For most of us, a mother is someone who will always be there to support us in victory and defeat but for Leonid Slutsky, the head coach of Russia’s national team and CSKA Moscow, his mother, Ludmila, played an even greater role. On International Women’s Day, FIFA.com tells her story.
Ludmila lost her husband, Viktor Slutsky, a retired professional boxer and Physical Education teacher, to lung cancer when Leonid was just six years old. Widowed, Ludmila, a teacher at a Volgograd nursery, had to endure every hardship alone.
“Times were hard,” she recalled in an interview with Welcome2018.com. “I had to pay 120 roubles a month for our cooperative flat when I was only earning 95. I also received a widow's benefit. My salary plus that benefit paid for the flat, while we had to live on my mother’s pension. I used to get up earlier and walk to work instead of taking the tram, saving three kopecks, which was the tram fare back then. Three kopecks there and another three back, so six kopecks in total I saved every day.
"I would just work day and night," she went on. "When I became the kindergarten's principal, I took a second job cleaning some offices. I went to wash those floors under cover of night to make sure no one saw me. I was ashamed of that job, but I had to have it. We just didn’t have enough money, we never did. We caught a break when Lyonya got his job coaching Olimpia [Volgograd].”
Humour is the key
Russia’s current boss fell in love with sport at an early age, despite his mother's efforts to guide him down a musical path: “I don’t think his dad was any influence on Lyonya at all, in regard to sports. Viktor never even took him to any of his boxing practice sessions. I just think sport must be in Lyonya’s genes. We sent him to a music school first, and he hated it. One day he said to me: 'Mum, you can kill me if you want, but I’m not going back to the music school.' And he went and signed up for a football team.”
Slutsky’s promising goalkeeping career ended before it could properly begin when, aged 19, he was seriously injured falling from a tree during an attempt to rescue a neighbour’s cat. “My mother called me, telling me Lyonya had been taken to a hospital. He was in surgery when I came. His operation took two hours. They had to reassemble his kneecap piece by piece," she explained.
"His face…he barely had a face left. His whole face was a black bruise, a huge hematoma, all bloody, and his nose was broken. But quitting sports was out of the question for him. He said, right from the get-go: 'If I cannot play, I’ll coach.' Even before he'd left high school he started drumming up a young boys’ team. I would go and put up ads for him on lamp-posts near schools.”
Everybody knows how edgy I get on match days. My blood pressure goes up...Everybody knows to leave me alone on those days!
Leonid Slutsky’s rise since that moment has been meteoric, taking him from coaching children to leading the senior national team. His mother knows the secret to his success. “He has a great sense of humour, and it has probably saved the day for him more than once.
"The atmosphere is really good right now at their camp, jokes flying around and people laughing. Lyonya said he would sometimes be walking around the camp, singing some song at the top of his voice, and he'd run into [Vasili] Berezutsky. Berezutsky might then chime in, walking with him, then [Sergei] Ignashevich comes and joins them, then the others start poking fun. It must be fun working in this laid-back atmosphere.”
The stress of management
Success comes at a price, however. Only Slutsky’s mother knows the tension he endures every time his team steps on the field: “One day Lyonya told me: 'Mum, when a match begins, and I go out there, all I want is for it to end. I feel like there are huge 50kg weights attached to my arms, and I can’t lift them up.'
"I don’t think he’s ever going to lose those weights, no matter what his age is or how long he sticks with this career. Lyonya talked to a psychologist for a while, and that psychologist told him when the coach is out there and the game is on, the coach experiences the same emotional pressure as a miner would who has been buried in the mine for three days. What a comparison! I don’t think any of us can even imagine that.”
Ludmila does not go to football games and prefers following her son from home via TV: “I never go to see any football matches, and I’ve never set foot in a stadium. I don’t think I could take it. You know how I watch football on TV? I put it on mute, I go about my chores, and sometimes I will look up to see what the score is. Everybody knows how edgy I get on match days. My blood pressure goes up... Everybody knows to leave me alone on those days.”
It is not yet clear whether Slutsky will oversee his country’s attempt to triumph at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ but his mother believes in him: “When they broke the news that Russia had been awarded the 2018 World Cup, I told him: 'I hope we live to see you coach the national team. What do you say, son?' I don’t think this had crossed Lyonya's mind at the time, but it did occur to me right then. It wasn’t even a thought or a wish, just a sentence that flew out. I’m positive he’s got what it takes to lead our national team to victory in 2018.
“When Lyonya was awarded his [Russian Premier League] Coach of the Year title in 2013[/14], I didn’t feel like I had anything to do with it, and I still don’t now," she concluded. "But I’m proud of my son, and probably a little proud of myself, too. When he said on TV that 'this win is for you, Mum!', it was so sweet that I cried.”