Sometimes in football, a funeral says far more than matches and goals, wins and losses. 

In October 2014, around 20,000 people gathered at Spartak’s indoor stadium in Sokolniki, in the north-east of Moscow, for the funeral of the People’s Footballer, Fyodor Cherenkov, who had died at the age of 55. The ceremony lasted an hour and a half longer than planned. 

The tail of the queue stretched far into the distance. There were people there not only in the red-and-white scarves of Spartak, for whom Cherenkov played a club record 498 games, but also fans in the colours of CSKA, Zenit, Dinamo and Lokomotiv. Spartak even received a message of condolence from Dynamo Kyiv – an astonishing act given the political relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

Former players, journalists and fans all agreed on one thing: only one other footballer had ever been accompanied on his final journey by so many people. It was not, as might have been expected, Lev Yashin, but Eduard Streltsov, Edik, the tragic genius who was sentenced to twelve years in jail on what many believe to have been trumped-up charges of rape. He missed the 1958 World Cup as a result, served five years of his sentence and returned to become Soviet Player of the Year. As the master of ceremonies, Grigory Tvaltvadze, noted, “Only two players have been called in our country by only their first names, by the diminutive, without use of their surnames. There’s no need to explain to anybody who are we talking about: Edik and Fedya…”

Neither were well-known abroad. Neither ever played at a World Cup. Both survived great personal trauma, which, as often happens in Russia, made them even more loved. 

Initially two hours had been allocated for the farewell. But people kept coming for three. Three and a half. Even more would have come if police outside, near Sokolniki metro station, hadn’t cut off access. Some of those turned away had flown from other cities, even though they had never met Fedya in person.

I’ve never seen so many adults not just crying but sobbing. 

There was a man of about 40, in glasses, tie and a red-and-white scarf, with a totally pale face. “My adolescence has died,” he whispered. 

There was an old man with a huge grey beard, dressed in khaki and a Spartak scarf. He covered his face with his hands, not wanting to see the outside world. 

There was a very old family, holding each other’s hands. They came with their son, who was himself more than 50. 

There were women of all ages; who, seeing this, could say football is not a women’s sport in Russia?

There were no police inside the hall, and they weren’t needed. Laying flowers by the coffin, anybody could have stepped over the red-and-white ribbon that separated football people from everybody else. They could have talked, for example, to Alexei Paramonov, almost 90 now, who won a gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. “I didn’t have football talent or abilities,” he said. “I wasn’t Fedya Cherenkov.” And this was a man who once marked Ferenc Puskás out of a game.

The president of the Russian Football Union, Nikolay Tolstykh, compared Cherenkov’s technique with Garrincha and announced that he had arranged with Uefa that Russia would wear black armbands during the international against Sweden.

Sergei Rodionov, a prominent striker, a long-time teammate and close friend of Cherenkov and now the president of Spartak’s academy, which is named after Cherenkov, said, “We will always miss your kindness, honesty and decency.”

Everybody was there. From Paramonov, the 87-year-old Nikita Simonyan and the 82-year-old Anatoly Isaev (all members of the great Spartak team of the fifties and Olympic champions) to the kids from Spartak academy. Who didn’t understand, of course, the scale of the person whose coffin they approached, but who saw for the first time in their lives how a football player could be loved by the whole country. 

Even Fabio Capello changed the time of training to allow national team players to attend. And you could see in the guard of honour the current Spartak and Russia players – Roman Shirokov and Artyom Rebrov, Dmitri Kombarov and Denis Glushakov, Artyom Dzyuba and Sergei Parshivlyuk. – as well as the non-Spartak players Sergei Semak, Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksandr Kerzhakov. 

After putting down his flowers, the current Spartak manager, Murat Yakin, modestly stepped aside. I hope that, looking at the endless flow of people, the Swiss coach understood much more about this club. 

The owner of Spartak, who had already promised to build a statue of Fyodor at the club’s stadium and to name one stand in his honour, was not present, but he was there a few hours later at the burial... 

I was standing a few dozen meters from the coffin and talking to a musician, the long-time Spartak fan Yuri Davydov, who tried to explain why there were so many more people there for Cherenkov than for the club’s founder, Nikolai Starostin, who died in 1996, or for the great manager, Konstantin Beskov, who died in 2006. “Starostin or Beskov, when they passed, were very old men,” he said. “People who came to Cherenkov’s farewell represented four generations. He still was a boy for older supporters. For his generation he is a contemporary. For the next one, mine, an idol. For the youngest one, a legend.”

At 1.23 pm, three and a half hours after the beginning of ceremony, the storm of the ovation began. Fyodor Cherenkov’s coffin was brought through a corridor of hundreds of applauding fans. The same happened a few hours later at the Troekurovskoe cemetery. 

Not long after I heard the terrible news I received a call from a colleague. We exchanged condolences and then he told a story. “I saw this with my own eyes,” he said. “I immediately called the paper, but they didn’t believe me. But I swear, it happened.” 

This was the story he told me. Before Spartak’s 4-1 win over Arsenal in the Champions League in 2000, a security guard at the Luzhniki, indifferent to football and its legends, refused to let Fyodor in, demanding to see his ticket. He didn’t have one and, modestly, turned to leave. But fans saw what had happened and dozens of them lifted Cherenkov up and surged by the security guard, carried him into the stand. Did it really happen? Who knows? But if I want to believe it, it happened: Cherenkov’s personality always attracted half-legends; fact and myth were always difficult to disentangle, the desire to express an inner truth often over-riding documentary reliability. 

Imagine this. Spartak were playing Dynamo Kyiv, their biggest rival. On the same day, Cherenkov, a student at the Moscow State Mining University, had an exam. “Konstantin Ivanovich [Beskov] let me go,” Cherenkov once told me. “At that time there was no way to avoid it. I passed the exam, then went to my class-mates’ hostel. I even caught a taxi as a celebration: usually I used a trolleybus. Then I asked the driver to switch on the radio, and heard that Spartak had won – 2-1. So, I celebrated two events at the same time!”

That was real, but the next story is obviously a legend – even if it is a beautiful one. Once Fyodor went to an exam, as usual, without any favour or preference. His teacher had no idea about football and Cherenkov never told anyone who he was. He successfully passed the exam and later somebody explained to the professor who the student was. He didn’t believe it, so the other students took him to the Luzhniki. The professor took a closer look and exclaimed, “Yeah, this is the student Cherenkov.” A fan sitting nearby said, “Sir, you yourself are a student. And Cherenkov is a professor!” 

Of course, this didn’t happen, but it might have done. Because it’s one of the fairy tales that are more real than anything real. And when I shared my grief on social networks, a Spartak fan called Oleg Skvortsov replied, “We studied at university with Cherenkov. Teachers always used him as an example – he passed exams and never used his status or fame.” 

Meanwhile, about the trolleybuses… 13 years after Fyodor finished his playing career, he mentioned in an interview that he used public transportation. He didn’t complain: “I go by tram and watch how people are dressed. I listen to what they are talking about, feel their emotions. This way you feel the life better. I need it.” 

A couple of months later some unknown supporter, who has never revealed his identity, presented Cherenkov with a Lada Model 10 (his number on the pitch). What sort of footballer, what sort of man, do you have to be that a fan will present you with a car so long after you finish playing?

In March 1990, Cherenkov, at the time the Spartak captain, led the team in an away match against Chornomorets Odessa. It was the second game for the red-and-whites for a 21 year old, signed from the provincial side Fakel Voronezh, Valery Karpin. The only goal in the game came from a mistake by Karpin. “To be honest, I even cried in the dressing-room,” he told me years later. “At that moment Fyodor Cherenkov, the kind soul, approached me and said, ‘Don’t cry, Valera. I know that you will help us a lot.’ Could you imagine what those words meant to me?”

A few decades later, when Cherenkov was left without anywhere to live, Karpin, then the Spartak manager and CEO, agreed with the owner, Leonid Fedun, that the club should buy him an apartment. Everybody who knew Cherenkov, at least a little bit, could confirm how light – not just good! – a person he was. Not from this world, as we say. When we asked him in an interview for Sport-Express about his attitude to money, he replied, “I remember a parable from my childhood. A rich man sits on a bag of money. He thinks: ‘Where should I put these rubles?’ Then he hears how a smith knocks with a hammer and sings songs. He is surprised: ‘I’m so rich, and I’m silent. And this beggar smith sings and sings. Let’s give him money.’ And he gave it to him. And the smith got angry. He started to think how he could spend the money. And he stopped singing.’ 

We in Russia call this kind of person ‘God’s man’. 

What kind of a player was Cherenkov? Just one recent analogy. You probably remember the magical goal by James Rodríguez against Japan at the 2014 World Cup, when the Colombian, as Russian footballers say, “made clowns” out of a defender and the goalkeeper with a few feints and softly tossed the ball into the net? Cherenkov scored dozens of goals like that in his career. 

The secret of his football art was in its outdoor nature. The trouble with today’s players is that most of them are from incubators: very early they are sent to football schools, where their imagination is killed, where they are educated professionally but impersonally. And everybody ends up looking like each other.

Once Cherenkov, by then already an adult, heard this story from his mother. When he was very small and ran about near his home in the Kuntsevo district with something shaped like a ball, he was spotted by a passer-by who was so impressed that he found out where the Cherenkovs lived and presented Fedya with his first proper football. “I liked just to feel he ball,” Fyodor told me. “When the guys went home, I remained alone. It wasn’t boring for me because I had a ball. I carried it as much as possible up on my foot. I juggled the ball, trying to keep it up 500 times in a row. Sometimes it had got dark but I hadn’t reached the target and so I wouldn’t go home.”

When I watched the robotic Russia side at the 2014 World Cup, I recalled that story from Fyodor, how the ball became an animated subject for him and he learned to speak to it in his own personal language. Today’s children, at least in Russia, are collectively urged towards some uniform, grey mode of expression. 

“In terms of individual skills I put Cherenkov in first place in all Spartak history,” the great goalkeeper and television announcer Vladimir Maslachenko, who died years before Cherenkov, told me. “He is a genius, who wasn’t fully understood. In terms of pure football qualities Cherenkov is even not Streltsov; Cherenkov is Pelé.”

You could say that Maslachenko went too far. But in this case I don’t care about the opinion of objectivists. Because I probably would never have loved football so much if I hadn’t seen Cherenkov. And I would have never gone into sports journalism, if I hadn’t wanted to find words worthy of describing the art of Fedya.

I have no right to forget that until the end of my life. And if I forget, this “objectivism” should be regarded as a betrayal of my childhood and my first football love. That’s why I would sign up with pleasure to the words of Oleg Romantsev, Fyodor’s teammate and then manager: “Fedya for me is the greatest player in the world, ever!” 

Cherenkov is one of the few Soviet players who scored at the old Maracanã. In June 1980, Brazil, with Socrates, Zico, Junior and Eder, hosted the USSR in a match to celebrate 30 years of the stadium and 10 years since the Selecão’s last victory at a World Cup. Brazil opened the scoring, Zico missed a penalty kick and it looked as though the Soviet team would be destroyed.

But all of a sudden there came a beautiful attack, led by Spartak players, that swept across the whole pitch. Vagiz Khidiyatullin started it, Cherenkov continued it, Yuri Gavrilov made an amazing backheel pass… and Fyodor ran in to the box and with a one-touch strike equalised. A few minutes later Sergey Andreyev scored a second goal, the winner. 

Cherenkov scored at the Maracanã, he scored against the France of Michel Platini and Alain Giresse, he scored in four games in a row during the Moscow Olympics in 1980, as well as many decisive goals in Europe.

And I’ve never forgotten how once in the autumn of 1983 late on a midweek evening my dad forced me, a 10 year old, to go to bed. It was bedtime with school the next day. But how was it possible to go to bed with Spartak playing the second leg of a Uefa Cup tie away against Aston Villa? For half an hour I resisted, tiptoeing to the door and listening for any fluctuation in the sound from the radio. 

But finally I got to sleep and only the next morning did I find out that two goals by Cherenkov, the second of them scored in the last minute, had taken Spartak to the next round. The disappointment that I didn’t experience that crazy happiness live is still with me. Since that day I’ve hated to watch games that have already been played. 

It’s sad that few people outside Soviet Union remember him. It’s a monstrous injustice. As is the fact that he never played at a World Cup. We wanted so much to share our happiness in watching Cherenkov, but Fate said, “No”. When 35-year-old Fyodor announced in 1994 that he was quitting the game, I asked the 92-year-old Spartak founder Nikolay Starostin his thoughts. He breathed deeply and said, “A good man is always unlucky”. 

“At the student internship in the Elbrus Mountains I talked for a long time with mountain engineers and other people,” Cherenkov told me once. “The toughness of spirit that I gathered from them has helped me in the hardest moments.” 

He had enough of them. 

After the physical disruption he first suffered in spring 1984, when he was 24, his whole life was an ordeal. Cherenkov took it stoically. “If the illness is given to me, it’s given for something,” he said. “There is nothing accidental. I have to overcome it, and never ignore God’s precepts. I have to always remember that good elevates and evil destroys.” 

When Cherenkov played, nobody publicly discussed his disease and it was impossible to do so in Soviet times. Of course, there were rumours: how could the Soviet Footballer of the Year of 1983, who played that time with a memorable hairstyle like a Russian Fellaini, suddenly disappear for several months the following spring? Officially he had suffered an injury, but nobody believed that story. But nobody at that time knew the truth. And the poignancy of this ignorance, what happened to the idol, made the people’s love for him even stronger. 

The USSR defender Alexander Bubnov, a TV announcer with a controversial reputation, who played for Spartak with Cherenkov, revealed some sensational details that no one had spoken about before. Nobody has confirmed it since, but who knows?

Bubnov outlined what he said had happened when Spartak played Anderlecht in the quarter-final of Uefa Cup in March 1984. In the away game, Konstantin Beskov fielded Cherenkov on the right wing, which, in Bubnov’s opinion, was a mistake because Fyodor usually played in the middle and, from a physical point of view, Frank Vercauteren, the Anderlecht left winger was much stronger. After a 4-2 defeat loss, Beskov said, “Fedya, you are the best player in the country. And Vercauteren is the best player in his country. Now you’ve played against each other, and it showed who is really the best.” After that, Bubnov said, Beskov even gave Cherenkov a match programme and suggested he get Vercauteren’s autograph on it. 

Cherenkov, in Bubnov’s version of events, began to behave strangely. In Tbilisi, where the second leg was played, he told a waiter that he would not eat the food because it was poisoned. And when Bubnov went with Sergey Rozhkov, an assistant coach, to Cherenkov’s room, they found Fedya sitting on the bed, smoking three cigarettes at the same time. After that Sergey Rodionov, Fyodor’s friend and room-mate, was moved to another room, and members of coaching staff stayed with Cherenkov instead. Doctors advised Cherenkov shouldn’t be sent straight back to Moscow, reasoning he would feel better with the team.

Cherenkov was at his best in pre-game training but Beskov didn’t risk putting him on the pitch. Spartak won 1-0 but it wasn’t enough. Amid all the noise and discussion in the dressing-room afterwards, Cherenkov went missing. He was finally found on the team bus. Only later did it emerge that Cherenkov had actually gone to Anderlecht’s dressing-room and got Vercauteren’s autograph.

After they got back to the hotel, the team went for dinner. Beskov’s table was near Bubnov’s. Suddenly Cherenkov approached the manager’s table and put the programme from the game in Brussels, with Vercauteren’s autograph, on Beskov’s plate, turned around and went away. Beskov was shocked and couldn’t say anything. According to Bubnov, Beskov’s taunt about the autograph had been the final straw that led to Cherenkov’s nervous breakdown. When he got back to Moscow, Fyodor was admitted to the Institute of Psychiatry and returned to the pitch only a few months later.

It’s hard to know whether the story is true. Nobody has confirmed it. I even spoke to Vercauteren, who is now working in Russia as manager of Krylya Sovetov, but he couldn’t recall signing the autograph. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – he was a famous player, who probably signed dozens of autographs for opponents – but it still means there’s no confirmation. I never heard Cherenkov criticise Beskov, but then that was never his style.

Whatever the cause, Fedya fell ill. For my book Spartak Confessions, he said, “I used to think that my illness wasn’t caused by overdoing it in 1983, when I played not only for Spartak in every tournament but also for the Soviet national side and for the Olympic team. I guessed at other reasons. But in the end I came to the conclusion that the reason was definitely that I’d overloaded myself. I remember how hard it was to recover that first time. My body dried up with the medicines I took. I had the sense that weights were hanging from my legs.”

He often had to have treatment – in 1984, 1986, 1990… but he kept on coming back. In 1987 he scored the winner against Dynamo in Kyiv with a rare header. A few weeks later, he scored the vital goal against Guriya Lanchkhuti as Spartak ended seven years without a trophy by winning the championship.

In 1989, by which time Oleg Romantsev had become manager, Cherenkov became captain after the goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev had moved from Spartak to Sevilla. Spartak beat Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo 4-1 in Kyiv. When the sides met again in Moscow, Spartak knew a win would seal the title. Valery Shmarov scored the winner with a last-minute free-kick; Cherenkov described that – rather than any of his own heroics – the best moment of his career. That year, aged 30, Fyodor became Soviet Footballer of the Year for the second time.

The success never changed him. In the summer of 1987 he scored the 100th goal of his career from a very controversial penalty. “For many years my conscience tortured me over that 100th goal,” he said.

Many Spartak fans hated Lobanovskyi not just because he was manager of Dynamo Kyiv, their biggest rivals, but because he didn’t take Cherenkov to the World Cup in 1986 or 1990. But they didn’t know the truth. 

Georgy Yartsev, a teammate of Cherenkov at Spartak and later Russian national team manager, explained: “Part of the phenomenon of the people’s love for Cherenkov is the unwillingness of a manager to select the best player of the country in the national team. People didn’t know some of his problems and thought it was a sign of disrespect to a person who made millions happy.” 

Lobanovskyi couldn’t disclose the truth, and so he had to accept the hatred. Many Spartak fans couldn’t forgive him for that. We saw that Cherenkov tended to play better in odd-numbered years, but we didn’t know that was because he kept falling ill in even-numbered years. When Cherenkov became player of the year in 1989, and still Lobanovskyi didn’t pick him in the squad for the 1990 World Cup, everybody understood: that was it – there was no chance of Fyodor playing at a World Cup. All the spartakovtsy cried and cursed Lobanovskyi. But two decades later Cherenkov told me, “In 1990, people told that Lobanovskyi should have taken me to the World Cup. I didn’t even give it a thought. Why? Because after the successful season of 1989, when we became champions, I suddenly felt awful inside with exhaustion. In 1990, my thoughts were not about the national team but how to get the strength to start willing myself to play football again. That’s why I wasn’t hurt by Lobanovskyi.”

Rinat Dasayev had another theory. “I think Lobanovskyi just was afraid to overload Fyodor, knowing his health problems. He always asked, ‘How is Fyodor?’ but he never did it formally.” I don’t see any reasons not to believe the goalkeeper. 

In the summer of 1990 Cherenkov accompanied Sergei Rodionov to play for Red Star Paris in the French second division. But Fedya’s journey lasted just six months. He didn’t feel comfortable at all outside his native country and came back to Spartak. He produced some more brilliant flashes in 1991 and 1993, the final year of his career. Both were odd years, and in 1992, an even one, he didn’t play at all.

As soon as I asked people on social networks to tell me their personal memories Cherenkov, the stories rained in. 

Sergei Borisov, the Uefa press officer, wrote about how, while Guus Hiddink’s Russia team were training in the Austrian town of Leogang during Euro 2008, he and a colleague heard a soft, confused voice. They turned around and saw Cherenkov. Extremely quietly, as though expecting to be turned down, he asked if he could approach the pitch, just to stand near the bench, near the training footballers. 

Borisov and his colleague stopped breathing: Cherenkov himself was asking them to be allowed closer to the players – when the current players of the national team should have been asking to stay closer to Cherenkov.

My colleague Mikhail Evseev told me how five or six years ago Cherenkov visited a tournament for blind kids. He approached him for a comment and suggested it was good of him to find time to attend such events. “You have to conduct interviews with these guys who are real heroes,” Cherenkov replied. “Who am I? Just a former footballer…”

Maxim Bolshov, a supporter, spoke of how four or five years ago he was waiting for the buffet in the same queue as Cherenkov at half-time of an Under-21 game. Everybody recognised him and urged him to go the front, but he refused and stayed in line.

Erkin Baidariov, another supporter, from Uzbekistan, recalled how in the early eighties, when Spartak arrived in Tashkent, the local boys ran to the hotel for autographs. One of hotel staff learned that Fedya was in his room and brought a group of boys upstairs. They knocked on his door and heard a voice: “You can enter: the door is open.” They went in and saw Fyodor, who had just had a shower, dressed in just a towel. He smiled, signed everything, chatted with the boys and didn’t show any signs of irritation that they’d disturbed him. 

Several decades later, Fyodor, who lived extremely modestly, would say, “Everything in my life is settled, I have everything I need. I try to improve myself, to get rid of sins – for example, despondency and gluttony.” 

At the memorial ceremony, Spartak veterans and ordinary fans approached me and told stories. For instance, in 2009 there was a pre-New Year meeting of four generations of Spartak champions who won the Soviet and Russian leagues in 1969, 79, 89 and 99. Almost everybody arrived in cars and the younger the players were the more expensive the model. Then suddenly Fyodor appeared from the bushes. He was very modestly dressed and obviously frozen. Those who saw him were astonished: “Fedya, couldn’t anybody drive you here?” He, as usual, waved his hand: “What for? I could come by myself.” He was doomed to carry his disease until the end. This illness, as well as the medications which accompanied it, undermined his energy and health every year. 

In summer he played with pleasure for Spartak’s veterans teams. In spring and autumn, very rarely. 

In the nineties, Oleg Romantsev, as president and manager of Spartak, tried to include him on the coaching staff of the reserve team. Fyodor could have shown players at the training pitch more than anyone, but the job couldn’t have lasted for a long time. 

His wife Irina would sometimes look into his eyes and decide: “Fedya, it’s time to go to the hospital.” And he went there. Every single spring, every single autumn. And it was getting worse and worse. 

The club cared for him as much as possible. The Spartak youth academy was named after him during his lifetime, which says a lot. The decision was taken after dozens of Spartak veterans signed a letter urging the club to honour him. Spartak also paid for Cherenkov’s medical care.

For the last nine months of his life Cherenkov lived alone after his second marriage broke up. There can be no doubt that life was hard for his wife. For us, Fyodor was an idol and the greatest footballer of all time. For her, he was a partner every day. 

In those final nine months, he lived – let us give the address – at Samora Machel street, 4/3, apt. 18. Nobody there knew him well. He didn’t have a neighbour like tyotya1 Valya, who regularly visited him in his apartment at Kuntsevo about five years ago, boiled a pot of shchi (cabbage soup) and didn’t allow him to starve. In those last months, Fedya probably only ate till he was full when he travelled with Spartak veterans. 

It hurts a lot that Cherenkov never saw the long-awaited Spartak stadium in the Tushino district, the result of almost an unbelievable twist of circumstances. The Otkrytie Arena, which will be used for the 2018 World Cup, was opened on 30 August 2014 by Spartak veterans. It had been planned that Fyodor would play in an exhibition game, but for some reason he didn’t appear. Nor did he turn up for the opening match, a friendly against Crvena Zvezda, or for the first league games, against Torpedo and Terek.

It was a strange story. Alexander Belenkov, Cherenkov’s friend, who played with him until he was 16 at Spartak’s football school – a group managed by the 1956 Olympic champion Anatoly Maslyonkin – arrived at the stadium at 2.30 pm. Fyodor had promised to bring his friend a ticket before going to play – and he always fulfilled his promises. 

At 3pm Belenkov, who was still waiting, dialled Fyodor’s mobile and was told, “The traffic police stopped me. But don’t worry, I’ll deal with it. I’ll come about 4.” 

4pm was kick-off time of the game in which Fedya was the player most people wanted to see. But he didn’t arrive and didn’t answer further calls. 

He never arrived at the stadium. A few days after his death somebody posted a video on Facebook showing him arriving with the veterans team in Samara, where he again didn’t play. He was invited to the local TV station along with another former Spartak player, Alexander Mirzoyan. 

Fyodor looked awful. His eyes didn’t move. He barely spoke and when he did it was extremely quietly. And he said that somebody told him that the Otkrytie Stadium was built on an old graveyard (actually it was built on a former airfield). It seemed like an explanation for why he had avoided the stadium; in his final years he had become extremely religious.

Belenkov told me that on August 19 he visited Fyodor at his apartment and they spoke for five hours. He showed me a photo of both of them aged 11 and there were tears in his eyes.

On August 31 Fyodor played for Spartak veterans in Kotelniki. On September 22 he was found unconscious just inside the front door of his apartment building. He lived for a further 11 days, but there was nothing to be done. Some people say that conditions in the hospital were poor and blame the club.

He died on 4 October 2014, at 1am.

The end of July 2014, perfect weather, a cloudless mood. As in childhood, I’m not just walking, I’m almost jogging from Sportivnaya Metro station to the Luzhniki. To a football game. 

But now this is not an official game, attended by thousands, many chanting abuse. This is the football of kind faces and gentle smiles, and everybody who is going to Kid’s Town at Luzhniki, not the Bolshaya Arena, feels happy. Because it’s a football match dedicated to the 55th birthday of Fyodor Cherenkov. 

Fedya himself, though, doesn’t get onto the pitch. What a pity! He would have given at least one pass of genius. Or he would have kicked the ball between somebody’s legs. Or would have shown some other trick he practiced at Kuntsevo, dozens of which he light-heartedly transferred to ‘proper’ football many years ago. That’s why so many serious men fell in love with him. Because for 90 minutes he made them kids. 

But now, on his birthday, he doesn’t even play and avoids offering explanations. He makes people get lost in guesses, and his health, unfortunately, is one of the main topics of speculation. Cherenkov, for whom a ball is a god, doesn’t want to play football? Nonsense. It can’t be anything good. 

But anxious thoughts are rapidly cleared away: the hero of the day looks cheerful. He stoically signs autographs for more than an hour. He addresses everybody with his usual shy smile – although now it’s hidden behind a thick beard, which makes Fyodor somehow different. 

Then there is a banquet in a restaurant on a ship on the river. There’s a moment at which I’m hugging him. Then giving him a copy of my article, “The Magic Country of Cherenkovia,” written for his birthday. And for maybe the 100th time in my life, I’m repeating to him, “Fedya, you always were my idol. Thank you for being born and for being with us.” 

And then I heard him reply with a line from the Bible: “Do not worship anything or anybody blindly.” 

He was a rare person – a man of God a, saint, an ethereal person from anywhere but the cynical 21st century. That evening when I got home, my wife said it was a long time since she’d seen me looking so enlightened.

And now there is no more Fedya. As I think about this, I’m walking on the street. I’m wrapped up against the cold, but I begin shaking. It’s the shake of an irretrievable loneliness. So far I haven’t been able to imagine how to live, knowing that there is no Fedya on this earth. Probably somehow it’s possible. But how much warmth and light each of us lost with his exit. It’s impossible to bring them back. 

But it’s possible to bring back some memories. Fate bookended my acquaintance with Cherenkov in a surprising manner. My first meeting with him was also at the Kid’s Town at Luzhniki. 

In June 1990 I, a novice 17-year-old reporter, went there to some charity game of athletes and actors in which he was playing. And I asked him in a trembling voice if it was possible to do an interview. 

Fyodor gave me his home phone number. You remember only very important details from your distant past, and I’ll never forget how I tried to reach him from a public phone on the railway station at Pavlovsky Posad, a town two hours by train from Moscow, where my students group practised on the local paper. 

You had to throw a two kopeiki coin down the throat of that phone, and after you’d spoken for few minutes, you had to throw in another one. I reached him, and just as he was thinking when he could talk to me, the last dvushka (two kopecks) disappeared inside the phone. There were just a few seconds until the connection would be cut off and my dream would disappear. I was totally alone at the station, there was nobody to give me another coin.

But Fyodor’s pauses were always perfectly timed. He managed to tell me the day, the time and the magic word “Tarasovka” – Spartak’s training ground – and immediately afterwards the connection was cut.

Now I’m looking at this black and white picture. That old wooden players’ hotel building behind Cherenkov’s back isn’t there any more. The monument to Lenin isn’t there any more. And now Fedya, my beloved Fedya, isn’t there any more. 

I still remember the last words that I heard him say: “Do not worship anything or anybody blindly.” 

I’m sorry, Fedya. I did it. And thank God, I wasn’t shy of my feelings and told you them two months before your exit. 

I’m proud that I had such an idol in my life as you. Thank you that you were. 

No one like you will ever be born again. But somebody else maybe will. It couldn’t be any other way. Because this is life. And it goes on.