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Born: Thursday 9 January 1930, Moscow, USSR (now Russia)
Died: Tuesday 30 March 1999, Moscow, Russia (aged 69)
Known as a player of exceptional honesty and strong leadership skills, stylish left-half Igor Netto was the captain of the Soviet Union team which won both the Olympic gold medal in 1956 and the inaugural European Championship four years later. During a long and successful club career with Spartak Moscow, he played more than 400 games for the first team and as captain led them to numerous domestic honours.
The son of Estonian migrants living in Russia, Igor Netto was born in Moscow on 9 January 1930. As a child, he wanted to do little else but play football and regularly spent many hours each day kicking a ball around in the yard. Much to his mother's displeasure, he wore out football boots at a remarkable rate. As a youngster he also played ice hockey, but eventually turned his back on that game after being on the receiving end of some big hits and worrying that injury would leave him unable to play football.
Playing for youth team 'Young Pioneers', Netto was spotted bu Spartak Moscow when he was 19 years old. The club quickly secured his signature and he made his senior debut during the 1949 season. Beginning his career at half-back, Netto was more attack-minded than many who played in that position and as midfield roles became more well defined, his confidence on the ball made him ideally suited to the role of central midfielder. He was never a believer in long ball tactics, encouraging team-mates to play a possession game when they could.
By 1950 Netto was a vital member of Spartak's first team, ever present in the league that season although the team could only finish fifth. He did however win a first major trophy at the end of the year after a 3-0 win over Moscow rivals Dinamo in the Soviet cup final. The Soviet Union had been without an active national team since 1935, but when they did finally re-enter the international scene at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics Netto was called into the squad, the 2-1 preliminary round win over Bulgaria marking his debut.
The Soviets' Olympic run ended in the next round when they lost a replay to Yugoslavia, after an astonishing 5-5 draw in which they had trailed 5-1 with 16 minutes remaining. For Netto however the disappointment was short lived, as he won the first league title of his career with Spartak in the shortened 1952 season. Spartak came agonisingly close to completing a league and cup double but were beaten 1-0 by Torpedo Moscow in the cup final.
The Soviet Union did not play regular international matches until 1954 but when they finally began to do so, Netto was named captain. His calm nature on the field and influence over his team-mates made him ideally suited to the role at both club and international level, and he went on to captain his country for almost a decade. He led Spartak to a second consecutive league title in 1953 and although they were edged out by rivals Dinamo in each of the next two seasons, won a third championship in 1956.
At the end of that year, he led his country to a major tournament for the first time at the Melbourne Olympics. After beating West Germany in their first match, the Soviets needed a replay in their quarter-final against Indonesia and Netto grabbed a rare international goal in that match as they eased to a 4-0 win. Two late goals in extra-time gave the Soviet Union a thrilling comeback win over Bulgaria in the semi-final, and when they beat Yugoslavia 1-0 in the final, Netto had an Olympic gold medal to add to the league title.
After the disappointment of a cup final defeat in 1957, 1958 initially brought further frustration for Netto. Due to captain the Soviet team in their first ever World Cup, he injured his knee in a warm-up match and missed all but one of their five games in Sweden, where they fell to the host nation in the quarter-finals. However, having regained fitness he went on to lead Spartak to another title, edging out Dinamo by a single point, before facing Torpedo in the cup final just as they had when on the brink of the double six years earlier. The final again finished 1-0, but this time in Spartak's favour and Netto had the first double winning season of his career.
As the 1950s came to an end, Spartak suddenly declined, finishing sixth and seventh in the next two seasons. The 1960s however begin with perhaps the greatest triumph of Netto's career. In the first ever European Championship, the Soviet Union reached the four-team final stage in France and after a 3-0 semi-final win over Czechoslovakia, came from behind to beat Yugoslavia after extra-time in the final. Netto became the first captain to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy.
Two years later, Netto got another chance to appear in the World Cup. This time fully fit, he played in all of the Soviet Union's games, which included one of the most famous incidents of his career in the final group match against Uruguay. Having beaten Yugoslavia and drawn with Colombia, the Soviets needed only a point to go through and seemed safe when Igor Chislenko gave them a 2-1 lead. Netto however had seen that the ball had actually gone in through a hole in the side netting, and asked the referee to disallow the goal. His sportsmanship was rewarded when his team went on to win 2-1 anyway, although just as in 1958 the Soviets then fell at the quarter-final stage when they lost to hosts Chile.
Spartak returned to form in the early 1960s and Netto won the fifth league title of his career in 1962, with another major trophy following a year later after a 2-1 cup final win over Shakhtar Donetsk. That would prove to be his final major honour however as his career began to wind down. Much to his disappointment, his run as national captain also came to an end in 1963 and although he would win one more international cap two years later, he missed out on the Soviet Union's defence of their European title in 1964.
The 1964 season was his last as a regular first team player at Spartak, making just a handful of appearances in the next two years before retiring from playing in 1966 at the age of 36. In retirement, Netto worked as a coach both in football and ice hockey but was unable to match the successes of his playing career. He had brief spells in charge of Omonia Nicosia, Shinnik Yaroslavl, Panionios and Neftchi Baku as well as the Iranian national team, but never really settled in any of those jobs.
Eventually Netto returned to Spartak, spending a number of years working with their youth team and also writing a book about football. In the late 1980s, he began to suffer from Alzheimer's Disease and spent the final years of his life living with his brother and sister-in-law, until his death in March 1999 at the age of 69. He is remembered as an inspirational on-field leader who commanded the respect of both team-mates and opponents alike.
References (all accessed 10 October 2012):
- Published on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 13:01