Journey from the Iron Curtain to Perestroika: Soviet and Russian Football

The world we live in today is far from what it was, say twenty five years ago. In this age of media blitz and consumerism, many of us remember the old days when the world was divided into two blocks.  Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 had delivered a speech at Westminster College in Missouri. It had a line which spoke of dominating the social and political scenario of the world for the next four decades. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ’iron curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.”  This was the popularisation of the term – ‘Iron Curtain’. The term had been used before in similar context, but this speech made it famous. The main country behind this Iron Curtain was Soviet Union. The Soviets were a power not only in the military and political circles but also in the world of sports. The Soviet football teams were very strong during this period. Sadly, the successor of the then powerful Soviet team, Russia has failed to achieve similar results. We will try and understand the reasons behind this decline and try to obtain some answers regarding this.

 Soviet Union national team crest


The Russian revolution occurred in 1917, after which the entire country was under the grip of a terrible civil war for the next six years which led to a large scale loss of lives and property. There was no time for football or any sports during this period. The first official match played by the Soviet national team was on November 16, 1924 against Turkey which resulted in a 3-0 Soviet victory. There was an unofficial match played against the then independent nation of Estonia in 1923 which was won 4-2 by the Soviets.  The national team was sponsored by the state and main emphasis was laid more on Olympics than on the World Cup. However, the team qualified for seven final editions of the tournament from 1958 to 1990, with the exception of 1974 and 1978. The results in the Olympics were far more spectacular with two gold medals and three bronze medals. In the UEFA Euro Cup they won the inaugural tournament in 1960 and finished runners up in three occasions. The Soviet national team also won the inaugural Under 20 World Cup in 1977.


 Gavriil Kachilin                                                                          Victor Maslov

Golden Age of the 60s

Much of the success in the 1960s was under the managerial skills of Gavriil Kachilin, who was a keen man manager with a great rapport with the communist party bosses whom he persuaded not to interfere in his team matters. A Moscow XI made up of different Soviet players managed by Kachilin was the only team to beat the great Hungarian team in their winning run of 34 matches in 1952-54. This victory brought him to the notice of the sports minister who put him in charge of the national squad.  Another big influence on Soviet and world football during this period was Victor Maslov, the former coach of Torpedo Moscow and Dinamo Kyiv. Maslov is credited to have been the inventor of the 4-4-2 formation and the concept of pressing in the early 1960s much before its implementation by Sir Alf Ramsey of England in 1966. He was the first person to understand the concept of not allowing opponents time with the ball. According to the noted football journalist Jonathan Wilson he was the initiator of modern football tactics as we know it today.

                                                                                 The Soviet national team of the 60s

This was the golden age of Soviet football with a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics and victory in the 1960 European nation’s cup. The best results in the World Cup were also during this period.  The 1968 European nation’s cup semi -final against Italy, which finished in a goalless draw after extra time, was also a memorable match. Till date it is the only senior international final tournament match to be decided by the toss of a coin. The Soviet captain Albert Shesternyov called incorrectly and Italy advanced to the final and eventually won the trophy. The man who was identified as the face of Soviet football during this time was the legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, voted as the best goalkeeper of the century in 2000 by International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS).  Other major players of this period were Albert Shesternyov,  Valeriy Voronin, Valentin Ivanov,  Igor Netto, Igor Chislenko, Eduard Streltsov, Viktor Ponedelnik, Mikheil Meskhi and Murtaz Khurtsilava.


                   Valeriy Lobanovskyi                                                     Oleg Blokhin : Ballon D’Or 1975

The Last Hurrah under Lobanovskyi

The other good period of Soviet football was in the late 1970’s to late 1980’s under the mercurial Ukrainian manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who had successfully managed the Dynamo Kyiv club to three European trophies in the 70s. During this period, Oleg Blokhin of Dynamo Kyiv emerged as one of the best forwards in Europe winning the Ballon D’Or in 1975. In the 1986 World Cup the Soviets topped their group by goal difference, winning their matches against Hungary and Canada easily. They drew the other group game against the defending European champions, France in a match which the media described as a match between two genuine contenders for the trophy.  In the 2nd round they faced Belgium who were one of the best third placed teams to advance from the group stages. The Soviets were overwhelming favourites. The Soviet team dominated for long periods of the match and led by an Igor Belanov goal at halftime. The Belgians, unimpressive in the tournament till then, had two world class players in Jan Ceulemans and a young Enzo Scifo. Scifo equalised as the Soviet defence were put under pressure with counter-attacks and long balls by the opposition. Belanov restored the lead only to have Ceulemans equalise to take the match into extra time. The Soviets kept attacking and dominating their opponents in extra time, but conceded two counter-attacking goals, both of which were potentially off-side. Belanov completed his hat-trick by converting a penalty to reduce the margin. The Soviets laid siege to the Belgian goal during this period but could not equalise due to the magnificent performance of Jean Marie Pfaff, the Belgian goalkeeper. The exit of the Soviet team was described as a loss to the tournament.  Ukrainian Belanov went on to win the Ballon D’Or that year after a very successful club season with Dynamo Kyiv.

Igor Belanov with the Ballon D’Or in 1986.

The team won gold at the 1988 Olympics defeating Brazil with Romario, Bebeto, Jorginho and Tafferel in the final 2-1 in an enthralling encounter. In Euro 1988 the Soviet team topped their group beating Netherlands on the way to the final. In the finals they were favourites against the Dutch whom they had defeated earlier, but fell to the genius of Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. Igor Belanov missed a penalty to add to their woes. It was ironic that Lobanovskyi was defeated by the team managed by Rinus Michel whose idea of total football he tried to incorporate in his side.  That was the last we saw of a strong Soviet side.

Decline and Fall

All this changed in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin wall, the subsequent advent of perestroika and glasnost and the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union as a nation broke into different countries like Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Belarus. The system which was in place was finished, as the financial support of the government was required for other important things. The state of the art facilities that they enjoyed were all destroyed due to neglect. The Soviet clubs which were majorly backed by large government organisations were left to fend for themselves financially.  This started an exodus as majority of the players started to move abroad to play for foreign clubs with lucrative contracts. The team did play as Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) for a few years and also managed to qualify for the Euro 1992 finals in Sweden. However, the CIS team was replaced by Russia in the finals by a FIFA decision as all the different countries wanted to develop their own national teams.

Facts figures and answers

The question which a lot of people ask is why does the current Russian team fail to produce similar results in international tournaments like the erstwhile Soviet teams? The answer is very simple – the current Russian team have the very industrious and organised mid-fielders and defenders. The Soviet team had their share of these players, but they had something extra. They had their creative Ukrainian mid-fielders, the lighting quick Belarusian wingers and very skilled Georgian full-backs. The current Russian national team has very few creative players like these. Similarly the Ukrainian and Georgian teams lack the organisation in defence and midfield of the Russian team. That was the essence of the Soviet team where the Russians would hold fort defensively and work hard. The Ukrainians, Belarusians and the Georgians would add the creative spark and flair. There have also been a few Latvian and Estonian defenders and wingers who have also been part of the Soviet teams. The Russians have played a little more than half the number of matches played by the Soviets till date.  One cannot compare a single country with a conglomeration of fifteen different countries who have played double the number of matches. The game in the former Soviet states has also been plagued by politics, corruption and the advent of oligarchs of different types into the national federations. This has meant that the development of the game has evolved from the disciplined approach of the state to the whims and wishes of individuals. It is also a major reason for the number of players from these countries shining in clubs abroad but the national teams lagging behind.

The Soviet oligarchs have taken more interest in foreign clubs than their own. Chelsea and Roman Abrahamovich is the obvious example but others like Alisher Usmanov who owns a large share of Arsenal and Vladimir Antonov who bought Portsmouth from his countryman Alexander Gaydamuk, are also there.  FC Schalke 04, the German Bundesliga club is sponsored by Gazprom, one of the major petroleum companies of Russia. It is a status symbol of the Russian elite glitterati to own a football club in a western nation. A few of these billionaires own some of the clubs at home as well. Leonid Fedun owns Spartak Moscow and the newest entrant to this elite group is Suleyman Kerimov, the owner of Anzhi Makhachkala. Anzhi have stunned the football world with a number of big name signings with massive sums of money like Samuel Eto and Roberto Carlos. Anzhi however is a product of the regional prestige of the Dagestan republic, who are proud of their roots and culture. The strange part is, the entire team stays and trains in Moscow, 2000 kilometres away and fly down to play their home matches in Makhachkala. This type of a system which is haphazard and based more on personal and regional egos and whims than logic, cannot possibly help in development of the game in the long run.

One positive point is that Russia will be hosting the World Cup in 2018. This will help in the building of a long term infrastructure like stadiums and training facilities. The Russian national team is also on the ascendancy with some good players playing in the major leagues of Europe. With the Russian system we can only say that either ‘madness is their method’ or ‘there is method in their madness’.

If we make a table of all the matches ever played by the Soviet Union it would read like this:





Goals For

Goals Against

Goal Difference








A team which has won nearly 56% of all their games and drawn a further 24% and lost only around 20% can be deemed to have a very successful record. Majority of the matches were against European opposition.

A similar table of all the matches played by Russia after the dissolution of the CIS:





Goals For

Goals Against

Goal Difference








This winning percentage is 52% with 24% matches drawn and loss percentage of 24%. The Russians have played more matches against lower ranked teams than their predecessors.


An all star Soviet Union squad of all times was selected by European Journalists in 1992 when the team was no longer in existence.  It is a tribute to a bygone era where individuals rose above regional and ethnic differences and felt proud to play under a single flag and nation.

Soviet Union All Star Squad (All Time)


Name: Nationality: Club (Most appearances): Soviet National Team tenure

 Lev Yashin: Russia: Dinamo Moscow : 1954 – 1967

 Rinat Dasayev: Russia:  Spartak Moscow: 1979 – 1990


    Vladimir Bessonov : Ukraine:  :  Dinamo Kyiv: 1977 – 1990

 Anatoliy Demayanko:  Ukraine:  Dinamo Kyiv: 1981 – 1990

 Revaz Dzodzuashvili : Georgia:  FC Dinamo Tbilisi: 1969–1974

 Evgeny Lovchev : Russia : Spartak Moscow: 1969 – 1977

 Albert Shesternyov: Russia:  CSKA Moscow : 1961 – 1971

 Aleksandr Chivadze: Georgia:  FC Dinamo Tbilisi: 1980–1989

 Murtaz Khurtsilava : Georgia : FC Dinamo Tbilisi: 1965 – 1973

 Vasily Rats: Ukrraine : Dinamo Kyiv: 1986–1990


 Valeri Voronin:  Russia: FC Torpedo Moscow: 1960 – 1968

 Igor Netto : Russia:  Spartak Moscow: 1952 – 1965

 David Kipiani : Georgia : FC Dinamo Tbilisi: 1974-1981

 Volodymyr Muntyan : Ukraine: Dinamo Kyiv: 1968–1976

 Oleksandr Zavarov : Ukraine: :  Dinamo Kyiv: 1985–1990

 Yuri Gavrilov: Russia: Spartak Moscow: 1978–1985

 Sergei Ilyin: Russia:  Dinamo Moscow: 1936-1939

 Khoren Oganesian: Armenia: Ararat Yerevan: 1979–1984

 Alexei Mikhailichenko: Ukraine: Dinamo Kyiv: 1987–1991


 Eduard Streltsov:  Russia : FC Torpedo Moscow: 1955–1968

 Valentin Ivanov: Russia:  FC Torpedo Moscow: 1956 – 1965

 Mikheil Meskhi : Georgia: FC Dinamo Tbilisi: 1959–1966

 Igor Belanov : Ukraine: :  Dinamo Kyiv 1985–1990

 Oleg Blokhin: Ukraine:  Dinamo Kyiv: 1972–1988

 Grigory Fedotov : Russia: CSKA Moscow: 1937–1945

 Viktor Ponedelnik : Russia: SKA Rostov-on-Don: 1960–1966

 Igor Chislenko: Russia: Dinamo Moscow : 1959 – 1968