Those familiar with the Soviet Union might have found themselves grappling with a complex history defined by war, communism, geopolitics, identity, class, atrocity, human rights, music, culture, and religion; many of which are so intertwined that they appear simply inseparable from one another. Football, a sport which has traditionally been worshipped on an international scale by the working class, has often gone under the radar with so many other themes to dissect, but there is a compelling history simmering beneath by surface.
The Soviet Union was deeply involved with the Cold War between the years of 1955 and 1962, and football represented yet another tool to deploy in the psychological war between the ‘devil of capitalism’ and the ‘gift of communism’. Under the watchful eye of Gavriil Kachalin, the Soviet Union won tournaments – albeit under controversial circumstances – and developed some of the finest players to ever pull on the red shirt, such as the world famous goalkeeper Lev Yashin and Eduard Streltsov, a centre-forward who was exiled in his prime under dubious circumstances which remain mysterious to this day.
On the subject of the kit colour: it would be natural to assume that the colour red was aligned within the realm of identity politics used to symbolise and glorify the power of communism and the proletariat. There are undoubtedly connections with the colour red and communism, that much is true, but the origins of the kit colour run far deeper into the history of the Soviet Union. Historically, red was a colour associated with left-wing movements which preceded the Russian revolution. But politics can actually be removed from the equation altogether. The Russian word for red is ‘krasni’ – one which is synonymous with beauty. Red Square in Moscow, for example, commanded its name from the beauty of Saint Basil’s cathedral.
Eleven years after the conclusion of World War Two, or the ‘Great Patriotic War’ to Soviet natives, Australia hosted the first-ever Olympic Games to be held outside of Europe and North America. Before the games even got underway, the delicate global political situation forced Spain, Cambodia, Switzerland and the Netherlands all to withdraw from the Olympics in protest against the Soviets, who they believed played a key role in crushing the Hungarian revolution the previous November.
The USSR, however, was not the only nation engulfed in political controversy ahead of the tournament. The United Kingdom and France followed Israel in invading Egypt in 1956 in an endeavour to regain Western control of the Suez canal. Ultimately, the push, which was later coined the Suez Crisis, or the Second Arab-Israeli War, was a humiliating failure and events in the Middle East led to the withdrawal of Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon.
With seven notable absentees at the Olympic Games, the USSR capitalised and went on to claim the football gold medal in Kachalin’s first major triumph as manager. The gold medal represented just one of 37 the Soviets claimed at the games and their overall tally of 98 medals put them at the top the list of nations – the first of six occasions they would achieve this feat at the Olympics.
The USSR faced Germany in the first round of the competition in front of a crowd of 12,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which, intriguingly, was more than three times the number of spectators in attendance at Australia’s first-round clash against Japan. With political tensions still running high between the two nations just 11 years after the end of World War Two, this was a game of huge psychological and symbolic significance.
Anatoli Isayev got the USSR off to a fine start by netting the opener after 23 minutes. Sun-drenched spectators had to wait until the 86th minute to see the net bulge again, as teenage sensation Streltsov scored a decisive second goal for the USSR before Germany notched a consolation.
The Soviets needed a replay to see off the challenge of Indonesia in the quarter-final, which they won convincingly by four goals to nil before a dramatic semi-final against Bulgaria saw Streltsov cement his growing reputation. Scores were tied at 0-0 after 90 minutes taking the game into extra-time. Bulgaria took the lead five minutes into the extra period and the Soviets were struggling: Nikolay Tyschenko was forced to withdraw after breaking his collarbone, and injured star striker Valentin Ivanov was battling on but basically redundant, leaving Kachalin’s men trailing and effectively down to nine players.
Enter Streltsov. The exuberant teenager showcased his talent and drove the Soviets forward. His first moment of magic came in the 112th minute when he drew his injury-laden side level and, as if his presence fully compensated for the two-man deficit, he provided Boris Tatushin with the goal which fired the USSR into the final against Yugoslavia.
Now, following such an immense performance in the semi-final, any manager of sound mind would put Streltsov’s name on the team-sheet and build his starting eleven for the final around him, wouldn’t they? Not Kachalin.The manager who had masterminded their route to the final had a strict policy of selecting a centre-forward pairing who played club football alongside one another. Streltsov and Ivanov formed a prolific partnership for Torpedo Moscow and had scored a total of 25 goals from 43 appearances between them in 1956, but Ivanov was ruled out of the final after bravely battling on in the previous match.
Kachalin made the decision to drop both players for the clash with Yugoslavia, meaning 86,000 spectators at Melbourne Cricket Ground were deprived of one of the most formidable duos in world football at the time. The decision did not come back to haunt Kachalin though. The USSR won a tightly-contested encounter 1-0 courtesy of a 48th-minute strike from replacement forward Anatoli Ilyin, who would later go on to score the first-ever goal at the European Championships.
Victory in Melbourne represented the beginning of a glorious era of footballing excellence for the USSR. Bigger achievements were on the horizon, but next up was the 1958 World Cup which did not go according to plan. The seeds for an underwhelming World Cup campaign were planted before Kachalin and his players had even set foot in the host nation of Sweden. After finishing seventh in the voting for European Player of the Year award in 1957, Streltsov was establishing himself as an insatiable talent in the Soviet Union. A charismatic man both on and off the field, physically imposing and with a seemingly illustrious career ahead, everything seemed in place for him to become a national hero.
The World Cup would offer a platform to broadcast his talent on an international scale. It was the first World Cup to be shown on television worldwide, albeit, in black and white of course, but a dramatic turn of events crushed his ambitions. On 25th May 1958, Streltsov left the pre-tournament training camp just outside of Moscow to attend a party. The host was Eduard Karakhanov, a military officer recently returned from a posting in the Far East, and the following morning Streltsov was arrested and charged with the rape of a woman named Marina Lebedeva.
Streltsov confessed after apparently being promised that he would be allowed to attend the World Cup by doing so. Those promises were baseless: Streltsov was sentenced to twelve years in the Gulag (the forced labour camp of the Soviets) and missed the tournament. He was released early after seven years and still enjoyed a fruitful career in the game, but one cannot escape the feeling that the USSR was deprived of a phenomenally gifted talent during his exile, one dubbed “the greatest outfield player Russia has ever produced” by Jonathan Wilson.
Streltsov’s absence merely enhanced the appeal of the most successful football player in the history of the USSR, namely Lev Yashin. The titanic goalkeeper, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Black Spider’, or the ‘Black Panther’ to some, is widely considered the greatest goalkeeper of all time. That the late Gordon Banks was voted the second-best goalkeeper of the 20th century behind Yashin by the International Football Federation of History and Statistics (IFFHS) speaks volumes about the enormity of his legacy.
Yashin is regarded as something of a revolutionary for the role he played in transforming the goalkeeper from a mere stopper to an integral cog within the defensive machine, as he barked orders from the penalty area and used his perspective to organise the defensive unit in front of him. He was seldom afraid to rush off his line to close down onrushing attackers – a rare phenomenon during a time in which keepers were not expected to stray away from the safe haven of their six-yard box.
His reflex saves and intimidating presence between the sticks caught the eye in 1958, as did his choice of outfit accompanied without fail by a Peaky Blinders-esque flat cap perched on his head. The USSR found itself placed in a difficult looking group alongside England, Austria, and Brazil. Kachalin’s side started the tournament with a 2-2 draw against the Three Lions before edging closer to the knockout stages with a 2-0 win over Austria.
A Brazilian side featuring 17-year-old sensation Pelé was simply in a class of its own however. Yashin’s heroic display against the eventual winners of the competition saved the USSR from humiliation, but the 2-0 scoreline failed to reflect the full extent of Brazil’s domination. Three points from three games saw the USSR advance to the quarter-final to face hosts Sweden, but two second-half goals from Kurt Hamrin and Agne Simonsson enabled the Swedes to clinch the result the 32,000 home spectators were praying for. Kachalin’s side fell short at the tournament without Streltsov, but the stratospheric emergence of Yashin was the major positive to take home.
There was something ethereal about Yashin which transcended his performances between the sticks. The goalkeeper had a special significance for citizens of the USSR: he was the last line of defence, the wall between victory and defeat, a symbol of the national spirit. Russia’s history with war and ever-changing borders has placed the role of the humble goalkeeper on a pedestal as if every sprawling save represented the bravery and patriotism of the millions of troops who perished while protecting the borders of the vast nation.
But Yashin’s snowballing reputation was only beginning to gather pace in 1958, and it would be the inaugural European Championships in 1960 that saw the budding hero flourish into a national superstar. With the bitter disappointment of 1958 still festering in his mind, Kachalin and his players bounced back in emphatic style.
England, West Germany and Italy all declined to enter the European Nations’ Cup and the qualification format was quite different from modern-day. The Soviets faced Hungary in a two-legged first-round tie with the fixtures separated by almost an entire year. Hungary travelled to Moscow first on 28 September 1958 and Ilyin fired the hosts into a fourth-minute lead. Further first-half strikes from Slava Metreveli and Ivanov put Kachalin’s side in cruise control before the break. Hungary pulled a goal back in the 84th minute, but the pulsating first-half performance laid the foundations for qualification.
Hungary was more competitive in the return game a year later, but not enough to prevent the Soviets from winning 1-0 and comfortably securing their place in the quarter-final with a 4-1 aggregate victory. Political tensions then played into Kachalin’s hands in the second round. The USSR were pitted against Spain in another two-legged tie, but Soviet support for the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War left a bitter taste in the mouth for Francisco Franco’s far-right dictatorship. As a consequence, the federation refused to travel east for the first leg and Spain was disqualified from the competition, so paving the way for the USSR to move into the semi-final without kicking a ball.
France hosted the final four fixtures of the competition and Czechoslovakia were the opponents standing between the USSR and a place in the final. Ivanov was in a clinical mood when the sides went head-to-head, bagging a brace either side of the break before Viktor Ponedelnik completed a comprehensive 3-0 victory and sealed a final date against Yugoslavia – a relatively young side who fielded just one outfield player over the age of 23 in the final – just four days later.
If the USSR’s route to the final was straightforward, the final was anything but. Under the lights at the Parc Des Princes in Paris, Yugoslavia took the lead after 43 minutes through Milan Galic, the second-highest goalscorer in the history of the Yugoslavian national side. Nearly two years on from his strike in the first round of the competition against Hungary, Metreveli popped up with a vital equaliser four minutes into the second-half in what proved to be the last decisive action of regulatory time.
In extra time as the game looked to be heading towards a replay, Ponedelnik put his name in lights by scoring the winning goal after 113 minutes, handing the USSR the honour of being crowned the winners at the maiden European Championships. Victory in France enabled the USSR to top the FIFA rankings. It was the only time they lifted the trophy despite reaching three more finals in 1964, 1972 and 1988, and it ensured an unprecedented place in history for Kachalin and his cherished squad of players.
Buoyed by their 1960 achievements, Kachalin took his squad to the World Cup in Chile in 1962 with every hope of turning the disappointment of 1958 into a Soviet footballing history footnote. Dreams of completing a hat-trick of esteemed honours as manager were firmly in Kachalin’s sights, but his illustrious reign crashed and burned in South America along with Yashin’s other-worldly reputation.
The tournament started brightly and the Soviet credentials were evident. The usual suspects were at it again: Ivanov and Ponedelnik prolific in the group stages, with the former bagging four and the latter adding two as the USSR topped their group with five points. Their first win came against familiar prey in Yugoslavia, who were powerless to avenge their defeat in the European Championships final, while Ivanov’s expertise was needed to score a dramatic 89th-minute winner against Uruguay to seal a place in the knockout stages on matchday three.
Sandwiched between these two victories was a bizarre watershed moment in Yashin’s career against Colombia. The goalkeeper was a perennial brick wall for the USSR until that fixture, but an atypical performance was met with hysteria back home. He revealed that he was indeed human when he failed to prevent Marcos Coll scoring directly from a corner – the only recorded goal of its kind in the history of the competition.
The USSR had raced into a 3-0 lead after just 11 minutes in this fixture and were 4-1 up when Yashin’s blunder gave the Colombians a lifeline, and it proved to be the psychological boost they needed as the South American staged a dramatic turnaround to level the score at 4-4.
The result did not prevent the USSR from progressing but the damage was done: Yashin was human after all and Soviet borders had been breached. The budding World Cup winners dusted themselves down for the last-gasp win against Uruguay, but their dream came to a crestfallen end against their Chilean hosts in a 2-1 quarter-final elimination. The only Russian language report detailing the defeat against Chile depicted Yashin as the sole reason for Soviet exit from the competition, and his reputation back home plummeted as a result.
In the modern era, the spread of mass media has led to deeply-entrenched political issues concerning the rise of what has infamously been coined ‘fake news,’ but Yashin’s scapegoating following the World Cup exit in 1962 proves that, on the other end of the spectrum, propaganda-driven content also led to the production of inaccurate narrative. The slander spread like wildfire in an uninformed, impressionable society with fans amplifying calls for their goalkeeper to retire upon his return.
But like all great champions, Yashin rose from the ashes and refused to allow a momentary blip in his career to undermine his legacy. He won the Ballon d’Or just a year later in 1963 and he remains the only goalkeeper in history to claim the most prestigious of individual honours. In 2002 he was chosen in the FIFA dream team comprising of an ultimate XI based on the history of the World Cup.
Football historians claim he saved around 150 penalties during his career, more than any other goalkeeper on record, and his testimonial was held in front of 100,000 fans at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow. Ilyin Pelé, Eusébio and Franz Beckenbauer were all in attendance to pay tribute to the Black Spider. Yashin was the treasure of Kachalin’s glory years; Ivanov, Ponedelnik and Ilyin all have notable places in the history books and Streltsov was the legend in waiting that never was.
Kachalin left his post as manager in light of World Cup disappointment but would return in 1968 to have another attempt at lifting the most coveted trophy in international football. He fell short at the quarter-final stage once again at Mexico ’70, losing to Uruguay in extra-time. His place in Soviet history is one defined by unadulterated admiration for everything he achieved during his first stint as manager. The World Cup may have eluded Kachalin and those who followed in his footsteps, but the 1955-1962 period is a slice of history which will be perpetually thought of as the pinnacle of Soviet footballing achievement.