Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (chapter 7) – The Consistency of Mastery

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 seven, Starostin discusses what makes a football player great, as well as the good and bad things about Soviet football in the late 1980s.

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

Read chapter six: Club and Team

The Consistency of Mastery

I feel that I can’t avoid the popular topic, “When football was better?” Many people are quite interested in it, they desperately want to idealise the past.

Our early football was guided by the proverb “Burning desire is worse than fire”. We were ardent football fans, we sought psychological release in football, we couldn’t wait until next game. The first Soviet championships that began in 1936 were also governed by excitement and passion, by some higher moral and spiritual determinations. No wonder: football was played just once a week back then. When looking at past football from today, I think that it was tactically simple, plagued with obvious technical flaws. In general, I’d say that football, in my memory, has progressed as much as all our life in general. I’ll cite several facts as evidence. In the 1930s, the football masters trained on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and played on Sundays. Now players train every day, two training sessions a day, even three in the spring. There was a time when we had one ball for the entire team. All today’s players have their own balls, and there are several spare balls behind the goal, just in case if they fly somewhere away. And the balls themselves are superb! They’re ideally round, without lacing and pumping tube, like in the old times. And the boots! They’re twice lighter now, weighing just 200 grams – you could dance at a ball in these boots. In short, the players spend dozens of times more time with the ball, and the training has become much easier, comfortable and fun. If we don’t consider the uniquely gifted players, such as Peter Dementyev or Grigory Fedotov, the level of average players is now much higher, they’re easily performing moves that were once considered rare and difficult.

The games became much faster. Even in my time, we had fast players, but they could afford to run by themselves. Others were good dribblers, but they would often dribble for the sake of dribble and to detriment of the team play. Now, as we see, one-touch passes became popular, and dribbling in midfield is a sign of low playing level.

By the way, I must remind you that one-touch playing was advocated by the great coach Boris Andreevich Arkadyev. I’ve been always trying to see all games by Grigory Fedotov, and also I would always go to any coaching conference where Arkadyev spoke, I studied his articles and his learning book. A cultured, forward-thinking man; our football owes very much to him!

I used to play against him. I was a right forward, and he, as a left midfielder, defended against me. He was tough in defence and a good runner. Sometimes we would collide, he’d try to say something to me, but he stuttered a bit, so I’d run away without hearing his thoughts on our duel. Oh, how much time had passed!…

When Arkadyev and I were players, our tactical training was very simple. After the game, we said to each other, “Let’s go talk tactics”. Seven or eight people would gather, go to a pub, order a samovar of tea and some bagels and started analysing their game. We haven’t studied any theories back then, our judgement was very simple and practical. But some subtle nuances can be useful even to the modern players. For instance, our left forward Valentin Prokofiev and right forward (me) would demand from our playmaker Peter Isakov, “Why did you give us so few passes?” And he would answer calmly, “Why should I give you passes? I felt that you were in bad shape today and you’d fail.” And he was right! By the way, forward Yuri Gavrilov, a born playmaker, also has a similar intuition: he’s always trying to find a partner who’s playing good today, he wouldn’t pass the ball to just anyone.

I am full of deepest respect to various knowledge accumulated by the football community. But I’d like to warn the most zealous erudite: you should use your knowledge to advance your playing, not to smother it.

For instance, I can’t relate to a modern coach who’s learned a lot of tactical schemes and maneuvers and shows them to his players fifty times a season at the “sessions” that are no less than 1,5 hours long, trying to cram into their heads how and when exactly should they move their legs. I usually feel that such a coach just boasts his knowledge for the sake of boasting, showing no concern for the upcoming match. Yes, coaches should warn their players against mistakes, tell them what they should not do. But you can’t anticipate any move in a given game. The game flow is more or less unpredictable, the team cannot play after going down 0-1 in exactly the same way as they would play after taking the lead. They’ll surely change something – they’re masters, anyway.

I think that I have unequivocally stated that I consider modern football superior to the old-time football in every way. So, now I can state what I don’t like today.

Since the moment when the professional teams started to play and train much more often, the workload has increased drastically, as well as the technical and tactical requirements; the ardent passion of old was supplanted by cold considerations of tournament strategy. It’s only natural.

But such dramatic changes led to the reconsideration of the very essence of the game. The vast majority of coaches have adopted defensive mentality, the words about attacking football are just lip-service. Instead of competing who would score more, football becomes a competition of who concedes less. This distorts football even visually.

You can’t say that the size of football pitch was chosen randomly. No, it’s optimal for an interesting, breathtaking game that looks good from the stands: 7,350 square meters. And now let’s see how much space is usually used by one player: 15, 20 square meters at the very most. Half the field remains empty. All those jostles at the field aren’t spawned by the newest tactical formations alone, but by the defenders’ cowardice too. Teams are afraid to concede a goal because they aren’t sure they can score an equaliser. Sometimes we sit on the bench and ask each other, “Who shot at the goal?” You can’t even see the number in the tight crowd.

It saddens me when I see two or even one forward at the pitch. I know modern tactical systems very well, I see that midfielders and even defenders can now score. But still, the reduction in numbers inevitably led to the degradation of the art of strikers, the most subtle and sophisticated art in all football. I know perfectly that I can’t talk anyone into increasing the number of forwards in the team. But still, I hope that someone will remember us, wing forwards, in the future. This, at least, will spark the viewers’ interest.

I am sure that in the future, football will improve further as a show. I’ve seen some pitches with minimal allowed sizes, and I was told that it’s been done for the viewers to see more action in the most interesting zones.

Let me return to the things I dislike. I don’t like man marking. This question is complicated, discussed by many authorities for a number of years. I don’t want to discuss it too thoroughly though. I think I was one of the first victims of man marking in the Soviet football. When I once dribbled past the defender who marked me and went one on one with the goalkeeper, the defender became so sure that he must stop me no matter what that he just tackled me from behind. I fell and was taken off the pitch to the hospital. My opponent was sent off, but did it give me any kind of consolation? The main thing here is not that I fell awkwardly, but that it was a crime against football. How many best players suffered from the harsh fouls after being man-marked? Grigory Fedotov, Vsevolod Bobrov…

Man marking is a cynical and vulgar way of defending that violates the beautiful game. I can’t believe that this dull, persistent following of the opponent with the intent to foul or even mutilate him looks pretty from the stands. I’m told that there are some good man-markers who can tackle the ball away without even touching their opponents. OK, let’s suppose that a few such players exist. But how many? And man marking, even though it does nothing to improve technical or tactical prowess, is now taught even in the youth teams. That’s another example of defensive mentality: “Don’t play yourself and don’t let the other play too”. I also want to clarify that by man-marking, I mean following the opponent throughout the entire pitch, not just marking him in your zone.

I often hear the question, “Who can be considered a true football master? Which requirements should he satisfy?” It’s not an idle question.

There’s a saying, “A team plays as well as the opponent lets it.” True football mastery is shown in overcoming. A master is the one who can consistently outplay opponents. And if the opponents “hinder” some player, not letting him show his best skills, we should doubt if he’s a real master.

I don’t think that football mastery is any different from mastery of any other skill. If a man loves football and prioritises it higher than any other things, he’ll surely improve himself and become a master. Even if he’s not too gifted, he’ll still become a master. And if he is both talented and loves the game, then we have a master who’s remembered for decades and influenced the very development of the game.

I’ve already mentioned that I loved watching Grigory Fedotov play. It wasn’t only because he’d scored a lot of important goals, even not only because his playing was aesthetically pleasing. Fedotov was very far ahead of his time, he played the football of the future, introducing so many innovations that no coach, however visionary, ever could.

Even in the pre-war seasons, he played with unerring wisdom, acting as the circumstances demanded: he could play either individually or strictly as a team player. All his teammates looked better with him on the pitch. He would quickly spot the teammates’ strengths. For instance, if his partner could strike a ball with his right foot very well, Fedotov would pass the ball right to his right foot. In the era of rigid tactical schemes, he would defy them and drift to the centre or even to the right from his left wing, guided by his intuition.

As far as I know, he was the first player in our football to score a goal with a diving header. He started to curve his shots long before we heard about the “dry leaf”. In the famous Spartak vs. Basconia match at the Dinamo stadium in 1937 (6-2) he scored the first goal from the goal line into the far corner, the trajectory looked inconceivable at the time. His gait was very original: he would bend slightly as he ran, and could change his pace at the drop of a hat; a quick surge, then stops, then run again. The defenders were left dazzled.

I have probably forgotten more of his good qualities. But isn’t what I’ve already listened enough even for a good modern player, let alone for someone who played half a century ago? Aren’t we striving even today for the players to find the perfect balance between individual and team efforts?!

I remember quite well that even back in 1937, Fedotov had his own opinion about all aspects of the games, there was nothing we could teach him. And he was just 21 years old! He understood the game at a very early age, he interpreted tactical moments very originally and sharply. When Fedotov moved from Noginsk to Moscow, he wasn’t exactly very clever and educated. But he was sly and funny, understood everything immediately, both on and off the pitch.

By the way, I should say that stupid people don’t play football. With passing years, I’ve grown accustomed to watching the players and, if I know them personally, see more than just a good footballer in them. For instance, I see our midfielder, the ex-Yaroslavl guy Evgeny Kuznetsov, start a sly, subtle manoeuvre, and I know that his personality is similar off the pitch: he’s an inventor, he’s got an attitude. Watching Yuri Gavrilov weaving his combinations, I discovered his foresight, precaution, perseverance – everything that I’ve learned over the years. I’m glad that there’s a Fedotov Club for the best goalscorers, and there’s also a Fedotov Prize for the team that scores most goals in the league. Of course, he’s not the only legend of the Soviet football. We had Peter Dementyev, with his world-class technique. And Eduard Streltsov was a model forward! A player’s life on the pitch is relatively short. But even this short life is divided into distinct phases. Don’t try to prove me otherwise with your examples, I know that there are always exceptions. Still, my long observations led me to think that a football player goes through three stages in his career.

First stage: 18 to 23 years, when his mind can’t always keep up with his legs.

Second stage: 24 to 28 years, where his mind and his legs work in a perfect harmony, the best years.

Third stage: 29 years to the end of the career, when his legs can’t always keep up with his mind.

During each of those stages, the player can bring a lot of good for his team, but in different ways. And we should learn to understand that.

The first stage is all-important: it shapes how good the player will ultimately be. During this time, he should acquire what I call the experience of analogous situations. Hundreds of repetitions lead to a development of reflexes, the reactions become automatic and confident. The young player’s future, his best years depend on how diligent, patient, willing to learn and able to use his failures for good he is in his youth.

Football begins with technique, it’s based on it. In our country, the attitude towards technique is for some reason very unstable. First, we forget technique completely, focusing exclusively on physical education, tactics, willpower, and the next moment, we suddenly remember it and praise it to the highest heavens.

Some players are naturally gifted with good technique. But the question is, how do we train and develop such players?

Creating football schools for kids is a great achievement. The catch is, how are they taught and what do they learn? I’m disheartened to see that those football school alumni are almost cookie-cutter similar, devoid of individuality. It’s not an accident that we’re mostly hoping to discover original, interesting players in smaller cities now. Perhaps it’s because they don’t go through the standardised education system?

When I was a player, I was the tallest one in the team, but I’m sceptical of the basketball-height players in football. I’m afraid that if we only chase for tall players, which seems to be quite fashionable now, we would crush football, destroy its gaming roots, make it monotonous. The coaches should think hard why such players as Cherenkov, Zavarov or Narbekovas are so rare – without them, football loses its creative spark and becomes very simple!

The technique is learned at a very early age, all technically gifted players are gifted since childhood. I’ve never heard of an adult football player suddenly developing great technical skills. But still, those technical skills must be constantly honed, trained, perfected. I’ve seen Sergey Salnikov, a player with superb technique, gathering a dozen kids after the training was over and playing with them – three against six, for instance, or he alone against three. The training program didn’t require that, but Salnikov knew what he was doing, and that’s why he remained a virtuoso until the very end of his career. Such an approach to honing one’s skills is, sadly, quite rare today. And you can’t blame coaches for that: a player should always motivate and spur himself. Any forced individual training brings nothing good.

I myself value team patriotism and bravery very highly.

Team patriotism is an obvious term, or so it seems. If we call someone a spartakovets, it’s a very high praise. It doesn’t matter whether he started his career in Tarasovka or elsewhere. There were many players who joined our team at a more mature age, but still accepted our “faith”.

But, on the other hand, there were “mercenaries” too. They didn’t play too bad, but their soul wasn’t on fire, they were always cold and calm. They wore our shirts, but we never called any such player a spartakovets.

The football bravery seems obvious too: football is essentially a game for the brave. But still, sometimes we do characterise some player or the other as a coward.

Based on my long experience, I’ve developed a scale of sorts. I’m not insisting that it’s completely accurate, but still, I think I’d venture to show it to you.

Level one: innately brave people who have no fear. They’re always playing bravely, with no exceptions. For instance, Vladimir Stepanov, Nikolai Dementyev, Igor Netto, Anatoly Maslenkin. (I’m listing Spartak players here because I know my club better than any other, but, of course, there’s a lot of brave players in other teams.)

From the next generation of Spartak players, the midfielders of the team that won the 1969 championship (Nikolai Kiselev, Vasily Kalinov, Viktor Papaev) were also very brave. In today’s Spartak, we have Gennady Morozov and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

I must also remark that I do not equate bravery with recklessness. Rough fouls aren’t bravery.

Level two: those who aren’t afraid to go into a potentially dangerous situation and do it often, but not always.

Level three: those who prefer reasonable risk; they only show their bravery occasionally.

Level four: the players that have to force themselves to go into a risky situation, and only as a last resort.

As you see, any player can show bravery – you shouldn’t play football if you can’t – but the reasons and motivation can be different. It’s been proven that people who are often anxious suffer more often. This is a practical upside of bravery. Brave players are invaluable; these are the sort of players who can lead an entire team by example. Let’s assume, for instance, that the opponent has tough, dirty defenders. If we don’t have any brave players who would stand up to those defenders, we’ll lose initiative. But if we do, and those players lead by example, the entire team would follow suit.

In regard to this, I should say something about the “Spartak spirit”. I think that 15 or so years ago, I shouldn’t even have explained anything: it was completely obvious. Yes, the Spartak spirit is not some kind of mystic entity. It showed itself in Spartak often winning important, decisive games in the league, in the Cup, in international competitions. This was achieved because our team was comprised of incredibly strong-willed players. I remember the time when a young and unknown Vasily Sokolov came to us and offered his services. We talked to him, and then my brother, Andrei Petrovich, told me, “Don’t even doubt. Take him in. Haven’t you seen his eyes? He’s got eyes of steel, like a hawk…” We did sign him and never regretted it. Vasily Nikolaevich Sokolov was a superb defender – first a full-back, then a centre-back. Then he became a coach and won the 1952 and 1953 championships with Spartak.

Here’s another example. Once in the winter, an uninvited guest from Dnepropetrovsk showed up – a young goalkeeper Alexei Leontiev. We arranged a trial in a small hall at the Vorovski Street. The guy stood in the goal, and the players with the heaviest strikes – Vladimir Stepanov, Viktor Semenov, Andrei Starostin – started testing him. I watched them and even started to pity the poor Leontiev. But the skinny guy was jumping into the corners, saving the shots with such bravery, courage and anger that it seemed that he was ready to fight to the death. We’ve immediately decided to sign him. With time, Leontiev became a true spartakovets.

That’s how the legend of the Spartak spirit came about. And we did everything to keep it alive: Spartak have played in 11 Soviet Cup finals from 1936 to 1972, winning 9 of them – even against Dinamo Moscow, Torpedo Moscow and Dinamo Tbilisi that were much stronger than us in some seasons.

I fondly remember the match in Kiev in the late autumn of 1969. The match basically determined whether Spartak or Dinamo Kiev became champions. The 100,000-strong crowd, of course, supported Dinamo and did it with such passion that a weaker-willed away team would surely falter. But Spartak didn’t falter, on the contrary, I saw that they were excited and even mischievous: they played against the champion of the three previous years, and if Spartak lost, Dinamo would overtake it by one point and most probably win the championship the fourth time in a row. The weather was terrible: very cold and snowy. In that evening, all Spartak players were extremely brave. Nikolai Osyanin scored an exquisite goal, and Spartak managed to hold onto the 1-0 score.

This was one of the most famous Spartak matches; the Spartak spirit was in full force there, the old legend was proven once again.

But after that, sadly, the legend started to fade away. The last time we won the Soviet Cup was 1971. Then we played in two more finals, 1972 and 1981, but lost both times. We’ve started to get satisfactions from just winning medals, failing to mount a title challenge, losing the decisive games in a very un-Spartak way. Even in the European competitions, despite brilliant victories against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Club Bruges, we would often get eliminated too early because of the lack of willpower.

Perhaps someone would think that I’m being too harsh on the team: Spartak is still one of the best teams, won a lot of brilliant games in the last seasons, scores more goals than anyone else, shows aesthetically pleasing play. But still, ever since I began my career in the Krasnaya Presnya and later in Spartak, I was brought up with the thought that partial successes, half-successes, temporary successes were basically nothing. Ever since the 1930s, Spartak began its history as a team that should always be challenging for the league and cup titles, and I still see it that way. That’s why I’m being pernickety.

I think that I’ve criticised myself enough. Let me reiterate: after a renaissance several years ago, Spartak have stopped growing and started to repeat itself. We have lived in the spotlight for nine seasons, and now we again have to search for new and young players and try to improve our team play. The situation is actually recurrent, but, sadly, we have started to combat it too late.

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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