This latest post in our regular Shorts series collects up some quirky tales from 60s and 70s Soviet football. Пойдем!!!!
Zenit St.Petersburg can claim Russian Premier Vladimir Putin among its supporters and it’s a club that in its various guises has always been well-connected politically. During its Zenit Leningrad incarnation, the club finished plum bottom of the Soviet Top League in 1967 and yet still managed to retain top flight status. There was no precedent of similar benevolence being shown to other clubs that had finished in that position.
The Soviet Federation rather spuriously explained why Zenit was a special case and deserved to stay among the Soviet elite. It was all about the city apparently. The February 1917 Revolution had recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and as Leningrad (or Petrograd as it was known at the time) had been the focus of the uprising, so it deserved a special status that was rather conveniently extended to its main footballing institution.
Diving and feigning injury remains a thorny issue in the contemporary game and those who retain a sense of righteous indignation about such shenanigans would probably loudly cheers the reaction of a particular Soviet journalist to such an event. When Celtic played Dynamo Kiev in the 1967-68 European Cup, Kiev’s Josif Sabo went down softly under a tackle from Bobby Murdoch and the Scot was sent off for protesting the decision going against him.
Soviet sports writer, Yuri Vanyat, was so affronted by Sabo’s underhand tactics that he wrote a public letter to the Central Council of Sports Societies asking them to remove the player’s title of ‘Merited Master of Sport’.
More on Dynamo Kiev’s Josif Sabo, a talented and creative midfielder capped 40 times for the Soviet Union during the 1960s. Sabo was something of a penalty-kick expert and not shy in boasting about it. In 1973 he agreed to a penalty-taking challenge proposed by his club teammates in which he had to take and score ten successive penalty kicks. He duly stepped up and converted all ten. Sabo had won his challenge but suggested he carry on until one was missed. By the time a beleaguered Kiev keeper finally saved one, Sabo’s total stood at 73!
Soviet Top League officials were forever fiddling around with the format and rules of the competition to make it look like they were serving some useful purpose. Take the 1969 season for example: the 20 clubs were split into two groups of 10 and after playing each team home and away, the top 7 from each group formed a new division to play a second round with 14 clubs. So far so good; the odd bit was that teams kept the points they had won against fellow second round qualifiers, but lost any points won against teams that didn’t make the cut.
1969 saw a minor Cold War thaw as American and Soviet club sides played their first ever football game in direct opposition. Dynamo Kiev travelled to the USA to play a series of three matches against the California Clippers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Clippers edged the series by two wins to one but did little for good relations when Cirilo Fernandez was sent off for kicking a Kiev player in the opening encounter.