Russia celebrates 60 years since its debut at the FIFA World Cup
Nikita Simonyan scored the Soviet Union’s first goal at the tournament
The former striker believes Igor Akinfeev is the best player in the current team
Russian football is facing a landmark year in 2018, as the country hosts the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in history and celebrates the 60th anniversary of their debut at the tournament.
The country’s relationship with FIFA’s most prestigious competition began at Sweden 1958, where the USSR produced a respectable finish for the debuting side: reaching the quarter-final before losing to the hosts 2-0.
The captain of that team, who also scored the Soviets’ opening goal at the tournament, is 91-year-old Nikita Simonyan. Despite his age, he is still working hard for the good of the sport nationwide as First Vice-President of the Russian Football Union and Ambassador for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Recently, he represented Russia as one of the draw assistants during the FIFA World Cup Final Draw in December last year.
Simonyan’s personal moment of glory came in the Soviet Union’s 2-2 draw in their opening match against England, when he broke the deadlock in the 13th minute. However, the former striker remains humble about his achievement.
"My task for this goal was the same as the whole team," Simonyan said. "It was the result of a move and my team-mates gave me the assist, so the achievement is down to the whole team and not the player who touched the ball last."
Nevertheless, you cannot underestimate Simonyan's role in Russian football history; in many ways, he is Russian football. Simonyan recently sat down for an interview with FIFA.com to revisit the World Cup 60 years ago and share his thoughts on the upcoming tournament on home soil for Russia.
Playing at the 1958 World Cup: "There are many different competitions, such as domestic leagues and cups. I also won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games held in Melbourne. However, only the World Cup can truly confer the title of the best international team on the planet: there is no comparison with any other tournament. So, I am proud to have played at the sixth World Cup in Sweden in 1958, when the Soviet Union reached the quarter-finals.
"My young friends maybe don’t know that back then there were no substitutes. In case of injury, the team was forced to played with ten men. For a variety of reasons, the USSR didn’t take the strongest squad to Sweden. Even without four of our best players, we made it to the quarter-finals, where we lost to the eventual finalists Sweden. We played five matches in 11 days, including the play-off against England. Without subs! Nowadays they play again after three or four days and there’s enough time to recover."
Russia’s aims in 2018: "The first task is always the same: qualify from the group. To play in the semi-final or win the tournament, you need to complete the first step and then set a new objective. It would be a huge success if our players reached the last four."
Russia’s captain and leader: "Igor Akinfeev is Russia’s best player at the moment; everyone respects him in the squad. The position of goalkeeper carries huge responsibility. I was a striker: if I scored one chance out of three, I’d receive praise, while if a keeper makes five difficult saves but lets an easy one in, people would say he lost the game.
"I can’t help but remember Lev Yashin, whom I played with in the national team. A goalkeeper exudes a sense of confidence to all outfield players, especially his defenders. Akinfeev’s best qualities are his reactions and organisation. He has a fine strike on him as well and can hit the ball 60 or 70 metres. The most important thing is his confidence and reliability. He’s an outstanding keeper, although Yashin is considered the best of all time."
Favourites for the World Cup: "Germany, without a doubt. England haven’t won for a long time, since 1966. Of course, there are also Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Portugal. Surprises are possible, but the top teams in the world are fairly well-established today. You all know the famous phrase said by Gary Lineker, with whom I chatted before the Final Draw. Germany have a huge advantage in their high-playing discipline, fighting spirit and character, but all 32 teams will try to show these qualities.
"In any case, I hope the World Cup goes off at the highest level and all the fans who come to our country are happy."