The Golden Age of Soviet Football during the Cold War: a Prestigious Showcase for the USSR

During the era characterised by USSR and US dualism, soft power had an important place in the conflict. In fact, ideological combat was just as essential as military operations. Stalin’s government, and Khrushchev’s government especially, understood this well. Thus, football experienced a rise in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the efforts of sporting heroes like Lev Yashin, Igor Netto and Valentin Ivanov. A journey back in time allows us to retrace this epic story.

Countless penalties were stopped by the legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, still to this day the only goalkeeper to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or, in 1963. He was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labour in 1990, testament to his influence.

Sport as an emblem of the communist model

As with the industrial sector, it was for the Soviet Union a question of equalling or even surpassing capitalist sporting powers, as sporting success could be linked to the means employed by nations to train their sporting elite to stand out at international level. For example, the training process for a high-level athlete proved to be particularly costly in terms of infrastructure, research framework, etc.

Additionally, sport had a large audience which needed to be won over. This reasoning applies even more to football, given its long-held position as the most popular sport in the world.

Press articles and biographies allow us to see this process of framing athletes as heroes. Sylvain Dufraisse, postdoctoral candidate at the University of Nantes, evokes the ‘internationalisation of sport.’ This term demonstrates an intention to push athletes to the top level, maximising their potential through modernised training methods and an increased consideration of athletes’ physical and mental wellbeing. To encourage the athletes to push their limits, several reward systems were established alongside these methods, including the title of Master of Sport.

This paradigm signals a major turning point in Soviet thinking. Indeed, competition had thus far been seen as a bourgeois construction which advocated individualism. However, the Cold War marked a break with this attitude and promoted a perspective of confrontation with other countries.

1956-1958: the first promising steps onto the international stage

The Association Football Tournament at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne was an important outing for the Soviet football team. Although at the time reserved for amateurs, this made way for the beginnings of the professionalisation of football. Therefore, the USSR travelled to Australian soil without particular expectations, preferring to concentrate on the upcoming World Cup.

However, the team racked up victories, finally facing Yugoslavia in the final (whose President Tito had strained relations with Stalin until Stalin’s death in 1953). This 100% communist final saw the USSR come out victorious, by the smallest of margins with a score of 1-0. The team of Anatoli Ilyin, Lev Yashin and Igor Netto walked away with gold medals around their necks, and fuelled the hopes of an entire nation for the World Cup…

However, before they could hope for a successful run, Gavriil Katchaline’s team would have to overcome the obstacle of the Qualifiers.

With one game to go, they were in the lead, with three points between them and the Polish team in their group. However, a defeat in this match forced them into a deciding round, as their points had levelled. Driven by more than 100,000 supporters, Poland defeated the USSR, meaning they had to win the play-off to progress. After a suspenseful match, the USSR won 2-0 and secured their ticket to the 1958 World Cup.

Their first participation in the World Cup led to their first matches against high level teams, here pictured against the legendary Brazilian team led by ‘The King Pelé’, Garrincha and Vavà.

The USSR managed to reach the quarterfinals despite a rollercoaster of matches, including a victory against Austria, a defeat against the untouchable Brazilian team, and a draw against England followed by a win in a play-off match.

The host country Sweden then stood in their way. Before the match, they were already faced with some disadvantages – they had only had one day of rest between matches, while the Swedes had had four! Additionally, they learned that their flight to Stockholm had been cancelled, which led to a long bus journey which impacted their performance greatly. Sweden, motivated by a huge crowd, won 2-0. The USSR went home and was battered by the local press, in spite of an encouraging result for their first time in the tournament.

This painful experience allowed the team to gain experience and understanding. It remained to be seen whether they would have the mental capacity to perform at the European Nations’ Cup in 1960.

1960: The USSR at the top of Europe

In this year, the Soviet team wrote the best chapter of their history. However, not everything was in good shape when it came to entering the European Nations’ Cup in France. The team found themselves deprived of one of their star players, Eduard Stretsolv, when he was deported to a gulag after being accused of rape; although evidence was inconclusive, he pleaded guilty to the accusation. Losing one of the team’s most talented players took a toll on everyone’s morale. Nonetheless, the will to keep progressing was deep in the team’s psyche, and kept the players focused. In addition, new manager Nikolai Boulganine was able to refresh the team, while simultaneously preserving its foundations.

The qualifiers were hardly more than a formality; the USSR played only two matches. The first was against Hungary, who had lost their Ballon d’Or player Ferenc Puskas to exile in Spain. The Soviet team played well and won comfortably 3-1. The task was more difficult in the second leg, but the result was the same: victory for the Soviet team.

All that remained now was to overcome the obstacle of the Spanish team; however, Franco categorically refused to send players from his country to the USSR. Thus, the Soviet team succeeded in qualifying by forfeit. Things were starting to get serious. This time, the desire to win was clearly visible. It was no longer a question of hiding behind an ‘outsider’ status, but to aim to get a place on the podium for the first time.

The European Nations’ Cup, the first European Championship, took place in France as a tribute to Henry Delaunay, creator of the competition who died soon before it. The choice of location was not at all unanimous, and took on political dimensions when West Germany, England and Italy decided to boycott the event. Thus, the level of play was less high, and only 17 teams took part, increasing the probability of surprises.

The 18 teams nevertheless took up their positions. It was in a final four composed of France, the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia that Lev Yashin and his teammates got the measure of what they were playing for.

The USSR gave quite a performance against Czechoslovakia: a crushing 3-0 victory and an opportunity to progress even further to play the Yugoslavs, for a remake of the 1956 Olympic final. 

It was at the Parc des Princes, watched by 18,000 fans, that the last part of this tale took place.

The tension was palpable; the two teams knew each other well and are apprehensive. This nervousness showed itself on the field, with many instances of contact breaking up the game. Yugoslavia opens the scoring just before half time, which was a blow to the morale of the opposition. However, the second attempt by Lev Yashin’s team finished happily for them, who equalised through Metreveli in the 49th minute. The match finished 1-1 and went to extra time. The fate of the match was hanging in the balance. The prospect of a draw after extra play added to the tension of the legendary match.

However, it wasn’t over yet. That’s why, 7 minutes before the end of extra time, Victor Ponedelnik scuppered Yugoslav hopes and scored the winning goal. As the only player on the team to come from the Russian second division, he catapulted the team to national heroes.

The heroes returned almost immediately to Moscow to be with the people eager to celebrate their achievement. The win had a huge resonance, evidenced by the crowd which gathered at the Central Lenin Stadium.

Several more campaigns followed their victory, but these were marked by early World Cup eliminations or inability to qualify for the European Championships. This was proof that their height was only ephemeral, but it earned the team places in the football and Soviet sporting halls of fame.

The consecration

Lev Yashin, a legendary goalkeeper ahead of his time

Lev Yashin had extraordinary abilities and his name will always be among those of the greatest players of all time. He was named Best Goalkeeper of the Century both in Europe and globally by the IFFHS. The only keeper to win the Ballon d’Or in 1963 and nicknamed the ‘black spider’ because of his agility and black football attire, Yashin posed a problem for any attacking player. His figures speak for themselves: specialists have recorded his playing over 270 matches without conceding goals, as well as 150 penalties stopped. These almost unreal statistics seem even more impressive when you are aware of the philosophy of play of the time; the teams put all the pressure on the attackers and played with only 1 or 2 defenders.

However, his career was worth more than a collection of individual accomplishments; the Soviety keeper radically changed the style of play of goalkeepers during the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than clinging to the goal-line while passively waiting for opposing offensives, Yashin did not hesitate to go out several metres from the box to block the angle of attack (not unlike Manuel Neuer today). He was also one of the goalkeepers to begin punching out balls when they would be difficult to catch. This revolution in goalkeeping style portrayed a man ready to go against convention, and with charisma that would be the envy of many Hollywood actors.

Yashin was not entirely unlike the others; for example, he declared that his pre-match ritual was to smoke cigarettes – ‘to relax the muscles’ – and drink a glass of vodka – ‘to invigorate them.’ Quickly, the communist regime understood that censoring Yashin was pointless, and it would be better to use him as an example of Soviet prestige. In fact, his difficult childhood in the working-class area of Moscow made him credible and identifiable for crowds. Born to a working family, he became an apprentice locksmith as a teenager during the war. At the age of sixteen, in 1945, he was rewarded with a medal for ‘his valiant work during the war.’ The USSR seemed to have found an almost perfect hero.

Like any hero, he used his charisma to unite his teammates around him. Even when things were going badly for the team, his decisive performances continued to be a motivating factor, even after a head injury at the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

At the age of fifty, his health began to worsen, and he contracted gangrene in his leg. This painful experience marked the beginning of a long decline in his health, which included an amputation. He died of stomach cancer on 20th March 1990.

Thus, this monument of football and sport will have inspired millions through his achievements and his singularity. Hats off to him – heroes and legends are timeless and eternal.

To learn more:

Milan Busignies

Translated by Jenny Frost

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