This feature is part of The Masterminds and The Tsars of Football
ONE OF THE most beautiful aspects of football is its potential spontaneity and unpredictability, be it a subtle swerve of the hips from Johan Cruyff, a hypnotic drop of the shoulder from Stanley Matthews, or a scorpion kick from René Higuita. The mesmerising foot speed of Cristiano Ronaldo or the seemingly impossible vision of Andrés Iniesta appear unnatural to mere mortals, but way back in the 17th century a rather famous chap, totally unconnected to football, inadvertently summed up one of the game’s simpler ingredients.
“Whatever draws or presses another is as much drawn or pressed by that other. If a body impinges upon another, and by its force changes the motion of the other, that body also will undergo an equal change, in its own motion, toward the contrary part. The changes made by these actions are equal … if the bodies are not hindered by any other impediments.”
Sir Isaac Newton may have been thousands of miles away and thinking of a much grander scheme than sport, but when he scribbled the words above to explain his Third Law of Motion, he could just as easily have been writing about the idiosyncratic life of Oleg Ivanovich Romantsev.
Trying to understand who he really was is like trying to define Eric Cantona in mere words. Democratic father figure, and ruthless, despotic tyrant, moral compass and dishevelled drunk; Romantsev has been labelled as all of these, but without question he was the greatest Russian manager of the modern era, perhaps ever.
At a time of unimaginable turmoil and uncertainty, he guided Spartak Moscow to a phenomenal period of success through the transition from the Soviet Union to modern Russia, punctuated by some of the most memorable nights in the recent history of the ‘People’s Team’ – and yet for all his glories, he will forever be followed by the counteraction of darkness when people remember him.
To talk of a great man who is still only 62 in the past tense is odd – newly-appointed Zenit Saint Petersburg manager Mircea Lucescu is 70, Sir Alex Ferguson was 72 when he finally retired – but sadly fitting, at least within the realm of football. His last job in full-time management was over a decade ago, and although he still attends Spartak matches and is happy to have his picture taken and talk to fans, the sight of his gaunt face, worn by years of countless battles, lacks the mischievous fire of Lucescu or Ferguson.
Romantsev was a contradictory character who could best be summed up by his actions and reactions, some of which were hard to understand. Once, for example, he was so disgusted by Evgeniy Bushmanov’s performance in a Champions League tie that he ruthlessly announced to the post-match media that his defender was “finished with football”. By this stage in his managerial reign at Spartak he was already showing signs of weariness – physically and mentally – as he began his perilously deep relationship with alcohol.
One morning a Spartak official entered his office to find him strewn across the floor surrounded by empty bottles of spirits that he had drunk in the company of his friends, rendering him incapable of returning home. What had previously been idle tittle-tattle had become the most open secret in Russian football; the man who was in charge of the most popular and successful club in the country was reduced to mind-altering benders.
But why had he arrived at this sorry state? Ferguson was known for his fondness of fine wines, often inviting visiting managers – at least those he respected – to share a glass of Burgundy, but if he overindulged in consuming them, he hid it well. Both men were legendary figures in the most highly-pressured jobs imaginable, respected above all others at the head of the most popular clubs in their countries. Both had the presence of their respective club’s most iconic legend on their shoulders, and both had won significantly more than the lion’s share of trophies.
Romantsev is one of Spartak’s most important figures
To appreciate the sheer scale of Romantsev’s achievements and the gravity of his subsequent decline, one must delve into the story of monumental change, both at Spartak and more broadly in Russia. “The Soviet Union during the Brezhnev period was not a good place for idealists,” wrote Robert Edelman in his historical book Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State. “Nor can it be said that soccer throughout the world was itself in great shape in these years. Negative play and massive corruption combined with the rise in hooliganism to threaten the very existence of the sport.”
Spartak had built part of their legend on the image of honesty and integrity, and while the level of illegal goings on around Russia was well-known to everyone, the club’s reputation remained largely intact in the public eye. To follow them was to align oneself with a vehicle for protest against the plagued moral landscape, but the picture propagated by the club’s leaders was perhaps a little misleading, as Edelman suggests. “Spartak may have engaged in these less-than-honourable methods, but it appears that its participation in fixed games was far less than its opponents. Still, this and many other practices were so widespread that it is hard to believe Spartak … could have stood entirely on principle and survived.”
As a player, Romantsev had arrived at Spartak in 1976 after impressing as a full-back, but swiftly chose to return after only playing two games due to the “poisonous atmosphere”. Nikolai Starostin, the founder of Spartak and cornerstone of its entire essence, had been voted out from his position as club president by the trade union sports leadership after an alarming slump had seen them sink to 10th place in the Soviet Higher League. A players’ delegation led by captain Evgeniy Lovchev demanding the 77-year-old’s reinstatement was ignored, but the year Romantsev arrived Spartak were relegated amid a hostile atmosphere between players and the controlling factions within the club.
Considering the power, status and financial reward of playing for the Red-Whites, it was some stand for him to take in turning down the opportunity to pull on the famous shirt once worn by the likes of Igor Netto. His initial decision to leave so quickly demonstrates one of the qualities that would serve Romantsev so well, but would also ultimately lead to his downfall; his utterly unshakeable self-belief and determination.
Within three years, he was named captain on his way to playing 180 matches for the club before injury forced him to retire at the premature age of 29 in 1983. By now he was extremely highly regarded due to his personal qualities, but he was allowed to leave and go into management with Krasnya Presnya in the lower leagues. One of his players was a bright young 16-year-old midfielder called Alexander Mostovoi, who would go on to have a brilliant career in Portugal, France and Spain in the 1990s, and would cross paths with Romantsev again in Moscow.
“He was a very inexperienced coach back then but we quickly forged a close relationship,” Mostovoi later said of Romantsev. “He became my father in football, it was thanks to him that I grew into a serious player.”
His choice of words to describe his manager are an indication as to the style that the young tactician began with. It may well be a common refrain from players nowadays to favoured coaches, but in the context of the environment in which it was said, where figures of authority ran virtual dictatorships rather than warm, gentle families, it is significant.
At the end of the decade, Konstantin Beskov’s authority over Spartak Moscow as manager had eroded to the point of no return after the strictly dogmatic coach – who never finished lower than third in the league until his final season – began seeing a weakened response to his forceful approach.
“Beskov became involved in a series of harsh disputes with his veteran players,” wrote Edelman. “He had continued to rule by fear and intimidation, but such methods were becoming less effective during perestroika. The athlete-coach relationship was evolving, and the discourses of democracy then circulating made the players less willing to accept orders unquestioningly.”
Read | Spartak, survival and success: the story of Nikolai Starostin
Crucially, his relationship with Starostin, who had been hurriedly brought back into the fold when it became apparent his replacements were not nearly as naturally gifted at guiding the great institution, was finally disintegrating, and when he was fired at the end of the 1988 season, the hunt for his successor was narrowed down to three candidates: Netto, Lovchev and Romantsev.
Romantsev was Starostin’s chosen man having served his apprenticeship at Krasnya Presnya and then Spartak Ordzhonikidze, and his first move upon arrival was fascinating. After growing frustrated with the rigid instructions that had been issued without consultation from Beskov, the players were offered the chance to form a ‘soviet’, or committee, to voice their opinions – a players’ union within the club effectively.
Make no mistake, once adjustments such as the training regime had been agreed, Romantsev gave no quarter to those who didn’t pull their weight. “People ask if it was hard to motivate ourselves in the years we won the championship every season, but not with Romantsev,” said captain Yegor Titov years later. “Every draw was tragic for us, because as a punishment he would lock us in here in the camp.”
Where he differed from his predecessor was that he listened to his players while maintaining the level of professionalism that he insisted upon, as Igor Rabiner picked up on in his essay in The Blizzard. “He respected the opinion of others even when they differed from his own … his warmth and naturalness ‘unfroze’ players after the severity of the guru Beskov.” Although Titov highlighted the unshakeable streak in Romantsev’s character, he acknowledged the human side of his manager. “He was hard on everybody; he was always demanding, but he was a fair man.”
As Rabiner wrote, Romantsev himself commented on how, ”Spartak has always been a team with a special human atmosphere”, and was open about his style of management with the media and fans alike. “When I invited these players to the team, I told them right away that first of all we’d consider their interests. People are more important for me than money … you remain a human being both in football and in life.” He even once donned an apron with fake breasts on a flight back from a league match and served his entire squad champagne to fits of laughter.
The contrast alone between his and Beskov’s personal approaches was an enormous lift for what was a hugely gifted group of players. In his final months in charge, Beskov told Starostin he wanted to ship out seven of his first team squad, but after his request was rebuffed he tendered his resignation, which was accepted by 11 players in a vote of confidence.
Among those to shine under his rule were Rinat Dasaev, voted the world’s best goalkeeper in 1988, who would enjoy an Indian Summer with Sevilla, and Fyodor Cherenkov, considered Spartak’s finest ever player; an embodiment of the free-flowing creativity of which Spartak saw themselves as being the unofficial moral guardians. Both had thrived under the regime of Beskov and had won two Soviet league championships, but were approaching the final stages of their illustrious careers and were disillusioned somewhat by the treatment they were still receiving.
Igor Shalimov had just made his major breakthrough and would forge a career mostly in Italy’s Serie A, while by this stage Mostovoi had already established himself as an outstanding attacking midfielder after two seasons in the capital. The flow of the finest talent towards the much more established and wealthy leagues of Europe had begun, but far from resist, Romantsev embraced it.
When the Soviet Union was broken up, clubs were no longer sustained by the state as they almost all had been for decades. What this meant was there was suddenly a scramble to make ends meet; money-spinning global midweek friendlies had been a feature of sustaining financial health for some time, but major backing from private investors was still in its infancy, so many clubs suffered. Crowds were perilously low, and ‘white’ salaries were even lower, while match-fixing became rampant as clubs arranged results with each other to help make ends meet.
Few managers can boast the domestic record of Romantsev
The perils that inevitably come with such an atmosphere drove players away at an alarming rate, but Romantsev was not shaken by this, despite his self-confessed paternal duty of care. At one point in the 1990s, transfer fees accounted for around 70% percent of Russian clubs’ income, and he recognised this as he scoured the former USSR for young, hungry talent, developed them, then engaged in the previously untapped European market by selling them on.
Dmitry Alenichev – the current Spartak manager – left for Italy and would go on to win the Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Porto, while Dmitry Radchenko, Viktor Onopko and Sergey Rodionov would all venture west. One man who never did, however, was Titov, as he explained to Marc Bennetts in his book Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game: “Honestly? I was afraid to go to Oleg Romantsev’s office and tell him I was leaving. At that time, Romantsev was looking to keep the side together. Up until the mid-nineties, he had had a develop and sell policy, but after this period he craved success not only at home, but also in the Champions League.”
Success was something like a drug for him. In his first season in charge he won the title in the campaign’s dying moments, as Valery Shmalov’s free-kick against Dynamo Kyiv secured the championship. The following season, Diego Maradona’s Napoli and the Real Madrid of Hugo Sánchez and Gheorghe Hagi were eliminated on a magical run to the European Cup semi-final, giving Romantsev a taste for the glory that was tantalisingly within sight. He would go on to reach the same stage of all three European competitions, but no further.
Where his record makes for incredible reading is domestically. Between 1992 and 2001 he claimed nine out of the ten championships, the only blot coming when, ironically, his former club – then renamed Alania Vladikavkaz – interrupted the incredible run. Only Rangers in Scotland could rival the utter domination Spartak enjoyed in this period, but the singular nature of Glasgow’s two giants in relation to the rest of Scotland’s professional clubs was markedly different, thanks to the socio-economic rollercoaster in Russia.
The fatal combination of the talent drain to Europe and the abrupt end to government support meant that all clubs suffered at the start of the 1990s – except Spartak. They were able to maintain an advantage over their rivals by simply having more money, a more extensive scouting network and perhaps most significantly, a more prestigious name.
Sergey Shavlo served as Spartak’s General Director a decade ago, and explained how this was achieved to Bennetts: “Spartak were the richest side in Russia because thy were the best. It was a blessed circle. We managed to collect the top players from the former republics; we could offer them financial security at a time when half the country was starving.”
Even before Romantsev’s arrival they were profitable in their own right, as sponsorship and ticket sales alone more than compensated for the costs of player salaries and running the training ground, but with the addition of previously unheard of exposure and prize money, it allowed Spartak to boom.
There came a critical turning point in Spartak’s and Romantsev’s paths in the middle of the decade. Starostin had been a pillar of the club since the 1920s but was advancing steadily into his 90s, and didn’t hold the sway he once had. It was he who had earmarked Romantsev to coach the team originally, partly because of his shared appreciation of entertaining quick passing style, but in a bid to ensure the players wouldn’t continue departing, he went a step further and nominated Romantsev as club President in his place in 1993.
After this appointment to a dual role, Romantsev began to build an unassailable position of power in a club that had prided itself on being based around an openly democratic foundation; it was a committee, don’t forget, who had voted to appoint Romantsev in the first place. Now, however, there was one man who controlled the running of the club at all levels. Two years after being named club president, the CEO Larisa Nechaeva – who had been attempting to minimise Starostin’s involvement at the club – was gunned down by hitmen, and the following spring Starostin himself passed away.
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Such was his success on the pitch that he was asked to guide the Russian national team through to Euro 96, and although he left the position after the tournament having finished bottom of the group, he returned to the post in 1998 to resurrect a disastrous opening to the Euro 2000 qualification campaign. After three defeats presided over by his predecessor Anatoliy Byshovets, Romantsev came within a whisker of achieving the miraculous, but fell just short. In the public’s eye he was untouchable after performing minor miracles with the national team on top of his success with Spartak.
Before the death of Spartak’s great patriarch, Romantsev has acquired the majority stake in the club from Starostin, leaving him as the manager, president and major shareholder – a situation that would not be possible today, and was scarcely conceivable even then. With nobody to answer to, Romantsev’s demeanour began to alter. Once the arm-around-the-shoulder man interested in his players as human beings, he began to detach himself from everyone around him.
He could justify his character quirks by pointing to his achievements on the pitch – in his multiple roles he continued his rampage through the record books, but his relationships deteriorated to the stage where many players around the turn of the century claimed to have never had a one-on-one conversation with their manager. “Why do I have to love them?” he asked in 2000. “I have to treat them professionally. That’s enough.”
Key players were cut from the fold with little in the way of sympathy. Ilya Tsymbalar was a talented and popular player, but was banned from training after reportedly turning up to a session slightly drunk. Given Romantsev’s own battles with the bottle, it was a highly unmerited reaction. Andrei Tikhonov was released after being described by Romantsev as “used material”, despite having scored 19 goals the previous season and then going on to play a further 11 years.
Slurred speech seeped into some of his press conferences – if he attended at all. His absence from many of the mandatory post match press briefings cost the club in regular fines, but at this stage he was so distant from anyone, yet alone the media, that even if he did engage in a dialogue it would be gruff and non-committal at best.
If his eye for nourishing his flock was seemingly diminishing, his instinct to secure the club’s was alert. Corporations were beginning to circle, sensing an opportunity to invest serious money into football and raise their profiles, so understandably Romantsev sought a backer who could provide the necessary funds to keep Spartak at the forefront of the Russian game.
When he found that LUKOil executive Andrei Chervichenko was interested, he happily offloaded his shares to the businessman. Here was a way to release some of the pressures of running multiple roles and ensure he had a source to reinforce his squad to challenge for honours. Romantsev soon realised that Chervichenko was an incompetent owner, however, and fell out with him over his vision for the club. Poor foreigners were signed almost entirely based on their exotic nationalities, and the manager’s role became just that again, no more.
The end came when Romantsev accused Chervichenko of “buying” the result of the Russian Cup final in 2003. Even though his side won the trophy, the manager was fired in the morning, and the tale of Spartak’s greatest manager had come to a sad, painful end.
The two opposing forces of Oleg Romantsev’s career clashed too many times to count. What must be remembered is how he managed to engineer a situation whereby in the most tumultuous period in his country’s history, he not only had complete control, but knew how to wield it. The string of stupendously gifted players who came through under his tutelage are a testament to his footballing brain, but his impact goes far beyond products produced for the pitch.
Without his skill and determination, however correct it may have been, it is quite conceivable that Spartak would have collapsed into a downward spiral as all around them did, and Russian football would have been in dire straits had that happened.
He couldn’t have existed in any other period – but thank God he did.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint