Russia Sport Football The Golden Age of Soviet Football

The Golden Age of Soviet Football

When the Soviet Union Were Champions of Europe

The recent history of the Russian national team has been one of steady mediocrity. The team does regularly qualify for major tournaments and they will compete at the Euros this summer. However, few will see them as serious contenders and they have rarely made a significant impact on the world stage (Euro 2008 being a rare exception).

It is worth remembering a time when Moscow was the capital of a footballing powerhouse. The Soviet Union produced talented teams that were at the forefront of footballing innovation and often competed for honours at the highest level. Significantly, they achieved a feat that has not been replicated by any of the post-Soviet republics: winning a major tournament in the form of the 1960 European Championships.

Golden Generation

The 1950s and 1960s saw a gifted crop of players come out of the USSR. Foremost amongst them was Lev Yashin. Born in Moscow in 1929, he became the national team’s first choice keeper in 1954. It was during the 1958 World Cup that he rose to prominence, earning plaudits for his imposing performances and athletic shot-stopping.

Yashin laid out the blueprint for what a modern goalkeeper should be. He was the first to punch the ball out of danger, rush out of goal in one-on-one situations and effectively distribute the ball to launch swift counter-attacks. Furthermore, he was a natural leader, strictly marshalling his defence.

His agile movement and intimidating all-black kit led to him being dubbed the “impregnable spider”. A truly awe-inspiring figure of the game, he holds the accolade of being the only goalkeeper to have won the Ballon d’Or.

Yashin was not the only legend in the team. The side was led from 1954 to 1963 by Igor Netto. The versatile midfielder came through the ranks at Spartak Moscow, who were well known for their short-passing, possession-based football. This is a style that Netto stamped on the national team, orchestrating the side with his excellent vision and technical ability.

The team’s frontline was spearheaded by Torpedo Moscow forward Valentin Ivanov. He was a capable finisher, scoring 26 goals in 59 games for the USSR and winning the Golden Boot at the 1962 World Cup. Ivanov was more than just a poacher, with the ability to play on the wings and in a deeper playmaker role. Ivanov found an able striking partner in the form of Victor Ponedelnik, a man who was able to score 20 times in 29 caps for the country.

They gelled together to form an impressive unit. Turning out in their striking red kits, CCCP emblazoned boldly across their chests, the “Red Army” was an imposing sight.

The First European Champions

It was this spine of Yashin, Netto, Ivanov and Ponedelnik that propelled the Soviet Union to European glory in 1960. The European Nations’ Cup, as it was then called, was played in a two-legged knock-out format, with the semi-finals and finals being held in France. Only seventeen teams entered the inaugural tournament and the Soviet Union was facilitated by the notable absence of England, Italy and West Germany.

They were also given a helping hand along the way by Cold War politics. General Franco’s Spain refused to travel to Moscow for the quarter-final clash. The Soviet Union had been the primary ally of the Spanish Republic, whom Franco had defeated in the bitter Spanish Civil War. It was a sign of a time where ideology and sports were closely intertwined.

This gave them a bye into the semi-finals, where they swept away Czechoslovakia thanks to a brace from Ivanov and a goal from Ponedelnik. A final awaited in Paris against a talented Yugoslavia team.

Yugoslavia had dominated much of the match. However, an inspired performance from Yashin ensured that the two teams went into extra-time at one-a-piece. The ever-prolific Ponedelnik went on to find the net in extra-time to make the Soviet Union the first champions of Europe.

Sole Victory

1960 turned out to be the only triumph for this talented group of Soviet players. Credible World Cup appearances followed, including the quarter-finals in 1962 and a fourth-place finish in 1966 (the USSR’s best ever performance at the tournament). Furthermore, they came close to retaining their European title, being narrowly defeated by their old rivals Spain in the 1964 final.

As the stalwarts of the 1960s retired, future generations were never able to reach the same heights. The eventual break-up of the USSR in 1991 led to a number of new republics being introduced to international football. Independent Russia, deprived of the footballing factories of the Caucasus, has never been able to regain the status of a footballing superpower.

It is for this reason that 1960 has gone on to gain added importance. Many will point out that the Soviet Union won a tournament in its infancy, dented by the absence of several big names. Nevertheless, the history books will always record the Soviet Union as the first European Champions. Yashin, Netto and company are remembered fondly – and their triumph in Paris has cemented their place in the history of Russian football.

© Sathesh Alagappan

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