Legendary Russian footballer turns 90
Scoring your country's first-ever goal at a FIFA World Cup™ is a special honour, but Nikita Simonyan, who struck against England in the USSR's opening match at Sweden 1958, does not claim this as an achievement.
"My task for this goal was the same as the rest of the team," he said modestly in a recent interview with FIFA TV. "It just came at the end of the move. My team-mates created the chance for me, so the achievement was that of the whole team and not just the player who touched the ball last."
A sense of gratitude and humility has always distinguished this legendary striker, who celebrated his 90th birthday on 12 October. The day turned out to be doubly significant for Simonyan, as he was also named as ambassador for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. You would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable person for the role.
A World Cup ambassador is required not only to spread the word about the host nation of the tournament in 2018, revealing aspects of it to foreign guests and his fellow countrymen, but also to represent Russian football in general.
In a certain respect, Simonyan is Russian football. Born in Alagir on 12 October 1926 to an Armenian family, Nikita was part of one of the most successful periods in Soviet football history. He won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne before captaining the USSR at their maiden World Cup in 1958.
Looking back, he views the 1958 World Cup with great nostalgia. “It's an unforgettable experience and one which stays with you for the rest of your life. The World Cup is the pinnacle of a footballer's career, every player dreams of competing at one.”
Simonyan has especially fond memories of the group-stage match against Brazil at Sweden 1958, which has gone down in history as being Pele’s first foray on the world stage. “Even though he was so young, he still stood out,” the former Soviet striker said about the up-and-coming talent, who was only 17 at the tournament. "He played particularly well in that game. Brazil came into the competition with a new 4-2-4 formation, which took everybody by surprise. And how amazing was Garrincha as well!
“I was talking with Sergey Salnikov in the changing room afterwards and he told me that even though we’d lost, he enjoyed it anyway. That's how much he took pleasure from witnessing Brazil play!”
Simonyan scored more goals than anyone else in the Soviet championship (133) and his 160 strikes for Spartak Moscow remains a club record. After turning coach, he led thePeople's Team to two Soviet Top League titles before taking over at FC Ararat Yerevan and winning the league one more time with the Armenian outfit in 1973. Many still consider this last title as Armenian football’s finest achievement.
Even after his coaching days came to an end, Simonyan continued to work in football and today holds the position of First Vice President of the Russian Football Union.
The latest Russia 2018 ambassador hopes that the watching world is left with similarly pleasant memories after the tournament in his home country.
“It was a great feeling to be named as the Ambassador for the World Cup in Russia,” Simonyan told FIFA.com. “I don't doubt for a second that our staging of the tournament will be of the very highest standard. I'm talking about infrastructure, hotels, airports, roads and so on. I'm hoping for a good performance from our team: I want to see them play passionately and with heart in front of the home fans. Of course, personally I'm dreaming about being in the stands myself to enjoy seeing the best players in the world in action.”