Football's Soviet invasion of France, by Tristan Rutherford
easyJet Magazine, June 2016
It was the titanic opening match of a long forgotten tournament. The semi-final of EURO 1960 was held in Paris on July 6th, precisely 56 years to the day before this summer’s EURO 2016 semi. A raucous crowd of 26,000 spectators filled the old Parc des Princes stadium. All expected hosts France to crush lowly Yugoslavia. Some were seated wearing suit and ties. Others in berets stood and cheered. Almost all were men.
Both sides trotted out for the 8pm kick off. Advertising from another era plastered the Parc des Princes: Martell cognac and Cinzano vermouth. French television viewers may have complained (the team’s blue and white kits were almost indistinguishable on black and white sets) but the few who saw the semi witnessed a climactic struggle. Partizan Belgrade forward Milan Galić opening the scoring after 11 minutes. But Stade de Reims winger Jean Vincent levelled the account seconds later. By half-time France’s knowledge of the stadium’s slippery pitch, plus a prejudiced crowd, had allowed them to pepper the Yugoslav goal with impunity. They were 3-1 up at the break.
The teams filed back out to riotous shouts from the Stade Tribune. (Now chants from that notorious stand ring out as striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic dispatches opponents on behalf of home club Paris Saint-Germain.) By the 62nd minute hosts France had strolled to a 4-2 lead. Then the unthinkable happened. Three Yugoslav goals in four minutes silenced the Parc des Prince. No less than seven players had found the net. In a game that UEFA claims as one of the “greatest comebacks in EURO history,” the French crumbled like a croissant in a rainstorm. With the nation dumbstruck after a 4-5 home loss all attention swivelled southwards to Marseille. As the final whistle blew on this nine goal thriller, the Soviets and Czechs kicked off EURO 1960’s other semi-final 700km away. The fight for a place in the final of a truly bizarre tournament was truly on.
EURO 1960 – UEFA's first European Football Championship – offered a thrill a minute. Hosts France plus the now defunct nations of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union slugged it out in Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome and the Parc des Princes, both venues for EURO 2016. But the championship created to bring Europe together actually forced nations apart. EURO 1960 featured Cold War antagonism. The KGB. Plus enough scandal to sink European soccer for good. Official channels contacted for this story, from UEFA to current competition organisers, responded with a wall of silence. Only by travelling from Paris to Marseille did we uncover the competition that Europe’s football elite prefers to forget.
“The first continental tournament was a long time coming,” explains Neil Andrews, a contributor to British football journal When Saturday Comes. “South America had the Copa America, and Africa had the Cup of Nations, but back then Europe had no international tournament.” The competition’s bizarre qualifying format set up knock-out games between 17 nations across Europe. Four teams would then compete in the EURO 1960 finals in France. Politics bedevilled the tournament from the outset. England refused to countenance playing in a continental start-up. West Germany also declined to enter the qualifying rounds.
“Politically speaking, the Soviet Union were the keenest of the qualifying hopefuls,” continues Andrews. Success in sporting competitions from Olympiads to World Cups was like the Space Race: a showpiece of the nation’s socialist prowess. To cultivate a new crop of players some 2,000 football stadiums had been built around the country since WWII. “In 1958 the Soviets steamrollered Hungary in Moscow’s Central Lenin Stadium in front of 100,000 people. Although they had partially dismembered their opponent’s squad by invading the country two years previously.”
Brinksmanship came to the fore after favourites Spain were drawn against the Soviets for a final place in EURO 1960. “Spain were built around the five times European Cup winning team of Real Madrid,” says Andrews. “It featured striker Alfredo Di Stéfano plus Hungarian refugees Ferenc Puskás and László Kubala.” Both national teams had history. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had sent 800 pilots to fight Spanish autocrat Francisco Franco during Spain’s Civil War. Tensions ran so high that any praise of the Spanish team was censored in the USSR, lest it damage Soviet morale. When Soviet Football Federation executive Andrey Starostin praised Di Stéfano a chilling decree was announced the following day: “Instruct Comrade Starostin…about the harmfulness of exaggerating the qualities of the Spanish team.”
As the Spanish squad was due to depart for Moscow, Spain's Council of Ministers deliberated. For Franco, the thought of the Soviet’s hammer and sickle flag flying over Madrid during the game’s return leg proved too much. Spain withdrew from the tournament before the first whistle. Soviet soccer was gifted both a propaganda coup (it accused Franco of surrendering to his “American Imperialist owners”) and a place in EURO 1960. After Yugoslavia beat Bulgaria in Belgrade, and the Czechs thumped Denmark in Brno, the stage was set for the tournament’s opening thriller in Paris.
Today Paris is a city primed for EURO 2016. This month 120,000 revellers will crowd under the Eiffel Tower to watch 51 games on a 250m2 giant screen. Across the River Seine, the brand new Louis Vuitton pavilion shimmers in the sunlight of the Bois de Boulogne forest. This area is crowned by the cauldron-like edifice of the Parc des Princes. From June 10th, eight national sides including World Cup champs Germany will play to a global audience of 1.9bn viewers.
Visitors to the Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome will find another state-of-the-art arena freshly renovated for EURO 2016. As in each of France’s nine host cities, a giant FanZone (this one erected along the Prado beachfront) will welcome supporters with giant screens, babyfoot tournaments and sand pitches, plus lashings of beer from tournament sponsor Carlsberg. On the stadium’s ground floor a video of home side Olympique Marseille’s greatest players is screened in an endless loop: Jean-Pierre Papin, Didier Drogba, Franck Ribéry, Chris Waddle. This summer France, England and at least six other nations will do battle in front of 67,000 fans. As in 1960, when the core of the USSR’s squad was made up of players from Moscow, these teams include Russia.
In EURO1960’s other semi-final, the Czechs didn’t stand a chance. Because the man the Soviets had in nets was Lev Yashin, alias the ‘Black Spider’, the goalkeeping General who dressed head-to-toe en noir. Yashin, who would rush attackers like a panther, remains the only goalie to have won FIFA’s footballer of the year award, the Ballon d’Or. The great Uruguayan football writer Eduardo Galeano described him thus: “He could deflect the ball with a glance. When asked for his secret, he'd say the trick was to have a smoke to calm your nerves, then toss back a strong drink to tone your muscles.”. Sure enough Yashin kept a clean sheet at the Stade Vélodrome. The Soviet’s final strike in a 3-0 victory was netted by Viktor Ponedelnik, the first player in Soviet history to be called up from a second division club. The stage was set for the final in Paris four days later.
“Again dogma reared its head,” says Andrews. “Yugoslavia versus USSR was a replay of the hard-fought 1956 Olympic final. More importantly both sides had split politically, with both nations espousing a different version of the socialist dream.” Though the Soviets had crushed Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia to reach the final, Yugoslavia was far from a socialist satellite.
Capitalism was also closer than many of the Parc de Princes spectators realised, claims Football Writers’ Association member Neil Jensen, who runs football website Game Of The People. Visiting Real Madrid boss Santiago Bernabéu had his chequebook ready to sign as many Soviets as possible. “Real were Franco's club and the agenda may have come from the regime. It would have been a political coup for a right wing country to snatch left wing players.” Only close monitoring by KGB operatives put paid to Bernabéu’s endeavours.
The 9.30pm kick off took place in Paris on Sunday 10th July 1960, 56 years before this summer’s EURO 2016 final. The Soviets trotted out in their trademark red shirts with CCCP emblazed on the front. Yugoslavia in blue had in-form Milan Galić up front. Forget McDonald’s and Coca-Cola – hoardings for Limoges porcelain and Banania hot chocolate ringed the touchline.
A Galić goal – a speculative flick– put the Yugoslavs 1-0 up at half time. Then a wicked strike by Valentin Bubukin, a balding Soviet in the Bobby Charlton mode, rebounded to allow a Slava Metreveli tap in. The scores were level at 1-1 just after the break. But Yugoslavia, familiar with Parc de Princes’s slippery pitch after their first semi-final, pounced again and again. Only the Black Spider of Lev Yashin stood between them and certain victory. Relief for the Soviets came with the full time whistle that signalled a quick break – then extra time. Curiously, the 30 minutes of added play pushed the inaugural EURO final into the first minutes of Monday morning, Moscow time.
Enter once again the 23-year-old Ponedelnik. By wicked coincidence his name translates as Monday in Russian. It was to be his night, or rather his morning. His crushing header after 113 minutes of play became, in his own words, “the most important of my whole career”. Victory went to the
Soviet Union, 2-1 after extra time. In a capitalist slip Ponedelnik and his fellow victors were given a $200 bonus, followed by a Cup Winners reception at the Eiffel Tower. Real Madrid president Bernabéu was again in attendance. “He was ready to buy half of our squad with no hesitation," recalled Ponedelnik, whose name rang out on radio broadcasts across the Soviet Union.
The first European Championship hardly inspired the rest of the continent. Britain’s Daily Telegraph didn’t mention competition at all. The Times only gave it a few lines. Even extended highlights of the Soviet final, let alone the full match, are still only available in Russian. “I wonder if the reason that publicity was scant is a reflection of the anti-communism mood of the time,” ponders Jensen. “The west focused a lot on the ‘machine-like’ Soviets rather than their sporting virtuosity.”
Still, EURO 1960 garnered enough support to make it a regular event. England joined the party in 1964. West Germany in 1968. The year that produced the first EUROs gave birth to a new crop of global stars: Diego Maradona, Rudi Völler, Gary Lineker. This month all Europe will raise their glasses in tandem as a full 32 teams commence battle in Paris. An unlikely victory from an improbable kick off 56 years ago.
Tristan and Kathryn regularly write travel stories about Paris for the British and American press.