Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 8) – Back to the Beginning

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 week, we bring a chapter from the book.

In chapter eight, the last chapter, Starostin returns to the Soviet Union’s failed 1986 World Cup tournament to discuss the mistakes made by head coach Valery Lobanovsky and the national team. 

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

Read chapter seven: The consistency of mastry

Back to the Beginning

The first chapter of my book ended with an invitation to return from Mexico to the Soviet Union. And now, let’s again come back to the 13th World Cup.

The Soviet team’s trip to Mexico was preceded by exceptional events. Just 19 days before the championship, the coaching staff was fired, and Valery Lobanovsky was appointed as a head coach, with Nikita Simonyan, Yuri Morozov and Sergey Mosyagin as his assistants. In essence, there was Dinamo Kyiv at the World Cup in the national team shirts. How could that happen after 2.5 years of playing and training with different coaches and using a different lineup?

First of all, I should say something about Dinamo Kyiv. The team reformed very successfully, the midtable finish in 1984 was worth it. The next year, Dinamo won both the Soviet League and Soviet Cup. And on 2nd May 1986, won the Cup Winners’ Cup.

It’s not even the results that are most impressive. I remember the time when Dinamo Kyiv, despite winning the championship, didn’t get much love from the audience and from the press; even many specialists looked at them sceptically, not sharing tactical and strategical views of Valery Lobanovsky.

But this time, the playing style was also reformed along with the lineup. Instead of a dry, very rational and defensive style, we saw attractive, attacking, improvising, “colourful” football. Valery Lobanovsky is a gifted coach: he can set a target for himself and move towards it without turning or hesitating, and his ideas got a new implementation. Zavarov’s dribbling, Demyanenko and Yaremchuk’s attacking raids, Blokhin, Evtushenko and Yakovenko’s manoeuvres, the threat of Rats’ deadly left foot strike – all that looked very impressive. The team-up of youngsters and experienced players created a superb collective. In the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Dinamo players attacked even in the away matches, something they didn’t allow themselves before. All in all, the team was on the rise.

I can’t insist on it, of course, but I can speculate that those changes in style were at least partially dictated by the public opinion.

On the other hand, the national team during the preparation phase played quite badly, losing friendlies one by one. So the decision to change the coaching staff seemed obvious.

True, as I said earlier, our new national team showed very active, dynamic and interesting football, leaving a good impression. But it was stopped by Belgium and couldn’t even proceed to the quarterfinals.

It’s not too unexpected, to be honest. The team (Dinamo Kyiv) have played a couple more brilliant matches on the momentum of its previous successes (against Hungary and France), but then we saw that even a very good club team can’t perform well on the World Cup level.

They didn’t prepare for the World Cup specifically, the load, especially psychological, was too much for the young players; the defenders weren’t also up to the task – their skills were enough to perform well on the club level, but in the national team, they weren’t as reliable.

We can’t blame Dinamo – they have done everything they possibly could.

But we can learn another lesson from that. You can’t do much at a World Cup if you essentially improvise. Serious, long-term preparation of the national team, inviting all the best players, is still an important part of our collective football work. Right now we must admit that we have failed in that work – despite the clubs’ sacrifices, despite the less-than-ideal calendar, despite snubbing the viewers. We have again seen that everything was ruined by lack of good organisation in our football.

Life in football never stops, our work doesn’t, too. I’ve already said in the beginning that I didn’t share the nihilism of some, I believe in our football since my youth. And all my criticisms, doubts, ideas for achieving more order and cleaning the moral atmosphere are dictated by the feeling that our football can achieve great things. I hope that my readers have felt that too

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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