By Alastair Watt –
Outside the former Soviet Union, the name Eduard Streltsov means little to anyone other than scholars of the beautiful game. Few have heard of the “Russian Pele” and his story is one of football’s most mysterious cases of what might have been.
Unfulfilled potential is an accusation commonly made of a footballer. George Best and Paul Gascoigne are perhaps the two most frequently cited examples of this, in the UK anyway. The former spent the last ten years of an otherwise legendary career gallivanting at an assortment of little known clubs such as Hong Kong Rangers and Brisbane Lions after alcoholism and womanising brought an abrupt end to his revered time at Manchester United. Gascoigne’s tale was similar, with a self-inflicted knee injury cutting the Geordie down in his prime in the 1991 FA Cup Final.
Far more tragic though are those who perish before the world can witness their talents. The entire Torino side, the majority of whom made up the Italian national team post-war, was killed in a plane crash in May 1949 having won five Serie A titles in a row. How many more would they have won? How would the defending champions Italy, going for their third title in a row, have fared in the World Cup the following year had the huge Torino contingent survived?
English football fans of a certain vintage will vehemently contest that Duncan Edwards was the greatest English player of all time. However, as the Munich Air Disaster took the Manchester United and England winger’s life in February 1958, along with seven teammates, his hallowed ability never graced the world stage, laid to rest at the tender age of just 21.
So many questions remain, never to be answered and left to educated imagination and speculation.
Raised by single mother Sofia in Moscow, his father having stayed in Kiev after serving in the Second World War, Streltsov was first spotted as a teenager playing for the factory at which his mother worked.
So impressed were Torpedo Moscow after playing against the youngster, they signed the 16-year old Streltsov in 1954 and he would play every game for the club in the USSR Championship season, scoring four goals.
Playing for a club formed by an automotive plant, the Russian was a Rolls Royce among Ladas. Indeed, if his scintillating skill did not tell him apart from his teammates, his western ‘teddy boy’ appearance certainly did. The latter may have attracted unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities who were militant in suppressing any western influences.
The following season saw Streltsov break into the USSR national team, as his stock soared like a sputnik scoring two hat-tricks in his opening two matches against Sweden and India. He was similarly prolific for Torpedo, who would later name their stadium after him, and was soon starring in the politically charged Olympic Games of 1956 in Melbourne.
For the satellite states of the Soviet Union, this Olympiad was a chance to retaliate to widely unwanted Moscow influence (depicted explicitly in the excellent “Freedom’s Fury” which tells the tale of Hungary’s bloody Water Polo clash with USSR against the distant backdrop of the eventually suppressed 1956 Hungarian revolution). Conversely, it also represented a global platform to showcase supposed soviet superiority.
A star of the USSR Championship, Streltsov was mesmerising at the 1956 Games, as USSR swept aside the Unified Team of Germany and Indonesia before a semi-final against Bulgaria, one of the aforementioned satellite Soviet-influenced states of the post-war era.
Reduced to nine men by injury, USSR fell 1-0 behind in extra time only for Streltsov to equalise and set up a dramatic winner as the Bulgarians were beaten. The performance is considered by Russian football experts including Jonathan Wilson as “magnificent” and among the best of any USSR player.
Despite his prominent role in the semi-final, Streltsov was left out for the final against Yugoslavia, and this was not the last time he would be on the receiving end of a surprise decision from a higher authority.
USSR still went on to win 1-0 in the final and his Armenian replacement Nikita Simonyan offered Streltsov his gold medal which the star of the Games declined, insisting that he would win many more in his career.
Streltsov did go on to win medals, but not for another nine controversial, scandal-ridden and difficult years. In 1957, he had scored a winner against Poland to book USSR’s place at the World Cup, helped ordinarily also-rans Torpedo to second place in the Soviet League and picked up twelve votes for the Ballon d’Or.
Appreciation of the Russian was growing beyond Soviet boundaries, and the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 seemed destined to be the moment Streltsov would arrive as a true star of the global game. But he wasn’t to kick a ball in Scandinavia.
Two weeks prior to the World Cup and along with two teammates, Streltsov attended a party at the dacha of a soviet military officer. A heavy night was followed by an almighty hangover, with Streltsov and his two alleged perpetrators Mikhail Ogonkov and Boris Tatushin (both of Spartak) charged with the rape of a 20-year old girl.
On the condition that he could still play in the World Cup if he confessed, Streltsov admitted to the crime. However, perhaps not surprisingly, this promise was not honoured. Instead, Streltsov was sentenced to twelve years in a gulag and given a lifetime ban from playing professional football.
In his absence, USSR were eliminated with a whimper by hosts Sweden in the quarter-final and the tournament was dominated by a 17-year old Pele. Russian scholars of the game insist that such was Streltsov’s talent, had he played he would have outshone the Brazilian genius, hence the nickname. A bold claim but one that lives on in Russian football folklore, the legend of Streltsov perpetuated by the tournament, and indeed tournaments, in which he did not play.
Protests from factory workers, allegations of evidence against Streltsov being doctored and strong rumours of the personal involvement of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev circulated as Streltsov began his term in the gulag.
However, as Streltsov was being grinded down in a work camp, his club and country prospered, somewhat diminishing his heroic status. Torpedo won a first ever league and cup double in 1960 and, in the same year, USSR won the inaugural European Championships. The likes of Lev Yashin and Igor Netto rose to international stardom with USSR, while his place at Torpedo was amply filled by the free-scoring Gennadi Gusarov.
Nevertheless, Streltsov was released in 1963 and started playing at amateur level for a factory team, drawing five figure crowds wherever he played. A relentless campaign backed not only by workers but also members of the Supreme Soviet eventually resulted in Brezhnev lifting Streltsov’s professional ban and he returned to Torpedo in 1965.
Despite over six years in the wilderness, Streltsov (above, centre) played a prominent role in leading Torpedo to the 1965 Soviet League and the Soviet Cup three years later. During his second coming, despite the physical and mental scars of the gulag, he was named the Soviet Player of the Year two years running.
After the snub at the Olympics 1956, he had vowed to win many medals. In his entire, heavily curtailed, career he picked up just two during his lifetime and was posthumously awarded Olympic gold in 2006.
Most remarkably, despite his name being besmirched and his prime years taken from him, Streltsov played another 17 times for USSR, scoring a further seven goals. Four and a half years in a gulag would not deter the “Russian Pele.”
Streltsov died in 1990 at the age of 53 from throat cancer, attributed by most to his heavy smoking and drinking.
In 2010, a two ruble coin was minted in Streltsov’s honour. For a player many consider the inventor of the back-heel, it would take several hundred million of these to secure his services on the modern transfer market.
Perhaps, had he turned down that infamous dacha party, we’d be asking “Pele?” “Yeah, apparently he was brilliant. The Brazilian Streltsov they called him.”
Alastair Watt is a published sports journalist whose interest in the east was spawned at the age of 7, watching his native Scotland wallop the CIS at Euro 92. Fifteen years later he had his first taste of football beyond the old iron curtain, in a visit to Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) to see his beloved Aberdeen smash and grab an away goals triumph in the UEFA Cup. Whether it was the Stalinist architecture, the plentiful Pelmeni, or the vodka, further venturing to the post-Soviet Space soon became obsessively frequent before moving to Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2010 where he remains. You can follow Alastair on Twitter @Tbilisidon