The Streltsov Scandal – Gold, Goals & Gulags

In 1958 the Russian football prodigy Eduard Streltsov was sentenced to 12 years in prison for rape. A prodigious talent, he had made his debut in club football for Torpedo Moscow at just 16 years of age. The 1954/55 season saw him score 15 goals in 22 matches as the lesser Muscovite club finished the League season in fourth place. Two years prior to his conviction, Streltsov was a pivotal member of the Soviet Union side that claimed the football gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics. Though dropped for the final, The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson notes that Streltsov was confident of future opportunities:

His confidence was understandable. Even at 18, Streltsov was a tall, powerful forward, possessed of a fine first touch and extraordinary footballing intelligence. A year earlier, he had come seventh in the voting for European Player of the Year. Charismatic and good-looking to boot, it seemed that he had the world at his feet.

The cliché about having the world at his feet was to be later replaced by the paraphrasing of the Shakespearean idiom about how the whole world’s a stage and Streltsov was merely a player on it. An athlete of great ability mixed with matinee idol good looks and notoriety saw him enjoy a party lifestyle, so much so that in February 1958 he was ordered to a prison cell for several days after a drunken brawl. The 1958 World Cup in Sweden witnessed the exploits of a young Pelé who led Brazil to its first victory in the tournament, however the dashing blond Streltsov missed out on the opportunity to attempt something similar for the Soviet Union. He too had made his international debut at 17 and marked the occasion with a hat-trick, but just days before the Soviet side was set to depart for the tournament in Sweden, Streltsov and two teammates were arrested for rape.

On the 25th May 1958 Streltsov attended a party at a holiday dacha owned by a military officer named Eduard Karakhanov who had just returned from a posting in Asia. The following morning the Torpedo forward was charged with the rape of Marina Lebedva whom he had met at the party. The victim stated that: “Streltsov started dragging me to bed…we were fighting, I resisted as hard as I could, saying that I’d scream, but he was gagging me.” The Soviet star striker confessed to having committed the crime, apparently after being told that if he did admit to the crime he would be allowed to play in the tournament in Sweden. 

His two teammates were freed as Streltsov was sent to Siberia and his former national team colleagues would be ultimately defeated by the hosts Sweden in the quarter-finals. Though the world missed out on seeing the two teenage talents compete together on the biggest stage, both players would be inextricably linked in Russia. Years later Torpedo fans would joke that ‘if Pele downed coffee as Eduard Streltsov drank vodka, he’d have died.’

Streltsov was later freed from a labour camp ‘for good conduct’ and returned to his old club Torpedo Moscow in the Soviet First Division. Prior to his arrest Streltsov had been a national idol, but this incident was, up to that point, ‘the greatest sports scandal in Soviet history” – though David Walsh would probably refute that following his latter day analysis of the systemic doping of Russian athletes. The player’s original sentence was reduced to seven years with Streltsov ultimately freed after five. Sadly, what should have been the peak years of his athletic ability were spent in a Siberian gulag which the Irish Examiner stated was: ‘for a crime his friends say he did not commit.’ This would appear to be conjecture just as much as the uncertainty of the allegations made against Streltsov and his subsequent conviction in the first place.

The most likely reasoning for the belief that Streltsov was framed is due to his rampant womanising. He had married a year prior to the rape but was certainly not faithful to his wife and it seems that the Communist authorities were concerned about the celebrity the young forward had been cultivating. Problematic appeared to be his relationship with the 16-year-old daughter of Yekaterina Furtseva, the only woman ever to become a member of the Politburo – the principal policymaking committee of the Communist Party. When asked about the likelihood of marrying her daughter at a Kremlin ball, it is believed that Streltsov replied: ‘I already have a fiancée and I will not marry her.’ Other reports suggest he had made cruel comments such as calling the young Svetlana a monkey and that he would ‘rather be hanged than marry’ the girl who was clearly besotted with him.

The archives of the Communist Party show they distrusted the player who had attracted interest from clubs in France and Sweden and who is believed to have said to friends before the 1958 World Cup that he was always sorry to return to the Soviet Union after trips abroad. The coach of the national team sought for the case to be suspended until after the World Cup, but that the matter was so serious meant nothing could be done. Few of Streltsov’s former team-mates ever spoke about the event. The player wrote a letter to his mother saying he was taking the blame for someone else’s misdemeanour. Streltsov’s biographer Anatoly Nilin believes the player’s prison sentence was harsh, but ‘you can’t blame Furtseva, Khrushchev or Stalin if you’re unable to behave when drunk.’

Though he returned to his previous profession in 1965 there was still a court-imposed lifetime ban on him being able to travel abroad. As an ex-convict the forward missed out on playing in the 1966 FIFA World Cup as the Soviet Union reached the semi-finals of the competition before losing 2-1 to West Germany. This ban was eventually lifted later in 1966 to allow him to play for the Russian national team in Italy.

The mid-60s saw Torpedo regularly compete in European competition. In December 1967 the railway workers team was drawn to play Cardiff City in the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Torpedo’s coach was 59-time capped former Soviet international Valentin Ivanov and he could rely on the experience of players like right-back Valeri Voronin and the now 30-year-old Streltsov up front. Such was his enduring renown that Dublin’s Evening Echo described the forward as ‘one of the most popular players in the Soviet Union’.

1967 brought a Soviet title for Torpedo and the performances of Streltsov led him to being the only soccer player listed by Soviet sportswriters in nominations for sportsperson of the year, featuring alongside names such as figure skaters Ludmila Belusova and Oleg Protopopov; wrestler Ali Aliev and ice hockey player Anatoli Firsov. Weekly newspaper Football named him as Russia’s Footballer of the Year with Streltsov receiving 45 of the 65 votes from sports commentators who were polled for the award. It appears that his star turn in the 2-2 draw with England at Wembley on the 6th December 1967 capped off a remarkable year and made official his comeback in the sport.

Aside from his success on the field, part of his footballing cultural legacy was his pioneering of the backheel pass which in Russia is known as ‘Streltsov’s pass’ and, even after his years in the wilderness of international football, he retained his nickname of ‘the Russian Pele’. Thirty years later after Eduard Streltsov was named the best ever footballer in Russia, Torpedo Moscow renamed their stadium in his honour. Former chess World Champion Anatoly Karpov believed the conviction had prevented the player from becoming the best player in the world in the early 1960s.

Often we naively look to our sporting heroes to be model citizens and good role models, but such an outlook only leads to disappointment as great soccer players are fallible humans just like the rest of us. Success on the field of play should not be enough to compensate for criminal misdemeanours off it however. Regardless of the versions or conspiracies surrounding Streltsov’s conviction in 1958, it appears that the victim Marina Lebedva is the tragic figure in both stories: a victim of sexual assault or a pawn in a power game played by the Communist Party, her well-being apparently secondary. The life of a young woman was inextricably altered by these events, the greatest tragedy of them all.

CIAN MANNING

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