Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
It is a grey November morning in 1945, and an aeroplane emblazoned with the communist red star touches down on the tarmac at Croydon Airport. On board are Dinamo Moscow, here by invitation of the Football Association to partake in a month-long tour celebrating the game’s return after World War Two.
These were the days before regular European competition; Uefa would not come into existence for another nine years. No Russian side had ever visited Britain before and, despite the two countries technically still being allies with the Cold War yet to begin, the communist party were initially wary of allowing a football team to visit the West. But after much persuasion they came to see the political value of a successful tour.
Things did not begin smoothly, however. Dinamo received a distinctly low-key welcome – they were particularly irked at not being greeted by the Soviet flag – and although their trip caused great interest among a war-weary public, the same was hardly true of London’s hoteliers. Many could not or, in some instances, would not put up the 40-strong party. After passing on some pretty uninviting army barracks they spent the first night at the Soviet embassy. Immediately there was talk of a return to Moscow. Only on the third day did the FA’s secretary Stanley Rous find suitable accommodation, but the whole affair soured an already strained relationship.
Dinamo had only agreed to the tour after submitting an exhaustive 14-point list of demands to a bemused FA. These diva-like wishes ranged from facing Arsenal (“to come to London and not play Arsenal would be like visiting Cairo without seeing the pyramids” commented Dinamo’s coach Mikhail Yakushin) and permitting substitutions during matches, to taking all of their meals at the embassy and making 600 tickets available to Soviet citizens living in Britain. The FA agreed to all of them, save for two: games would not necessarily be held on a Saturday, nor just once a week.
Fans were keen to catch a glimpse of Dinamo - particularly at Stamford Bridge
Aside from Arsenal, the line-up was completed by Chelsea, Cardiff City and Rangers. That year Dinamo won the Soviet championship playing an attacking 4-2-4 formation, winning 19 of their 22 matches – including 17 in a row – and scoring 73 times. The invitation caught Dinamo on the hop somewhat though, mainly because the Soviet season followed the calendar year and had finished in October. It meant a premature return for the players, who were forced to clear the snow at their training base before preparing themselves. Yakushin also padded out his squad with Vsevolod Bobrov, the league’s top scorer with 24 goals for runners-up CDKA Moscow, and Dinamo Leningrad pair Yevgeniy Arkhangelskiy and Boris Oreshkin.
The British press had, for the most part, written Dinamo off. “They are not nearly good enough to play our class of professional teams,” said the Sunday Express. “Do not expect much from this bunch of factory workers.” Despite this, for Dinamo’s inaugural fixture against Chelsea on 13 November some estimates put the crowd at Stamford Bridge past the 100,000 mark. These exotic visitors wowed them with an organised warm-up in tracksuits beforehand, both of which were unheard of in Britain at the time. Quite what the Chelsea squad thought when presented with bouquets of flowers at kick-off is another matter.
Dinamo - and their flowers - take to the pitch against Chelsea
The home side, strengthened by the recent signings of Tommy Lawton - then one of the best English forwards around - plus Len Goulden and Johnny Harris, led 2-0 at half-time, but Dinamo were zipping the ball about nicely, playing a distinct quick, fluid style. Lawton noted that "it was brilliant teamwork, speed and ball control. To be honest, the Russians should have been four goals ahead after only 20 minutes except for their poor shooting." They equalised with two goals of their own after the break, only for Chelsea again take the lead. But a late strike from Bobrov earned the visitors a deserved draw - they had more than passed their first test and won over many admirers.
Four days later, Cardiff found themselves on the wrong end of a 10-1 drubbing at Ninian Park in front of 60,000 fans. Notice how the Pathé news reel below describes the result as a 'shock', despite the fact Cardiff were a team of part-timers playing in the Third Division.
The penultimate match was the biggest of the tour: Arsenal, the fixture they had insisted upon. Many of Arsenal’s players were still serving in the forces overseas, leading to manager George Allison getting Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen and Joe Bacuzzi to “guest” for the Gunners.
As per one of their 14 demands, the game was officiated by a referee Dinamo had brought to Britain with them. They took the lead after just 30 seconds, not that many of the 55,000 crowd saw it. A thick fog enshrouded White Hart Lane where the game was played (the Ministry of Defence still occupied Highbury, which had been used as an Air Raid Precautions centre during the war). But Arsenal fought back to lead a controversial fixture 3-2 at the break. Some say it should have been cancelled, while others claim Dinamo had 12 men on the pitch at one stage after a substitution error. They equalised through an offside Sergei Soloviev and Bobrov netted the winner.
George Orwell penned his “the Sporting Spirit” essay shortly afterwards. “Now that the brief visit of the Dinamo football team has come to an end it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying privately before the Dinamos ever arrived,” he wrote. “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 slightly worse than before. Even the newspapers have been unable to conceal the fact that at least two of the four matches played led to much bad feeling. At the Arsenal match, I am told by someone who was there, a British and a Russian player came to blows and the crowd booed the referee. The Glasgow match, someone else informs me, was simply a free-for-all from the start.”
Rangers wanted to beat Dinamo, mainly for national pride and to achieve what the English had failed to do. Over 92,000 crammed inside Ibrox to see what Orwell correctly described as a physical encounter end 2-2. Aston Villa were, at the end of it all, supposed to face Dinamo. Or, at least that’s what they thought: Dinamo instead returned to London. They left Britain soon afterwards, landing in Moscow undefeated, and as heroes; several of the party were awarded the honour “Master of Sport”.
Dinamo had proved they were equal to their western European counterparts and, while it perhaps didn’t do any favours for diplomatic relations, the tour proved to be a bit of a coup for the communists – just as they had desired. And off the back it, one year later the USSR would join FIFA, beginning a new chapter in Soviet football.
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