Konstantin Beskov: The Purist

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 6, 2018
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In the Spartak Moscow dressing room after the final whistle, there was anger and disappointment. A group of players sat dejected and disconsolate. Their chance, it seemed, had gone. In defeat to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk towards the end of the 1983 season, hopes of a league title had all but disappeared.

Much of the players’ ire was directed at defender Sergei Bazulev. When Dnipro striker Oleh Tahran had burst through on goal to score the winner, Bazulev could have brought him down. He would have been sent off, but Spartak might not have lost. It was, in the eyes of many, a wasted opportunity. Cynicism, on this occasion, should have prevailed over sportsmanship.

Konstantin Beskov, though, did not see it like that. Spartak’s manager, the most composed man in a heated dressing room, chose to console Bazulev. “I don’t reproach you,” he said. “Your decision was right.”

This was not surprising. Beskov viewed football as something pure, something that should never be sullied by the cynicality of the outside world. In the bleakness, the unrelenting greyness of the Soviet Union of the 70s and 80s, Beskov’s football teams brought colour.

His most famous side was the Spartak that won two league titles from 1977 to 1988, but were ultimately overshadowed by Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dinamo Kiev. Dinamo were efficacious and clinical. Spartak were expressive and endearingly naïve. The former proved more successful.

But success was not all that mattered to Beskov. He sought something else, something intangible: perfection. Football was, to him, an art. He distanced himself from the prevailing view that teams should be mechanical, efficient and ruthlessly organised.

It was a refreshing change. Beskov’s approach meant that Spartak’s popularity was unmatched; those who watched them play live quickly found themselves enamoured. “Beskov always told us to think about our job,” said former Spartak defender Vagiz Khidiyatullin in an interview with ESPN last year. “He said that we must play for the people and show positive football that pleases their eyes. That is why the stands were always full in our days. You can’t fool the fans.”

Beskov and Lobanovsky did not see eye to eye. There was a mutual respect, but their views were inherently contradictory. Where Lobanovsky saw football as something scientific and objective, Beskov saw art and subjectivity.

“Beskov never decided games off the pitch. His Spartak pulsed with a childlike purity in the musty Soviet football of seventies, when the authorities even limited the number draws from which a side could take points to try to fight the scourge of draws agreed in advance,” wrote journalist Igor Rabiner in a 2011 piece for the Blizzard. “Valeriya Beskova, the wife of the manager, told me, ‘Beskov always spoke about Lobanovskyi with respect as a professional. But he openly criticised him for his tendency to fix games. That was always the difference between them.’”

Lobanoskyi: The Scientist

Beskov, like Lobanovsky, was a disciplinarian. His ideas were communicated with assertion and conviction and his players had little choice but to follow his instruction. Beskov was uniquely individualistic too: he preferred to work from his own ideas and grew frustrated when others interfered.

As a player he was skilful and intelligent, a tricky forward who played for the Dinamo Moscow team that famously toured Britain in 1945. On occasion, Beskov’s coaches complained that he was too argumentative, too single-minded. He took that into his coaching career, which began in 1956 with five years at Torpedo Moscow.

Beskov was an experienced, hardened coach by the time he joined Spartak in 1977. He had twice led the USSR and coached both Dinamo and Lokomotiv Moscow. His first spell with the Soviet national team ended not because of football, but politics, which inevitably cast a conspicuous shadow over the sport. Beskov had guided his team to the final of the 1964 European Championship, but defeat against Spain, who had the support of the fascist leader Francisco Franco, was frowned upon.

Beskov, unfairly but unsurprisingly, was sacked. He had, though, demonstrated his ability to forge a team in his image. Two years later, a fluid, entertaining USSR team finished fourth in the World Cup. Beskov’s influence was undeniable. “If they had let him work to the end with the national team, football would mean something different for us,” said journalist Alexander Nilin of Beskov, shortly after his death in 2006.

Beskov, though he was not as successful nor as reputable as his rival, Lobanovskyi, is rightly remembered as one of Europe’s most influential coaches. He was a nonconformist, a purist, a man who preached the importance of improvisation over premeditation, of individuality over collectivism.

But perhaps Beskov is deserving of more recognition. He is rarely mentioned amongst those who have influenced today’s generation of great footballing thinkers. It could be argued, though, that Beskovism, even if indirectly, has been as influential as Cruyffism. Certainly, Aleksandr Weinstein, a respected Russian journalist, thinks so.

“Every time I watch Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, they remind me of Konstantin Beskov,” he wrote in 2010. “He cultivated this magical style, now widely recognised as the best in the world, 30 years ago. Like a true creator, he showed the way ahead of time.”

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