NIKITA PAVLOVICH SIMONYAN IS A NAME THAT, while relatively unknown to young people today, holds a special place in the hearts of those who were around to watch him play. Known for his lethal time with Spartak Moscow during the 1950s, the Armavir-born striker struck fear into the hearts of his opponents, scoring 133 league goals for Spartak during his decade with the club from 1949-59.
In his first two seasons with the team, Simonyan scored a combined 72 goals, twice becoming top scorer and winning the Soviet Cup in his second season. Together with the Red-Whites Simonyan won six titles as a player, four of which were league victories. As a member of the USSR national team, he represented the nation 20 times, appearing in the team’s 1956 Olympic gold finish and quarter-final placement in 1958, the nation’s debut World Cup.
After retirement, he became a manager, coaching his beloved club Spartak to five more titles, as well leading Armenian club Ararat Yerevan to a historic league and cup double in 1973, widely considered Armenian football’s finest moment. He also had a brief stint at the helm of the USSR national team, but hung up his managerial notes in 1985 to go into politics.
Simonyan is currently the acting president of the Russian Football Union, the nation’s governing football body. I sat down with Nikita Pavlovych in his office to discuss his playing career, teammates, and the state of Russian football in the present day.
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The last time we spoke I asked you about who was your favorite teammate, and you answered Lev Yashin. What about him made him such a special player and person?
“With Yashin, you see, Yashin and I played for different clubs, he for Dinamo and I for Spartak, but we were only opponents on the field, and outside of it we had the best of relationships. I remember during his 50th birthday celebrations I asked him: ‘Which opposition attackers were the most honourable towards you?’ He was confused and could not answer. I helped him out: it was me. And he asked me, ‘Why Nikita?’ Because I only scored one goal against you! The others scored three or four in total. So, you know, he was a fantastic person both through his humility and his greatness, and even today the entire football world remembers him.”
Which of your professional seasons stands out as the one you remember the best, and what made it this way?
“Well, which of the seasons … If we’re speaking of accolades then you see, look at the photograph over the on the back wall (a picture of the Soviet 1956 Olympic team) – these are 11 medal recipients returning home on a ship from Melbourne, so of course my answer is the victory at the Olympics. But in general, when speaking about which season I could name not one but two seasons.”
“Playing for Spartak I scored 26 league goals and five in the cup in 1948-49, the next season 34 in the league and five in the cup so over 70 in two seasons. So I can say these two seasons. But if I could make a list then all the league and cup titles were big moments. So all together, as a player and a coach I won seven league titles and six cups, with four silver medals and four bronze ones. These are my achievements. And the Olympic gold, of course.”
During the 1958 World Cup, Igor Netto was injured for the majority of the tournament. Had he been healthy, do you think you and the Soviet Union team could’ve progressed further than the quarter-finals?
“No, it wasn’t only that Igor Netto was injured. You understand, everything happened, you could say, even before the tournament began because three players were disqualified, key players [Boris] Tatushin, [Mikhail] Ogonkov, and [Eduard] Streltsov, and plus Netto was injured. And without these four players we in 13 days played five games, without substitutes, and as a result reached the quarter-final where we lost to Sweden 2-0. So in my opinion, though there was a lot of criticism aimed towards us, I feel it was a major achievement all the same. In our first appearance as a nation at the World Cup we were part of the eight best teams in the world.”
Alongside yourself, players like Eduard Streltsov, Igor Netto, Yashin, Valentin Ivanov, and Igor Chislenko starred in the 1950s and 60s. Do you consider this time period Soviet football’s “golden age” and them the “golden generation”?
“Absolutely, absolutely. Because there were such amazing players like Lev Yashin, Eduard Streltsov, Valentin Ivanov, Igor Netto, Sergei Salnikov. Before Salnikov at Spartak there was Nikolai Dementiev, who we feel created the ‘Spartak game’, the combinations and ball control. And these are only the Moscow-based players, but there were great Georgian footballers as well.”
“Players like Mikheil Meskhi, Slava Metreveli, and before them Boris Paichadze, Avtandil Gogoberidze, and this is only Dinamo Tbilisi. Lobanovskyi as well, and after them were [Oleg] Blokhin, [Viktor] Kolotov, Volodya Muntyan, [Leonid] Buryak, you can list many. You’re right; this was the golden age of our football. Why? Because there was a clash of various different styles of play, Moscow style, Ukrainian, Transcaucasian, Central Asian, Baltic style.”
Speaking of Ivanov, he spent his whole career at Torpedo Moscow. You yourself had an opportunity to join Torpedo in 1949 but turned them down in favor of Spartak. Do you ever regret this decision?
In the 1970s, Spartak fell into a decline, even getting relegated in 1976. What do you feel are the reasons and could this slump been avoided in any way?
“I was no longer with Spartak at that time but that’s not the point, I was watching from the side and Spartak was forced out of the Soviet Top League, just pushed out. Through the usage of fixed matches and things like that, it was all curated this way. I was called recently about the Russian Premier League match between Terek and Ural, where there might be a fixed match, but even back then there were fixed matches. And when I started working in football and then in the Russian Football Union, we were posed the question about the fight against match fixing.”
“And just visually, imagine, we are sitting and watching a match and we feel that it is fixed. Can we disqualify a team and give that team and automatic defeat? Visually, we can tell that the match was fixed but what can we do? We don’t have any concrete proof, we have to tell the authorities and only they can get results through phone taps and the like. And do you know what they [the authorities] tell us? We have enough problems of our own! And they refuse to investigate. So Spartak at that point in time was simply forced out.”
Is there any hope that this problem of match-fixing will have such a strong fight against it that it will vastly decrease in numbers?
“I don’t think so, the amount has gone down but it is still very much around, not just in our country but around the world. I would like to speak about Italy, that they at least took action, and they were not afraid to take out the mighty Juventus from Serie A. Think about it, could we throw out a top team suspected of match fixing here? No. Just like the old system didn’t allow it, the current one won’t either.”
What do you think of the situation with outgoing Russia coach Fabio Capello, and how do you rate the present situation of the Russian national team.
“We will be rating the present situation of the national team after the upcoming two matches, the first one against Sweden on the 5th September. On Capello, you cannot not speak about his achievements. Russia, after all, made the finals of the World Cup. As for the team’s shortcoming, everything is always the coaches fault, but I have been in that skin, and, for example, if a goalkeeper concedes a through ball from 40 metres, then of course it’s not the player, it’s the coach. If a player doesn’t score a penalty that could win a team the match, again it’s the coach. Everything is always the coach’s fault.”
“Why it didn’t work for him here? I don’t know, he still had four matches to go, plus a potential two more through playoffs. Also, I am the chair of the committee for manager licensing, and I always ask them, ‘What are the first words you say to your new team?’ I have never heard what I am about to tell you.”
“They talk about getting ready, training, pre-match things, but you must start off by thanking your predecessor. He wanted to make the team the best it could be. Whether he succeeded or failed this is now your job, but you have to make it clear that the team cannot say bad things in regards to the previous coach. So everything aside, I am thankful for Capello’s work. Unlike the two previous Dutch managers, he travelled half the country, attended tens of matches.”
“But with two losses, especially at home to Austria… I invoke the words of Lobanovskyi; when we were sitting together, he gave a toast, ‘Let us drink to the success of our completely hopeless profession.’ Because either the coach himself leaves, or he is fired. That is the fate of a manager.”
With Zenit potentially selling most of their best players and Slutskiy potentially struggling to juggle both CSKA and the national team, do you think Spartak can take advantage of these developments and win the league?
“No, I don’t think so. Lobanovskyi had a very basic team when he was with Dynamo Kyiv, and they still won the league. CSKA has a very refined game, and it is thanks to Slutskiy. Even looking at the game against Sporting, particularly the second half, CSKA completely outplayed them. So it (Slutskiy dual-managing) won’t be a hindrance, perhaps even the opposite.”
“He will gain valuable experience with the national team, there is a different between them, just like there’s a difference for a player between the national and their club side, so too is it different for coaches. I wish Slutskiy the best.”
By Daniel Gutman. Follow @DGutman_