Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 3) – Who Should Govern Football?

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 three, Starostin discusses the role and responsibility of the head coach, while also sharing his opinion on the league schedule and organisation of the national team. 

Read chapter one: A Hint to the Future

Read chapter Two: Captain’s Memory

Who Should Govern Football?

Now, I’ve finally reached a question that I consider very important. I think we’ve already stopped acting surprised when coaches get dismissed. A couple of losses in a row, and you start hearing the guesses: will they get rid of the coach? When? Who will replace him? Then the coach does get dismissed, but what can you take from him? A handful of hair? He came, then he went. The most amazing thing is that yesterday, this man controlled everything in the team, and today, he just departed as though nothing happened. And we return to square one.

I think that the notion of head coaches being responsible for management of the entire team’s life is wrong and even dangerous. Yes, the head coach is responsible for training his team, for arranging the training schedule, for play quality – there’s no doubt about that. But when the head coach tries to control everything – educational work, business stuff, finances, transport, public relations, players’ needs – it’s not normal. I’ve already said that piling all these responsibilities on a playing captain was nonsense. But this was over sixty years ago. The times have changed, but the teams’ administrative structure still haven’t let go from the old times. The worst thing isn’t even that such a host of responsibilities usually proves too much for one man to handle. The worst thing is this management method usually turns into a totalitarian dictatorship.

Not so long ago, the footballing world learned about the fiasco of Isztvan Szekecz, the head coach of Pakhtakor Tashkent. It hit the team so hard that they still can’t recover, even after relegating to League 1! And how much did the young players suffer?! I don’t doubt that trouble was brewing for a long time, but there was nobody who could check the environment in Pakhtakor. How can you even approach that when the head coach controls everything?

And why does he control everything? Because nobody wants to share responsibility. If something goes wrong, you just kick the coach out. He has total control, but he’s also a scapegoat. Very simple and convenient.

I can only speculate, but I think that our teams would part with their head coaches much less often if the coaches weren’t given such a total control. People tend to grow into the role if they like it. “I’m deciding everything, I need no advice or warnings, my assistants should be a bunch of yes men, if there are any restrictions, let’s ignore them because we’ll be forgiven if we win, and the players should keep silence; their job is to do what I tell them, and if someone disagrees with me, let him sit on the bench and think hard!”

Then the team enters a bad period, the board starts asking questions, and one day, the coach’s autocratic dictatorship, with all the mistakes, resentments, quarrels, disturbances, ruined relationships, comes to the light, and then he’s declared “unfit” for his job and promptly fired. But if that same coach had a rigid circle of responsibilities, if there were people around who could give a valuable advice, warn against something, correct him or even sometimes straighten him out, perhaps there would be no conflict at all.

The most dubious responsibility delegated to the head coach is forming personal relationships within a very difficult football collective. I can concede that some tactical specialists can also be brilliant mentors. But only some, not all of them! If the head coach lacks in pedagogic skills (which is often), strange and unhealthy things eventually start brewing within the team, impacting both quality of play and the results. When the coach thinks he gets to decide everyone’s fate, he can easily become unfair. He can suspend a good player because he talks too much, preferring someone who’s worse on the pitch, but doesn’t talk back in the dressing room. Or he can create an atmosphere of fear and depression, which, as I have witnessed repeatedly, isn’t conducive for interesting play.

The footballers may never say that they love their coach, but if they do like him at the bottom of their hearts, they’ll follow him and his ideas until the very end. But if the coach can’t offer anything more than reproaches, threats and mockery, he won’t win anything big even he possesses great tactical knowledge. It’s necessary for a footballer to feel that he’s not just a figure on a tactics board, but a human being who influences the state of the team, who’s responsible for it, who’s sure that his opinion will be at least heard out. But with such coaches, the footballers see only mistrust and public humiliations, day after day. These coaches think that they control even the smallest things, so they become suspicious and anxious, and after a while, they have nobody to rely upon: everyone got accustomed to being yes men, and he has nothing to say anymore except repeating his old cliches.

There can be all other kinds of relationships; for instance, a good, but weak-willed specialist gets pushed around by the players, and there’s nobody to support him; he has to solve all the difficult problems by himself, but he can’t, and the team soon finds itself in free-fall. People sometimes tell me that they consider me and Spartak’s head coach, Konstantin Ivanovich Beskov, an ideal pair. Yes, we’ve worked together for ten years, it’s almost a record for our football. But if you think that our work is always perfectly harmonious, you’re wrong. It’s enough to say that there were times when we hadn’t spoken for almost a month.

READ MORE: Konstantin Beskov – The Muscovite Tactician

Beskov’s coaching talent is undeniable. I can’t remember ever saying a bad word about his training methods or tactical formations. I don’t consider myself a good specialist in these matters, and even if I did, I’d probably have thought it too tactless to interfere. I also don’t play too much of a role in determining the starting lineup; I only voice my opinion if Beskov himself is in doubt. I’m completely comfortable with Beskov’s dictate in these matters.

But we sometimes disagree about the relationships between the team and the management. Perhaps I’m a man of a different upbringing, you’re free to call my opinions outdated, but I’m accustomed to seeing each player as a distinct personality, needing attention and respect. Since the old times, I’m trying to pull all Spartak players into the team’s common life.

I admit that the coaches are often right in their demands. But they should still respect the player’s self-esteem; the form of a remark is almost as important as its content. Team head administrators often have to play the role of a soft cushion between the coach and the players. Sometimes we succeed in that, sometimes we don’t. Of course, it would be better if we didn’t have to do that at all…

There’s a fact in the history of the Soviet football that still gets mentioned from time to time: in 1938 and 1939, Spartak won both the championship and the cup. This is one of the records that neither Dinamo Moscow nor Dinamo Kyiv ever managed to replicate. Back then, we had a brilliant lineup for such achievements: true warriors! Remembering these players now, I must say that only two of them can be called weak-willed, and even that was relative. I used to say to them, “Save your passion for the next game!” By the way, looking through the modern Spartak’s lineup, I can say that only four players have strong enough personality (I’m not talking about playing skills, these are uncomparable) to fit into that old team.

I think that one of the most important factors for that success was good collegial management. There was a coaching council, consisting of the head coach (Konstantin Kvashnin in 1938, Peter Popov in 1939), head administrator (veteran goalkeeper Ivan Filippov), captain (Andrei Starostin) and Peter Isakov, one of the club’s coaches and former USSR national team player who had a nickname “Professor” because of his incredible football intuition. And I was the chairman of this council. We were friendly, discussed all the issues, even conflicts, very easily, understood each other very quickly – and how could we not understand each other when we were bonded by the club and by football itself. The head coaches led sheltered lives; they were responsible for the technical, tactical and physical training of the players, and the coaching council was responsible for the team’s morale and the end result.

The coach’s dictatorship in any club has an only local impact, but the dictatorship of a national team coach impacts the entire football edifice. Even the names aren’t important: every coach, after being appointed, basically poses an ultimatum, demanding to construct all the seasonal schedule around the needs of the national team.

As far as I know, the Soviet Union is the only country in the world where such a thing happens. Football federations of other countries are strictly adhering to the calendar of their national championships, basing all football life on them, while the national teams get training and playing days without disrupting the rhythm of the league.

They say that in other countries, this is basically forced because professional clubs are commercial enterprises, and their only concern is money rather than the national team’s success. This argument seems almost incomprehensible to me. Why aren’t we concerned with money, for that matter? Only because in the West, money belong to private investors, and in the Soviet Union, they belong to the state? And so what – should we not care about the money at all just because they belong to the state?

Spartak Moscow’s average home attendance is around 30,000. Due to the calendar’s shortcomings, we’re having to play up to six matches indoors, in the halls that can only accommodate 3,000 people. A simple calculation shows us that we’re annually losing 162,000 paying spectators, and the spectators, on the other hand, lose an opportunity to watch football. We suffer losses, and the interests of football fans aren’t taken into account at all.

I’ve never believed that a national team needs a lot of time to train together. If the coaches know exactly what lineup they need for the next game if they’re monitoring the players from the national championship constantly, why do they need to get 20-odd players together for ten or more days, even though roughly a half of them will just go home without playing? We’re told that the players should “fit together”, become a true collective, or something. I think that this is a very formal method of work, or, to put it more harshly, this is playing safe.

Logically speaking, any national team consists of the nation’s best footballers, who often played together and know each other both as players and personally. It should only be hard for them if the coaches suddenly decide to experiment with the starting lineup or neglect the individual approach in training. But this is purely a question of coaches’ competence, and seasonal calendar shouldn’t depend on that.

I know quite well from my own experience that playing for the national team is the greatest honour. I should also say that this honour isn’t bestowed forever, you should be worthy of it. In modern times, it’s much easier to assess the player’s fitness: we have club coaches, coaching council in the national team, doctors, medical checkups. But even in the bygone days, we never made mistakes: we knew exactly who’s in form today and who’s not, calling up the truly best players rather than best-known names, guarding the sanctity of the national team, even when it meant stepping over the famous players’ ambitions. So it seems all the more strange to me: we get a large group of actively playing footballers in midseason, and then we start to determine who’s fit and who’s not. In modern times, we can know exactly, without any guesswork or intuition, the fitness of any player – by using analyses, tests, statistical numbers. What more should we check?! Why do we waste precious time?

The worst thing about mistakes and shortcomings is that we get used to them and adapt. And some people even go as far as declaring them unavoidable and repackaging them as “characteristic features”. Moreover, these people even try to pass them as advantages. Constantly correcting the seasonal schedule “in the national team’s interest”, they boast that only we can do that, unlike the entire world. Many times, I’ve heard statements along those lines: “In all sports, all tournaments are organised in the interests of national teams; we need to do the same in football.” I don’t know about other sports, but I do know that football, with its 10-month schedule and responsibilities before millions of spectators, should exist in an environment most conducive for football, not for, say, fencing or rowing.

And let’s get this straight: the Soviet national team’s privileged status gave us nothing for years, while the national teams of Italy, France or West Germany achieved great things, even though the national league calendars, as in most other countries, are scheduled in clubs’ interests. I think that stronger clubs are the best foundation for a strong national team. And we’re trying to build a good home without any foundation. Also, incidentally, the stars of elite national teams who play in different countries come home just for a day or two, and they never need any additional training to play for their national team.

What does a football club with a March – November schedule need? It needs rhythm. Forgive me for boring numbers, but I feel obliged to show some evidence. So, in 1985, Spartak Moscow has played three matches after an eight-day rest, two matches after a nine-day rest, four matches after a ten-day rest, two matches after 11- and 12-day rest, one match after a 14-day rest, and one match after 27 days. Five more matches were played after just two days of rest. We played only 13 matches with a good schedule, after three rest days, and were out of rhythm for most of the championship. To keep the team in shape, we had to organise almost a dozen additional friendly games.

What’s even more incredible, we haven’t played a single game from 13th July to 10th August, even though this time is the most popular among the spectators, giving best ticket sales. We were told that “this was to give a rest to the national team players”. Such a great time to rest, don’t you think?

I showed the data pertaining to Spartak, but I’m sure that any High League team can provide analogous data. In Moscow, it’s somewhat easier, because it has five teams, and there’s no feeling that football has “stopped”. But what about other cities?! The people can easily lose the habit of watching football at the stadium if they don’t see any match posters for months.

The 1986 calendar was even worse in this regard.

I’m not blaming the people who developed the calendar. They had to work with what they were given, even though they knew that their options were suboptimal. But, well, we’re now boasting that literally, each player’s step at the training or in the game is scientifically sound; where, then, the scientific evidence for optimal tournament schedule, the very base of our football life?

In 1986, the Higher League was cut down to 16 teams. This was again done “in the national team’s interests”. Before 1979, we had 16 teams too, then there were 18, and nobody bothered to give any kind of “scientific explanation” as to why this was done. When we were trying various league formulas in the first pre-war championships, it was forgivable – we didn’t know ourselves that well yet. But now, half a century later, I look at the schedule changes with sadness and confusion: haven’t we still figured everything out?

I’m not a proponent of cutting down the league. I think that our football can give out many pleasant surprises, such as Minsk and Dnepropetrovsk teams winning the championship. These surprises aren’t even exactly surprising: they just show that you can now create a strong team anywhere. And if these teams include many homegrown players, it’s even better!

I’ve established a rule for myself: thoroughly read every document issued by the Football Department and Football Federation, and study their every decision. I must say that they’re drowned in current affairs, without paying any attention to cardinal, important questions for years.

Before the European cups season starts, the team bosses are “heard out” on their preparation schedule. Sorry for being rude, but this is a total sham. Which special preparation can there be if there’s just no time for it? In 1985, for instance, Spartak played against Club Bruges after a very difficult game against Dinamo Kyiv. And just three days before the Dinamo Kyiv game, the USSR team played against Ireland. The coach can only scout the opposition, tell the players about what he saw, and that’s it. And, frankly, I’d like to “hear out” those who came up with such a brutal schedule.

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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