Stalin and his soccer soldiers.
Dinamo's trip to England was the first post-war example of the Soviet regime's use of sport for diplomatic and political purposes. Subsequent success in the Olympic Games made Soviet athletes ambassadors for the state and Party, and victories in soccer, by far the most popular game in the USSR, were particularly valued by Stalin and his successors.
Faced with so unexpectedly strong an opponent, Arsenal's manager, George Allison, added several players from other teams. The Soviets protested, arguing that they had not agreed to Arsenal's strengthening. Even the British press was critical of Allison's attempt to use the war as an excuse for poor play. 'The Russians also have been at war', The Times remarked, 'but their football is not bad in consequence'. The most productive goal-scorer on the tour was Vsevolod Bobrov, a young striker who led the Soviet first division in scoring during his debut season. By the end of his career Bobrov was widely regarded as the greatest Soviet athlete of all time. The most feared attacker in the USSR, he also became the dominant star of the first decade of Soviet ice hockey. In 1945, however, the British did not know, and the Russians were not revealing, one crucial fact. Bobrov was not a Dinamo man. Instead, he played for the team sponsored by the Central House of the Red Army or, as it was known by its Russian acronym, TsDKA. Dinamo, their greatest rival, was the team of the secret police.
Between the end of the Second World War and the first Soviet participation in the Olympic Games 1952, Central Army became the dominant team in Soviet soccer. Taking advantage of the army's enormous popularity in the wake of the victory over Nazism. TsDKA was able to attract the best coaches and players to what had been a solid, but far from championship calibre, team before the war. When they played important matches in Moscow's 55,000-seat Dinamo stadium, as many as 90,000 fans would stuff their way into every crevice to watch. Despite their complete lack of military training, all but one of the team's regulars were officers, leading Moscow fans to give them the affectionate but ironic nickname, 'the Team of Lieutenants'.
In the wake of the war's devastation, the USSR faced an enormous task of reconstruction. Much of the infrastructure that supported the industries of mass culture was crippled or destroyed. Theatres and concert halls were in ruins; electricity and equipment were scarce. Of all the entertainments, sports, especially soccer, was the quickest to revive. After the war, soccer dramatically expanded its audience beyond the urban working classes. In 1946 and 1947, an estimated 12 million fans attended games in the twelve-team first division, but this vastly increased popularity proved to be a mixed blessing.
Communist Party authorities were now far more interested in the possible political uses of sport. With increased attention came greater responsibility. The political goals of big-time sport became more important, and the drive for success ever more intense. A 1948 Party resolution decreed that sport should strive not simply for sporting equality with other nations but for Soviet dominance. Soccer's increased accessibility and popularity made it an especially ripe object for political interference, and within the context of tightening cultural conformity and political repression in Stalin's last years, the struggle to control its political impact became far more serious. After Dinamo's victories in England, Soviet journalists, coaches, and officials laid claim, with little basis, to the global superiority of Soviet soccer.
Greater international competition gave the Russians new opportunities to test the value of their methods. In 1946, they joined soccer's world governing body, FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association). They were now able to schedule sanctioned exhibition games with foreign professionals, and considerable care was taken in the selection of opponents. Teams from Eastern Europe provided the bulk of the competition, but no side the calibre of Dinamo's British opponents would again be faced until after Stalin's death in 1953. Aside from Dinamo's successes in England and TsDKA's defeat of the pre-war Czech team Sparta Prague, the Soviet international record was one of well-prepared episodic triumphs against opponents who were often far less motivated than their counterparts. Soviet soccer had reached a high level, but it was far from the world's best. However, the nation's politicians had begun to believe their own rhetoric, and there-in lay the danger. The sport became the object of unrealistic expectations which would soon lead to severe disappointment.
Coached by Boris Arkadiev, Central Army won five of the seven league championships between 1945 and 1951. Aside from Bobrov, TsDKA's stars included the first Soviet 100 goal-scorer, Georgii Fedotov, their goal-keeper Vasilii Nikanorov, and defender, Anatolii Bashashkin, the team's only sergeant. The team's most dramatic moment of the post-war era came at the end of the 1948 season. They had started poorly, but had won twelve games in a row to score within one point of Dinamo. As so rarely happens during a league season, the two leading contenders met in the final game. A win or draw would have given the championship to Dinamo. On a typically cold and rainy late September afternoon, an overflow crowd in Dinamo stadium watched as Bobrov opened the scoring with a header. Ten minutes later Dinamo's star, Konstantin Beskov, levelled the score, but just before half-time, TsDKA went ahead 2-1. However, in the second half of an intense battle filled with ebb and flow, TsDKA's veteran defender, Ivan Kochetov, scored an own goal. The score remained 2-2 as the traditional gong sounded, signalling five minutes to go. Just into injury time, an army man hit the post with a long-range shot only to have Bobrov scoring the championship-winning goal from the rebound as the referee's whistle blew and fans flooded the playing field. The press was filled with praise for this victory. Never before had a Soviet soccer season actually gone beyond the end of the last game before a champion was decided. Bobrov and his team-mates were flooded with 3,000 congratulatory telegrams. This victory, as much as anything, contributed to their legend.
Four years later, the Soviets were to take part in the Olympics at Helsinki. One of the expected highlights of the 1952 Games was the soccer tournament, the first international test of the 'Soviet school'. Because the leading capitalist professionals did not take part in Olympic soccer, the Soviets' strongest opponents came from the other 'amateur' teams of Eastern Europe. For over a year before the Games the press had been critical of the deteriorating state of Soviet soccer, but sports officials and political figures were confident, possessing such a team as Central Army, and expected victory. If, as they claimed, Russia had the 'leading school of football in the world', then surely its most outstanding representative had to be the world's best team.
In 1952, the leaders of Soviet soccer were faced with the task of assembling a national team for the first time since 1935. Many specialists, officials, and fans thought the best approach was to build the side around TsDKA. Despite the many complexities of choosing and organising a national team, the formula for triumph seemed simple to the inexperienced organisers. However, victory would elude the Soviet team, and this defeat, known as 'the secret of the Team of Lieutenants', remains one of the most mysterious and controversial episodes in the history of Soviet sport.
For many, Central Army's fate represents the height of political interference in the sporting process, but this view is not universally accepted among journalists, historians, and veterans of the game. For years, stories about the 'Team of Lieutenants' circulated underground, but with the coming of glasnost, several differing accounts came into the open. Yet, because this controversy involved figures at the highest level of Party hierarchy, it is particularly difficult to find conclusive evidence about the roles of political leaders. The relevant archieves remain closed, and the historian is forced to rely on memoirs and press accounts. Some recent observers have described a cospiracy involving Stalin, Stalin's son Vasillii, the head of the secret police, Lavrentii Beria, and a host of top army generals. Others have instead contended that the causes of the Soviet defeat at Helsinki are more readily explained by events limited to the world of sport. This group has argued instead that the political explanation does not hold up under detailed scrutiny.
The facts on which there is universal agreement are as follows. The 1952 Olympic soccer tournament was the largest in the history of the Games. Twenty-seven teams took part. Arkadiev was named the team's head coach. Mikhail Iakushin, who had coached Dinamo on its British tour, was appointed Arkadiev's assistant late in the preparation process. In their first game, the Soviets went into extra time to defeat a highly capable Bulgarian side, 2-1.
Despite all the talk of basing the team on Central Army, only three of the starters in this first game actually came from TsDKA. Bobrov, lured by the blandishments of Stalin's son Vasillii, had switched to the Air Force team. He was joined on the national team by Moscow Spartak's great half-back, Igor Netto, and Dinamo Moscow's Konstantin Beskov, who did not play against Bulgaria but started the next game. Dinamo Tblisi contributed two men, Avtandil Chukaseli and Avtandil Gogoberidze. Central Army did have the largest delegation on the team. Nevertheless, it is impossible to argue that the 'Lieutenants' alone were representing the USSR at Helsinki.
Yugoslavia was their second round opponent and this match presented a problem. Due to the collapse of relations with the Tito government, the Soviets had not played any Yugoslavian team since 1947. Bulgaria had been a known quantity, but no one had any idea what to expect from the Yugoslavs. To make matters worse, no one from the Soviet delegation, neither Arkadiev, Iakushin, nor the head of the Football Federation, Valentin Granatkin, had bothered to see the Yugoslavs' first round match: a 10-1 defeat of India. By half-time, the Yugoslavs led the Soviets 3-0. When play resumed, the score quickly became 4-0. Bobrov soon managed a goal, but the Yugoslavs retaliated two minutes later. The score remained 5-1 until the seventy-fifth minute when Vasilii Trofimov of Dinamo Moscow brought his team back to life with a goal. The Yugoslavs went on the defensive, but they failed to prevent Bobrov from scoring just two minutes later. The Soviets continued to attack furiously, but only in the eighty-seventh minute did Bobrov strike again. The score now 5-4, with one minute to go, the cause still seemed hopeless, but Central Army's Alexander Petrov headed in a corner kick to tie the game. Half an hour of extra time yielded no scoring, and a replay was scheduled for two days later.
Having staged one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the sport, the exhausted Soviet players were put through a heavy practice the next day. For the replay, the Yugoslavs fielded the same players. Arkadiev and Iakushin made one change. They decided to go with the young Chukaseli from Dinamo Tblisi, a switch that would later prove to be controversial. Bobrov scored the first goal of the replay, but the younger Yugoslavs soon overpowered their fatigued opponents, winning 3-1. The defeat was so shocking and was deemed so shameful that it was not even reported by the Soviet press. Only after Stalin's death did histories of the sport even mention the Olympic defeat.
The players and coaches then returned home to resume the regular season only to find their play receiving considerably less press coverage. Match descriptions became uniformly critical of the level of play. Finally, in September, after avoiding the issue for several weeks, the national sports daily, Sovetskii Sport ran the league standings. Central Army was missing. The team had been disbanded. The Air Force team, would soon meet the same fate, its players, like those of TsDKA, distributed to other teams. At the same time, Arkadiev, Konstantin Beskov, and Valentin Nikolaev lost their 'Honoured Master of Sport' titles, while Bashashkin, Konstantin Kryzhevskii, and Alexander Petrov were stripped of their 'Master of Sport' honours. The punishments stopped here, however. No one was arrested, sent into exile, or executed. Yet no team from the armed forces again appeared in first division play until a year after Stalin's death.
Soviet soccer came in for severe criticism in the wake of the Olympic defeat. Even the founding father, of ice hockey, Anatolii Tarasov, attacked club soccer coaches for failing to develop younger players. Left unsaid was the fact that many of the players on the Olympic team were past their prime. Bobrov was thirty, Beskov and Valentin Nikolaev were thirty-one. All were attackers. Their age limited their ability to return to full form only two days after a titanic struggle. In his memoirs, Iakushin cited this fact as a central reason for the loss to Yugoslavia, and he admitted that forcing these veterans to practice on the day between games was a serious mistake.
The first Gorbachev-era account of the 1952 Olympic debacle emphasised the decisive importance of political meddling. In 1988, under the glare of glasnost, two Soviet sports journalists, Stanislav Tokarev and Alexander Gorbunov, writing in the monthly Sportivnye igry, stressed the role of this interference. Rather than allowing Arkadiev to take his powerful 'lieutenants' to Helsinki, Tokarev and Gorbunov argued that every 'patron of the game' sought to pressure the head coach into taking men from their own teams. Beria, Vasilii Stalin, and scores of generals were constantly offering 'advice' to the coaches. Tokarev and Gorbunov suggested TsDKA was sufficiently strong to have won on its own. Instead, some sixty players passed through the various training camps and exhibition games, preventing the development of the necessary level of cohesion. The political 'agiotage' around the composition of the squad destroyed morale. In particular, Gorbunov and Tokarev suggested that the decision to use the young and inexperienced Georgian, Chukaseli, was the work of the player's fellow Georgian, Beria. A soccer player in his youth and an ardent and meddlesome Dinamo supporter, Beria paid close attention to those teams supported by the secret police.
Citing the memoirs of a Central Army player, Iurii Nyrkov, Gorbunov and Tokarev emphasised the enormous political pressure placed on the players by various figures in the Soviet Olympic delegation. They made reference to, but doubt the likelihood of, a pre-game telegram from Stalin in which 'the greatest friend of Soviet physical culture' emphasised the enormous significance of a victory against the enemy Yugoslavs. All this attention, contended Tokarev and Gorbunov, made it impossible for the Soviet players to approach their task with any equanimity.
The authors also argued that the decision to disband the Central Army team was made personally by Stalin. For this assertion, however, they were not able to present direct evidence. Gorbunov and Tokarev did describe a meeting held in the Kremlin immediately upon the return of the entire Olympic delegation on August 6th, 1952. The purpose of this secret gathering was to allow top Party officials to evaluate the overall Olympic performance. Georgii Malenkov, who was to be Stalin's immediate successor, chaired the meeting which was also attended by Beria and the sitting head of the All-Union Committee of Physical Culture, N.N. Romanov. No account places Stalin at this gathering.
Basing themselves on Nyrkov's undocumented second-hand memoir account, Gorbunov and Tokarev stated that Malenkov asked Romanov if the Olympic soccer team had been based on Central Army. Romanov, who clearly knew better, incorrectly replied that they had, and Beria supported this distortion in order to deflect blame from the several representatives of both Dinamo Moscow and Dinamo Tblisi who had played in Finland. All the blame then fell on the army team, even though it was clear to many inside and outside the sports world that TsDKA had not been the sole basis of the Olympic team. Nevertheless, Beria's attempt to protect his institution was not wholly successful; one of those who lost his 'Master of Sport' title was, Beskov, a Dinamo man.
Using more reliable evidence, Gorbunov and Tokarev then went on to cite archival material from the All-Union Committee of Physical Culture concerning a January 15th, 1953, meeting of the 'All-Union Scientific-Methodological Conference on Football'. Held in the highly-charged political atmosphere of Stalin's last days, the gathering turned into an orgy of denunciation directed at Boris Arkadiev. TsDKA's coach was described as an 'apolitical intellectual' who held himself above his players, none of whom could understand their coach because of Arkadiev's 'constant use of foreign words such as khavbek and offside'. One representative of the coaches' council went so far as to suggest that Arkadiev's failures were rooted in his ignorance of Stalin's recent 'masterpiece', Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR.
During 1990, Gorbunov and Tokarev's account was disputed in two places. Mikhail Iakushin defended himself in his memoirs, and the veteran sports writer, Arkadii Galinskii, attacked their case in a series of articles appearing in Sovetskii sport. Both Iakushin and Galinskii found sufficient reason within the sphere of sport alone to explain the Soviets' quick exit from the Olympic soccer competition. Iakushin accepted responsibility for both himself and Arkadiev, who had died in 1986. He admitted they made many errors because of their inexperience in international competition. Iakushin did not know that in the Olympics, matches followed each other more quickly than the weekly pace of a regular domestic soccer season. Had he realised this, he and Arkadiev would have chosen younger players.
Galinskii also debunked the theory of a political conspiracy. A maverick who had his share of difficulties with the authorities over the course of a long career, Galinskii was in no way seeking to defend those high Party officials accused of meddling. Nevertheless, he argued, that by 1952 Central Army was no longer the team it had been in the late 1940s. Fedotov had retired. Bobrov, oft-injured, had moved to the Air Force team, and many other stars were getting older. Throughout 1951, these facts had often been noted in the sports press. Not only TsDKA but all Soviet soccer came under increasing criticism for what was called 'stagnation'.
Galinskii argued that Arkadiev fully understood the impossibility of basing the Olympic team on TsDKA and had resisted attempts by political non-specialists to name his squad. He had left Dinamo in 1944 over this issue, and in his time at Central Army he had repeatedly ignored the 'advice' of generals and colonels. The team that finally did go to Helsinki was by no means the 'Team of Lieutenants', and according to Galinskii, this was Arkadiev's professional decision. It is important to remember that a Soviet national team had not been organised since 1935. In all countries at all times, the politics of putting together national teams have been terribly complex, and coaches have always been subject to pressure. In this sense, the attempts of powerful Soviet figures to influence the composition of the Olympic squad were not entirely different from practices in the West.
Galinskii cited and supported Iakushin's account of the errors made by Soviet coaches. The Yugoslavs were extremely strong opponents. They would make it all the way to the final only to lose to an excellent Hungarian team. Defeat at their hands was hardly an upset. Galinskii also discussed the controversial decision to put Chukaseli into the line-up for the replay, a switch, he maintained, could be defended purely on professional grounds. In Galinskii's version, Iakushin decided that Chukaseli, who played in Iakushin's club team, possessed the particular qualities to pressure the Yugoslavs' strong defender. Branko Stankovic. Chukaseli was inexperienced, but he was also young and strong. Iakushin had discussed the matter with Arkadiev, Bobrov, Beskov, and Granatkin, none of whom had objected. Galinskii made no mention of Beria's role, however.
Finally, Galinskii raised doubts about the likelihood that Stalin himself made the decision to break up Central Army's team. The Olympic squad had, after all, not ben based on TsDKA, and those who lost their titles were also not exclusively 'Lieutenants'. In the absence of definitive archival evidence concerning political motives at so high a level, Galinskii could only guess at other possible scenarios. He suggested, instead, that the decision to disband TsDKA was more probably made by A.M. Vasilevskii, the minister of defence. Vasilevskii may have been taking a cue from Stalin, but Galinskii claimed that the minister had recently broken up a number of the armed forces' teams in a variety of sports. Vasilevskii was an opponent of elite sport, instead preferring the military give priority to mass physical culture. Only after Stalin's death, when Nikolai Bulganin was appointed to the Defence Ministry, was big-time sport revived in the armed forces.
While Galinskii offered little more direct proof than Gorbunov and Tokarev, his explanation does have a certain plausibility in the suggestion that Vasilevskii's prejudice against elite sport may account for the disbanding of the team. This suggestion, although no more than an educated guess on Galinskii's part, does seem more likely to have occurred than Gorbunov and Tokarev's account of Malenkov's garbled questioning of Romanov at the Kremlin. However, it cannot be said that Galinskii directly disproved their story. Nor did he bring a historian's perspective to the evidential weaknesses of their account. Instead, he presented a counter-explanation which left out possible political interference.
Both versions of events demonstrate the kinds of myths, rumours, and accompanying controversies that circulated around Soviet sport. True or false, these legends, which over the years took on a reality of their own, were believed by many fans, coaches, players, and sports writers. Every Soviet fan knew 'secrets' learned from 'insiders', and nearly every Soviet journalist had stories they 'knew' but could not print.
To an extent, big-time sport in any nation at any time has been a historic repository of myths and legends. Galinskii demonstrated that even in the most repressive period of Stalin's rule sport could maintain some measure of autonomy. Not every kick or save was pre-ordained at a Party congress. While it is likely that the realities of this and similar episodes may turn out to be considerably less dramatic when they are examined in detail, such myths both explain the attractions of sport and generate its ideologies.
The 'secret of the Team of Lieutenants' remains for many the quintessential case of political interference in sport. In the coming years as archives open, we will learn much more about these events. Will myths be shattered and legends revealed as falsehoods? Therein lies the struggle for the hearts and minds of the peoples of the former Soviet Union. It is a contest far harder to predict than any ever faced by the Team of Lieutenants.
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|Title Annotation:||Moscow Dinamo soccer team|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1993|
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