Valery Gergiev: if not for music, I could have been a footballer

General director and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre talks about his second passion, which almost overpowered his first one
15 September 2015
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Conductor, general director and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiev at the preliminary draw ceremony for the 2018 World Cup in St. Petersburg Constantine Palace

– How do you manage to remain a football fan, Valery Abisalovich?

– I try. Very hard. Here’s a recent example. 5 September our national team played the Swedes in a home match which turned out to be very important, as participation in Euro 2016 depended on it. I was in Vladivostok, where I participated in a 12 pm concert for music school students and veterans. It was 4 am at the time in Moscow. After the concert I left for the airport. A nine hour flight later, we touched down in Moscow when the match was in half-time. The first thing I asked people who came to greet me was “What’s the score”? When we drove from the Vnukovo airport I asked to stop at a bar or café. I had to run through half a dozen establishments to find one with a live gave on the screen. I managed to witness the amazing performance by Igor Akinfeev, who prevented the Swedish team from tying the score. So there I was, standing and staring at the screen for the last fifteen minutes of game time.

– What about spending all 90 minutes in a regular, calm manner?

– That happens, too. Last year I made a trip to Brazil to watch the World Cup final. I wasn’t deterred by the distance to Rio. I really wanted to be there to witness it in person, not on TV. I’ve spent 120 minutes sitting at the Maracana and left home, to Saint Petersburg.

– So who were you rooting for?

– For beautiful football. I wanted a vivid, spectacular. After the devastating victory of the German team over the home team of Brazil, they were considered to be a shoo-in, but the beginning wasn’t at all easy for them. Eventually the best physical conditioning and morale took over – it’s hard to beat Germany in this regard. The will to win, capacity to concentrate when required – this is the Bundesmannschaft signature style.

– Did someone invite you personally for the Rio game?

– Knowing of my love for football, friends always invite me to finals – League of Champions, Euro, World Cup… Of course, I’d rather watch football in person more often if I had the chance. However, I’m extremely short on time. Sometimes, a twist of fate helps me: this June my Berlin concert was scheduled the day following the Champions League final. I arrived earlier to see the Barcelona – Juventus game. I fancied the Catalonian team before the match, but the Italians fought so hard that I switched sides. I feel more support for the weaker opponent. It’s a known psychological phenomenon. 

Knowing of my love for football, friends always invite me to finals – League of Champions, Euro, World Cup…
By the way, I was at the same Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 2006, during the France – Italy World Cup Final, when Zidane decided to discipline Materazzi, who was provoking him during the game, and head-butted the offender. Most of the spectators, myself included, missed the incident, as the ball was in a different area of the field. Suddenly, the Argentinian referee gave the captain of the French national team a red card, expelling him from the field. It was clear that something out of the ordinary happened. The French fan sector was disoriented, baffled and indignant. The Italians cheered, as to that point Zidane’s team was in control, and this one episode turned the tide. My friends from both countries were sitting beside me and they both emotionally supported their national teams, but in the end Italian footballers were more successful at the penalty shootout.
Conductor Valery Gergiev during a concert of the Mariinsky Theatre Symphonic at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall © Ilya Pitalev/TASS
This was the revenge of the Italian team, who lost the Euro 2000 Final in Rotterdam. I was there as well. I remember it being no less dramatic. The French tied during the additional time, and during extra time Trezeguet scored the “golden goal”, ending the game. This was a rule at the time. After that championship this “sudden death” rule was eliminated.

I remember the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United in Moscow. What year was it? 2008, I think. I rooted for the London team. Partially because of Abramovich, whom I know personally. That time his team wasn’t luck and lost the penalty shootout, but eventually Roman achieved his goal and won the League after waiting for this for many years.

– Seems like you have a whole collection of historic finals, maestro!

– Despite the busy schedule, I find windows every year to watch abroad at least three to four top games with leading football clubs. I’ve watched Juventus in Turin, Milan at the San Siro stadium, I’ve been to home of Real Madrid Santiago Bernabéu and Barcelona’s Camp Nou. I’ve never been to El Clásico, however.

– Do you remember your first game?

– It was Ordzhonikidze, currently known as Vladikavkaz. All of North Ossetia rooted for the local Spartak. It was a good club, although it hadn’t risen to prominence. Real victories began in mid-90s, when Spartak was renamed to Alania. The team, coached by my friend Valery Gazaev, became Russia’s champion and silver medalist.

– You weren’t always only a fan, surely you’ve played as well, Valery Abisalovich?

– Oh, you mean that first game? All boys kicked the ball around when they were kids. If there was no ball, we kicked around a stuffed sock or at least an empty tin can. In other words, anything that could be kicked through a goal.

I could play ball from dusk till dawn, I’ve spent hundreds of hours engaged in this exciting activity. Hundreds! Football was truly an enduring passion of mine.

We played courtyard versus courtyard, street versus street. Our Vakhtangova Alley didn’t seem small to me back then, although it had only nine houses – two of which, ours including, had extra second floors built upon the original houses. If not for music, which my mother forced me to study, I don’t think I would have ever left the ballgame. I wanted to become a footballer, not a piano player or, even more so, a conductor. But I was nine, ten years old! What could I understand back then? Sometimes I ran into the classroom, still short of breath after the game, and my mind was still on the field. Sometimes I lost track of time and missed the music lesson. I repent… Later I grew up, I wised up.

But I haven’t lost my love for football.

– Are you friends with any famous football players?

– Well, I’m acquainted with many. After all, I was a conductor at the FIFA Centennial Concert. It was in 2004 at the Zurich’s opera house. High-ranking guests from FIFA member countries visited. President Sepp Blatter and his predecessor João Havelange were at the event. The concert was followed by an extravagant gala with a dinner. It’s pointless to list all the football celebrities at the celebration. Everyone, from venerable veterans Facchetti, Mazzola, Bobby Charlton, to current players. The Golden Ball award went to the Brazilian player Ronaldinho. Frenchman Henry was voted second and Ukrainian Shevchenko came in third. I talked with Andrey, who was a star player at AC Milan at the time, and told him how I rooted for his home club Dynamo Kyiv back in the day, when it was led by Valery Lobanovsky. He was a great motivator and an intellectual!

For a while I also rooted for Tbilisi Dynamo. I think it was the most technical team in the Soviet Union.

– But now you’re a devoted Zenit fan, right?

– Of course! I remember vividly how the guys devastated Bayern Munich 4 – 0. I also spectated at a few games in Saint Petersburg, but, alas, I can visit the Petrovsky Stadium much less frequently than I’d like to.

– You won’t miss the World Cup here, will you?

– I will do my best to watch the games played by our national team, semifinals and the final in person.

Actually, I was part of the delegation which represented the Russian bid for the 2018 World Cup. Along with Anna Netrebko, Natalia Vodianova, Yelena Isinbayeva, Roman Abramovich… I think it was an undoubtedly good decision, to including not only renowned athletes in the team, but also globally famous musicians, performers, businessmen. President Vladimir Putin visited Zurich as well. Of course, everyone was happy that we won the bid.

I have no doubts that even considering all the current challenges, and there’s no point in mentioning them again, Russia will be an outstanding host of the World Cup.


– Mariinsky Theatre, I presume, won’t be left on the sidelines.

– We’ll show the guests what we’re capable of. I’ve been at the preliminary draw ceremony, which was held at the Constantine Palace in Saint Petersburg late August. 

I have no doubts that even considering all the current challenges, and there’s no point in mentioning them again, Russia will be an outstanding of the World Cup.
I directed the children’s choir, which was composed of kids from FIFA member countries – there are over 200 of those, by the way. Each child wore a T-shirt of the corresponding national team. It was a beautiful sight. I hope the 2018 World Cup opening ceremony will be no less vivid…

About the author

Andrey Vandenko

Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. Graduated in the Journalism Faculty of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in 1982. As of 1989 live and works in Moscow. For over twenty years he’s been specializing in the interview genre. Collaborated with Sovetsky Sport (Soviet Sport) newspaper and Sovetsky Sport Football weekly for over ten years. Authort of the TASS special project Top Officials.