Leader Of The Flock
Igor Netto was a difficult man but his toughness was vital in shaping Spartak Moscow
As the Soviet Union’s football team prepared to take part in their first Olympic tournament in Helsinki in the summer of 1952, Igor Netto faced a terrible dilemma. The 22-year-old Spartak Moscow midfielder was the rising star, arguably the brightest talent emerging in the country since the end of World War II, but he lived in constant fear.
His elder brother Lev was serving time in one of the most heavily guarded labour camps in Siberia, accused of espionage. He was a so-called vrag naroda, "enemy of the people" – a very widely used term in the years of Stalin regime under which millions of innocent people were arrested, convicted, tortured and murdered. Being a close relative of such an "enemy" was extremely dangerous. Netto was worried that his career could be over before it had really started.
Lev Netto was not guilty of anything, of course. Born in 1925 and named after Lev Trotsky whom his mother worshipped, he was sent to fight against Nazi Germany upon turning 18. He was very nearly killed on numerous occasions and lost almost all of his friends, but luck was on his side. He was captured by the Germans on the Baltic front, and the parents received a letter from authorities to say that he had disappeared. Eventually, US forces rescued him. He could have gone to the US or stayed in Austria, where he had fallen in love with a local woman, but he chose to return home because he couldn’t imagine life without his family. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake.
The Soviet government was extremely suspicious of soldiers who fell into captivity during the war. They were generally instructed to commit suicide rather than allow the Germans to take them alive and those who didn't follow the rules were considered traitors. Lev Netto was immediately suspect and in 1948 an anonymous message was sent to the Ministry of State Security claiming that he was an American spy. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and sent to the Norilsk labour camp, where the temperatures fall below minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter.
Igor was 18 when that happened. The brothers were close growing up together before the war and Lev – who dreamed of becoming a mathematician – took his younger sibling to play football for the first time, having observed his his love for sport. But their fates couldn't have been more different. Netto was an outstanding footballer with very high aspirations. His brother's misfortune could have spelt disaster for him as well and so he didn't mention Lev to anyone.
Igor and his father Aleksandr decided to cut ties with Lev. They didn't send a single letter to his camp, even though he was allowed to receive them. At this remove, it’s impossible to judge them; they felt that their very lives were in danger.
Aleksandr Netto had been very lucky to avoid being arrested back in the thirties, when Stalin decided that the Latvian Riflemen, to whom he belonged during the World War I, were "enemies of the people". An ethnic Estonian, of Italian origin as his name would suggest, he joined the Imperial Russian Army to fight the Germans and later guarded Vladimir Lenin after the October Revolution, but that didn't count in his favour during the “cleansings". Now, as his elder son was named a traitor, he was fearful once again. He didn't want to lose his job. He lost it anyway.
With such a background, it is easy to understand why Igor became very reserved and secretive as a child. He had few friends and rarely shared his feelings with anyone. From a young age, he knew that concealing the truth was the only way to survive in his country. That became much clearer during the war and even more so when Lev was arrested. He chose not to talk about his family at all. As his Spartak teammate Nikita Simonyan later revealed, "We didn't even know Netto had a brother."
And so, when filling out countless documents ahead of his first ever trip abroad, to Finland for the 1952 Olympics, Netto solved his unbearable dilemma in the only way he could think of. "My brother disappeared during the war,” he wrote. “I don't know anything about his fate.”
The government knew everything, of course. They could easily have sent the younger Netto to Siberia as well, but they didn't want to. He was such a supreme talent that their hopes of winning medals in Helsinki largely depended on him. In addition, the minister responsible for issuing passports, Nikolay Dymkov, was a fervent Spartak fan, who admired Netto's skills. The road to superstardom was wide open.
Netto is remembered as one of the biggest ever Spartak legends, but few Red-and-White fans know that he supported Dinamo Moscow in his childhood. He even tried to play for the Dinamo youth team, but they rejected him. Igor joined Spartak instead.
That was his destiny, but not necessarily in football. Netto possessed a remarkable talent in ice hockey as well and didn't know which path to choose for quite a while. His first season on ice ended with 29 assists in 22 games and the coach Aleksandr Igumnov rated him very highly. For the football coach, Abram Dangulov, it was simply unbearable. He attended a lot of hockey games in the winter and watched his favourite protégé get tackled over and over again.
Finally, after an extremely physical fixture, Dangulov begged Igumnov, "Please let Igor go. Don't ruin him. He is an amazing talent. If he is injured while playing hockey, a potentially great football career could be over." And so Netto only played football thereafter and he never regretted his choice.
By the age of 18, he was already in Spartak's first team. Two years later, Netto was given the number 6 shirt which became emblematic throughout his career. His leadership qualities were evident and at just 22 he was chosen as the team captain in a secret vote ahead of the 1952 season. Spartak won their first post-war championship title that year, in extraordinary circumstances.
CDKA Moscow, the predecessors of CSKA, were by far the strongest team in the country, easily finishing top of the league in 1951. The national team for the 1952 Olympics was built around it, with Netto the only Spartak representative in the starting line-up. The Soviet Union were drawn against Yugoslavia in the first round, a game of great political significance given the difficult relations between Stalin and Tito.
The game was dramatic in the extreme. The mightily talented Yugoslavia side, which included three stars destined to become top coaches in Vujadin Boškov, Zlatko Čajkovski and Branko Zebec, led 3-0 at half-time and 5-1 after 74 minutes. The Soviets staged a great comeback, as the brilliant Vsevolod Bobrov completed a hat-trick. The thriller ended in a 5-5 draw and was replayed two days later. Bobrov scored the opener, but Yugoslavia overran their opponents to win 3-1 and the Soviet government was absolutely furious.
Stalin ordered CDKA to be dissolved as a punishment for the poor performance, leaving the league wide open. Netto's team gladly took the opportunity to establish themselves as the leading force. They retained their crown in 1953 and he was named the national team captain, and as such led the team in one of the most important friendly games ever played.
In the summer of 1955, ten years after the end of the war, the Soviet football federation invited West Germany to play in Moscow. Naturally, it was a game they simply had to win. The wounds were still open and the Germans were widely considered cruel enemies by the Soviet people. The fact that they had joined Nato on May 9 that year, whereas the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact on May 14, made the political aspects of the match even more crucial.
It was probably the least friendly friendly in football history, even though the Germans were greeted with flowers on the pitch. They were the world champions and one of the best teams in the world, but they absolutely had to be beaten. 70,000 spectators attended the game, even though the Dinamo stadium only could officially hold 54,000. About 300 journalists from all over the world came to watch it.
Netto was the most important player that day. He had to mark the famous West Germany captain Fritz Walter and develop his team's attacks at the same time. The Soviets were much better in the opening stages and took the lead, but then Walter escaped Netto and equalised. With 52 minutes on the clock, the left-winger Hans Schäfer embarrassed an out-of-position Lev Yashin and made it 2-1. Disaster loomed. It was time for the captain to lead the way.
All the Soviet attacks went through Netto in the second half and eventually he was rewarded. A delicate one-two with his Spartak teammate Anatoly Maslyonkin allowed the latter to make it 2-2, and minutes later another Spartak star Anatoly Ilyin netted the winner. The captain was a national hero and the government rewarded him with a flat in one of the most prestigious buildings in Moscow.
Netto scored a career-high six goals for Spartak in 1955, but they missed out on the title to Dinamo by a single point, which was a major disappointment. The Red-and-Whites were crowned again in 1956, in what was a very eventful year for Igor.
The Soviet people mostly remembered it for winning Olympic gold in Melbourne in December under the legendary coach Gavriil Kachalin. After the fiasco four years earlier, it was the most important international tournament the USSR had been involved in to that point and Netto promised to make every effort to bring the title home. He succeeded, as the Soviets overcame the very same Yugoslavia in the final, Ilyin scoring the winner. And yet, as his teammates celebrated, Netto was reluctant to join them.
Simonyan recalled that he once found Netto staring into the distance, with deep sadness in his eyes. He didn't understand why and only after the team returned to Moscow did it become known that Igor's father had died. The captain received the tragic news while in Australia, but didn't tell anyone and chose to keep his feelings to himself. It took the team 20 days to get from Melbourne to Vladivostok by ship, and then more than a week by train from the Far East to the Russian capital. Netto quietly grieved for the entire period. That long trip highlighted his unique personality better than anything else.
1956 was hugely significant for the Netto family in more ways than one, because Lev was released from the labour camp. He survived the prisoners' uprising in 1953, when more than 200 people were murdered, and returned to the city where his brother was idolised. That wasn't, initially, a very happy reunion, though, because Igor blamed Lev for his father's illness and eventual death. It took the siblings quite a while to reestablish close relations, but even then Igor remained reserved. "He never asked me about the war or about my life in prison. Never," Lev said.
Netto tended to be quiet off the pitch, but very vocal on it. In fact, some might say that he was far too vocal. The captain considered himself much more talented than everybody else, and often used the derogatory word baran, literally translated as "male sheep", to describe everyone around him. All his teammates got used to being called barany for the slightest error. The captain mercilessly criticised them with his hissing voice. Add his long neck and a rather awkward style of running and it is very easy to understand why he was nicknamed "The Goose" in the early part of his career. Netto himself hated the term, but for once was unable to do anything about it.
The captain demanded total dedication and the utmost effort from his teammates, criticising them for every miss and every poor pass. "Netto didn't tolerate it when someone didn't give 100%," Simonyan said. He also couldn't stand it when anybody dared to enter his part of the field. Netto played on the left side of midfield and didn't let the right-sided Anatoly Maslyonkin to drift to his territory. Ahead of one game, he even drew a line and told his partner, "Don't cross it. Stay over there".
Not only the players were harshly treated by Netto. Nikolay Gulyaev, who was appointed Spartak coach in 1955, got no respect from his captain, who ignored his instructions. On various occasions, Gulyaev would explain his game plan before going onto the pitch, only for Netto to intervene immediately afterwards. "And now listen to what I have to say," he would say and change everything.
While criticising others was his way of life, Netto wasn't prepared to accept the same treatment. "Igor couldn't stand criticism," Simonyan said, and that was one of the reasons behind his constant rows with the coach.
Netto only played a short passing game, refusing to hit long balls and demanding the same from his partners. As Valery Reingold recalled, "He always told us to keep the passing simple. When someone made a long pass of 30 or 40 metres, Netto would immediately yell at him. He did so even if the attack produced a goal, claiming that it was purely accidental."
Gulyaev had different views on the game and tried to persuade Netto to play long balls every now and then. The captain disagreed, claiming that it was "village football". On a certain occasion, the team manager Nikolay Starostin, the man who established Spartak and ran it almost single-handedly, attempted to restrain Netto and explain that the coach was actually right. He was immediately accused by the midfielder of "not understanding the game properly". Even Starostin was not considered an authority by Netto. Any other player would have been severely punished, but not him, because everyone understood his importance. "Netto is responsible for our style of play. He invented it," Starostin used to say.
The famous Lokomotiv Moscow and Soviet Union striker Valentin Bubukin once remarked, "I think that Netto didn't want to play long passes because he was afraid to make a mistake." That was also the reason why Netto rarely tried to shoot on goal. His scoring record was way below average for such a phenomenal player. He was a perfectionist and stuck to what he knew best. As far as patient building of play, dribbling in close spaces and reading every move way ahead of opponents were concerned, he was indeed close to perfection. Fans adored him. For many, he was the embodiment of football.
That is why Netto was so crucial for the national team’s hopes ahead of the first ever appearance at the World Cup in 1958. He was even more important because the brilliant young striker Eduard Streltsov was accused of rape and controversially jailed shortly before the tournament. The Torpedo Moscow star could have, according to those who were lucky to watch him play, become one of the best players in the history of the game, but it wasn't to be. Netto remained the leader and the linchpin of the national team. Sadly, he was injured ahead of the trip and arrived in Sweden unfit.
The captain missed the first two fixtures at the World Cup, as the Soviets drew with England and easily won against Austria. The last game at the group stages, though, was against the magicians of Brazil and the assistant coach Mikhail Yakushin decided that it would be impossible to do anything against such illustrious opponents without Netto.
"I thought that we needed to play in a 4-2-4 formation, just like Brazil,” Yakushin later recalled. “The most important mission was to stop Didi. All the play went through him, but he was not very fast and we had to take advantage of that. Only Netto was able to mark Didi. He was supposed to stay close to him when Brazil had the ball, but sprint away when we had the ball. Every player was instructed to immediately pass to Netto, who was our main playmaker. We had no doubt that Netto was able to contain Didi defensively on one hand, but the Brazilians couldn't stop Netto on the other hand."
But was he fit enough? Nobody but the player himself could answer that question. Yakushin and the chief coach Kachalin invited their captain for a chat and Netto decisively claimed, "I am ready to play and take on the mission." Three minutes into the game, Didi played a magnificent through ball to Vava and Brazil were in front. Yakushin's plan failed, while Garrincha took the Soviet defence apart. The South Americans won 2-0 and Netto's only game at the tournament ended in a huge disappointment.
"If only I had been healthy," the captain later said. "I didn't have a moral right to play that day." Even 30 years later, the issue was debated in the Soviet Union. "We believed Netto because we wanted to believe him,” Yakushin said. “Unfortunately, he wasn't ready for a game of such level. It was wrong to make such a gamble."
The Soviets managed to defeat England in a play-off, having finished level on points with them, but succumbed to Sweden in the quarter-finals. Netto watched all that helplessly from the stands. His time would come two years later when he became the first captain to lift the European Championship trophy.
In fact, the Soviets made history shortly after the World Cup. Their qualifying fixture against Hungary in Moscow on 28 September 1958 was the first ever of the European Championship, and they won 3-1. Ilyin scored the first goal of the tournament, but Netto – still not fit enough – didn't take part in that game. He was back with the armband for the return leg, which took place a whole year later in Budapest, resulting in another win for the USSR.
The next hurdle might have been tricky, but Spain refused on political grounds to travel to Moscow for the quarter-finals first leg that was scheduled for May 1960. The fact that the Soviets had shot down an American spy plane on May 1 was used as a partial excuse, but some Soviet historians suggest that Franco was just afraid of losing, after Spanish scouts were impressed by a 7-1 thrashing of Poland.
Whatever the circumstances, the Soviets went through to the last four, which took place in France. Kachalin, who had left the manager’s position following the World Cup fiasco, came back, and – irritatingly for Netto – Gulyaev was named as his assistant. There might have been tension in the dressing-room but results were outstanding.
The Soviets faced Czechoslovakia in the semi-final at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille in what was a close fought affair for at least an hour, even if the final scoreline of 3-0 suggests otherwise. Netto outplayed the magnificent Josef Masopust in midfield that day and his contribution was even more significant in the final against Yugoslavia at Parc des Princes on July 10.
Remembering the outcome against the same opponents at the 1952 Olympics, Netto knew that he had to win this time. The Yugoslavs had a superb front line, as everyone had seen in their 5-4 win over the hosts in the semi-final. Kachalin instructed Netto to play much deeper than usual, and even asked him to keep an eye on the left winger Bora Kostić, since the Georgian right-back Givi Chokheli was inexperienced at that level. Therefore, the captain had to cover even more ground, but he was up to the task, especially in the second half.
Yugoslavia were the better side in the first half in pouring rain and deservedly took the lead through Milan Galić. During the break, Lev Yashin insisted that the team needed to step up to avoid disaster, and Netto led the comeback alongside the the Dynamo Kyiv midfield maestro Yuriy Voynov. Most of the Soviet attacks went through them. Slava Metreveli equalised on 49 minutes. The game went into extra time and Viktor Ponedelnik scored the winner after 113 minutes.
Upon returning home, the winners were greeted by 100,000 jubilant fans at the Luzhniki stadium, but overall the achievement was considered less important than the Olympic gold in 1956. It was the first edition of the tournament, major forces like England, West Germany and Italy had refused to take part and its significance was only fully understood in retrospect. When Czechoslovakia beat Yugoslavia in the 1962 World Cup semi-final, it became evident how strong they were and prevailing over them two years previously suddenly looked a more laudable feat.
The World Cup in Chile turned out to be the last tournament in Netto's career. Unlike in 1958, he was fully fit and played in all four games, writing his name in history thanks to an extremely unusual incident. It all started with a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia and a 4-4 draw with Colombia, during which the Soviets took a hugely promising 3-0 lead after just 11 minutes but then "fell asleep", according to Netto. "I didn't shout at my teammates hard enough," the captain later said, blaming himself. That was far from disastrous, though, as the team only needed a draw against Uruguay in the final group game to progress and that's when Netto truly made his mark.
With the scores at 1-1, Igor Chislenko scored what looked to be a legitimate goal, and the Italian referee Cesare Jonni awarded it after consulting with the German linesman Albert Dusch. However, the Soviets knew that it was a mistake – the ball went in through a hole in the net. Netto asked Chislenko whether that was indeed the case. When Chislenko said yes, the captain approached Jonni and asked him to cancel the goal.
"What else could I have done? That was the decent thing to do," Netto later said. Ponedelnik was astonished at his bravery. "Igor was the most honest person I have ever met. Can you imagine what would have happened had we lost that game?" the striker wondered. Eventually, Valentin Ivanov scored the winner after 89 minutes and Netto was hailed as a legend. Not only was he one of the best midfielders of his era, but now he was also the ultimate symbol of fair play.
Sadly for him, the Soviets lost to the hosts in the quarter-finals, just like in 1958, and that was his last meaningful game for the national team. The young coach Konstantin Beskov, who was destined to become a Spartak legend himself in the eighties, discarded the captain, claiming that the team "needed fresh blood".
Netto kept going strong for Spartak for a couple of years, of course. He won his fifth championship in 1962 and his third Soviet Cup in 1963. However, when Spartak finished in a very disappointing eighth place in 1964, the management decided that it was time to stop relying on the 34-year-old veteran. Netto had played too long by Soviet standards, as stars over the age of 30 were usually considered too old.
It was a desperate turn of events, because Netto felt that he could still contribute to the team. Football was his life and he just couldn't imagine himself retiring. He was forced out in 1966, and fell into deep depression right after the testimonial game in his honour. According to his wife, "Igor came home, lay on the couch with his face to the wall and that is how he spent at least a month."
Netto never became a good coach. His perfectionism meant he was easily irritated and frustrated with his players, who couldn't come close to his level. He would shout at them and insult them for their mistakes, which led nowhere. Even when Spartak tried to give him a managerial role, it didn't work out. "How can Netto manage people, if he thinks that everyone around him is a baran?" they said.
His personal life was unhappy as well. On his 30th birthday, Netto married the 19-year-old actress Olga Yakovleva and his mother was so upset with his choice that she refused to attend the event, claiming that her son was being used. It turned out that she was probably right. The couple eventually divorced in 1987, but continued to share the same flat for a long time and Netto – true to his unique character – never even informed his brother of the split.
Lev Netto had only discovered the truth when Igor became gravely ill. The first signs of Alzheimer’s disease appeared before the former star was even 60. By the age of 66, his short-term memory was completely gone. When Olga refused to continue living with her ex-husband, his brother took him under his wing. Igor moved into Lev's apartment and spent his three last years there. He died on 30 March 1999.
Just like in the very beginning, back in the terrible 1930s, Lev took care of his beloved young brother when he needed him most. He never held a grudge against him. On the contrary, he was proud of him. Their lives had come full circle.