The Cat Rescuer
How a fall from a tree set Leonid Slutsky on his way to the top
Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t shake Leonid Slutsky’s hand.
It was the evening of 4 November 2009 and the 38-year-old Russian was making his first visit to Old Trafford. He’d changed, conducted the warm-up and gone back into the dressing-room. When he emerged again for the match, Ferguson ignored him.
It wasn’t arrogance or rudeness. Ferguson simply didn’t realise that the stoutish figure in front of him was the manager of CSKA. Slutsky had been appointed just three days before the game. In the matches Ferguson probably watched as preparation, the CSKA managers were first Zico and then Juande Ramos. The Spaniard had been in charge of CSKA two weeks earlier when United had won 1-0 in Moscow despite fielding a significantly understrength team.
90 minutes later, Ferguson knew who Slutsky was. With seven minutes remaining, CSKA had led 3-1, but United came back to level with the aid of a deflection off Georgy Shennikov in injury-time. It was the first time United had conceded three at home since the 4-3 win over Real Madrid in 2003, the game that had persuaded Roman Abramovich to invest in English football.
Slutsky was annoyed not to have won, but it was a point that would help CSKA on their way to the quarter-final, the first time the club had got that far in the competition and only the second time, after Spartak in 1995-96, that a Russian team had reached that stage. Even getting out of the group was a remarkable achievement given CSKA had just four points from four games.
“To be honest,” Slutsky told me, “I had the feeling that I was watching a movie. That it wasn’t happening to me. That I found myself in a format that wasn’t just 3D but something like 10D. The Champions League anthem is sounding, Ferguson is managing his team a few yards away, [Alan] Dzagoev opens the scoring… No, of course, we prepared seriously for that game, analysed the opponent, chose the tactical model. But I didn’t feel a full participant in the game. I was like a spectator who got in the middle of the event.
“I didn’t even catch Ferguson’s eye – he was looking somewhere else. He couldn’t have known my face and I wouldn’t have run in front of him and said: ‘Hello, I’m your colleague, let’s shake hands!’ After the game he also went away immediately. But at that moment a handshake with Ferguson was the last thing I thought about. I was disappointed about how everything had finished. Nobody knew at that moment that this point would become golden as CSKA got through to the knock-out games of the Champions League…
“At the end of the game at Old Trafford there was great pressure from United, the stands were roaring so wildly, that I wanted just one thing – the game to be finished as soon as possible. In the past, when I had worked with other teams, the excitement sometimes was so high that I wanted just to close my eyes, then to open them and to see the final score – regardless of the result! At CSKA I didn’t feel anything like that, but it happened beforehand. Sometimes there is the fear that at one moment your nature won’t be able to cope with this level of stress. That’s why, for example, Johan Cruyff, having been so successful, quit coaching.”
That draw was the first step to two league titles with CSKA and then becoming manager of his country – a prospect that, back then, would have seemed incredible. Nobody before Slutsky in Russian and Soviet history has ever been national manager without having been a professional footballer.
But Slutsky defied the national tradition and, in so doing, became the first Russian manager of Russia in nine years. In August 2015, he replaced Fabio Capello during what was shaping up to be a disastrous qualification campaign for Euro 2016, turning Russia from the country playing the biggest salary for a national manager to one of the lowest payers. Slutsky continues to work for CSKA, who are paid compensation when he is away with the national side. He gets no extras other than a small bonus, the same as that paid to the players, for reaching the Euros (Capello would have got a €1m pay-out for qualifying). When Slutsky took over, Russia trailed Sweden by four points in the race for second place in the group behind Austria. He won four out of four to push the Swedes down to third and a play-off.
The striker Artem Dzyuba – of Zenit St Petersburg, CSKA’s main rivals – scored six goals in those four games, including the winners against Sweden and Moldova. Dzyuba had never worked with Slutsky before and has a reputation for being difficult to manage, but he warmed to the new boss instantly. “Slutsky turned the atmosphere 180 degrees,” he said. “He radiates positive energy: he’s not just a winner but a very decent man. And all that is supported by the fact that he is a professional and super-strong coach. Leonid Viktorovich was the best option for the national team, and all the team fell in love with him and started respecting him at lightning speed. We truly believe and trust him. He is Number One! And regarding me, I’m playing personally for him. He trusted me from the first day and I never leave that sort of thing unnoticed. I’m just obliged to show everything and to prove that he didn’t make a mistake. More than anything I hate to disappoint people who believe in me.”
As Dzyuba’s words suggest, Slutsky is not just a meticulous tactician but somebody who sees his greatest strength as being the relations he fosters with his players.
When Slutsky was 18, he dreamed of being a professional goalkeeper and even played a few months in the third division for Zvezda Gorodishche in his native Volgograd region when the first-choice keeper was injured. It was shortly before the fragmentation of the USSR and Zvezda played in the ninth zone, which included the Caucasian republics and central Asia. It was a region notorious for crowd violence and match-fixing. In one away game against Kyapaz Kirovabad from Azerbaijan, the referee awarded five penalties against Zvezda. Slutsky saved the first.
Would he have progressed to a higher level? Nobody knows. One awful and stupid accident changed everything. His young female neighbour came to him in tears and showed him a poplar her cat had climbed. The cat was stuck and she wanted him to get it down. Slutsky suspected the episode would not end well but for complicated reasons of manly duty felt he couldn’t refuse. He fell from a height of around three storeys, shattering his patella, breaking his nose and incurring concussion.
“A whole year I spent lying in a 20-bed room of a typical Soviet hospital,” Slutsky said. “The others were in a much worse state – people with amputated legs, with fractures of the spine. For three months I just lay on my back. I couldn’t even turn over. I started walking after six or seven months. When I started to work on my leg, the pain was infernal. But when every day your leg bends a little more, you feel like the happiest person in the world. And when you realise that you are able to walk without crutches, to help other sick people to a toilet and back... And when you go from the hospital to the university with a cane to pass tests...”
His leg doesn’t bend fully even now. Nevertheless, he hoped to get back into football and even played at amateur level and in a regional championship. But later everybody who finished the football school with Leonid, went to Rotor Volgograd’s reserve team. Only Slutsky wasn’t taken there. That was when he realised that his dream of professional football was over.
“A few years later I thought that if I’d gone back to repeat that year in the hospital, it would be better to die than go through all that once more. When it’s all behind you, it seems that it was not so dangerous. But as soon as you imagine doing it again – no, no, no! No – I realise it was very important for my personal growth. But back then it was madly hard.”
Soon, at the age of 22, Slutsky began to train eight and nine year olds in the local academy, Olimpia. He gathered his first pupils by writing adverts himself and having his mother post them in the lobbies of the apartment blocks near his own.
Two years later he was at the Uefa Cup game between Rotor and Manchester United that finished 0-0. Slutsky couldn’t go to the second leg at Old Trafford and the game wasn’t even televised in Russia. Peter Schmeichel scored a last-minute equaliser to preserve United’s unbeaten home record in Europe, but a 2-2 draw took Rotor through.
Could he have imagined then, looking down from the stand at the Tsentralny Stadium that 14 years later he would draw 3-3 with Alex Ferguson? Or that two of the kids he brought through at Olimpia, Denis Kolodin and Roman Adamov, would be in the squad that Guus Hiddink led to the semi-finals of Euro 2008?
After becoming a professional and signing his first serious contract with Rostov, Adamov gave Slutsky $40,000 towards the cost of an apartment in Volgograd. Slutsky’s mother, who had regarded her son’s involvement with an ironic indulgence, was stunned by the gesture: it was more than half the price of a flat.
Many years later, when Slutsky’s CSKA finished ahead of a Zenit side including Hulk and Axel Witsel and an Anzhi team featuring Willian and Samuel Eto’o to clinch his first league title, he dedicated it to his mother at the post-game press conference. “I wasn’t ready for those words,” Lyudmila Nikolaevna Slutskaya told me. “I couldn’t even have suspected that they could be said. Words don’t always mean a lot but here they did. I cried quite strongly.”
She received dozens of phone calls asking if she’d heard what Leonid had said. When she recalled that, she said to me, voice trembling, “Tell your parents more that you love them. That you miss them, that you miss them. It’s nice. It’s necessary.”
The whole Slutsky family still lives together in a large six-bedroom apartment in north-west Moscow in a luxury complex on the banks of the river called the Scarlet Sails. After games, Leonid will sometimes stay up till 5am with his mother, talking. They are not just mother and son but best friends.
Her husband Viktor Borisovich, a Jew from Odessa, was a professional boxer, and later became a tsehovik – an “underground Soviet businessman”. He was 15 years older than Lyudmila and had a son and daughter from an earlier marriage. They emigrated to Germany, and Leonid met his stepbrother Dmitry only in 2010 in Munich. Slutsky’s 11-year-old son is also called Dmitry, but he named him without knowing he had a brother with the same name.
The Slutksy family had a decent life in Volgograd, living in a two-bedroom, 60m2 apartment in a new block built in the Brezhnev era. Compared to the reality for many in the Soviet era, it was luxury. “The apartment seemed perfect to me,” Lyudmila Nikoloaevna told me. “I thought: that’s it, here we’ll be all our life. Lyonia [a diminutive form of Leonid] will marry here, we’ll all live together… Meanwhile, we had to pay 120 roubles per month for it. It was a cooperative apartment – translating into today’s language, a 25-year mortgage. But Viktor could have afforded it, and we had a good life. We also had an elite Soviet car, a Volga with a deer on the bonnet… “
But the good life ended in March 1978. After suffering lung cancer for six months, Viktor died.
Lyonia was just six. His mother raised him alone and never remarried.
Now Slutsky’s 11-year-old son Dmitry, who studies at the Cambridge International School just outside Moscow, in Skolkovo, says that his dream is to invent a tablet which saves people from cancer and Aids. “A good dream,” Slutsky says. Dima doesn’t care about football and started to attend his father’s games only in autumn 2015 because his friends started to ask him for tickets to national team games.
Leonid barely remembers his father. He knows only from his mother that Viktor was a big fan of Chornomorets Odessa – where Igor Belanov, the Ballon d’Or winner of 1986, who was born in the city, once played. Odessa was known as the Soviet capital of jokes and it seems reasonable that Slutsky’s famous humour, his creativity and his talent for improvisation have their roots in the Free City, as Odessits like to call their home. It’s no coincidence that Slutsky is always a welcome guest on comedy programmes on Russian television.
“You could tell a player a serious thing through a joke, “says Slutsky. “You want to make him think about something but to put it in such a way that it won’t annoy him. For example, once we watched a Milan v Inter game with Pavel Mamaev during a training camp and bet $100. He was for Milan. As soon as Inter scored, I started to attack him, and did it harder and harder. I said that he was to blame for AC Milan’s loss because his behaviour didn’t deserve to win $100, and if he had put money on Inter, then they would have been doomed to failure.
“In that way, I got to the point I wanted to reach. Sometimes, especially when Pasha didn’t get into CSKA’s first XI, he would greet the coaching staff not with a handshake but with a barely perceptible nod of the head. If I’d started to discuss this subject seriously, the reaction could have been much more painful. But here I expressed my discontent through the joke, and after that his nods and handshakes became much more obvious.”
Three decades before, in 1978, the six-year-old Lyonia and his family had little to do with jokes. They had to find a way of living without their breadwinner.
“Viktor died on March 7,” Lyudmila Nikolaevna recalls. “I turned 30 on March 19, Lyonia turned seven on May 4. Could you imagine how we remained alone in the cooperative apartment which we had to pay for? It was very hard to survive, but we did it.
“Lyonia was small. He didn’t know and he didn’t have to know that my salary was 90 roubles a month, and we had to pay 120 for the mortgage. All the money we had saved was spent on Viktor’s treatment. Our new life started immediately. We sold the car and the garage. My mother lived with us, and we lived on her 30 roubles pension. My salary, as well as the benefit due to Lyonia for the loss of breadwinner, all went to mortgage payments.
“When Lyonia’s needs started to grow in sixth and seventh grade, I took extra work. I washed floors in an institution at night. I tried to make sure nobody knew about it because by day I was a head of kindergarten, and here I was a cleaning woman. I worked there for two years and earned 70 roubles per month. It was a big support. Lyonia said later, ‘Everybody said that our life was hard, but I don’t remember that we ever lacked anything.’ He didn’t know that I did extra work. I told him later.”
There’s no need to explain further why Slutsky dedicated his first title in Russia to his mother.
“I had a great childhood,” he said. “The Volga River was just 300m from home. Football, swimming, friends from our courtyard… I guess all kids in the USSR had a happy childhood at that time. We didn’t have a chance to think that there are rich and poor people: everybody was the same. We didn’t know that there are countries where people live better. When you opened the last page of the geography textbook, you read there that the USSR is in first place in all key spheres – say, oil output or steel production. You believed 100% in all that and there was no place for doubts that you lived in the best country in the world.”
I understand very well what Slutsky means. Soviet schools educated children not to doubt. Once at the age of nine I found myself in Red Square and when I saw the Lenin Mausoleum and the Kremlin Wall I saluted as a Soviet pioneer and started, to the horror of my dad, loudly to sing the Soviet anthem. People laughed and I refused to stop until I’d finished all the words.
It may look strange now but in Leonid’s case this style of upbringing gave him a kind of external happiness that he needed, being without a father.
Lyudmila was not just the head of a kindergarten. She had built it herself and made it the best in the city with a number of innovations. Its standard – every Volgograd parent wanted their child to attend it – showed a level of ambition that has passed from mother to son, as well as her pedagogical instincts.
She graduated from the faculty of Russian language and literature at Krasnodar University but never taught those subjects in a school. She spent all her linguistic and literature knowledge on her son, which is the main reason Slutsky speaks to the media so differently from most Russian football coaches. When you listen to his metaphors and comparisons, his quotations from films and books, that’s where it comes from. At least originally. Now he is a big theatre-lover and there’s not a good theatre in Moscow he hasn’t visited at least once.
Leonid was a perfect pupil, getting a gold medal after graduating high school (in the Soviet Union and Russia all pupils who get a 5, the highest grade, in every subject, received gold medals which enable easier access to colleges and universities) and then a red diploma (the same but at bachelor’s degree level). Later, already working as a manager in the Russian Premier League, he got a master’s degree.
Six years ago I asked him if he regards himself an ambitious person. At the time he hadn’t won a single trophy at senior level. “Yes, I’m very ambitious,” he replied. “At school, I cried if I got a 4. I wanted to be the best of the best. When I joined the Volgograd Institute of Physical Training, I was the second person in the history of the college who came to the football faculty with a gold medal. I couldn’t say that I wanted it so much. I just wanted to be perfect.”
“Being a professional educator, I never educated him,” Lyudmila Nikolaevna told me. “I never punished him, never beat him, never swore at him. He didn’t give me a single reason to do that. Every subject was pretty easy for Lyonia. He almost didn’t do homework, preferring to go into the backyard and play football. He just memorised almost everything in the school, during lessons.”
But it was a huge blow to his mother when Leonid opted to go into the football faculty of Physical Training Institute of Volgograd. She first sent Lyonia to study as a pianist in a musical school – he lasted two years, and his reluctance to continue was the first small sign of his character – and later saw her gifted son as a lawyer or a journalist.
Many years ago, when she and Viktor had just bought their apartment, it was very hard to get furniture for it: there was a shortage of everything for people in the USSR. So they had to get acquainted with the bosses of furniture stores to obtain it in ways that weren’t official. When the deals were done, they had to go to the back entrances of the stores to get the furniture and ask the loaders for help to take it home. She had found all these big men were graduates of the Physical Training Institute. This information had lodged in Slutsky’s mother’s memory. When she learned her son was going to study there she was horrified. “It was the end of the world,” she said. “I lay down for several days. It was a kind of heart attack.”
It was Leonid’s first truly independent decision. He dreamed about football, not about law, science or journalism, and even his mother’s tears couldn’t destroy the dream. A Soviet footballer was officially regarded as an amateur, although in reality he was a professional. But anyway a man in the USSR was obliged to work or study somewhere, otherwise he could have been arrested and imprisoned for parasitism. Slutsky was playing as a goalkeeper and studying at the same time. When he was a sophomore, he fell from that tree and spent his year in hospital. His career as a footballer was over. It was a good luck that he regained the ability to walk.
But it was a double piece of good luck that he didn’t surrender and learned so much about patience and hope that year. It would help him a lot in his coaching life.
With a powerful and rich president (for junior football) in Nikolay Chuvalsky and with Slutsky as head coach, Olimpia became the best junior team in Russia, winning the all-Russian Youth Football League twice. Winning a final against a Dinamo Moscow side led by the former Soviet champion Yury Kuznetsov was a huge achievement.
Slutsky still recalls that time as the happiest in his life, even happier than winning back-to-back titles with CSKA. As the boys became teenagers and their talent became more obvious, Slutsky persuaded Chuvalsky not to sell players to other clubs but to take the whole team to a professional level. They won the top amateur title with a team of 15-16 year olds and joined the Russian third division.
What followed was an extraordinary time in Slutsky’s life as he went from the joy of his side’s victories to being betrayed by his closest ally, from the nobility of Adamov and his gift to a burned out car and threats from gangsters, from the worshipping eyes of a couple of dozen youth players to a punch on a referee’s jaw, from living a dream to being trapped in a pit with seemingly no way out.
Every year all the former Olimpia lads gather in mid-December and spend several days together, whether they’re Adamov, who was top-scorer in the Russian league in 2007, or players who can barely get a game in the third division. Each of them call Lyudmila Nikolaevna “Mam” and they all call her three times a year – at New Year, on her birthday and on March 8, which is Women’s Day in Russia.
“My mam was far more stunned by Adamov’s money than I was,” said Slutsky. “I have always been
indifferent to the material side of things, concentrating on my work. But she was always feeding them, washing their clothes, and always saying, ‘When they grow up, they won’t say thank you!’
Roman’s gratitude shook her.
“I did many things at Olimpia not from a professional but from a personal point of view. Otherwise Kolodin and Adamov would have been sent away. Kolodin was growing up extremely slowly. Adamov was sick for a whole year. Today, in the professional life, I would have expelled them. What I did with them was an amateur act. But at the end of the day exactly those people who should have been expelled became the best-known footballers. I regard it as a payback for my personal attitude at the hardest period for both of them.”
Adamov, who was from Belaya Kalitva and lived at the Olimpia school, said, “Once I had very high temperature. So, Lyudmila Nikolaevna, who worked as a boss of a good kindergarten, took three days off and treated me all these days, put on mustard plasters… That was the way Slutsky’s family treated all of us. His mam is very, very kind.
“Regarding the money for the apartment… There is a personal gratitude. And an evaluation of the role of the person in your life, how much energy, anxiety and everything else he put in you. And his mam who nursed me…
“I learned years later that the Olimpia president wanted to get rid of me. He tried not to hurt our mentality. I know our president, and I can imagine how hard it was for him to save us. Expulsion could have been the biggest tragedy in life for me and it would have been very hard to get out of it. Especially at that age, and at that time, the nineties in Russia, when a young man could have gone different ways…”
Let me decode Adamov’s words. The nineties were the time of Big Crime in Russia as it became independent and turned from Communism to a wild capitalism. Because of the danger of his boys getting involved with criminal gangs, Slutsky implemented a tough regime. At 10pm everybody had to be in bed and the coach was extremely strict about that.
Adamaov admits that a lot of the players cursed Slutsky for his disciplinarian approach, but they now name him as the most important man in their lives. Adamov even became godfather to Slutsky’s son Dmitry. And at Adamov’s marriage last December, Slutsky sang a rap song he’d written himself. It was recorded by one of the guests and put on YouTube, quickly becoming a national sensation.
But only those who don’t know Slutsky could have been surprised by the rap.
Olimpia played their first professional season in the 3rd division in 2000. Very soon Slutsky was given a brutal lesson in management. It happened in Saransk, the same city where 15 years later his CSKA would win 6-4 after going in 3-0 down at half-time.
“It was not first time when our young team had been killed by referees,” Slutsky said. “But that day in Saransk all the worst things came together. First we conceded a goal from a kilometre offside. Then they scored from a penalty kick, and later the Referees Committee admitted there was nothing like a penalty, banning the referee for life. Our players started to push the ref near the touchline, just where I was standing. The ref showed a red card to a player who hadn’t even touched the opponent when the penalty was given. He stood with the card just a metre from me.
“I had always regarded football as the height of fairness. With that feeling I coached Olimpia for many years. So, that moment I had a feeling as if somebody was hitting my child cruelly – and I, as a father, didn’t choose a method of defence. I saw how these 17-18-year-old guys who didn’t understand what was going on, were looking at me, saying with their eyes: ‘Please defend us somehow!’ So, I hit him on the jaw with my right hand. I understand that it was awful. To hit a referee is not the most effective way to change the world.”
The eyebrow of the referee, Nikolay Pavlov from Cheboksary, bled severely (suggesting he missed the jaw). Nobody would have suspected that Slutsky never fought in his childhood – but he had the genes of a professional boxer.
He was suspended for half a year and he still thanks the well-known referee Alexei Spirin – who officiated at the World Cup in 1986 and at Euro 92 – who, as a representative of the referees committee, didn’t agree to the proposal to give Slutsky a life ban.
Actually he continued to work with Olimpia, sitting in the stands during games. But then came an unexpected blow. “At the end of the season Chuvalsky told me I was fired as a head coach,” Slutsky said. “He didn’t explain the reasons but I understood them. It happened because they’d made big profits from player sales and it was wrong not to pay me anything. At the end of the day I got nothing, despite the fact that they made US$1m from player sales and at that time it was very big money.
“I think, if he hadn’t fired me, I could still have been working there even now. Because I’m a very grateful and affectionate person. If somewhere was nice and comfortable for me, if people made something good for me – and Chuvalsky, to be fair to him, did that – I would be ready to work there for my whole life.
“Chuvalsky is a unique man. Today my relationship with him is very good, but there was a situation. We already played in the third division and he started to give apartments to the players. He called me and said: ‘I wanted to give you an apartment. But Lyudmila Nikolaevna called me…’
“We really communicated pretty closely. We spent all birthdays and other holidays together. Me and mam, him and his wife. So, according to his version, my mam told him: ‘Nikolay Nikolaevich, Lyonia is my only kid. If you give him an apartment, he’ll go away from me. And I can not live alone!’ That’s why I decided to show respect to her and won’t give you an apartment.
“I’m certain he invented this story from the beginning to the end. It was totally impossible for my mam, who worked all her life for that apartment, to refuse one. Moreover, she had always been sure that I was doing rubbish and that our mutual work would never pay any financial dividends, that we’d spend all our life in our apartment. So, to refuse that new apartment, she would have had to have been tortured by the most brutal fascists. And anyway they wouldn’t have a chance.
“Firing me, Chuvalsky gave a push to my career. I understand it now, but at the time it was awfully painful. It was a real tragedy for me. You could ask my mam.”
Chuvalsky, disagrees with Slutsky’s explanation of his dismissal but nevertheless admits, “Say, for Adamov I should have paid Leonid Viktorovich about $10,000. But there was one thought – to save our football club. We had got a loan and if we didn’t pay for it, the club would have been bankrupt. It was necessary to ease the pressure.”
Slutsky was replaced with his assistant and previously his best friend, Sergey Popkov, who is the only person now with whom Slutsky, his mother says, wouldn’t shake hands. Lyudmila Nikolaevna, Adamov and some more people from Leonid’s close circle refuse even to say his name. Leonid speaks his name readily, and now there is a feeling that he personally could be ready to talk to him.
I would be not surprised after learning the most shocking story, the story about Slutsky and Chuvalsky.
After being fired Slutsky went to the middle of nowhere – the village of Poltavskaya in Krasnodar region. This small page of the Russia manager’s career is almost completely unknown. He brought there a group of his Olimpia players who remained without professional contracts.
Viktor Gorlov, the president of the Youth Football League, who was and is friends both with Slutsky and Chuvalsky and so can be regarded as an objective witness, is on Slutsky’s side. “In the hardest situation Lyonia didn’t abandon the kids whom Olimpia didn’t need,” he said. “He returned some of them into football and some of them even into the second division. He couldn’t get anyone who had a contract at Olimpia. At the time he had some old foreign car and it was burned in some strange circumstances. It was that kind of time.”
As soon as I started to look into what those “strange circumstances” might be, some interesting details appeared. Slutsky and his relatives and friends came to the conclusion that it was done by Chuvalsky, who was deputy speaker of the Volgograd parliament at the time. It appeared impossible to prove, although Lyudmila Nikolaevna made a claim to the prosecutor’s office.
Lyudmila Slutskaya told me, “It was a small old BMW. That time I went to the driver’s school, thinking: ‘Soon I’ll learn and will drive this car, while Leonid will buy something else. Finally he bought a Zhiguli model six.
“Everything started from the moment when Lyonia brought some of the unwanted players of Olimpia to Poltavskaya. How did he dare, who was he? Not only the car was burned. Also there were bandits, threats… It was a knife into the back.
“But somehow we sorted it out. More precisely, I did. I went directly to that man and said, ‘I know, this is you. Don’t say no. I know everything. If anything else happens, I have nothing to lose in my life.’ There was nothing more. Everything finished.
“We went to the milicia, to the prosecutors. But it was useless. I was told, ‘We know everything but can’t do anything.’ But we overcame it.”
Slutsky himself mentions an important detail, after which the heroism of his mother becomes even more vivid. Obviously years heal wounds – he almost laughs when I speak about the burned car. “Yes, it happened. My mam was the person who resolved the problem. She came to Chuvalsky and threw the keys of our apartment to his table. And she said: ‘Why would you burn a car? Here are the keys, you can get in and take everything you want.’ And I’d like to point out: I took those footballers whom Olimpia didn’t need. But Nikolay Nikolaevich decided that all of them were his property and even those who were without contracts should live and die there. But I felt for them and their futures too much to abandon them.
“Chuvalsky looked at it as though I stole them. Naturally, nobody else did. Contracts at Olimpia at that time were signed for one year. They expired and nobody planned to extend them, and I took them away absolutely legally. But, as he saw it, I deprived him of some potential income and he decided to punish me. My mam went to the prosecutor’s office, tried to do something. I was already in Poltavskaya at the time and didn’t get into the process deeply. Now I regard it very calmly. Meanwhile, did you ask Nikolay Nikolaevich a question about the car?”
Of course, I did. And here was the reply: “It’s lunacy, I promise you!” Chuvalsky exclaimed. “We looked for a year and a half who could have done that. Of course, there were accusations that it was done by us. But it was a coincidence. We had a conflict with Leonid exactly at that time. At the time I was the deputy chairman of Volgograd city council. Where was he and where was I? I think it was just a matter that some freak came to a street and did it. Many cars were burned then.”
But the most amazing thing is that Slutsky and Chuvalsky started to communicate again. I asked Leonid how it was possible. The reply says a lot about his personality. “I couldn’t believe it myself,” he said. “Maybe my brain is built such a way that I try to remember only good things. Today Chuvalsky for me is the man who gave me my first job. The man who was a founder of Olimpia, and without whom it would have been absolutely impossible to do anything there. The man who helped me to live the best years of my life.”
Slutsky’s mother seems fairly critical of her son’s communication with Chuvalsky. “Nikolay Nikolaevich is the kind of man who never regards himself as being in the wrong,” she said. “He just doesn’t think that he did something bad to you. So it wasn’t any problem for him to make a call. And Leonid is not resentful. He won’t say, ‘That’s it, I don’t speak to this person any more.’ I would play this role better. Lyonia can forgive people. I don’t. He calls, you answer. He asks for tickets for the games, you give them. Once he invited Lyonia to his holiday camp to rest. At the end of the day 15 years passed since those events. But from my side it will be never such a relationship as it was before.”
Olimpia still exists but is just an average football school in Volgograd and doesn’t play at a professional level any more. Chuvalsky himself admits that he hasn’t had such a passion for football since Slutsky’s times. He hasn’t visited a single youth football game since.
More generally, there is no serious football in Volgograd now. At the time of Slutsky’s success at Olimpia, the main team of the region, Rotor, was a consistent contender for the Russian title and knocked Manchester United out of the Uefa Cup. Now Rotor have lost their professional status and no one has replaced them. The same is true of junior football.
“I have a dream to organise a serious football school in Volgograd,” Slutsky says. “But, naturally, there is absolutely no time or opportunity to convert this dream into reality. So far these thoughts have the format: ‘It could be great to…’ Nothing deeper. I assume that at some point I will decide to work on this idea more seriously.”
Many years passed. Slutsky went step by step. Taking over the completely new Uralan Elista B team (which appeared only because the A team was promoted to the top division), he achieved fourth and second places in the Premier League reserve league. Then there was the FK Moscow B team – and the champions title in the same tournament. Yury Belous, the extravagant and risk-taking general manager of FK Moscow, unexpectedly replaced the experienced manager Valery Petrakov with Slutsky in the summer of 2005. Since then Slutsky has been working as a manager in the Russian Premier League.
He set a record for the defunct FK Moscow with fourth place and the Russian Cup final in 2007, before being suddenly fired by Belous as soon as the season was over. He spent two seasons with Krylia Sovetov from Samara and finally, in October 2009, the 38 year old was appointed by CSKA. He has worked there since and is the third-longest serving top-flight manager in Europe.
Slutsky won the Russian title in 2013, 2014 and 2016, despite CSKA being far from the wealthiest side, and has also won two Russian Cups and two Super Cups. Plus, there was that Champions League quarter-final in 2009-10. After the 3-3 draw at Old Trafford, Slutsky’s side beat Wolfsburg and Beşiktaş to get out of the group and then saw off Sevilla in the last 16 to set up a quarter-final against Internazionale.
He was welcomed to Milan in a characteristically José Mourinho way. “We arrived in Milan two days before the game,” Slutsky recalled. “According to the rules we could train on the pitch of the San Siro (to my amazement, the visitors’ dressing-room there appeared worse than at any stadium in the Russian Premier League) only on the last day before the game and we looked for a long time for a place to work the day before. Although Milan is a big and a football city, there was a big problem with pitches there. In the end, Inter agreed to give us one of the pitches at their country training base.
“After a difficult flight we drove there for 50 minutes. The team started to whine: ‘Why are we going to the middle of nowhere? Was there really not a pitch closer?’ So, they got to the training session with this negative mood. At that moment a representative of Inter came towards us with three bottles of wine signed ‘Mourinho’. He approached us with the words: ‘It’s a present from José’ and gave the package to me in front of all these displeased players.
“And it started: ‘OK, now it’s clear why we travelled so long to get here – the manager wanted his present from Mourinho!’ Immediately everything switched around and the training was great. But the present was a surprise for me: in my communications with him, I wouldn’t have said he was an open person.”
Once I participated in a conversation between Slutsky and Mourinho. It happened at the same training ground outside Milan. Slutsky was not at CSKA but at Krylia Sovetov, the provincial team from Samara. The two clubs signed a contract of cooperation and Slutsky along with the club management arrived in Milan. I covered it along with my TV colleague and we spoke with Mourinho for about 20 minutes. Slutsky joined in the conversation.
At that time, Slutsky was nicknamed “the Russian Mourinho”, a tag invented by Yury Belous, although in terms of personality Slutsky is much more like Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti. The reason for the nickname was that Slutsky had never played at professional level. Reacting to that, Mourinho said, “Since you haven’t played, you had more time to study! Players who played at the top level don’t have time and sometimes don’t have enough brain for that.”
Mourinho also said, “I hope he’ll have a fantastic career.” I don’t know if he was sincere, but his blessing has worked, at least in terms of Russian football. In the same conversation, Mourinho told us he dreamed of going back to Chelsea.
The first meeting between Mourinho and Slutsky was engineered by Belous at a time when many managers and pundits were sceptical of Slutsky because of his lack of a playing career. “In 2005,” Belous explained, “I was in Madrid at some negotiations and Jorge Mendes suddenly said, ‘Do you want to meet Mourinho?’ And José was in the middle of his glory, being very close to the first league title for Chelsea in 50 years.
“I recalled that in the upcoming November Roman Abramovich was arranging a trip for all Russian managers to introduce them to Mourinho. And I thought that Leonid Viktorovich, whom I just had appointed, at that time was the odd one out, but it would be very important for his self-image. Mourinho was his idol. He also had no playing past, but went all the way and worked with Abramovich at Chelsea. ‘OK,’ I told Mendes. ‘But I’ll come with the manager.’
“Then I called the club [FK Moscow] and said, ‘Send Slutsky to London in three days.’ For him it was something extraordinary! He had just become a manager and because of me, when he beat Spartak in his first game, the phrase, ‘Here is our Mourinho!’ was spoken on every corner. I created it right as I was being interviewed and it worked 100%!
“So, we arrived in London, were introduced to José, then drank coffee and talked for about 40 minutes. Leonid Viktorovich asked questions, Mourinho replied. Then we took some photos and he presented us with shorts on which was written ‘Mourinho, No 1’.
“In November the group of Russian managers visited London, and the outcome was very important for me. Vladimir Shevchuk [a former assistant of Valery Gazzaev at CSKA and manager of Saturn] said, ‘What was that? We came to London, stood in a line, Mourinho appeared in a bathrobe and slippers. He saw Lyonia and threw himself on his neck: “Leo!” And that’s it. All other communication was with an assistant coach. What the fuck? We went to London to stand in a line and see Mourinho throwing himself on the neck of Lyonia Slutsky?’
“Of course, I was very happy. That was exactly the result I was looking for. But, surely, the group of coaches didn’t look at him differently because of that. They found out how interesting it is to talk to Slutsky about football. If we take away the swagger of those coaches or ex-footballers who literally don’t know about the coaching profession and simply envy Slutsky, then Leonid is respected now by almost everybody, including the old masters.”
Nevertheless, Belous sacked Slutsky, explaining that it was not his decision but that of the FK Moscow owner, the billionaire, current owner of New Jersey Nets in the NBA and former candidate in Russian presidential elections, Mikhail Prokhorov. As Belous told me, Prokhorov said, “‘We’ll fire Slutsky. He doesn’t have balls and I want a manager with balls.’ [Oleh] Blokhin [who replaced Slutsky without any success] had a head full of balls. But it was very hard for footballers to see and work every day with this kind of man. Especially in contrast with the intelligence of Slutsky. It was obviously a mistake.”
That dismissal also appeared to benefit Slutsky. Within two years he had started working for CSKA and FK Moscow collapsed.
Last year Slutsky said that one day he wants to work abroad, perhaps not even not at the top level but in the Championship. Many people say that one day Chelsea could become an option because the manager has had close relations with Roman Abramovich for a number of years. I asked Slutsky if it’s true. “Yes,” he replied. “German Tkachenko [a Russian football manager and Abramovich’s friend] introduced us, and then it went its own way. I couldn’t say that lately we are communicating often. But if necessary, I can call him, or vice versa. We have a good relationship, but it would be exaggeration that to say that it’s friendship.” When I asked if it’s true that Abramovich has been taking his advice about players, Slutsky answered, “If Chelsea are interested in a player whose path we’ve crossed somehow – for example, CSKA played against him in the Champions League – then yes.”
Tkachenko gave me more details. “It’s not a rumour that Chelsea wanted Slutsky,” he said. “It was several years ago, when the London side planned to sign a contract with Guus Hiddink as a full-time, not an interim manager. Chelsea wanted Slutsky to be an assistant to Guus, to get used to England and its football, to improve his language skills.
“I remember how we sat once with Leo and Roman, and all three complained about our problems – at Chelsea, CSKA and Anzhi [Tkachenko was a member of board and put together its glittering squad in the days when Hiddink was the manager and Roberto Carlos and Eto’o played for them]. It was in the winter of 2012. It was a very deep talk. Roman Arkadievich thinks very positively about Slutsky. Sometimes he has called him, taken advice about some players. Abramovich is a phenomenal person; it’s interesting to talk to him about everything. And he judged the extent of Leo’s personality.
“I consider Slutsky as a world-class manager. Knowing that, I’ve introduced him to some strong people in the football world, including Roman. To prove his level, Leo just has to overcome the language barrier because in his style a lot depends on communication, on explanations. He is a very detailed person, very systematic – but he has to deliver these details and his system. And the language becomes the key point.”
Evgeny Giner, the CSKA president, is sure language is not a problem. “Can Slutsky learn the language?” he asked. “I’m sure, yes. He graduated from high school with a gold medal, he graduated from the institute with a red diploma. It means he is a person who is easily taught and has the will to study.
“If there is a need, in Holland and Switzerland there are courses of deep immersion. In ten days to two weeks people already give interviews in a language. So why not?
“Regarding perspective of Leonid Viktorovich to work with European top clubs overall, I have a philosophy: ‘Never say never.’ It’s normal that they have met and have communicated with Roman Arkadievich. We never discussed Slutsky with Abramovich. Slutsky is a strong manager. But if he could work in one of the top clubs of the continent, it depends only on him. Not all people who move overseas adapt to that life. Only time can be the judge.”
Slutsky could have gone from CSKA in 2012, after they finished third and failed to qualify for the Champions League. He even wrote to Evgeny Giner outlining his desire to leave the team, but the patient Giner didn’t accept it and persuaded the manager to stay. Slutsky was so impressed with his reaction that he said later, “After what I heard there, it would have been a betrayal not to stay.” In the following two seasons CSKA were Russian champions and in 2013 even did the treble, winning the Russian league, the Cup and the Super Cup.
Several months after he reached the Champions League quarter-final I asked Slutsky at what moment he’d felt he was ready to work with a top club in Russia. His answer was, “I don’t have that feeling yet.”
Not even after the Champions League quarter-final?
“Not even after that. I’ve never had high self-esteem. I guess I always regarded myself rather critically. Nevertheless, the first Champions League game gave me the feeling of unbelievable inner comfort. It’s a great happiness for a coach. It turns out I’m in the profession not without reason.”
The future proved it was not without reason. Slutsky still sways on the bench like a pendulum, as he did before he had won any trophies. But now he is the greatest authority among Russian coaches by far. And all respected coaches of the older generation, men like Oleg Romantsev, Valery Gazzaev and Yury Semin support him.
I asked him in 2010 if he had any desire to be Russia national manager. “Certainly,” he answered. “I think that the highest level in our profession is to coach your national team. But, first of all, I feel so comfortable now that I want the current situation [being the manager of CSKA] to last as long as possible. Secondly, I’m far from the level as a coach that would allow me to manage the national team.”
What do you have to achieve to consider yourself ready for this job?
“Titles. In youth football, in reserve teams, I had a lot of titles. But I want to get them at the level of the Russian Premier League and international tournaments. But if winning these titles mean hard relations with players… then, possibly, I wouldn’t make a choice in favour of titles. This relationship is the biggest factor for me. Maybe it will make me a man without titles, but I hope that’s not the case. My work at CSKA will provide answers because at FK Moscow and Krylia Sovetov it was very hard to win titles.”
His work at CSKA offered a clear picture of Slutsky’s abilities. Slutsky kept to his philosophy. He is still a players’ favourite, as the Swedish midfielder Pontus Wernbloom recently pointed out in an interview with ifa.com. And he has won enough titles to be regarded as the number one manager in Russia.
Finally he got what he dreamed of: the position of Russia national team manager. After his first game in charge of Russia, the decisive 1-0 win against Sweden, he equated his feelings during it with his first game in charge of CSKA, against Manchester United.
Relations between Capello and Slutsky have been very good, and even Leonid described the huge gulf between their salaries as “right and honest”. They have met and had long dinners several times, speaking in detail about the profession.
Slutsky still wants to learn. He enjoys reading about football. Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography is one of his favourite books: he often quotes from it in interviews and at press conferences. If I mention that sometimes Leonid even reads poems at press conferences, quoting Ferguson shouldn’t come as a surprise at all.
Slutsky also has very good relations with Avram Grant and some other foreign managers. After speaking for a long time to Slutsky in 2010, when he didn’t have a single senior trophy, Grant told me, “This guy will become one of the greatest Russian coaches ever. He knows and understands a lot about football.”
But after Euro 2016 Slutsky, CSKA and the Russian Football Union will have to decide. In our December interview the manager dismissed the possibility that he’ll continue doing both jobs at the same time. The RFU president Vitaly Mutko also said that the national team will have its own manager after the Euros. But in Russia sometimes things change quickly.
The Russian football media wants him to remain national manager more than anything else. After the nightmare of Capello with his strict rules, now there’s a smell of freedom. And what Slutsky did himself after the qualification game in Moldova was far beyond what he needed to do. The game finished at 11.35pm local time. It was a tense 2-1 win and the press conference happened at around midnight. After it finished, four other journalists and I approached Slutsky with a request for a 10-15 minute interview in the team hotel one hour later. He agreed. With writing our pieces and having to travel 30 minutes to the hotel, we were late, arriving at about 1.20am. But he was still available for the conversation, explaining all the details of the game and his decisions, despite looking extremely tired.
It’s one of many, many reasons why the open and sincere Slutsky is going to be highly supported by Russian media and public during Euro 2016. At the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil Capello did everything possible and even more to be murdered by the media, which happened as soon as the team didn’t get out of the one of the weakest groups. The squad is still average and doesn’t offer Slutsky much of an opportunity. If Russia aren’t embarrassed in France, that should be enough for Slutsky to carry on until the 2018 World Cup. Nobody deserves to guide the national team to the most important football tournament in Russian history more than the former youth coach from Volgograd.
All the quotes in this story are taken from Igor Rabiner’s new book Leonid Slutsky: the Coach from Next Door, which was published in Russia by EKSMO in May 2016.