Several months after World War Two had been declared a victory Great Britain and its allies, the English FA, striving to discover the intriguing nature of football behind the Iron Curtain, decided to invite the Soviet champions of 1945, Dynamo Moscow, to play against some of the Kingdom’s best clubs. After arranging the trip with the USSR embassy in London, the Englishmen awaited the arrival of the strongest Russian team of the era.
Meanwhile in Moscow, the Dynamo players rejoiced at the opportunity to take on the British teams, who still had an aura of invincibility in Eastern Europe having founded the game almost a century earlier. However, before departing to England, the Muscovites were asked to visit Joseph Stalin who, along with Lavrentiy Beria, Dynamo’s authoritative patron and also the chief of NKVD, the Soviet secret police, clarified to their sportsmen the impossibility of losing to the capitalist sides.
Strengthened by CDKA’s gifted striker Vsevolod Bobrov and two more talented players from the kindred Dynamo Leningrad, the team flew to glamorous London, whereas CDKA (later CSKA) who finished second in the USSR league table, settled with an amicable, slightly dull trip to Yugoslavia.
Chaos and noise followed news about the tour in England, where people knew next to nothing about their opponents. Few had ever heard of Dynamo Moscow, despite their star-studded domestic squad and wealth of talent. With dates of the Soviets’ arrival constantly changing, their team’s squad was mixed with a number of players having no relation to Dynamo Moscow; in reality, it was a national side that visited Britain under the name of Dynamo.
Some even speculated that it was Torpedo Moscow who were about to visit the British Isles. Regardless of rumour and intrigue, the coming men represented the nation that had just helped stop Hitler, so they were awaited with respect and esteem in most circles.
Dynamo finally arrived in the middle of November 1945. The Soviet delegation, with a translator and a commentator in its ranks, was disappointed to be greeted without their nation’s flag at Croydon airport, however that frustration soon gave way to a series of interviews with the waiting press. The tour was becoming big news in the written media.
Confusion reigned supreme for many of the players, who were rarely interviewed back in the USSR and were regular citizens to most. Even their translator seemed unwilling to talk much. Perhaps the Soviets’ lack of confidence in front of the press was what forced one major newspaper to brand them ‘The Silent Ones’. It just added to their mystique. After all, this was an era before frequent trips abroad for matches.
The entire squad was dressed in the same blue coats, carrying curious cases wrapped in a dark cloth in their hands. The media was puzzled about the content of those cases – some conspiracists even speculated that they may have smuggled an atomic bomb into the country. The answer was far more prosaic; knowing about the food rationing system operating in London, the Russians brought their meals with them.
The real problem for the hosts lay in finding safe accommodation for their guests in post-war London. Initially, they drove the Soviets to the Royal Horse Guards’ barracks in Whitehall. However, being offered nothing but bare beds without pillows and linen, the visitors refused to stay there. The only alternative option was to place the players and those accompanying them in different hotels.
Many calls and letters from London’s citizens, who learned about such negligence from their authorities, arrived at the Soviet embassy, with many offering to host the visitors in their houses and flats. The issue was finally settled when the whole delegation was provided with rooms at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square.
Dynamo, despite being camera shy and lacking in English, were not as timid as they seemed. They came to the capital with a list of 14 requests, among which were, for example, that they would only eat at the Soviet embassy – in an era of conspiracies, some suggested the players were afraid of being poisoned – would have one match refereed by a Soviet official, and would have to play Arsenal.
The English deemed their requests as brash ultimatums, although accepted all bar two. The request that Dynamo would play only once a week and on Saturdays were declined; after all, Saturday had always been the most important day of the week for the domestic game. With revenue being split 50-50, the tour was set.
Strangely, the Soviet players were to train during their tour at a dog track, although officials were suitably impressed with the quality of grass and changing rooms – all ensuring that no issue was taken.
Dynamo Moscow first appeared on pitch against Chelsea at a Stamford Bridge packed with 85.000 spectators, with tickets sold within days of going on release. The stands were awash with excitement and intrigue.
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Before the game began, the visitors surprised their hosts with two unusual acts. First, they went on to the pitch 15 minutes before the game to warm up and stretch dynamically, which was something new to the locals; soon after, the Dynamo men gave a wreath of flowers to each Chelsea player, which was normal practice in the Soviet Union but far from so in England’s rough and tumble league. Dynamo’s quality of play turned out to be a surprise for the supporters too with nobody expecting anything of note from a side of amateurs. In the end, the Muscovites showed they were anything but.
The game started with Chelsea taking the initiative. Dynamo’s players were clearly overawed with the way fans supported the Blues – the noise was in complete contrast to the regimented Soviet style where supporters calmly followed the game, clapping and whistling on the odd occasion. In England, people sat incredibly close to the pitch and that generated more pressure on the players.
Precocious post-war goalscorer Tommy Lawton shone in Chelsea blue, but Russian goalkeeper Alexei Khomich was having the game of his life. He certainly played up to his nickname ‘The Tiger’, pulling off magnificent acrobatic saves and helping his team to a 3-3 draw.
When the final whistle blew fans invaded the pitch and lifted the Russian players on their shoulders, parading them as heroes from the East. The Football Association was suitably impressed with the Soviet football style and its representatives’ tactical acumen. It was something totally new to the British: players were constantly interchanging positions and running in different directions so that no defender could follow their movement. This is what was later famously termed ‘Organized Disorder’. “Dynamo is the best side I have ever played against,” John Harris, the Chelsea centre-back, confessed.
News about Dynamo’s unexpected performance spread rapidly round Europe and on 14 November, a day after the game at Stamford Bridge, Jules Rimet, the head of FIFA, met with the Soviet sports officials in Paris and the men signed a document that contained an invitation for the USSR to join FIFA. The tour was breaking ground in the football world.
Dynamo’s next stop was Cardiff, Wales, where the Soviet players were presented with miners’ lamps as souvenirs in honour of the region’s prevalent coal mining industry. Cardiff City had a reputation as an upcoming, young, fast team, but were merely a Third Division side. Incidentally, this was the level many expected the Dynamo players to be at.
The Russian champions managed to score 10 goals, many sublime team moves, to which the Welsh side responded only once. The Cardiff players were rumoured to have put their boots and a ball in a soda solution before the game to make their equipment harder, but the trick was of no use.
Dynamo returned to London to face their third challenge, this time the great Arsenal, who the Soviets were most keen to pit their wits against. Arsenal, a forward-thinking, progressive team during that era, like their Eastern counterparts boasted national team players on loan for the day from a selection of other clubs around the country. Stanley Matthews from Stoke City, Stanley Mortensen from Blackpool, Harry Brown from QPR and other distinguished players from Fulham and Bury joined The Gunners.
White Hart Lane, where the game was held – probably the only time in history Arsenal have called their dreaded rivals’ ground ‘home’ – was awash with thick fog, and little of the game could be seen from the stands. Even the referee, Nikolay Latyshev, experienced difficulty as he failed notice Arsenal’s George Drury, who had been sent off, returning to the pitch later as if nothing had happened.
Latyshev, who would later referee the 1962 World Cup final in Santiago between Brazil and Czechoslovakia, controversially chalked off one of Arsenal’s goals, which was scored with the game at 3-3 and supposedly a perfectly fair effort – despite a foul deemed to have been committed in the build up. Controversy aside, the only thing that mattered to the Dynamo players was that they had won 4-3.
Despite the English voicing their dissatisfaction at the quality of officiating, the next game against Glasgow Rangers, their last on the tour, would see a Scottish referee take centre stage. The referee pointed to Dynamo’s penalty spot twice, both controversially. The Scots converted one of their spot-kicks but ultimately drew 2-2.
The atmosphere before and during the match at Ibrox was incredibly tense – euphoria and respect for their Eastern rivals giving way to a feeling that the Brits had embarrassed themselves by failing to beat their ideological rivals. Rangers invited the highly-promising James Caskie from Everton to help their cause, but Dynamo protested at such a move. In the end Caskie didn’t play; the thought of an Englishman coming to the help of a Scottish powerhouse was too much for the fans to accept.
Dynamo’s return to Moscow resembled scenes reminiscent of soldiers returning from war – as they had done just months earlier. The triumph in the war against Germany was still fresh in people’s minds and the footballers’ successful trip to Great Britain was regarded as another victory for the Union. Dynamo finished the tour unbeaten with a goal difference of plus 10, highlighting their might on the field to the rest of the world. Through their tour to Great Britain, Dynamo announced the coming of USSR football to the world.
Perhaps the quality of the Dynamo players and the respect they garnered during their tour was best summed up by one of the greatest English footballers of all time, Sir Stanley Matthews: “Many years passed since we first met the Russian football players. Since then, in the hearts of everyone who lived in those days, the words Dynamo Moscow are associated with the concept of class football.”
By Vladislav Ryabov