People have always been fascinated by biographies of women and men with exceptional histories. Nowadays, stories about atypical lives invade both bookstores and cinemas, but there are still many stories which haven’t been told to the wider audience. One of these is the story of Nikolai Starostin. His story fascinated me, to the point that I myself want to write his French biography! (I didn’t find any in French…)
Besides his contribution in the Professional Football League organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with Oleg Romantsev, Pavel Sadyrin, Valeri Gazzaev, and others, Nikolai Starostin is by many considered to be one of the first managers in football history thanks to his organizing talents. His influence during throughout Soviet and Russian history is obvious.
But Nikolai Starostin was first of all Spartak Moscow. This club was his baby, his passion, all his life! In fact, it was more than a passion, the Red-Whites were his destiny. Spartak was the source of the greatest joys as well as the greatest sufferings. Spartak brought him to glory and the top of Soviet football, but it also cast him out into the terrible universe of the Gulag.
Nikolai Starostin: it’s a history of intrigue with the highest levels of Soviet power, and games with political reasons which decided the future of players and managers. Just the kind of story everybody likes, and it made him a legend.
The foundation of Spartak
Nikolai Starostin was born on the 13th February 1902 in Moscow, in the western district of Presnia in a family of hunters. Nikolai was the oldest in a family of six brothers and sisters: Aleksandr, Claudia, Andrei, Piotr, and Vera. The four brothers went on to write a significant chapter in the history book of a sport.
However, in their childhood, sport was not encouraged in the family. In fact, their father punished them severely for having damaged or soiled their shoes, or for coming home with a black eye after being involved in a fight.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the popular sport in Moscow was not football but the melee battlegrounds. In 1916, Nikolai and Aleksandr regularly participated in these traditional brawls on the edge of the Moskva river. In Nikolai Starostin’s biography, he writes: “Participating in these struggles gives you confidence in yourself. This is what forged our character.”
Later, Nikolai Starostin fell in love with boxing, and between 1920 and 1921, he dedicated himself to the sport, even winning the lightweight championship of Moscow. Another sport the brothers indulged in was ice skating. Between 1929 and 1935 they spent their winters playing hockey for the Moscow team.
And football in all of this? Nikolai began to practice at the age of 16 in the Russian Gymnastics Society as a right midfielder.
In 1920, the father Starostin died of typhus. Nikolai Starostin had to take care of the whole family. To provide for his family, he began to play football in summer and hockey in winter.
In 1921 Ivan Artemiev created the Sports Society of Moscow (later Krasnaya Presnia). The sporting movement at this time was built on the principle of territoriality. In fact, the team was formed from players living in the district of Krasnaya Presnia, or in the surrounding area, which the Starostin brothers did. In a family context (women and children were present at the training), the club quickly grew by building its own stadium, living off the ticket sales and playing games against other Soviet teams. Nikolai Starostin was soon incorporated into the Moscow team, which played several international games, among these a famous 2-0 victory against Turkey.
From 1926 to 1930, Krasnaya Presnia changed its name and became Pisheviki. The team participated in regional championships, thus becoming Moscow champion, as well as tours through the Soviet Union. At Pisheviki, Nikolai played with the best players of this time: Piotr Isakov, Piotr Artemiev, Pavel Kanunikov and Valentin Prokofiev for instance. All of them played for the Soviet national team. Nikolai Starostin himself was capped in six friendly games, in which he scored a goal and was appointed captain.
In 1934, Nikolai Starostin was awarded the prestigious title of Master of Sports of the USSR, considered as the best right wing in the USSR team of football and hockey. On the field, Nikolai impressed with his speed, his charisma, and his offensive contribution. Michael Yakushin said:
“Nikolai Starostin was a typical offensive winger, unstoppable with the head, with his powerful strikes. His style was simple and the opponent, afraid of this fearless attacker, just faded. “
While Nikolai Starostin was the star, his brothers joined him on his travels, playing with their older brother, which gave birth to some funny anecdotes. One reporter was for example highly confused by the many Starostins in the team during a Spartak game abroad once:
-Who plays on the right side of the defense? The reporter asked.
– And next to him?
– And the right wing?
– I understand, the journalist replied, Starostin means footballer in Russian.
A talent for organizing football
During the reorganization of Soviet football in 1926, through his contacts Starostin managed to get the Union of Manufactures of Food Products to sponsor the club. Thanks to this, the club was secured financially and even moved to a new stadium holding 13,000 seats. While being a player, Starostin also had an administrative role in these years, helping out with his many past experiences in organizations as an accountant.
Through his partnership and his friendship with Aleksandr Kosarev, secretary of the Youth Communist Union (Komsomol), Starostin secured another dimension to the club. The Komsomol actively participated in the sporting life of the country and as captain of the national team, Nikolai Starostin made acquaintance with Kosarev who sought to increase the already strong influence of the Komsomol in the world of football. In Komsomol, Starostin gained the support from the authorities necessary to compete with the two Sports Societies already in existence – CSKA being supported by the army and Dinamo by the NKVD, the security service.
It was Kosarev who talked the Starostin brothers into creating a sports society that could not only compete with CSKA and Dinamo in Moscow, but all over the country and in a wide range of sports. This became possible with funding from the Promkooperatsiia, the organization of independent tradespeople.
Nikolai Starostin set to work and in 1935, the Sports Society Spartak was born. He found the name himself and designed the logo. Two theories on the origin of the name Spartak are discussed. The most romantic is that Starostin grew inspiration from the slave rebel Spartacus, who fought against the injustice from the Roman Empire.
The second theory, less romantic but more realistic, would be the fact that Nikolai Starostin heard that name during a journey in 1927 in Germany with the national team. They played against a team of workers-athletes with the name of Spartak. According to himself, the name was chosen because “in this short word, we hear the melody of the wind, it hides behind this word, a desire for rebellion, a feeling of being indomitable. “
The last hope
In 1936, Nikolai Starostin got the position of general Secretary of the Sports Society Spartak.
During this period of time, being a leader was as risky as being on the field. Stalin led the USSR with an iron fist, and sport was a dreadful way to show the honour of the country and its superiority over others.
From 1936, Soviet football became organized around a new format, as the local city championships were disbanded in favour of a league and a cup for the entire Soviet Union.
However, despite the rule changes, football in the country didn’t change. The British heritage of the inefficient 2-3-5, system, was still widely present in the Soviet Union for the simple reason that the clubs rarely played against foreign teams.
In 1937, that changed. Because of the Spanish Civil War, the Basque national team went on a world tour in order to raise awareness, funds and support for the Spanish rebels, and naturally they also visited the Soviet Union. At this point, football had passed all other sports and was the most popular sport in the country, and so the fans expected their favourite clubs to crush the Basque opponents.
However, this was far from the case, as the Basque selection beat Lokomotiv 5-1 and then Dinamo Moscow 2-1. It was clear that the fans and players had completely underestimated their opponents. USSR got a bit of redemption when the city selection of Leningrad dug out a 2-2 draw on their turf, but that was immediately forgotten when the Basques overcame the Dinamo Council Select XI, considered one of the best teams in the country, 7-4 soon after. Shortly after the humiliation, Spartak was announced as the next opponents for the Basques.
From his seat as Spartak’s leader, Nikolai Starostin understood the importance of this match for him and his players. He noticed a different level between the Soviet players and the Basques, but it could not explain the total disappointment. However he noticed an obvious difference in the tactics. He adjusted his team adding a third defender central to block the Basque scorer Isodro Langara. Spartak had previously used this W system, as it was known, during a tour in Norway. Nikolai Starostin said:
“It was the second attempt, even for a friendly game, but this time for a crucial international meeting. It was a huge risk.”
That the entire nation desperately needed a victory was felt at Spartak’s training camp at Tarasovka.
“It was hell,” Starostin later recalled, “There were letters, telegrams, and phone calls to advise us, and to wish us good luck. I was summoned by the various chiefs who explained to me that the whole country was waiting for our victory.”
On the day of the match, Nikolai Starostin was in a car accident, which sent his wife to hospital. From that day, he never drove again, preferring the presence of a driver. To make things even worse, the Spartak team almost came late because of the traffic jams caused by the influx of fans at the stadium.
However, despite the unfortunate build up to the game, the last hope of the country defeated the Basques in a tremendous 6-2 victory. Vladimir Stepanov scored a hattrick and Viktor Shylovski of Dynamo Kyiv, who was recruited by Starostin, scored a controversial penalty. After the defeat to Spartak, the Basque side went on to beat Dinamo Kyiv, Dinamo Tbilisi, the selection of Georgia and the selection of Minsk. At the end of the visitors’ tour, it was clear that Soviet football was falling behind, and needed to improve quickly.
Anyway, Nikolai Starostin became a hero. His team saved the honor and the prestige of the Motherland. Later that year, he received the Order of Lenin, which was the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union, becoming the first footballer to hold this honour.
The popularity of Spartak and Nikolai Starostin is not only because of this victory. It is the result of a game focused on attacking, of a club independent of any structure in relation with the political system of oppression. Linked to the Komsomol, synonymous of youth, Spartak embodied the communist ideal without actually representing it. The parades of the Sports Society Spartak reflected the idea of men and women, healthy, disciplined, with one goal in mind, win and represent their country.
Another part of Spartak’s early success was Starostin’s wide network. His likeable personality as well as his fame from the Soviet national team allowed him access to the people placed highest in the society, and more importantly he knew the value of these relations and how to use them. For him football should be a spectacle, and to make it that he needed the best players available. To attract them he needed money, something he received through sponsorships. However, this was hardly acceptable at the time, and the ‘corruption of the Western bourgeoisie’ attracted suspision, and was later used against him.
Return tomorrow where we give you part two of Nikolai Starostin’s incredible life story. In this his archnemesis Lavrenti Beria, Joseph Stalin’s right hand, is introduced, and Starostin’s problems begin. Part two can be found by following this link.
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