Russia’s fascinating football history

Two sturdy Lancastrians, the Charnock brothers, who owned cotton mills in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, in 1887, launched the first ever Russian soccer team.

All geared up: The Russian national team during a training session.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Whether or not Russia should have been awarded the ensuing World Cup — and if they bought it, what about Germany, South African and little Qatar — their football history is fascinating. You can go all the way back to 1887 to find the first ever Russian soccer team. It was the work of two sturdy Lancastrians, the Charnock brothers, who owned cotton mills in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, who in 1887 launched the first ever Russian soccer team. Whether they did this to allay the possibility of worker protest in those combustive days, who can say? What we do know is that it seemed to work. When Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart arrived in Moscow as the British vice consul, Harry Charnock persuaded him to turn out for his factory team then known as Morozovtsi.

The team competed in a flourishing factory league and remarkably that league drew crowds of up to 15,000. Bruce Lockhart would record his memories of a match against a German team refereed by a German. Bruce Lockhart became infuriated by the rough treatment being meted out by the German right-half to the young English winger. Finally he swore at the German in English, to be threatened with expulsion by the German referee who understood him. Realising what a public scandal this could result in, given his diplomatic status, Bruce Lockhart promptly and abjectly apologised.

Fast forward to 1945 and the historic tour of Britain by the Moscow Dynamos. The war by that October had only been over in Europe for a few months, and Russian heroism had made a profound impact in Britain. For all its astonishing drama, ultimately the Dynamos tour was a source of conflict and dissension rather than friendship. As that great polemicist George Orwell would write, “Now that the brief visit of the Dynamos team has come to an end it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying privately before the Dynamos even arrived. That is, that sport is an unfailing cause of ill will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them worse than before.”

How good would the Dynamos be? The sports columnist of the Sunday Express, Paul Irwin, watched them in training at the White City Stadium and opined, “They are not nearly good enough to play our class professional teams, its players are simply a set of very earnest amateurs. In three hours football, with two sides fielded, they looked an ordinary lot.

“Now it may be argued that they are preserving their real form for the Chelsea match. I won’t have that… They have a fairly good idea of passing, but nearly all their work is done standing still. And they are so slow that you can almost hear them think.”

Words will come humiliatingly back home to roost. As for Dynamos, they had stipulated that they were a club side which wanted only to play club sides, one of which should be Arsenal. Their own referee must take at least one of the games. They would eat all meals in the Soviet Embassy. They would not number their players.

Arriving by air, Dynamos were hospitably conducted to an Army barracks. After just one night, complaining that the beds were hard, they quit for a more comfortable abode. Vladimir Sinyvasky, the radio reporter who accompanied the team, would write, “We discovered mould on the walls, cobwebs and hard bolsters instead of pillows.” A demand by Dynamos that they play all their games on Saturdays was rejected by the FA who allocated just one Saturday game at third division Cardiff City.

Interest in the team and its tour was enormous. Before the first match at Stamford Bridge, versus Chelsea, queues were forming at 8 o’clock in the morning. Eventually a vast army of fans would sweep the police aside and invade the stadium. By kick off it was reckoned that there were 85,000 in the stadium, overflowing almost on to the field of play. Dynamos took the field briefly, returned to the dressing room and re-emerged bearing bouquets of flowers for the Chelsea players. Never had such a thing been seen on an English stadium. Chelsea’s attack was led by the formidable Tommy Lawton who had recently joined the club from Everton, so he could play against Dynamos; according to Moscow newspaper Izvestia.

Now Dynamos, the team allegedly too slow to play top-class British opposition, began with supreme speed, purpose and control. Their inside-forwards Kartsev and Bobrov, were masters of the ball. For 20 minutes Chelsea where under constant pressure; moving smoothly, gracefully and with deceptive pace, Dynamos commanded the field, gliding through the Chelsea defence. They hit the post from close range and had another shot bounce off the veteran Chelsea keeper Vic Woodley. Football being the perverse game that it is, Chelsea broke away and scored. Bain dashed from the left flank, Lawton forced the ball away from Dynamos’ agile keeper ‘Tiger’ Khomich, Len Goulden, veteran ex-England inside-left, scored. Six minutes later, Chelsea were fortuitously two up. Stankevitch, the Russia left-back kicked the ball against Williams and it rebounded into the net. Dynamos were resilient. With Beskov, thier shrewd centre-forward often dropping back in into midfield, they continued to move the ball with brisk alacrity. When Beskov was fouled in the box Leonid Solovyev put the penalty wide.

So Chelsea went in two up at half-time but Dynamos were far from dispirited. On 68 minutes, Kartsev beat Woodley with a fulminating shot from 30 yards, then set up Archangelsky. The deflected shot flew home. But Lewton was not finished. He lobbed a ball into the Dynamos box, a defender kicked it into the air, and Lawton jumped high to head Chelsea’s third. There was still time for Dynamos to equalise through Bobrov, clearly yards off-side scored Dynamos’ equaliser conceded by an indulgent referee in Lieutenant Commander Clark.

Now Dynamos went down to Cardiff and crushed the Welsh 10-1.

Most of the goals were flicked in delicately from close range. Cardiff manager Cyril Spears, once an international goalkeeper, called them “the finest team I have ever seen. They are a match for any side in Britain. They are a machine and not an ordinary football team.”

So in this transitional English season to Arsenal so many of their players serving abroad, their manager George Allison got together a team reinforced by ‘guests’ including the great right winger Stanley Matthews.

They were playing then on the ground of Tottenham, their own at Highbury having been taken over for Air Raid Precautions. The eventual team included only five Arsenal players. Thick fog shrouded White Hart Lane on the day of the match. There was no sign of it clearing and it clearly never should have started. Bizzarely the Russian referee Latychev stationed himself on one side of the ground, his two2 linesmen on the other. Dynamos had protested at the make-up of the team whose attack was led by Fulham’s rugged centre-forward Ronnie Rooke. Against all logic, Latychev decided the game should be played. Dynamos went ahead in 30 seconds. But Arsenal, deploying the incisive Blackpool forward Stanley Mortensen, were resilient. Rooke scored, Mortensen scored twice. At one point Dynamos appeared to have 12 players on the field. Beskov made the halftime score 3-2. On 51 minutes Serge Soloviev, blatantly offside, was allowed to make a goal for Kartsev. When Rooke shook centre-half Semichastny off his back and scored, a freekick was given to Dynamos. Bobrov scored Dynamos’ winner again from what looked an offside position. A potentially fine game has ended in fiasco.

Dynamos had one match more to play against Rangers in Glasgow and they very nearly lost it. Time saved Dynamos from a knockout read one headline. Kartsev scored in three minutes from a 30-yard free-kick but Rangers’ robust methods wore the Russians down and the game ended 2-2. The FA wanted to put a representative English team out against Dynamos but the Russians, insisting they’d agreed to play only club teams, flew home unbeaten and overall admired.

Russia sent a team to the Finnish Olympics in 1952 including Bobrov and Beskov. It drew 5-5 with Yugoslavia but lost the replay. Four years later in Melbourne, Russia won the Olympic tournament.

A fine save by Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin stops a free-kick by West Germany going into the net in the semifinals of the 1966 World Cup. But later in the match a curling shot by Franz Beckenbauer deceived Yashin to put the Germans through to the final.   -  The Hindu Photo Library


In 1958 they reached the World Cup finals in Sweden to be drawn into a tough qualifying group. It included England who had drawn 1-1 with Russia en route to Sweden, lacking three major stars, Taylor, Byrne and Edwards, killed in the tragic Munich air crash that February. In Gothenburg the teams drew their initial World Cup group game, Russia missed three star half-backs, but had a fine strategist in Salnikov, a dominant ’keeper in tall Lev Yashin.

England’s star was left-winger Tom Finney who would equalise at 2-2 from a penalty, England wiping out a 2-0 deficit. But Finney would play no more. Derek Kevan had headed the first England goal. The teams would meet again in a play off, Ilyin scoring the only goal in a slightly fortunate win. Russia lost 2-0 to Sweden in their Stockholm quarterfinal.

Consolation came in Paris two years later when Russia won the European Championship, much helped, however, when Spain withdrew rather than play them. In the final, Yugoslavia were beaten 2-1 by Ponedelnik’s goal after extra-time.

Ponedelnik would score again in Chile in Russia’s first match of the 1962 World Cup. But in the quarterfinals in remote Arica Yashin had one of his few poor days, beaten twice from long range by Chilean shots. In the 1966 semifinals at Everton a curling shot by Franz Beckenbauer deceived Yashin to put the Germans through. Four years later in Mexico City, Russia were beaten 1-0 by Uruguay in the final seconds by a highly dubious goal. The ball had plainly run out of play but Cubilla crossed it Esparrago scored.

Russia failed even to qualify for the 1974 tournament in Germany, and failed to make the cut again in 1978 in Argentina. Spain, in 1982, saw them reach the second round but go out to Poland on goal difference.

Mexico in 1986 saw them go out to Belgium 4-3 in Leon in a hectic second round mach. Italy in 1990 saw them knocked out in the first group phase. In 1968’s European finals in Madrid they lost the final 2-1 to Spain and in 1972 in Brussels they were well beaten by West Germany in the semifinals.

In 1974, having been beaten in Dublin, they took over Ukrainian Dynamos’ Blokhin and made progress with Blokhin in dazzling form.

Russian forward Oleg Salenko watches his shot go past Cameroon’s goalkeeper Jacques Songo’o for his fifth goal in the 1994 World Cup. Despite this feat, Russia failed to emerge from the group stages of the tournament.   -  AFP


There was an episode, half-farce, in the 1968 Euro finals in Italy when in a drawn semifinal the Italians won against Russia on a tossed disc. Italy in 1990 saw Russia at the bottom of their first World Cup group. In the USA in 1994 they failed to emerge from the group stage though beating Cameroon 6-1. They failed to qualify for France 1998. In the group stage of the 2002 tournament they lost to hosts Japan and were eliminated. Absent from Germany in 2006 they were absent again in South Africa four years later. In Brazil in 2014, they were eliminated from Group H, beaten 1-0 by Belgium.

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