them very precisely. Finally, the club would be governed collectively, rather than by one individual. The footballers would be stimulated to get the results by that collective. Any conflict would be resolved by the knowledgeable board. Coaches, the football specialists, would answer to that board of directors. If the club has financial responsibilities, it can sign contracts with its players. And the players would get new rights that they lack now.

I think I’ll also discuss football sponsorship here. I don’t know who originated the notion that in football, sponsorship was something very bad, spawning all kinds of troubles and distortions. Nevertheless, as we know, the word “sponsorship” (меценатство in Russian, from the name Maecenas) originally means good deeds by people who patronized and helped artists. Every team has some friends in various spheres who eagerly help them. There are more than enough cases when we need help; the team administration is quite limited in its power, and it can’t resolve all suddenly appearing issues on its own. Things like plane tickets, hotel bookings, moving the exams for our footballers to non-playing days, repairing the club’s cars, theater tickets when players need to unwind, getting children to kindergartens, improving living conditions, and so on… Yes, we do get help, there’s no secret, and we wouldn’t survive the intense demands of modern football without that help.

And I’d like to use this opportunity to thank all the team’s friends who help us. I don’t know if they could be called sponsors, but their selfless help based on understanding of our troubles and needs is so organically interwoven with football business that we’d meet a quick demise without them.

I think that this is also a reflection of imperfect structure of football teams’ lives. A football club with influential and competent board of directors would resolve most of those issues on their own. Right now, I must admit, I sometimes feel awkward to bother busy people with petty requests based only on the rumours that they like Spartak. And you’d probably agree that all this is too shaky and precarious.

Don’t hold those fantasies against me. Perhaps today, we aren’t ready to create such clubs yet. But we must at least try: our football has already grown past the amateurish stage.

I understand how difficult it certainly is to manage the entire country’s football life. I know that the Football Department staff have their hands full, I deeply respect the Football Federation presidium members who work hard, selflessly and more or less for free, in their own free time. But I must admit that the responsibilities of the Department and the presidium are sometimes unclear to me. I don’t know who reports to whom. Sometimes one question is resolved by one agency, sometimes by the other. Sometimes the Federation presidium just puts their stamp of approval on the documents issued by the Department. Due to this overlay of function, both organs are having to concentrate on the countless everyday issues.

I’d have thought that the presidium, being comprised of experienced people with extensive football knowledge, could do more than just control the management staff: they could become a brain trust of sorts, developing and pitching important proposals for the State Sport Commission of USSR.

Now is the time to reconsider many old notions in all aspects of our economics. I can’t see how football, with its importance to the public, should be cast aside and remain at the level of 1950s.

We aren’t using even half of the Soviet football’s potential, I’m totally sure of that; a big part of our efforts, strength and time is spent on overcoming the problems that come up due to lack of organization and certainty in our football.

By saying that, I’m by no means trying to deflect any blame from us, the practical workers. Concerning Spartak, my own team which I bear responsibility for, I’ve already mentioned its dues before our football, and I’m going to discuss them further.

To tell you the truth, neither Spartak nor any other team has anything to really boast. We haven’t scored any important international victories.

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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