IT’S NO SECRET THAT BIG TOURNAMENTS CREATE BIG PLAYERS. To this day football fans all over the world still talk about how a 17-year-old Pelé dazzled spectators during the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. While Pelé got his big breakthrough at the World Cup, other already established players had developed into superstars prior to the finals, like French wizard Zinedine Zidane who helped France become world and European champions before becoming the most expensive player in history when he joined Real Madrid’s galácticos in 2001.

The World Cup is a great stage, and in 1990 it made Italian striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci famous when he, almost out of nowhere, became top scorer and won the Golden Boot in a tournament where Italy finished third. Schillaci finished second in that year’s Ballon d’Or award too, and when his career was over he could look back at seven goals for Azzurri, six of these during the 1990 World Cup when he wasn’t even first choice to begin with. Schillaci’s career was expected to take off after the World Cup, but instead he played out four disappointing seasons for Juventus and Internazionale before he became the first Italian in the Japanese top flight.

Other players have reached the top of the game without winning anything with their national sides, but they have all competed, and won, the biggest club tournaments. Here, players like Ryan Giggs, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Michael Laudrup come to mind.

And then there are those who never did any of these things, but still gained legend status. Eduard Streltsov belongs to the last category. Moscow-born Streltsov was one of the most gifted players in the Soviet era, but despite enormous talent and Soviet league and cup titles he never competed on the biggest stage.

Streltsov made his debut for Torpedo Moscow at the age of 16 in 1954, and it didn’t take him long to reach stardom. At the age of 16, eight months and 27 days he became the youngest player to score in the Soviet league. When the 1955 season started, Torpedo’s local rivals Spartak Moscow had ambitions of switching their second place in the previous season out with the national title, and they got the perfect start to the season with four consecutive wins and an away tie with Dinamo Kyiv.

It wasn’t until the sixth round when the Red-Whites faced a young, energetic Torpedo team that the streak ended. Torpedo were led by striker Valentin Ivanov and, of course, Streltsov, and in front of 60,000 spectators at Dinamo Stadium, Torpedo won 2-0. Spartak lost only two more games that season and ultimately reclaimed the title from their eternal rivals. Eduard Streltsov was crowned as the highest scoring player in the Soviet Union.

A month before his 18th birthday, Streltsov scored three goals against Sweden in his debut for the national team. He went on to repeat this number in his second game – a friendly against India – before he scored once against Denmark. With his goals tallying up, Streltsov quickly established himself on the Soviet national team, a side that was being rebuilt after the disappointing Olympic tournament in 1952 where they lost to Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The defeat to Yugoslavia on the Olympic stage was a political defeat for Josef Stalin and Soviet communism, and on Lavrentiy Beria’s advice Georgiy Malenkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers, dissolved CDSA – the former incarnation of CSKA Moscow. The core of the Soviet team came from CDSA, just like the coach, the legendary Boris Arkadiev. Several of the players were stripped of their Master of Sport titles, and while some of the CDSA players went to the Kaliningrad garrison of the sports society, others preferred to stay in Moscow where they found new clubs, like central defender Anatoly Bashashkin. Bashashkin, who lost his title as captain of the national team after the Olympics, was one of the greatest defenders in the Soviet Union; he played one season for Spartak before CDSA was re-formed following Stalin’s death in 1953.

It was in this environment that Streltsov sought to make an impact, and when the 1956 Olympics kicked off in Melbourne, Streltsov was without a doubt the star on the Soviet team. With the charismatic Streltsov scoring the winner, the Soviet Union beat West Germany in the first round, before qualifying for the semi-final against Bulgaria with victory against Indonesia in the second round.

The first 90 minutes of the semi-final finished 0-0 with the Soviet Union being two men down after suffering injuries. In the 95th minute Bulgaria opened the scoring and it looked like the Soviets were in for another failure on the biggest stage. Streltsov, however, thought otherwise, and seven minutes into the second half of the extra time he scored the equalizer, before four minutes later providing the assist for Boris Tatushin’s winning goal.

Despite his stellar performances throughout the tournament, Streltsov was, strangely enough, not in the starting line-up in the final against Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union went to win 1-0 as they wrote yet another chapter in the elongated history of Soviet football. Back then, only the players who participated in the final were awarded with medals, and when Streltsov and the team returned to Vladivostok – from where they took the train to Moscow – only the eleven players from the final were photographed for the victory picture.

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11134103_10206473724388620_4161906080801031040_o-2Graffiti of Streltsov outside Torpedo’s stadium today

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In Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, Nikita Simonyan, the current interim president of the Russian Football Union and the striker who was preferred over Streltsov in the final, revealed that he offered Streltsov his medal. The offer was refused. Streltsov replied: “Nikita, I will win many more trophies.” Streltsov didn’t go home empty handed as he, and the rest of the squad, was awarded the Merited Master of Sport degree for their accomplishments during the Olympics.

Streltsov continued to score almost as he pleased for Torpedo Moscow and in the following season, 1957, they finished second behind Dinamo Moscow, with both Streltsov and Ivanov being among the top strikers in the league.

It was also in 1957, however, that Streltsov’s demise started as he began to drink more and more, something that was caused by his popularity according to former teammate Ivanov: “It was the fans who killed him,” he told Wilson. “Everybody wanted to drink with him, and he got more and more fans.” To make things worse Streltsov was also a regular smoker, but in the end it was his good looks, success and charm that got him in trouble. Despite being married, Streltsov was a womanizer, and his relationship with the 16-year-old daughter of Politburo member Ekaterina Furtseva landed him in hot water when he refused to marry her. According to some, he called her a monkey during a celebration party for the Olympic victory.

With Streltsov’s help the Soviet Union qualified for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the tournament where Pelé announced himself on the world stage as he led Brazil to the title with six goals. It was during the final preparations for this tournament that Streltsov went to a party near the national team’s training camp. Here he met the daughter of an army colonel, Marina Lebedeva, and took her home. While most reports claims she seduced Streltsov, she wrote a letter to the public prosecutor of Moscow the following day claiming Streltsov had raped her. Streltsov’s teammates Mikhail Ogonkov and Boris Tatushin, who had joined him at the party, were later arrested on the same charges, but they were later released without prosecution. While Tatushin and Ogonkov were both disqualified from football for three years, Streltsov was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Today very few people believe Streltsov actually raped Lebedeva, and while his former teammates are sure he slept with Lebedeva, many believe there is a bigger conspiracy surrounding the Streltsov case. Some claim he was set up after he turned down Dinamo, something that also happened to Nikita Simonyan before he joined Spartak, but the most popular theory is that the arrest was related to his unkind words against Ekaterina Furtseva’s daughter. Furtseva was a close ally of general secretary Nikita Khrushchev; according to the coach of the national team, Gavriil Kachalin, the police told him that Krushchev had been personally informed about the case.

In Aleksandr Nilin’s book Streltsov, from 2002, he claims that the striker was told he could participate in the World Cup if only he confessed to the crime. So he did. At the same time this confession stopped around 100,000 unhappy workers from the ZIL-factory who were planning a protest in support of their local hero.

Without Streltsov, Tatushin and Ogonkov the USSR were eliminated from the World Cup after a quarter-final defeat to Sweden. While Streltsov was imprisoned, the public smear campaign that had slowly started a few years before grew stronger than ever, but only for a while as his name was slowly being removed from the Soviet history books.

Streltsov got a tough start to life in prison and, according to Nilin, was nearly killed by prison guards after he attacked a fellow prisoner, who turned out to be an informer for the authorities. After Streltsov recovered from the beatings the guard gave him, he was moved to another camp and slowly things started to turn around for him.

Streltsov secured his freedom in 1963 when he was released after five years of imprisonment. He was still banned from playing football at the highest level, so he had to settle with amateur football for the ZIL factory team. After he returned it quickly became clear that the fans had not forgotten about their fallen hero – and large crowds came to watch him. In 1963, thousands of workers pleaded to the secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, to lift Streltsov’s ban from top football, a wish he refused on advice from Khrushchev. When Brezhnev, a year later, took over as leader of the communist world after Khrushchev, he finally granted Streltsov the opportunity for a comeback to the highest level.

Streltsov, who had often visited Torpedo and illegally played for their second team, quickly found his old level, despite the fact that he had lost strength, speed and some of his hair, and with 12 goals in 26 matches he helped Torpedo win the league title in his comeback season. He came second in the Soviet Footballer of the Year award and the following year secured his comeback for the national team.

Streltsov and Torpedo went to win the Soviet Cup in 1968, the same year when he played on the national team for the last time. He wasn’t included in the squad for the European Championships in June that year, and he was permanently dropped after a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Hungary in qualification.

Two years later, in 1970, he retired from football at the age of 33, and he quickly started studying to become a football coach. At the same time he started playing for the Soviet veterans’ squad, where he still attracted big crowds. With the exception of a brief stint as first team head coach he spent most of his coaching career in Torpedo’s youth department, where he helped form the new generation of Soviet football players, just like when he helped the young players on the first team when he was 21 and already an established star.

Streltsov died of throat cancer in 1990 and with him the truth of what exactly happened that spring night in 1958 disappeared. Despite only playing 38 matches for the national team, only five Russian and Soviet players have scored more than the 25 goals Streltsov bagged between his debut against Sweden and his last match against Hungary. In 1996 Torpedo renamed their ground as the Eduard Streltsov stadium, and at the entrance to the ground a large statue of Streltsov greets the fans. Finally he was reunited with other Torpedo legends, like his old friend Ivanov.

Despite never participating in a World Cup or a European Championship, there is no doubt that Streltsov is one of the greatest players to ever play on Russian soil. Had he not been imprisoned in 1958 who knows, perhaps the story of the World Cup would have been completely different. Despite playing his formative years on an amateur factory team, Streltsov was truly “the boy from the land of wonder,” as Aleksandr Nilin put it.

By Toke Theilade. Follow @TokeTheilade