The Sochi goalkeeper had an enchanting start to his career. First – the champion of the country as part of Zenit, a year later again the champion, already in Spartak! Even if it was in the championship of the youth teams. But a year later, Nikolai Zabolotny already defended the gates of Spartak in the country’s main derby – against his native Zenit. Then it seemed that the doors to the top level for Zabolotny were open, but soon he disappeared from the radars of big football for a long time. What prevented him from achieving more by the age of 30? How is Spartak useful even for a substitute? How to properly assess his namesake – Anton? Why do a small handful of spectators gather at the luxurious Fisht Stadium? Nikolay Zabolotny spoke about this in an exclusive interview with the Football weekly.

Guests of Sochi

– What are the Sochi players doing now?
– We trained until the middle of last week, then went into quarantine. Now we sit at home.

– Is it forbidden to leave?
– You can leave as needed. But you cannot leave the city limits.

How do foreign Sochi players perceive this?
– They first of all understand the seriousness of the situation and the validity of the quarantine. The guys communicate with their loved ones who are in Europe, learn firsthand about what is happening. And they perceive quarantine as normal.

In terms of time, the holiday season is just around the corner. Are there more people in the city?
– In my opinion, it has noticeably increased. It seemed that people in the last few weeks began to actively arrive in Sochi.

– Do they also gather in public places?
– I don’t know – I don’t go to cafes and shopping centers. My route is short. From home to the store and back. Nevertheless, according to visual observations, there are more guests in the city.

Defeat to Arsenal

– Let’s move to the football field. Is the mood of Sochi players before the resumption of the championship and after four matches – heaven and earth?
– Of course, the psychological background has become much more positive. Three victories in a row not only allowed us to leave the last place and climb closer to the middle of the table, but also add confidence that we are on the right track.

Nevertheless, you started the year of official matches with a defeat.
– Which became a big annoyance for us! They lost to Arsenal not on business. They could well count on victory. Such an offensive defeat made us even more angry and added to the mood for the next matches.

– What do Sochi think about the chances to finish the championship?
– We haven’t looked so far yet. At least, I did not discuss this topic in detail with the guys. But my opinion is that if you play out, it means that you will definitely be with the audience. Football exists for them, matches in front of empty stands are meaningless. Therefore, if there is no opportunity to admit people to the stadiums, it makes no sense to finish the championship in this form.

– How then to be with its results?
– And this is not a question for me. Let our football leadership decide.

The power of Anton Zabolotny

– Probably, the pause was especially offensive for Alexander Kokorin. Who, after returning, not only immediately began to create chances and score, but also received pleasure from every action on the field.
– Sasha now confirms expectations. But I have known him for a long time, even from the youth team. I remember him well from his matches for other teams. And I see that Kokorin has retained all his strong qualities. He, as before, quickly, just as deftly handles the ball, just as quickly makes decisions. Any appearance of Kokorin in the penalty area is always dangerous.

– Another forward of “Sochi”, your namesake, as we learned, almost knocked down Mikhail Kerzhakov.
– I read this interview. (Smiling) I think Misha is joking more here.

– Is Anton Zabolotny’s blow not so lethal?
– I definitely did not fall from his blows to the knockdown. And as for Anton’s strong qualities, they are already visible to everyone.

– Not everyone.
– Professionals understand this. And it is useless to explain to haters who cling to something else.

– Explain for those who do not understand. What are the strengths of striker Anton Zabolotny?
– All of them could be seen at the Sochi matches in March. Anton knows how to use his size and height well. Look how many discounts he makes to partners with his head. Although Zabolotny did not score goals in the past four matches, he brought a lot of benefits. He earned a penalty, constantly clung to the balls, which allowed Sochi to continue attacks, including those that became goalscoring.

– Anton said that in CSKA he had the nickname Balo. Do you have a nickname?
– The name is abbreviated from the last name – Zaba. It became unusual in Sochi. Previously, Anton and I did not meet in clubs, here for the first time. When they call it that, we both turn around.

Medals on the bench

– You started the season as the first goalkeeper, but then Soslan Dzhanaev returned to Sochi and you became a substitute. Did you have a conversation with the coaches about this?
– There was a conversation. That it is a normal situation when there are several goalkeepers in the team. Yes, our role is different from others. For rotation, goalkeepers are not changed, during matches, unless absolutely necessary. Therefore, in all teams the situation is similar – there are two or three experienced goalkeepers in the first team, and one comes out on the field.

– It doesn’t always look fair.
– These are the costs of the profession. But the task of those who are not currently playing is to prove every day that they deserve more. And when you get a chance, be ready to use it.

– Which is better – to play rarely, but in a team claiming medals, or to be the first number in a middle peasant team?
– There can be no single assessment for everyone here. Each goalkeeper individually assesses the situation as a whole, his role in the team and, based on all this, makes a decision. For a while, I think many are ready to be patient on the bench. But then the lack of playing practice gnaws.

– And still. In “Spartak” twice is rarely called. Hesitated before deciding to leave Spartak?
– Not. It would be an exaggeration to say that I played at Spartak. Correctly, I was in the team, sometimes took to the field in official matches. Which for 4 years I have accumulated in “Spartak” only 6. And the club did not particularly strive to keep me. Therefore, having received an offer from Ural, I did not hesitate.

Spartak ideal

– You played the most matches for Ural.
– It was Ural that became the team where I showed myself as much as possible. At the moment. In Yekaterinburg, I began to play regularly in the Premier League, consolidated my position in the team, and achieved success in the tournament with it.

– And what did the Spartak stage give you?
– There I saw a big club from the inside. I saw at what a high level everything is organized in Spartak. How many fields are based on, in what condition they are, how quickly and clearly all issues are resolved, including, for example, washing and preparing the form. I understood the standard of the club organization that everyone should be guided by.

– After that, were you surprised by what you saw in other clubs?
– I understood that it is impossible to come to top standards right away. RPL debut clubs or those who have been performing at the highest level for only a couple of seasons learn on the fly and come to the required standards gradually.

– The situation in Sochi at the beginning of the season caused bewilderment among the coaches and some players.
– Why be surprised here? How long has a Premier League team been in Sochi for 20 years? The team moved to the resort city from St. Petersburg only the summer before last. Of course, by the time of the debut in the Premier League, everything was perfect and could not be.

– What has changed over these 8 months?
– Everything began to change quickly. The quality of the fields at the base has improved, and a gym has appeared. There are more experienced physiotherapists and massage therapists in the headquarters, a physical training coach has appeared. Sochi is growing before our very eyes like a club.
Why a thirty-year-old goalkeeper is better than a young one

– By the way, about the headquarters. Previously, goalkeepers did not have their own coaches. Can you imagine what it looked like?
– I can not even imagine! I don’t understand what the goalkeepers used to do half of the training session.

– We ran crosses with the field players, jumped over barriers, fought off blows, played basketball.
– And yet I cannot imagine such training – that goalkeepers train without a coach. Fortunately, I have never seen anything like this in my career. Nowadays, goalkeepers are trained more competently and professionally.

– What did you remember about working with Valery Karpin?
– Well, I didn’t have much contact with him, unlike the field players. But if we take Karpin’s entire period of work at Spartak, even before my arrival, I think Valery Georgievich squeezed the maximum out of that team. Twice “Spartak” was the second, once was one step away from the final of the Cup of Russia – lost in a dramatic match to CSKA on penalties. Those results, in my opinion, became the ceiling for that team.

– On the threshold of the 30th anniversary, are you ready to confirm the long-standing thesis that the goalkeeper usually reveals himself closer to the age of 30?
– I have a twofold attitude to this thesis. A complete understanding of goalkeeper’s professionalism has emerged relatively recently. Before, I allowed myself to be superficial about some things.

– For example.
– I could go home immediately after completing the training. Today this is out of the question. Massage, rehabilitation exercises, procedures. Now I understand much better how much a goalkeeper has to work and how to prepare myself.

– At what point did the rethinking happen?
– Thought deeply after leaving the “Ural”. Then I came to understand – if I want to play in the Premier League all the time, I have to work better and more responsibly. If I understood all this 10 years ago, I would have achieved much more by the age of 30.

Influence of Okroshidze

– Which of the coaches most influenced your development as a goalkeeper?
– Yuri Okroshidze, who coached me in the youth squad of Zenit. The support of Yuri Alexandrovich helped a lot during the transitional stage – from youth football to adult football. Okroshidze’s concern added to the seriousness. When an adult helps you to get comfortable at such a difficult stage, you want to work even harder and progress. Moreover, Yuri Aleksandrovich had a positive influence not only on goalkeepers.

– Who else?
– On the field players too. Anton Sosnin played with me in Zenit’s double – we discussed this with him. The importance of this coach’s role was especially evident after leaving Zenit. Then I felt that I was missing Yuri Okroshidze.

– Let’s go back 10 years. When you moved from Zenit to Spartak. Would you do the same now?
– And I had no other choice. Zenit offered me nothing.

– Like this?! You were considered promising, you just won the Russian championship with Zenit’s youth team …
– And I was going to continue playing for the youth team. At that time, I was counting on this alignment: I play for the youth team, but I train with the base. This is exactly what Spartak offered me. But not Zenit.

– You played one of the first matches in the Premier League for Spartak at Petrovsky. Plot!
– The match against Zenit did not evoke any particular emotions in me.

– Why? Well this is an iconic sign of Russian football. And you are on the field in your hometown.
– I was just starting my career then – any match was a big event for me. Where I had to justify the trust. Both Zenit and Kuban, against which I made my debut in the Premier League, motivated me in the same way. And in general there was no excitement around my person. My transition was not so loud. It’s one thing if I had time to play for Zenit at the highest level. And I even practiced with the main squad a little bit. I think that not everyone, before that meeting between Zenit and Spartak, even remembered that I was a pupil of St. Petersburg and played for the Zenit youth team.

Sun and full stands

– By the way, at the expense of the youth team. Some experts call the championship of youth teams a continuation of the city championship. In which it is impossible to grow.
– And what other options does a football player have after graduating from school?

– In many clubs there are second teams for a long time, there is a lease.
– And in the second teams, and in leases, someone is already playing. And there are a lot of graduates of football schools every year – they will not hire everyone even to the second division. Therefore, I consider the youth squad a logical step on the way to adult football. I played for the youth team for three seasons. Perhaps this is a bit too much. But a season – two there are quite justified.

– Let’s go back to Sochi. Brand new Fisht stadium, warm weather, award-winning squad, the Premier League at last. And the attendance of your matches looks depressing so far. What’s the matter?
– I noticed that football is loved in Sochi. But big football has not been here for two decades, we are playing in the Premier League for the first season. People need to get used to it. I am sure that over time the stadium will fill up constantly. The prerequisites are now – more than 30 thousand came to Zenit in July, if the championship hadn’t stopped – and Fisht would have filled up at Spartak.

– But this is Zenit and Spartak.
– If you look at it, there are objective reasons for the modest attendance. Many matches took place during a period when the holiday season is over. It is impossible to gather full stands for the match, for example, against Ufa, without tourists. After all, “Fisht” is located in Adler, which is 40 minutes drive from Sochi. This, I think, stops the fans.

– Having lived by the Black Sea for a year and a half, have you thought about moving here after completing your career?
– I thought about something else. How important sunny days and warmth are. When I lived in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Yekaterinburg, I did not think about it. And having arrived here, I felt that the Sochi weather and mood cheered, and positively affects the physical condition. But without thinking about moving to Sochi.