The golden ages of the Soviet national team

The golden ages of the Soviet national team

THINK OF THE RUSSIAN NATIONAL TEAM and you’re unlikely to think of anything particularly positive. One brief flutter towards success came in reaching the Euro 2008 semi-finals in fine style – led by the mercurial Andrey Arshavin – but just as quickly, any hopes of glory were gone – and are yet to return.

You may think of hooligan fans or mercenary coaches brought in at vast expense. Or perhaps you’d think of the fact that Russia has been far from an ever-present at tournaments in the last couple of decades of more downs than ups, as they leapt from the mediocre to the ordinary and back again. For a country with a vast population, an enthusiasm for sport and football in particular, the regular mediocrity served up by the national team is quite surprising. But those with slightly longer memories may recall better days, of star players and powerful teams.

In football terms, like in much else, Russia is a descendant of the Soviet Union national team, inheriting its records and its successes. Cast your minds back to the days before its break up – the separation into the numerous constituent Republics and the subsequent separation of footballing identity – and an iconic image may come to mind of striking red shirts with CCCP boldly embroidered on the front. It flagged not just a nation but an identity, an ideal, and an oppressor. While the Soviet Union may never have reached the highest peak of them all in terms of international football, they have enjoyed two notable periods of success; two golden eras if you will.

In the age of communism and the lack of official sporting professionalism that entailed for those from beyond the Iron Curtain, it was in the Olympic arena that the Soviet nation made its first impact on the global stage, with participation in the 1952 Games. Officially amateur it may have been, but it was essentially the senior national team taking part. They saw off the fellow Eastern European shamateurs from Bulgaria before losing out to Yugoslavia after a replay in the last 16. 

Four years later, however, the rise to prominence would glisten with gold. In the Melbourne Games of 1956, a Soviet team containing many of the names who will feature in this tale saw off the challenges of Germany, Indonesia and Bulgaria before facing Yugoslavia once more, this time in the final with the gold medals on the line.

A bumper crowd of 86,000 saw the Soviets grab the only goal of the game against a de facto full national team from Yugoslavia. The Red Army had laid down their first marker. The next challenge would be to succeed against the professionals from the western world.

In goal for that gold medal triumph was the legendary Lev Yashin, the man who would go on to be voted the greatest goalkeeper of the 20th century, dressed all in black as was his wont. Having progressed from playing for the team at the Moscow munitions factory in which he worked as a young man to the first team at Dynamo Moscow, he swiftly became a regular between the sticks for both club and country. 

Read  |  Lev Yashin: the heroic gentleman in black

Having helped his team to gold in the 1956 Olympics, it would be two years later, at the World Cup in Sweden, where he would really come to global prominence. Receiving acclaim for his dynamic and athletic performances during the finals, he produced a string of fine, spectacular saves throughout, earning him the moniker ‘The Black Spider’ thanks to both his agility and his choice of clothing.

In a tight opening round group, they edged past the England of Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and Tom Finney after a playoff, after both had finished level behind Brazil. That took the Soviets to a quarter-final with their Swedish hosts, who narrowly prevailed on their way to their own date with destiny against Brazil and Pelé in the final.

They may have been beaten but the Soviet Union had made their mark as a footballing force to be reckoned with. And in Yashin, they had a player grabbing the attention. He stood out not only for his saves – fine though they were – but because he was different. Goalkeepers at this point in history were still relatively static and decidedly reactionary. Yashin was neither of those things.

He was ahead of his time; an innovator, a Russian revolutionary. In a similar way to the reinvention of the art of goalkeeping in more recent times by the likes of Manuel Neuer, Yashin was the first to add various elements of play to the last line of defence. He was one of the first at the very highest level to come for balls he couldn’t safely catch and punch clear instead. He was quick to leave his line and rush out of goal to narrow the angle in one on one situations, giving a far greater level of success in preventing a goal. He vociferously marshalled the defence in front of him, keeping their organisation and positioning to his liking. 

In a very modern way, he was more than a mere goalkeeper too, with his effective distribution starting off many attacks in a rather more proactive way to the slower paced norm of that era. To our modern eyes, it may not seem extraordinary, but in the late 1950s, it truly was. 

The other key figure on the pitch was the team captain, midfielder Igor Netto. Coming from Spartak Moscow, he brought with him the possession-based pressing style of play his club had refined under their innovative and forward-thinking coach Victor Maslov. Maslov’s tactics, not only pressing but also the adoption of a 4-4-2 formation, were described by Jonathan Wilson in Behind the Curtain as “the birth of modern football”. It was these tactics, brought to the national team by Netto, and adopted by the coach through this era, Gavriil Kachilin, that saw the Soviet team scale the heights.

Kachilin enjoyed a good rapport with the Communist Party rulers at the time, a fact that allowed him to ensure team matters were left to him, without any political interference. Having coached a Moscow XI to success over the great Hungarian national team of the early 1950s – in fact, his team inflicted the only defeat the Magnificent Magyars suffered, albeit not in an official international, in their 34-match winning streak between 1952 and 1954 – he came to the attention of the sports minister who promptly put him in charge of the national team.

Read  |  Igor Netto: the forgotten legend of Russian football

Two years on from their World Cup debut, the first European Championships – or European Nations’ Cup as it was called at the time – offered another opportunity to show what his team could do. Unlike today’s bloated tournament, the early rounds of the first Nations’ Cup were a two-legged knock-out format. Only 17 teams took part in the inaugural event in 1960, with the absence of England, Italy and West Germany being particularly damaging to the tournament’s prestige and performance levels. But even with those absentees, there was plenty of strength around the continent to contend with.

The Soviet’s campaign began only a few months after the 1958 World Cup, with a tie against a Hungarian team that was now on the wane, descending from their lofty peak of 1954. A comfortable 4-1 aggregate win took the Soviets through to a quarter-final with Spain – or it should have done. Spain was under the military dictatorship of General Franco, and from his point of view, the Soviet Union had supported the wrong side during the Spanish Civil War, namely the left-wing Republicans, two decades earlier. 

Relations had remained tense and toxic ever since, leading to Franco barring his side from journeying to Moscow for the away leg. UEFA were left with little choice but to disqualify Spain, taking the Soviet Union through to the semi-finals to be held in France in the summer of 1960. If things had been relatively straightforward up until now, it would get significantly harder in France. Standing against them in the semi-final in Marseille were a Czechoslovakia team who would go on to be World Cup runners-up in 1962, led by their own midfield maestro, Josef Masopust.

The prolific and highly skilled Torpedo Moscow striker Valentin Ivanov, another to have featured in the Olympic triumph two years before, struck twice to put the Red Army on the verge of victory before Viktor Ponedelnik added a third late on to seal an impressive 3-0 triumph. The scoreline makes it sound comfortable, but this was a hard earned victory over a very strong side.

Once again, waiting for them in the final were Yugoslavia, who had beaten hosts France in an epic semi-final, coming back from 4-1 down during the second half to win 5-4. Yugoslavia dominated the early stages of the final, maintaining possession and frustrating the Soviets while creating numerous chances on goal. That it was only 1-0 to the Yugoslavs at the break was in no small part thanks to the heroics of Yashin. Indeed, he had kept them out all the way until a couple of minutes before the interval before finally succumbing to the tidal wave of attacks bearing down on his goal.

After a chance to recuperate both physically and tactically, the second half took a different path. Less than five minutes after the restart the scores were level, with Slava Metreveli poaching an equaliser after the Yugoslav goalkeeper had spilled a long range effort. The game became more of a cagey affair from then on, with the decisive blow not being struck until extra-time.  It came in the 113th minute when Ponedelnik looped a header into the corner of the net to secure the victory.

The team would largely stay together over the course of the next few tournaments, and though they would never achieve ultimate victory again, they remained one of the stronger national teams of the era. In reaching the quarter-finals of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Valentin Ivanov was one of six players to share the Golden Boot, scoring four times. As in 1958, they narrowly lost out to the hosts in the quarter-final. 

Read  |  Spartak, survival and success: the story of Nikolai Starostin

Yashin was in goal throughout once again, and a year later he would win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s finest player. To this day, he is still the only goalkeeper to win that award. The following year, Yashin, Ivanov and co would come within a whisker of retaining their European crown, reaching the final once more but losing out again to the host nation, this time Spain, who grabbed a 2-1 win with a late headed goal.

1966 would again see Yashin excel and capture the world’s attention. That year saw the Soviet Union post their finest World Cup performance, reaching the semi-finals before being beaten by West Germany. Eventually finishing fourth, Yashin was the goalkeeper of the tournament, and even at the age of 37, remained the pre-eminent stopper of his generation. 

Age, however, was catching up with this strong generation. By the time of the next European Nations’ Cup in 1968, most of the old guard from this highly successful era were gone. Those that remained dragged their new colleagues along with them to reach the semi-finals again. Rather than achieving a third straight European final, though, this team would seal their place in history another way. They became the first and only team in an international tournament to lose a match on the toss of a coin. After a goalless draw in the semi-final against the Italy – a host nation once again – the Soviet captain, Albert Shesternyov, called incorrectly, and with that, the Soviet golden era was over.

After that last brush with glory, the few remaining links to the successful team of the late 1950s and early 60s faded away, and those who took their place were not of the same standing. The team went into decline and wouldn’t grace the world or European finals again throughout the 1970s.

When Soviet footballing fortunes rose once again, the driving forces behind the improvement were not Russian but Ukrainian. As a demonstration of why Russian fortunes haven’t risen beyond the mediocre in the decades since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian influence both on and off the pitch far outstripped that of the Russians.

Through the late 1970s and into 1980s, the Soviet national team gradually began to regain its prominence, but the guile, creativity and innovation was all Ukrainian  Like the glory days of the 50s and 60s, this resurgence also had its first forays at a Dynamo club: this time Kyiv rather than Moscow. 

Under the mercurial and pioneering tutelage of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Dynamo were the dominant Soviet club side of the era. As well as boasting some fine on-field talent, with the likes of Igor Belanov, Oleh Blokhin, Alexei Mikhailichenko, Vasily Rats and Sergei Baltacha key parts of the team for long periods, they were also ahead of their time in terms of tactical innovation, sports science and analysis.

Read  |  The methodical, scientific wisdom of Valeriy Lobanovskyi

Lobanovskyi instilled a high pressing style of play on his Dynamo charges, harnessing the elements of collectivism espoused by communism to produce a team that prized the team over the individuals, the collective over the distinct. Karl Marx would have been proud to see the regimented Lobanovskyi teams working as 11 co-joined parts, all understanding each other’s positions and movements. It was Total Football, communist style.

As the dominant club side in 1980s Soviet Union, it followed that much of what was succeeding at Dynamo was transferred to the national team. Lobanovskyi led the Soviet side in more than one stint, but after taking over prior to the 1986 World Cup finals, he held the national team role in conjunction with his club duties in Kyiv.

Lobanovskyi’s USSR took the core of his Dynamo squad and added to it with the occasional player from elsewhere, but it was very much Dynamo by another name. After a reasonable return to the World Cup in 1982, before succumbing to Polish skills and Zbigniew Boniek’s brilliance, it was in the mid to late 1980s that the Soviet team under Lobanovskyi enjoyed their finest moments, coming oh-so-close to glory. 

The Soviet stock had risen to such a degree that the side which travelled to Mexico for the 1986 tournament was seen in some quarters as genuine contenders for the trophy. Largely made up of Dynamo Kyiv players, with no fewer than 12 of the final squad of 22 playing for Lobanovskyi in the Ukrainian capital, the style of play the coach wanted to impose was already well embedded into the bulk of the team. 

A notable Russian addition was the successor to Lev Yashin in goal, the Spartak Moscow goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev, hailing from Astrakhan in the far south of Russia on the shores of the Caspian Sea. One of the world’s finest keepers at the time, he is frequently referred to as the Soviet Union’s – and indeed Russia’s – second best goalkeeper of all-time behind the Black Spider himself. A veteran of the 1982 World Cup, he would go on to represent the Red Army on no fewer than 91 occasions and was one of the few non-Ukrainians to be assured of a place in Lobanovskyi’s first choice line-up.

The Soviet Union topped their group in Mexico by playing some delightful football and securing comfortable wins over Canada and Hungary, the latter memorable for a sound thrashing culminating in a spectacular pile driver from Vasily Rats, and a draw with France. That took them to a second round clash with Belgium, who had snuck through as one of the best third placed teams. The Soviets were strong favourites and played up to that billing, dominating the play and creating chance after chance. They deservedly twice led thanks to goals from European Footballer of the Year Igor Belanov, only to be pegged back on both occasions.

But that story of the scoreboard only tells a small part of the tale. To many, the England versus Argentina clash in the quarter-finals was the most controversial match of that World Cup, but to millions of Soviets, the Belgium game is right up there with it. It isn’t beyond the stretch of imagination to claim that the Soviets were cheated in this match in León. Both of Belgium’s equalisers in regular time came from offside positions. The second of which, from Jan Ceulemans late in the game, was several yards offside with the goalscorer glancing around in disbelief, as if unsure whether he should celebrate or not.

Read  |  The Great Exodus: when Soviet footballers flooded into Western Europe

But the equalisers stood, and this controversial epic continued into extra-time, when the Soviets forced the issue, only to twice succumb to the sucker punch of counter-attacking goals. A late penalty to complete Belanov’s hat-trick led to a dramatic final few minutes as the Soviets continued to lay siege on the Belgian back line, but alas it was to no avail. For all their fine play, their World Cup campaign ended in controversy and acrimony. Belgium would go on to reach the semi-finals and a date with Diego Maradona, while the Soviets went home.

They fell short in 1986, but the manner of their loss and the many plaudits earned by their impressive level of play meant that the signs were there that this was a team to be reckoned with. The strong Dynamo Kyiv contingent, with a few sparkling additions, made the Soviets a real force. They’d shown sufficient signs of promise to be considered a major player on the football field once again. Within two years, they would turn those promising signs into a greater degree of success. 

Having qualified for Euro 88 ahead of East Germany and World Cup semi-finalists France, the Soviets began their finals campaign as they would end it – facing the Netherlands. In the group match, it was the Soviets who came out on top, winning a tight game 1-0 won by another Vasily Rats strike. A second win came against England, having also drawn with Ireland, which saw the Soviets top the group. The semi-final was then comfortably won against Italy, with goals from another two Ukrainians in Gennadiy Litovchenko and Oleh Protasov. 

The Red Army took their place in a final for the first time since the heady days of Yashin, Ivanov and Netto. They were playing with the intensity and discipline instilled by their demanding and autocratic leader, and boasted several players at the peak of their powers providing a smattering of star quality. 

This was no fluke; it was a success many years in the making, honed to perfection on the fields of Kyiv rather than Moscow. And what’s more, in the final they would face the team they beat only a couple of weeks before in their opening game. After the Dutch had come through their date with destiny against West Germany in their semi-final, the scene was set for the rematch, this time with the European crown at stake.

It was a match that would be remembered mostly for an astonishing goal by Marco van Basten, adding to the bullet header from Ruud Gullit, which won the tournament for the Dutch. Amidst the hazy memory of those two fine goals, it is often forgotten that the Soviets later had the chance to claw their way back into it with a penalty soon after Van Basten’s memorable moment. Belanov’s effort was blocked by the Dutch goalkeeper, Hans van Breukelen, and with that, the chances of a fightback were gone.

For the Soviets, with eight Dynamo Kyiv players in the starting line-up, it was a disappointing end to what had promised so much. In almost emulating the class of 1960, the second Soviet golden age was one that ultimately fell short. Just as Euro 88 signalled a new chapter in Dutch football, with some of the world’s best players highlighting the re-emergence of the Netherlands as a world force after a decade in the wilderness, it also signalled that the end of the Soviet rise was nigh. 

Read  |  The last great days of the Soviet Union

They would go on to secure the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul a couple of months later with a squad containing more Russians than the full national side had done, but in elite terms, the decline began after that glorious final of 1988.

There would be just one more tournament before the winds of change blew through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union crumbled. The 1990 World Cup saw many of the old guard trying to repeat the tricks of their former glories, but it didn’t succeed. Losing to both Romania and Argentina, they were already eliminated by the time they became the only team to brush Cameroon comfortably aside in Italy that summer. A 4-0 win over a team already qualified for the knock-out rounds couldn’t prevent the Soviets from finishing last in the group and heading home.

The world had changed by the time the next tournament came around. Where the deep red shirts with its distinct lettering had once been a regular part of international football, now a collective Commonwealth of Independent States took their place. And once the various independent Republics had sorted out their affairs, political and footballing, Russia, Ukraine and the rest stood alone. None have yet reached the heights achieved by the teams in the two golden ages of Soviet football.

After the Soviet Union had splintered, the strength of the various new national teams gradually waned. Shorn of the strong, creative and technical Ukrainian contingent, Russia struggled to make much of an impact, not making it past a tournament group stage on the occasions they qualified until 2008. 

The domestic feeding grounds for the national teams had changed too. Where once there had been a terrifically strong Soviet league, with the best players from what became several independent nations, there were now a handful of weaker leagues. The level of competition suffered, and the new opportunities for the players meant that many of the best headed west, making the leagues weaker still. 

The great generation of the 1980s left the scene and those that came after them were not of the same calibre, bar a few notable exceptions. The strength in depth was no longer there. The Russian Premier League has made a resurgence in recent years, with new money being poured in, but success at international level seems as far away ever. The conditions for success should still be ripe enough, but the national team remains immersed in its mediocrity. 

With the Red Army’s golden days of the 1960s and the 1980s seeming a lifetime time ago now, that last flirtation with glory in 1988 can be viewed with the benefit of hindsight as a last hurrah before the curtain fell on the Soviet Union. Footballing fortunes, like everything else, would never be the same again 

By Aidan Williams    @yad_williams

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