Russia Sport Football Igor Netto: The Humble Genius

Igor Netto: The Humble Genius

Igor Netto (1930–1999)
Born: 1930, Moscow
Died: 1999, Moscow

Igor Netto is fondly remembered as one of the greatest Soviet players of all time. Indeed, his achievements rank him as one of the legends of European football.

An inspirational captain, Netto led the Soviet Union to its first and only major tournament, the 1960 European Championships. He is also a legend for his club Spartak Moscow, where he won five major titles.

Most significantly, he conducted himself with grace, dignity and amazing sportsmanship throughout. Netto left a mark on all who had the pleasure of playing with him.

Spartak Moscow

Netto was born in Moscow in 1930, coming from a family of Estonian immigrants. He was a keen and gifted athlete, spending hours on end in the streets playing football.

By the age of nineteen, he was spotted and recruited by Spartak Moscow. Initially played as a defender, the coaches soon realised that Netto was dangerous going forward. He was played in a number of positions but eventually settled in centre midfield. He became one of the pioneering “box to box” midfielders.

Netto was technically gifted and had great vision. He excelled in Spartak’s short passing system and espoused a sophisticated and attractive attacking style of football.

He was also a born leader. Whilst Netto was quiet and modest off the pitch, he exuded authority on it, and was immensely respected by his teammate. He became a natural captain for his club.

As captain, Netto led Spartak to a great period of success. In his eighteen years at the club, he won five league championships and three Soviet cups. Overall, he made 368 appearances and scored thirty-six goals.

Soviet Union

Whilst Netto’s domestic achievements were impressive, he will ultimately be remembered for his success on the international stage.

He made his debut for the Soviet Union in the 1952 Olympics, and soon became a stalwart of the team. By 1954 he was appointed captain. Netto started to imprint his vision on the team, getting them to play the same technical short-passing style employed at Spartak.

The approach paid dividends. The Soviet Union stormed to gold at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. It was the start of a golden generation in Soviet football.

This culminated at the 1960 European Championships. Spearheaded by Netto, the Soviets defeated Czechoslovakia to become European Champions in France. The victory instantly cemented Netto’s place as a legend of Soviet and Russian football. The fact that the feat has never been repeated only adds to his reputation.

Netto did play one more tournament for the Soviet Union. He led his team to the World Cup in Chile in 1962. He played all four matches as the Soviets progressed to the quarter-finals, before being knocked out by the hosts Chile.

It was the final group game against Uruguay that showed Netto at his gentlemanly best, though. The Soviet Union needed to avoid defeat to progress. The scores were tied at 1-1. Striker Igor Chislenko hit a shot that went through a hole in the side netting. The referee saw the goal in the net and, unaware of the circumstances, gave the goal to the Soviet Union.

Netto saw what had happened and heard the Uruguayan protests. He successfully persuaded the referee to rescind the goal. The Soviets eventually won the game. But Netto’s actions were applauded by the Uruguayans and have gone down as one of the great feats of sportsmanship in the World Cup.

Injuries started to catch up with Netto after 1962. By 1963 he had been replaced as national team captain, and he missed out on the 1964 European Championships. He eventually retired from football altogether in 1966.

Post-Playing Career

Netto moved into management after his retirement. He started off at the helm of Omonia Nicosia in Cyprus. He was then made head coach of the Iranian national team, before taking over Greek side Panionios.

He had a short stint back at Spartak Moscow as manager, with little success. He moved on to Azerbaijani outfit Neftchi Baku.

Overall, Netto struggled to translate his success on the field into success in the dugout. He did eventually find his calling back at Spartak, though, where he was put in charge of the club’s youth set-up.

Netto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his later life and died in 1999 at the age of sixty-nine. His death was mourned by football fans across the country.

© Sathesh Alagappan

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