The USSR’s momentous World Cup campaign of 1966

The USSR’s momentous World Cup campaign of 1966

Many European countries have enjoyed success in World Cup football. The tournament has been won by England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, while the Czechoslovakia, Holland and Hungary have played in a final. Yet the biggest country in Europe, with the largest population on the continent, has never won the World Cup or even participated in a final.

Russia today, and the USSR of yesterday, have a record of exceptional underachievement on the world stage, failing to ever progress beyond the semi-finals. In contrast, their record at the European Championship is very impressive: they won the trophy in 1960 and have appeared in three subsequent finals – in 1964, 1972 and 1988 – making the USSR second only to Germany in terms of the number of times they have reached the final.

Despite their underachievement in the globe’s premier football event, in 1966 they made the semi-finals – the only time in their history – boasting a squad of talent that was surely good enough to win one of the finest World Cups ever in terms of quality on the pitch.

Isolation and Participation

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the nation withdrew from the Olympic Games on “ideological” grounds and, as a consequence, didn’t enter the nascent football World Cup competition when invited in 1930. Nevertheless, at the end of the Second World War, Soviet leaders increasingly began to see sporting events as a useful conduit for spreading communist ideals at home and abroad, and were delighted with the positive reaction to the tour that Dynamo Moscow undertook to Great Britain and Sweden in 1945.

The USSR competed in its first Olympics in neighbouring Finland in 1952, while four years later in Melbourne, they won the gold medal in football by defeating Yugoslavia, who had been runners-up in the three previous tournaments, 1-0 in the final. The side featured a 26-year-old Lev Yashin in goal. Their success in this event prompted the Kremlin to authorise the entry of the football team at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. The Sbornaya were ready to take on the world.

The USSR would face Brazil, England and Austria in a tricky group. By this time, Yashin, who was to become the most recognisable name in Soviet football, had established himself as the first-choice goalkeeper. They led England 2-0 in their opening fixture but were pulled back to 2-2 – perhaps a sign of their inexperience. In the next game, they beat Austria 2-0, which meant a win against Brazil would ensure qualification. However, a brilliant performance from Garrincha – the first time the Soviets were exposed to the flair of Samba football – ensured a comfortable 2-0 win for Brazil. As a Brazilian commentator said: “The Soviets put Sputnik into space, but they were not able to mark Garrincha.”

The Soviets and England were level on points and had to contest a playoff for a quarter-final berth. Against all odds, England lost 1-0 to a talented and hungry Soviet side. Although the USSR had progressed, they now had to face their second game in three days, against the host nation Sweden, managed by an Englishman in George Raynor.

The lack of recovery time between matches hindered the Sbornaya and the Swedes, bolstered by their home support, prevailed 2-0. However, there was no disgrace in losing to the eventual finalists, and the tournament had provided a valuable learning experience for the Soviet camp. To have come through such a difficult group had been an achievement in itself.

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Having won the inaugural European Nations Cup tournament in 1960 by defeating Yugoslavia in the final in France, the Soviets were strongly fancied to mount a challenge at the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

 After a comfortable 2-0 victory over Yugoslavia in their opening fixture, their group campaign started to stutter. In the next match against Colombia, they led 3-0 after 11 minutes and were 4-1 up in the second half but an uncharacteristically wretched performance in goal by Yashin led to a stunning fightback by the South Americans, who salved a 4-4 draw in an oft-forgotten World Cup classic.

They now needed to beat Uruguay to ensure qualification for the quarter-finals. Confidence was high in the Soviet camp as they had trounced the same opponents 5-0 in Moscow barely a month earlier. The USSR took an early lead before Uruguay were reduced to 10 men. Despite their numerical disadvantage, this prompted a storming comeback from the former champions who equalised on 54 minutes and hit the woodwork three times. The Soviets eventually made their extra man count with the winning goal a minute from time. It had been a lacklustre performance in the group stages but they were through.

For the second World Cup in succession, the USSR had the misfortune of being drawn against the host nation in a quarter-final. They were to face Chile, who had overcome Italy in the infamous Battle of Santiago to qualify. Once again, Yashin failed to live up to his reputation.

Ten minutes in, he allowed a 25-yard free kick from Leonel Sánchez to elude his grasp, and later, after Igor Chislenko had equalised, he failed to deal with a hopeful 35-yard shot from Eladio Rojas and the Soviets were out. For a man dubbed the best goalkeeper in the world, it had been a competition to forget. The Soviet journalists present reported to the fans back in Russia that Yashin was to blame for the defeat. Even the esteemed France Football suggested it was time for Yashin to retire, despite being ony 32.

The build-up to 1966

In 1964, the USSR undertook its defence of the European Nations Cup and once again reached the final, where they played the hosts Spain in Madrid. There was already an ideological edge to this encounter as General Franco, the dictator of Spain, had refused to sanction the team to travel to Moscow in 1960 for their quarter-final clash as he hadn’t forgiven the USSR for its support of the Spanish republican government during the Civil War. Now, like his communist counterparts, he had realised the propaganda value of sport and was rewarded with an ideological and footballing victory as Spain overcame the Soviets 2-1.

The Sbornaya strolled through their qualifying group for the World Cup with five victories and one defeat, scoring 19 goals and conceding six. In the winter of 1965, the USSR undertook a tour of South America in preparation for the World Cup. They drew with Argentina and Brazil and defeated Uruguay in an impressive sequence of results. In their final friendly matches in April and May, they won four and drew one in a show of continued strength. Since July 1965  they had played 16 games and only lost three, and were heading for England in a rich vein of form and looking for glory.

Yashin had been voted the player at the 1964 European Nations Cup and several of his teammates, including captain Albert Shesternyov, midfielder Valery Voronin and strikers Igor Chislenko and Galimzyan Khusainov, had taken their game to new levels. In addition, the young Dynamo Kyiv striker Valery Porkujan had been drafted into the squad in what was to prove an excellent choice. The side now had vast international experience and a rejuvenated Yashin; all they needed was to be moulded together.

Despite his poor performances at the 1962 World Cup, Yashin was the global star of the team. The following season, he returned to form in devastating style. conceding just six goals in 27 league games for Dynamo Moscow and saving a penalty against Italy in a European Nations qualifier, one of over 150 he made in his career.

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He was selected to play for a Rest of the World side against England at Wembley in 1963 and was subsequently awarded the Ballon d’Or – still the only goalkeeper to have received the accolade. Bearing the nickname internationally as either the Black Panther due to his legendary all-black goalkeeper’s ensemble or the Black Spider due to seemingly having eight arms, at the age of 36, Lev Yashin was back. When the team arrived in England he disembarked the plane clutching a fishing rod. He joked with the paparazzi: “No football for me, I have come for the fishing.”

The Group Stage

The allocation of teams for the group stage appeared to offer the USSR a secure route to the quarter-finals. Their opponents were to be Chile, Italy and little-known North Korea. The matches were to be played at Ayresome Park, the home of Middlesbrough, and Roker Park, Sunderland’s ground.

Local commentators wryly remarked that the climate of the region would certainly make the Soviets feel at home. Being in the north-east and away from the centre of media attention suited the USSR, and none of their fixtures were transmitted live on television until the semi-final. It is hardly an understatement to say that the participating teams failed to ignite the enthusiasm of the local populace. The matches in the north-east were consistently the lowest attended of the competition with a crowd of just 27,793 recorded as the highest.

The team were based in the university town of Durham and they made an effort to win over the locals. The players were taken to a nearby hair salon where, to the amusement of the locals, their preferred coiffure was that of Napoleon Solo, the character from the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E, rather than his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin. Both Italy and the USSR shared the training facilities offered by the university but the Soviets insisted that they would not be spying on the opposition.

On 12 July, the USSR kicked off their campaign against North Korea at Ayresome Park in front of 23,000 spectators. Yashin was still suffering from the effects of a lon- term knee injury so the Torpedo Moscow custodian Anzor Kavazashvili, who had been voted the Soviet Goalkeeper of the Year in 1965, took his place.

The team wore their unique, eye-catching kit of bright red army shirts with the white CCCP letters brandished across the front, matching their white shorts and socks. It is still acknowledged as one of the most iconic outfits ever. They proved too much for the diminutive Koreans who were outmuscled in an emphatic 3-0. 

The next game was expected to be the decisive one in deciding which team would top the group as the USSR  faced two-time World Cup winners Italy at Roker Park. The Sbornaya were to play their next three fixtures here, striking up a rapport with the local support. The Italians were in some disarray and their star player, Gianni Rivera, was dropped by coach Edmondo Fabbri for this crucial encounter. A crowd of 27,793, the highest of the group, were rewarded with the return of Yashin.

Sandro Mazzola missed a golden opportunity to put Italy ahead in the first half, when they had been the better team. Chislenko started to feature more prominently in the game  and Giacinto Facchetti, arguably the best left back in the world, struggled to contain him. On 58 minutes, Chislenko cut inside on his left foot and unleashed a phenomenal strike into the top corner past the despairing Enrico Albertosi. It was one of the goals of the tournament.

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With the security of Yashin behind them, the Soviets held on for a decisive victory. A few commentators remarked on the officiousness of the match official, a certain Rudolph Kreitlin from West Germany, who would have a major impact when he refereed the England-Argentina encounter in the next round.

On 20 July, with qualification assured, the USSR were able to make nine changes for their final group fixture against Chile at Roker Park, including Anzor Kavazashvili replacing Yashin for the second time and young striker Valery Porkujan making his debut for the Sbornaya. Chile still had a chance of progressing to the knock out stage, but they were unable to take advantage.

The Soviets took the lead when Porkujan pounced on a defensive mix up to put his side ahead. A minute later, Chile equalised after a mistake by second-choice ‘keeper Kavazashvili. Chile, needing a win to qualify, pressed for the winning goal, but five minutes from time, Porkujan gathered a clearance from his own ‘keeper to lob the ball past the advancing Chilean custodian and ensure a 2-1 victory for his country.

The result also had immense significance for the unfancied North Koreans as it meant that they too had qualified for the quarter-finals after remarkably beating Italy. Even better for the Soviets, winning the group meant they didn’t have to relocate as the next round was to be played at Roker Park.

There was a final footnote. Just as the Jules Rimet trophy itself had been stolen in London, the flag of the USSR had also been purloined from their camp at Durham. When the Soviets set up base, they noticed that the Italian ensign was bigger than theirs, so they decided to replace it with a larger version. However, two days into the group stage, the warden of the sports centre reported that the Soviet flag had disappeared. Durham police launched an investigation but it was never recovered.

In 2017 a man turned up at the offices of the Northern Echo and handed the flag over. Apparently, he had stolen it in the spur of the moment and had concealed it in his house for over 50 years in one of the World Cup’s more bizarre side stories.

The Quarters

For the quarter-final tie, the Soviets were to face their Eastern Bloc rivals Hungary. The Mighty Magyars had come through a difficult group by beating the holders Brazil 3-1 in a blistering display of attacking football that saw them dubbed as the favourites by many in the press. The side featured the brilliant forwards Flórián Albert and Ferenc Bene, who had scored in every game so far.

Despite Hungary entering as favourites, the USSR were one of only two teams, alongside Portugal, to have qualified with a 100 percent record, and their miserly defence had only conceded one goal. Hungary coach Lajos Baróti was concerned about the physical strength of the Soviets and how his side would counteract this. It was also an advantage for the Sbornaya to have the tie at Roker Park, where they had played their last two games, and just as the Middlesbrough supporters had adopted the Koreans as their team, so had the Sunderland fans the USSR.

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A crowd of just 26,844 turned out for the most prestigious international fixture ever to be played at Roker Park on 23 July. Yashin returned in goal while Porkujan, after his goalscoring brace against Chile, kept his place in the side. The Soviets had been meticulous in their preparation and assigned Voronin to nullify the threat of the expansive Albert.

In midfield, Yozhef Sabo, who ironically was Hungarian by birth, dominated the midfield. After just six minutes, the Magyar goalkeeper József Gelei dropped a cross at the feet of Chislenko who opened the scoring. Things became worse for Hungary two minutes after the interval as a free-kick from Galimzyan Khusainov flicked off the head of a Hungarian defender and the unmarked Porkujan was able to tap the ball in at the far post.

The Magyars eventually roused themselves and started to display their footballing skills, with Bene scoring on 57 minutes. The Hungarians pushed for an equaliser but the Soviet rearguard held firm thanks to a brilliant save from Yashin towards the end. While Soviet captain Albert Shesternev played an outstanding game as the libero at the back, the key to victory had been the performance of Voronin, who nullified the enormous threat of Albert.

With three goals in two games, Porkujan was partnering Chislenko with staggering efficiency in attack. For the first time ever in their history, the USSR had won a World Cup quarter-final tie, and for their trouble was an ominous semi-final date against West Germany at Wembley. 

The Semis

There was a degree of uncertainty regarding the venues for the semi-final ties. The original scheduling appeared to indicate that the USSR-West Germany tie was to be played at Wembley and the England-Portugal game at Goodison Park, home of Everton.

The confusion arose because the handbooks provided by both the FA and FIFA contradicted each other. However, the World Cup Committee decided to award Wembley the England game and Goodison the USSR match. Needless to say, there was a certain amount of hostility to that decision on Merseyside as thousands of fans had bought tickets expecting to watch the Three Lions.

Over 58,000 fans had watched the group game between Portugal and Brazil at Goodison but, incensed by the decision to move the England game to Wembley, many supporters with tickets simply stayed at home and the attendance was just 38,273, the lowest for any game at Goodison during the tournament.

Liverpool had suffered profoundly at the hands of the Luftwaffe during World War Two and anti-German feelings were running high. The city was also one of the hotbeds of trade unionism at the time and their support was strongly in favour of the Soviets. Outside the stadium, more copies of the Morning Star were sold in one evening than were normally sold in a month.

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Before the game started, a group of four fans tried to walk around the perimeter of the pitch with a banner proclaiming ‘England Fix Insu£ts ‘Pool’. The fans felt they had been cheated and the official explanation that Wembley would allow more fans to watch England was not received well on Merseyside. The Organising Committee mistakenly assumed that the USSR semi-final would be a capacity crowd at Goodison but they underestimated the strength of local sentiment.

The USSR would have preferred to play Uruguay rather than West Germany, who were one of the few teams that could match them for physical strength and endurance. The two sides had only ever met once before, in 1955, when the USSR beat the then-world champions 3-2 in a friendly.

Both sides only had two days to recover before the semi-final, which was played on 25 July and was the first time the British public were able to watch the USSR in a live game. The estimated 15,000 boisterous West Germans fans who came over for the match unwittingly antagonised the home crowd and motivated them to get behind the Sbornaya.

The Soviet Union fielded a side unchanged from the quarter-final. The West Germans had gained a reputation for theatrical reactions to tackles, which had led to three players being sent off against them from a total of four from the tournament. The Soviet team had been correct to be concerned by the physical approach of the Germans, and The Times referred to it as “ a battle of dreadnought and heavy armour.”

Strong arm tactics came to the fore and the Russians suffered as a consequence. After just 10 minutes, in trying to challenge Franz Beckenbauer, Soviet playmaker Sabo twisted his ankle leaving him a limping passenger for the remainder of the game.

As half-time approached in this niggly war of attrition, Chislenko was left hobbling after a tackle from Karl-Heinz Schellinger that the Italian referee, Concerto Lo Bello, failed to penalise. Schellinger subsequently swept the ball out to Helmut Haller who hammered it into the net. 

Straight from the kick-off, Chislenko, still incensed by the non-award of a free-kick, lost out to Siggi Held in a tackle and responded by kicking his opponent on the ankle. Held collapsed on the pitch, strangely clutching his knee and rolled around in apparent agony in front of the match official. Chislenko was instantly dismissed, becoming the fourth player to be sent off playing against the Germans.

Given the savagery of the tackles from the Portuguese defenders in dealing with Pelé that went unpunished previously in the tournament, Chislenko’s dismissal was harsh. Two minutes of madness meant the Russians were a goal and a man down at half-time. Even worse, the Sbornaya had lost their most influential player. The German side and the match officials were booed off at half-time by the hostile crowd.

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With the injury to Sabo, the USSR were effectively reduced to nine men yet managed to stay in the game due to the excellent Voronin and a number of brilliant saves from Yashin.  However, after 67 minutes, Beckenbauer curled in a left-foot shot from the edge of the box which swerved dramatically at the last minute to deceive a motionless Yashin, who appeared to assume that it was going wide. Game over.

Or so it seemed – but even with effectively nine players, the USSR were not about to surrender. Urged on by the home support, with Voronin and Kususainov pushing the team forward, with two minutes remaining, Porkujan pounced on a mistake by German goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski to score his fourth goal in three appearances. A minute later, a precisely delivered cross from Anatoly Banishkesky was met by the leap of Porkujan but the ball sailed just over the bar and the game was over.

The Soviets slumped to the floor whilst the Germans celebrated. As substitutions were not allowed in the tournament, the debilitating injury to Sabo proved decisive. The winners decided to undertake perhaps the most ill-conceived lap of honour in history. As they approached the Gwladys Street End they were greeted with a cacophony of boos and chants of ‘Seig Heil’ and ‘Go home you bums’. 

The Soviets left the pitch to rapturous applause. After the game, USSR coach Nikolai Morozov admitted that the dismissal of Chislenko had been justified but from a total of five players dismissed in the tournament, four had been playing against West Germany. He asked the world to draw their own conclusions, which many did.

Nevertheless, the Soviets still had one game to play and would finally be given the opportunity to appear at Wembley. On 28 July, in front of a crowd of 87,696, which was greater than the total number that had watched them in the group stages, the USSR were to meet the other losing semi-finalists, Portugal, to decide who would win the third-place playoff.

Chislenko had been suspended for three games and Porkujan was missing as well, so the Soviets had effectively lost their first-choice strike force. In recognition of his services to his country, Yashin was named as captain. A penalty from Eusébio gave the Portuguese the lead after 12 minutes but the Soviets equalised just before half-time through Eduard Malafeyev. It was an uninspiring contrast with fans drifting towards the exits long before the end. One minute from time, José Torres volleyed the winner past Yashin to seal the game and third place for the Portuguese.


Despite the disappointment of losing the semi-final, 1966 is still the most successful World Cup campaign ever undertaken by either the USSR or Russia. The team scored 10 goals, which is still a record for the side, and it’s the only occasion that they achieved a 100 percent record in the group stage.

Alongside Valery Ivanov in 1962, Porkujan became the only Soviet player to have scored in three consecutive matches at a World Cup and the only man to have scored for his country in both a quarter and semi-final. Although Porkujan scored more goals than Uwe Seeler and Flórián Albert combined, they were named in the all-star team as the forwards ahead of the Russian. Strangely, the Soviet Union were the only side that reached the semi-finals to not have a single player in that side. Perhaps even more strangely, Porkujan never scored another goal for his country.

The Soviet team left a lasting impression in the north-east of England, especially in Sunderland where they played three matches and won over the local support, many of whom still remember them today. This was undoubtedly the best side the USSR ever produced, and one can only speculate as to the destination of the World Cup trophy if they and not the West Germans had made it to the final against England. History, of course, took a different path.

By Paul Mc Parlan  @paulmcparlan

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