1. Moscow, 1970
Forty-eight years ago, at the end of the 1970 Mexico world cup, Vladimir Vysotsky wrote a song of just one hundred and thirty-six words, or eighty-three seconds in performance, during which the post-world cup predicament of a spectator takes shape. The dramatis personae in the spectator's short monologue are the spectator himself, his wife, and five high-profile footballers.
The lyric has the feel of an aside in a stage play, and one could easily rework it as a one-act drama or a sketch. The wife's role in such a play would be silent. The spectator is exercising a privilege which we nowadays call mansplaining. The wife is a named character, Zina, but she does not get any lines in the song. The main message which Zina's husband conveys to her and his listeners is that the football stars are leading lives of excitement and luxury, whereas he is a poor a man in an unfree country.i
His reflections are triggered by words of criticism which the commentator speaks from his booth. The spectator says that the commentator tells “us” off, but it is not immediately clear who is meant by that “us”. The commentator speaks from his booth, a protected and detached place, and he chides us in order to sound witty, “for the sake of the beautiful word”ii. The “beautiful” word can also be understood to mean the “red” word, reminding us that the commentator is a representative of the Soviet regime.iii
The next lines make it clear who is “us”. “Not without reason reason did Fiorentina offer a million for Byshovets,” the star of the Soviet squad who scored four goals at the world cup in Mexico. “We” are the Soviet national team. When the commentator scolds them, he scolds the spectator too, because he identifies as a member of that team. The team are us, the commentator is them. And we are good, or why would the Italians offer so much money (I suppose the spectator has in mind not roubles or lire but the default currency for serious sums at least of post-Soviet Russia, the US dollar) for Byshovets? The “not without a reason”iv, however, could also be taken to mean “not in vain” — and then the spectator would, as he must know, be wrong, for it was only about a decade later, in the eighties, that the authorities allowed top players to move abroad towards the end of their careers.v
What does the spectator explain to his wife? That Pelé eats crème brûlée together with Jairzinho. And that Pelé owns a Chevrolet in Rio de Janeiro. Car-savvy Vysotsky, who liked to drive fast, frequently crashed his cars, and would soon famously be the first person in the USSR to drive a Mercedes, probably knew that a Cadillac or Rolls-Royce would have been more obvious choices to signify luxury, but those makes do not rhyme with Pelé, crème brûlée, and the Russian expression for “I'm broke”vi.
The spectator tells us not only that he is broke but also that he has bought his wife some worthless stuff and is happy about that. He makes sure he comes across as a good guy who spends his last rouble on a present for his wife, but he also must be asking himself how clever such an attitude is.
Another person who we hear is happy in seeming adversity is Bobby Moore. The England captain and 1966 world champion had been arrested a few weeks before the 1970 world cup in Bogotá, where England were playing a friendly against Colombia, for allegedly stealing a bracelet. The Colombian authorities kept him in custody for four days before conditionally releasing him. The spectator says that Moore is happy about the whole incident because it means a lot of publicity for him. If the world cup had taken place in “our” country, the spectator continues, Moore would not have been able to wriggle out of MUR — the Moscow Criminal Investigations Department, whose acronym sounds exactly like Moore in Russian.
After the 1970 world cup, Pelé said that he had never played against a better defender than Moore, and his words are still quoted in England today. And English football fans still consider Moore's tackle on Jairzinho during that same tournament as the best tackle in the history of the sport. So Byshovets, Pelé, Jairzinho, and Moore were obvious superstars for the spectator. That he also devotes a stanza to Tostão may partly owe itself to the fact that the Brazilian's name sounds very much, or perhaps actually just a bit, like “to a hundred he” in Russianvii. Although Tostão may well be unable to count to a hundred, the spectator surmises, he would surely score twice as many goals if he had two eyes. These lines allude to the fact that Tostão had almost completely lost his sight in one eye due to an injury received while playing football, and they insinuate that he may not be of first-rate intelligence. Tostão, who became a medical doctor and a highly articulate football commentator after the end of his career as a player, is a poor choice as the stereotypically stupid footballer. But the spectator is just criticising him for the sake of the beautiful word.
iThe song is called После чемпионата мира по футболу. Разговор с женой (“After the World Cup. Conversation With My Wife”), or, alternatively, Комментатор из своей кабины (The Commentator From His Booth), which is also the first line of the lyric. Copy the Russian titles of this and the following songs to find various versions of them on the internet.
iiIn Russian, для красного словца.
iiiHowever, Professor V.P. Izotov from Orel State University seems to notice only an idiomatic expression without any political reference; see his article about the chromopoetics of Vysotsky (in Russian): https://cyberleninka.ru/article/v/esli-krasnyy-tak-krasnyy-k-tsvetopoetike-v-s-vysotskogo.
vIt turns out that Byshovets only learnt about Fiorentina's offer from Vysotsky himself. The bard, who was an actor in his day job, was visiting Kiev with the Taganka Theatre, and some of the actors, including Vysotsky, met up with some Dynamo players, including Byshovets, at a sauna, where Vysotsky told Byshovets he had written a song about him. When confronted by Byshovets that he had no way of knowing that Fiorentina (against whom Dynamo had just played a friendly) had offered money for him, Vysotsky said he just knew. See this interview (video and transcript in Russian) with Anatoliy Byshovets: https://www.svoboda.org/a/25438077.html.
viЯ сижу на нуле.
viiДо ста он.