Friday, July 15, 2022

 

Mundialito, Part 5

The final of the Mundialito tournament took place at the Centenario stadium on January 10, 1981, before over 70,000 spectators. After his authoritative handling of the Brazil v. Argentina game, the Austrian Erich Linemayr was the obvious choice to referee the final, and he once again did a firm and impartial job.

Uruguay made one enforced change, the suspended José Moreira being replaced by Victor Diogo at right-back. Brazil fielded the same side as against West Germany, despite their laboured first-half performance in that encounter. The hosts had enjoyed a week's rest since their previous game, while Brazil were playing their third match in six days. 

The Uruguayans made a nervous start, and Brazil quickly assumed the initiative. Junior, who had scored with a majestic free kick against the Germans, almost repeated the feat in the third minute, but Rodolfo Rodriguez made a fine fingertip save. Brazil enjoyed the majority of the possession, but with Socrates again looking ill at ease as a centre-forward, penetration was hard to come by. 

Although the fouling was not extreme, there were two unpleasant incidents. Diogo was lucky to receive only a yellow card for a dreadful foul on the resourceful Zé Sergio, and at the other end Luizinho might also have been sent off for a dangerous challenge on Ruben Paz; the Brazilian defender, too, escaped with a caution. 

Toninho Cerezo, having a mixed tournament, missed a golden chance to open the scoring on the half-hour when Zé Sergio set him up cleverly on the edge of the box. Paulo Isidoro too had a chance on 36 minutes; Uruguay, despite the vocal encouragement of 70,000 fans, were finding it very hard to get into the game.

Paz at least forced Joao Leite into a save just before the whistle, with a free kick from 25 yards. Brazil's own free kick specialist, Junior, took one in a very promising position on the left just after the restart, but some sly encroachment by the Uruguay wall - unpunished, this time, by Linemayr - rendered it ineffective.

Although the fluffy-haired left-back Daniel Martinez also had a chance for Uruguay, it was still a surprise when they opened the scoring. Fittingly, the goal again had its origin in the combination between Paz and Venancio Ramos, the hosts' two most impressive players throughout the event. Ramos set Paz free on the right, with the Brazilian defence out of shape; Paz's shot was blocked, and the ball rebounded to the talisman Waldemar Victorino, who touched the ball aside for the teenage Jorge Barrios, on as a substitute, to score.

Once again, upon conceding a goal, Tele Santana opted to bring on Serginho for Tita. And once again, Brazil began to look sharper, with Socrates able to scheme from behind the lines instead of playing with his back to goal. Sure enough, just after the hour, the doctor went on a storming run into the box from deep, and was brought down for a penalty. Socrates took it himself, calmly burying it in the right-hand corner. 1-1, and the momentum was now with Brazil.

Chances now came for both sides. Junior, after a slick one-two with Cerezo, missed a good opportunity, while Ramos forced another save from Joao Leite, again from a free kick. The young winger was becoming more prominent, and the decisive goal owed a great deal to his efforts. Holding off two Brazilian defenders by the right touchline and eventually drawing a foul, he sent the resulting free kick tantalizingly between Joao Leite and his defensive line. Just when it seemed that the ball might evade everyone in the six-yard box, who should pop up but the man with the lucky star following him everywhere. Victorino it was, ducking in behind Oscar and stooping to head the ball home for his third goal in as many games.

The remainder of the match petered away inamongst the smoke bombs and the flag-waving. Even a shocking foul by a frustrated Isidoro on Martinez couldn't spoil the party, and Uruguay could proclaim themselves, a tad grandiloquently, the champion of the champions. More tellingly, they had repeated the triumph of 1930.

Forty-odd years later, it is still hard to assess the importance of the Mundialito. A trashy little ersatz mid-season tournament, or an apt celebration featuring some of the finest teams in the world? I incline towards the latter interpretation, with some reservations. Certainly, I think many of the sides involved, Brazil especially, took some lessons from the event. And for the Uruguayans, of course, it still remains a treasured memory. As Shane Davis has pointed out, their record in home competition over the course of football history has been exceptional.

Victory in the tournament did not, it must be said, have much of a lasting effect on Uruguayan football. In the qualifying series for the 1982 World Cup, they were shocked at home by an ageing Peru, and missed out. They did win the 1983 Copa America, but the side that did so featured only a few players from the team that had tasted success at the Mundialito. And when Uruguay returned to the World Cup in 1986, they put in a disappointing performance, ultimately losing out to the eventual champions in the second round. It should be noted, however, that in that game, the arrival of Ruben Paz on the hour transformed the side, who caused the Argentinians plenty of problems in the final minutes. Perhaps the midfield hero of the Mundialito should have been on from the beginning.

But in many ways, the key figure of the fifty-year anniversary tournament was its top scorer. An uncomplicated, journeyman centre-forward who had his moment in the sun at exactly the right time. Waldemar Victorino is hardly a household name anywhere other than Montevideo today. But he had his hour, and it was a glorious one.


Thursday, July 14, 2022

 

Mundialito, Part 4

Brazil beating West Germany 4-1 at the height of the Tele Santana era might conjure up images of a superb, timeless display of jogo bonito. In reality, things were a bit more complicated...and interesting.

One of the abiding mysteries of the 1982 World Cup in general, and of Brazil's performances in particular, is why Santana persisted with the burly but maladroit Serginho up front, when so many of the stylish midfield build-ups came to nothing thanks to the big centre-forward's clumsy first touches. I think the Seleçao's final two games at the Mundialito, and their encounter with the Germans in particular, go some way to explaining why Santana showed such faith in Serginho.

The Germans, of course, had nothing to play for. Furthermore, their powerful striker Horst Hrubesch was ruled out of the game with angina pain. His place was taken by the unassuming Borussia Dortmund midfielder Mirko Votava, which meant that Karlheinz Rummenigge was given a thankless lone striker role. The Brazilians, by contrast, could reach the final if they won by two or more goals. Once again, however, they played Socrates at the point of the attack - and it was clear that the Corinthians general was not happy in the role.

The winger Paulo Isidoro, who had caused plenty of problems for the Argentinians, was assigned to the capable care of Hans-Peter Briegel, Diego Maradona's nemesis. And with Socrates unable to help out Toninho Cerezo in midfield, the Brazilians found fluency hard to come by in the opening stages. In fact, it was the Germans who secured the first real chance, with Rummenigge - often surrounded by as many as three Brazilian defenders - forcing a save from Joao Leite in Brazil's goal after 20 minutes.

Isidoro skied a shot from a careless back-header from Felix Magath, and Socrates and Junior had successive shots blocked after a clever dummy by Batista. At the other end, Manfried Kaltz, who would later go off injured, and Rummenigge failed to make the most of half-chances. It was 0-0 at the break, and the football had been uninspiring. Despite the Germans' occasional, and understandable, slackness in defence and midfield, Brazil had been unable to take advantage.

Brazil gradually upped the tempo in the second half, but Toni Schumacher saved well from Cerezo just after the restart, and Socrates missed another opportunity soon afterwards. On 54 minutes, somewhat against the run of play, Germany went ahead. Rummenigge, for once finding space on the right, crossed to Hansi Muller, who pulled the ball back for Klaus Allofs to apply a close-range finish.

Then Santana made an important decision: he took off the largely ineffective Tita and brought on Serginho, and Socrates withdrew into his more familiar midfield role.

Immediately Brazil looked a more balanced side, and they equalized in short order, Junior scoring with a marvellous free kick from 20 yards. From that point on, with the Germans no longer looking interested, Brazil had the run of the field. A second arrived when Cerezo, criminally unmarked, strolled into the area and connected with Edevaldo's right-wing cross.

The crucial third goal came thirteen minutes from the close. Socrates, running from deep, was played through on goal; riding a feeble tackle from Bernard Dietz, he prodded the ball past an advancing Schumacher for Serginho to slot the ball into an empty net. The big Sao Paulo striker had done nothing outstanding in his time on the field: he had merely allowed others to be more effective elsewhere.

There was time for another goal, and this time Serginho played provider, sliding a clever reverse pass into the path of Zé Sergio, who rode Schumacher's attempted challenge and scored from a tight angle. 

Brazil, then, had scored a handful of goals against an uncommitted team to reach a final on goal difference ahead of Argentina. There would have been many present who would have appreciated the irony, after the controversy of Rosario in 1978.

Pound for pound, Brazil should have been the favourites going into the final. But they could count on a raucous Montevideo crowd, and a Uruguay team now brimming with confidence.

Stay tuned for Part 5.


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

 

Mundialito, Part 3

If Uruguay's first match at the Mundialito was relatively peaceful, their second, against Italy, was full of drama. Some of this was probably due to the febrile atmosphere created by the Montevideo crowd; fairly subdued during the match against the Dutch, they now filled the air with constant chants and smoke bombs. The weak refereeing of the Spaniard Emilio Guruceta did not help either, although it must be added that he was indulgent to both sides, not just the Uruguayans.

In the first half, the game looked like being a repeat of the two sides' encounter at the 1970 World Cup: a tight, tense 0-0 draw in which both teams showed excessive respect to the other. This time, Ruben Paz and Venancio Ramos were unable to impose themselves as they had against Holland; the former was being closely watched by the Italians' midfield policeman Marco Tardelli, and Antonio Cabrini was dealing similarly efficiently with Ramos on the Uruguayan right flank.

Most of the enterprise in the first half came from the Roma winger Bruno Conti, a recent addition to the national team. Italy created what few chances arrived in the first period, but the two strikers, Francisco Graziani and the tall Alessandro Altobelli, failed to make the most of them. The absent Paolo Rossi would probably have snapped them up.

The second half saw the game open up, and the fouling become more aggressive. Giancarlo Antognoni went close for Italy with a free kick soon after the restart, but the Uruguayans were starting to look threatening. Soon after the hour, Paz for once got the better of Tardelli and rushed into the box, but made a mess of his eventual shot. A few minutes later Uruguay did score: the Italian keeper Ivano Bordon saved a close-range shot from Paz, but in the follow-up play the striker Waldemar Victorino was upended by Antognoni in the box, and a penalty was given. "Just as we expected," was the cynical comment from the Italian commentator Nando Martellini, but in truth the Italians could have few complaints; it was certainly a foul.

The veteran Julio Morales converted the penalty without ado, and the game quickly became more violent. On 70 minutes, a series of fouls by the touchline was followed by a brief all-in brawl, after which Cabrini and the Uruguayan right-back José Moreira were both sent off. Uruguay's accomplished keeper, Rodolfo Rodriguez, came into his own in the final stages, saving well from Graziani and Antognoni. Nine minutes from the end, Uruguay scored a second when Ramos crossed from the right, and Victorino, continuing his inspired run of form, chested the ball down before firing adroitly past Bordon.

In the final minutes, a wild, frustrated foul by Tardelli on Paz produced a third red card, and the game limped to the finish line. "If Uruguay's intention is to win the trophy by any means, they could have told us and saved us the journey," complained Italy's manager, Enzo Bearzot. But apart from the intimidation of the crowd, there was little reason for Italy to feel aggrieved.

The Italy v. Netherlands match thus became an irrelevance, and the game was notable only for the debut of a tough young Roma midfielder of whom we would hear a great deal in years to come: Carlo Ancelotti. It was, in fact, the future dean of European managers who scored Italy's goal, a smartly-taken right footed shot on seven minutes. Eight minutes later, the Dutch equalized through their captain Jan Peters, beating Bordon from distance in the best traditions of Aarie Haan.

A day after Uruguay's victory over Italy, Brazil and Argentina produced the finest game of the competition. Forewarned by both the events of the previous day and the two rivals' spiteful encounter at the 1978 World Cup, the Austrian referee Erich Linemayr took charge of the game impressively from the outset, making it clear that rough play would not be tolerated. The result was a relatively well-mannered game in which both sides were prepared to let the other play.

Maradona, this time, was marked very loosely, if at all; Brazil did not possess a Briegel in their ranks. Instead, Tele Santana's side produced some of the fluent football they were to show in Spain, although there was a certain lack of bite in the front third. Socrates, wearing the No.9 shirt, was playing almost as a centre-forward, alternating with the young Renato. 

On the half-hour mark, shortly after Ramon Diaz had forced a good save from the Brazilian keeper Carlos, Maradona scored an excellent goal. Hurdling Batista in midfield, he ran on into the box, cut inside a static Oscar easily and beat Carlos at his near post. 

There were half-chances for Renato and Toninho Cerezo before the break, and Maradona might have scored another when Osvaldo Ardiles cleverly played him through, but he was called back for offside - a marginal decision.

Brazil were given fresh impetus in the second half with the arrival of the winger Paulo Isidoro. Only two minutes after the break, Isidoro forced a good save from Ubaldo Fillol, and the ball broke to the right-back Edevaldo, who sent a thundering cross-shot past the Argentina keeper. 1-1.

There were plenty of chances in a vibrant final half-hour. Cerezo, played through superbly by the other winger, Zé Sergio, had his shot smothered by Fillol. Brazil might have had a penalty soon after when Isidoro, a constant menace to the Argentinian defence, had his shirt slyly pulled by Americo Gallego. At the other end, Argentina's own substitute, José Valencia, hit the base of the post, and his collision with Carlos forced the latter to withdraw injured, giving way to the substitute keeper Joao Leite. Just before the final whistle, the largely anonymous midfielder Tita slipped unnoticed through the midfield and was left one-on-one with Fillol, but the keeper again rushed off his line just in time to smother the shot.

It had been a pleasing display from two excellent sides, and a draw was a fair result. Brazil, then, had to beat the Germans by a decent margin to reach the final ahead of Argentina on goal difference - a situation which must have conjured up memories of 1978, when the roles were reversed.

Stay tuned for Part 4.


Tuesday, July 12, 2022

 

Mundialito, Part 2

The two three-team groups for the Mundialito were: Uruguay, Italy and the Netherlands (Group A) and Brazil, Argentina and West Germany (Group B). The group winners would contest the final. No third-place game; time, in the middle of the European club calendar, was at a premium.

The hosts' preparation for the tournament had been intense. Taking a leaf out of the Argentinians' book once again, the Uruguay squad had been in preparation for two months, under the tutelage of Roque Maspoli, the goalkeeper of the Celeste side which had shocked hosts Brazil to win the World Cup in 1950.

Against a jet-lagged and second-rate Holland, Uruguay had a comfortable start. The teams had met at the 1974 World Cup, when Johan Cruyff's Oranje had looked imperious in a 2-0 win over Uruguay's creaking side. This time, the result would be reversed, and it would be the Dutch who looked listless and uninspired against Maspoli's young team.

Although the Uruguay eleven did feature a survivor of the 1970 World Cup in the left-winger Julio Morales, the majority of the team had yet to reach their 23rd birthday. It was two of the 21-year-olds who particularly caught the eye in the tournament opener: the Penarol playmaker Ruben Paz, adroit, skilful and energetic, and his clubmate Venancio Ramos, a fast, deft right-winger. 

These two dominated the play from the start, and were both involved in the opening goal just after half an hour. Paz, who had already hit the post, played in the veteran Morales on the left, whose cutback was smartly side-footed past two lunging Dutch defenders by Ramos. 

The Dutch were stung into action, driven on by the sole survivors of the great team of the 1970s, the muscular van de Kerkhof twins. They did fashion a good chance a few minutes from the break, when the Uruguay keeper Rodolfo Rodriguez had to dive at the feet of the Dutch captain Jan Peters. But just before the half-time whistle, Uruguay went further ahead when Morales' left-wing corner was flicked on at the near post by Paz, and the striker Waldemar Victorino, Nacional's hero in the recent Copa Libertadores, dived full-length to head the ball in, off the far post.

Paz and Ramos continued to rule the field in the second half, combining to create a good chance on 55 minutes which was saved well by the veteran Dutch keeper, Pim Doesburg. Peters, Holland's best player throughout the event, almost made the score respectable with a cross-shot which flew just wide, and Uruguay might have added another when Paz played the substitute Ernesto Vargas in on the right 12 minutes from the end; again, Doesburg managed a good save. Uruguay had gotten off to a winning start without unduly exerting themselves.

Two days later, on the first day of 1981, one of the showpieces of the tournament took place: the encounter between the world champions and the newly-crowned European champions. The last competitive encounter between Argentina and West Germany had been at the 1966 World Cup: a dour, spiteful game in which Argentina dealt resourcefully with the Germans' blunt attack after Jose Albrecht was sent off. 

As in the tournament's first game, the roles were now somewhat reversed. Diego Maradona's reputation had preceded him, and the German manager Jupp Derwall had just the man to undertake the task of close-marking football's new superstar.

Hans-Peter Briegel had been an athlete of no mean ability before turning to football, and opponents found him a daunting prospect throughout his career. Fast, resilient and built like the proverbial tank - his nickname was Die Walz, "the steamroller" - he had cemented his place in the national side during their successful Nations Cup campaign. Now, his job was to keep the extraordinarily skilful and elusive Maradona quiet, and he did it with aplomb.

It was still the era of man-marking, and the Germans had their designated watchers elsewhere: the young Karlheinz Foerster looked after Ramon Diaz, while the 1978 hero Mario Kempes was in the capable hands of Manfried Kaltz. Perhaps with Franz Beckenbauer in mind, Derwall had assigned the sweeper role to a converted midfielder in Rainer Bonhof, by now the team's senior figure. (In 1982, it would be another former midfielder, Uli Stielike, who would play as libero).

The pattern of the game was quickly established: Argentina making the running, the Germans playing on the counter. Although Diaz created an early chance, by the half-hour it was becoming clear that Argentina were running out of steam and ideas, frustrated by the diligent marking of the Germans. Briegel was dominating Maradona, and Kempes, who had been struggling for form and fitness at Valencia, was barely sighted. Karlheinz Rummenigge missed a good chance on the half-hour, but just before half-time the Germans took a deserved lead, when Horst Hrubesch headed home Hansi Muller's left-wing corner.

Kempes was replaced by José Valencia, but the Germans still looked well in control after the break. A poor first touch robbed Hrubesch of another good chance just after the teams re-emerged, and the big striker forced Ubaldo Fillol into action with a thumping free kick later in the half. Things were not entirely quiet at the other end: Daniel Passarella was cleverly sneaking up from the back as he often had in 1978, once receiving the ball in the box and forcing a good save from Toni Schumacher. But as the half wore on, the fight seemed to be going out of Argentina, and the only half-chances on offer were German ones.

But there was to be a twist in this tale. 

With six minutes remaining, Argentina won a corner on the right. Diaz took it, and Passarella met it with a gentle header from twelve yards. It should have posed no danger at all, but somehow Schumacher and Kaltz got into a nightmarish tangle on the goal-line, and the Hamburg fullback prodded the ball into his own net.

It was a horrible goal to concede, and just four minutes later the shell-shocked Germans let in another. Valencia played Diaz through on the right, and the young striker powered a shot past the advancing Schumacher. Against all logic, Argentina had won.

The tournament story continues in Part 3.


 

Mundialito, Part 1

Any number of confected tournaments have formed part of the football calendar over the years; in recent times, the Confederations Cup and the Club World Cup come to mind. Generally, these ersatz events feature only two teams of substance (usually intended to meet in the final) and a number of, well, tourists.

But there was a tournament over 40 years ago, a one-off addition to the calendar, in which the logistically impossible was achieved: in the middle of a crowded modern European club season, the organizers managed to entice many of the world's top international teams, at full strength. The tournament only lasted a couple of weeks, and is largely forgotten today. Yet it featured such names as Maradona, Rummenigge, Socrates, Tardelli, Cerezo, Schumacher, Ardiles, and many more.

This was the Copa de Oro, the Gold Cup of Champions, better known at the time (and subsequently) as the Mundialito - the Little World Cup.

The idea was simple. It was fifty years since the first World Cup had been held in Uruguay. Officials in that immensely proud football nation decided to mark the occasion by inviting all the national teams which had since won the World Cup to face off in a six-team event, to be held at that same legendary Estadio Centenario in Montevideo which had played host to the competitors in 1930.

FIFA had given their blessing (although it was never entirely clear whether it hence became an official FIFA event). Hefty financial incentives were offered to ensure that the Europeans, in particular, would take the event seriously. Due to their lack of a winter break, England's FA declared their national team unable to compete adequately, and so the finalists at the last two World Cups, the Netherlands, were invited instead. Sadly, the Dutch had passed their peak, and almost none of the recognized stars of the 70s made the trip to Uruguay.

All the other former champions, however, were at virtually full strength. Brazil, under the experienced coach Tele Santana, were gradually evolving into the elegant attacking team which would win plenty of hearts at the 1982 World Cup, despite their dramatic early exit. Although the prized attacking midfielder Zico was ruled out with an injury, such 1982 stars as the Corinthians maestro Dr. Socrates, the midfield schemer Toninho Cerezo, and the fearsome attacking left-back Junior would all be present.

Argentina, the world champions, had reinforced their 1978 side with two outstanding players from the team which had won the 1979 World Youth Cup: the striker Ramon Diaz, and the phenomenon from Argentinos Juniors, a certain Diego Armando Maradona. This would be the latter's first appearance in a senior competitive event against European opposition - and he would learn a good deal from it. 

The Italians, too, had barely changed their line-up since the 1978 tournament, in which they had performed very well. But their young star in Argentina, Paolo Rossi, was suspended thanks to his involvement in the Totonero scandal, and his speed and opportunism would be much missed in the key game against the hosts.

The West Germans, fresh from victory in the 1980 Nations Cup, looked formidable. Their problems at centre-forward appeared to have been resolved in the person of Horst Hrubesch, the mighty Hamburg striker who had played such a key role in their Nations Cup success. Although their other main man in Italy, the playmaker Bernd Schuster, was unavailable, there were plenty of other household names among the squad that went to Montevideo: Karlheinz Rummenigge, Rainer Bonhof, Manfried Kaltz, Felix Magath. No-one could accuse the Germans of sending a scratch team.

And Uruguay? Their international fortunes had not been good of late, and apparently one of the motives for the staging of the tournament was to revive them. The Celeste had been unimpressive in their last World Cup appearance, in 1974; in the 1978 qualifiers, they had been humiliated by modest Bolivia. And in the 1979 Copa America, they had been knocked out in the group stage by Paraguay.

And yet there were some hopeful signs. Montevideo club Nacional had just won the Copa Libertadores, with the journeyman striker Waldemar Victorino - remember that name - scoring the only goal of the two-leg final against Internacional of Brazil. A number of good young players had recently emerged. Most importantly, they would be assured of fanatical home support.

Their situation was analogous to that of the Argentinians in 1978: a nation under a brutal military dictatorship, with both junta and people desperate for success in a football tournament, for very different reasons. And as with the 1978 World Cup, there was suspicion elsewhere that the hosts would have their road to the title smoothed in various ways, not least by the referees.

So how did things play out? More to come.


Friday, April 22, 2022

 

The Maybe Men, Part 8

Valery Lobanovskyi's USSR side qualified for the 1990 World Cup, their third in succession, with little trouble. Theirs was a fairly weak qualifying group, and their toughest opponents, Austria, were dispatched without undue fuss in Kyiv early in the campaign. 

Comparing the Soviet squads from their two World Cups under Lobanovskyi's charge is instructive; in 1986, they were all based at home, mostly in Kyiv. In 1990, several key players were already playing abroad - along with many others who didn't make the cut, including the veteran Oleg Blokhin and the unfortunate Igor Belanov, whose injury troubles prevented his participation. He would be much missed.

Placed in a group which included the defending champions Argentina, Romania and Cameroon, the Soviets were expected to progress; it was still the era of the 24-team tournament with a Round of 16, in which an indifferent first round performance didn't always prevent a team from moving on to the knockout phase. The group was thrown wide open by the shock of Argentina's first-up defeat by Cameroon. On the following day, in the space-age stadium in Bari, the USSR faced Romania.

The broader significance of the match was palpable. The Romanians had only just emerged from the ghastly rule of Niculae Ceausescu, who represented everything that was hateful about the Communist regimes in eastern Europe - the puppets, of course, of the USSR. The more voluble members of the Romanian squad had attested to their newfound sense of freedom prior to the tournament, and they too would have half an eye on the European club scouts.

Nevertheless, Lobanovskyi's men went into the match as strong favourites, although the core of his team, barely changed since 1986, was aging. The celebrated Romanian playmaker Gheorghe Hagi was suspended for the opening game, and the Romanians fielded several youngsters with scant international experience.

The Soviets began the game in controlled fashion, and the Romanians initially showed them great respect. Chances did eventually arrive after some shadow-boxing, but the Juventus pair of Sergey Aleinikov and Alexander Zavarov both found the Romanian keeper Silviu Lung on his mettle. 

The Romanians were gradually shaking off their awe, and late in the first half, they went ahead. Oleg Kuznetsov, hero of the Euro semi-final, slid into a tackle in midfield but lost the ball. The Romanian midfielder Ioan Sabau spotted that Marius Lacatus was free on the right, and played him through on goal. In came the shot, and Rinat Dasaev was beaten at his near post, diving the wrong way almost before Lacatus had made contact with the ball.

Early in the second period, avos' had its say once more. When Lacatus again found space on the right - Vasily Rats, now playing at left-back, was frequently caught upfield - he played the ball back into the centre, and the sweeper Vagiz Khidiatullin handled. It was a good couple of yards outside the box, but the Uruguayan referee Juan Cardellino pointed to the penalty spot.

It was an appalling decision, and once again, after Lacatus confidently dispatched the spot-kick, the Soviets completely wilted. "[Winger Igor] Dobrovolski and Zavarov faded softly and silently away," was Brian Glanville's comment in his History of the World Cup, and although this was a little harsh on the young Dobrovolski, who tried to keep the fight going, it was entirely accurate in the case of Zavarov. Once again, the little playmaker showed himself to be a fatalist at heart, for he was simply not himself after the second goal. First pitifully throwing himself down in the hope of a penalty when he could have had a chance in the Romanian box, he then lost the ball limply in midfield and lunged into a petulant foul on his tackler, Iosif Rotariu. It was a sad sight.

But even more significant was the way the Romanians played, once they knew that a very sweet victory was on the way.

Although there was a certain amount of showboating, especially from Lacatus, the broader message was very clear. The Romanians were enjoying their football. Watching Lobanovskyi's teams, one was always aware that they were serious and devoted to their task. The Romanians were now playing in a way that would have delighted Loba's old rival Eduard Malofeev. 

Not only that, but there were impressive displays of individual skill and enterprise. The Soviets prided themselves on their teamwork; here, it seemed that the Romanians were more interested in expressing themselves. And not only in attack: one player who caught everyone's eye was a certain young defender named Gica Popescu, strolling confidently and stylishly out of defence on many occasions. He was a player of whom we would see a good deal more in years to come.

And the Romanians might have gone further ahead; in fact, it was probably because they were enjoying rubbing it in so much that they didn't. Daniel Timofte, Hagi's replacement, forced a save from Dasaev, Lacatus missed a sitter when played in by a young Florin Raducioiu, and then Timofte strolled unhindered through a totally passive Soviet defence, but failed to score. Four minutes from the close, following another save from Lacatus, a magnificent team move by the Romanians ended with Sabau shooting wide.

It was, in its own way, a humiliation as great as the Soviets' heavy defeat of Hungary in the opening game of the previous World Cup.

And like the Hungarians, they were never going to recover. Argentina, still smarting from their loss to Cameroon, defeated the Soviets comfortably in the next game. "Loba" tried his old tactic of flooding the midfield to stifle Diego Maradona, but this left the defence badly thinned out, and just after half-time it cost them dearly. When the midfield block was breached and the lightning-quick Claudio Caniggia, well onside, was all set for a dash at goal, Vladimir Bessonov desperately pulled him back and was, justifiably, sent off. The defending champions cruised to a 2-0 win. Lobanovskyi's team restored some pride with a 4-0 win over an already-qualified Cameroon in their last game, but it barely mattered. They were out.

The game against Romania was an interesting allegory of the fortunes of many of the individual players from the eastern bloc in the 1990s. The USSR players, however much they had impressed in the late eighties, generally found the adjustment to western club football difficult. Did the team ethic, championed by Lobanovskyi and generally copied by other Soviet coaches, militate against the sort of individual qualities which mattered more in the west? Such a suggestion is perhaps glib, but the fact remains that while players such as Popescu, Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Dejan Savicevic and others scaled the heights of the European game, the former Soviet players did not.

It was not until the next decade that a player from the former Soviet Union became a superstar at a western European club. Perhaps fittingly, perhaps ironically, this player - Andrey Shevchenko - had as his mentor and coach a certain Valery Lobanovskyi.


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

 

The Maybe Men, Part 7

1988 was a pivotal year for Soviet football. Players from some of the "satellite countries" in the eastern bloc had long been venturing to western clubs in their mature years. But now, with glasnost, players from the heart of the Red empire started to do so as well. With the stock of the USSR team never higher after their runners-up finish at Euro 1988, there was plenty of interest from clubs throughout the western half of the continent.

Yet most of the Soviet players failed to shine once they had made their long-awaited moves. Many of them were already veterans, and their best football was in the past. Others simply couldn't recreate the form that they had shown in Mexico and Germany. The renowned keeper Rinat Dasaev joined Sevilla in Spain and became a fan favourite, but his performances were mixed. Igor Belanov, in 1989, joined Borussia Moenchengladbach. The swift, incisive attacker, with his formidable international record, "should" have been a roaring success. But his period in Germany was barren.

That eternal issue for Soviet players, money squabbles, may have had an effect on the initial efforts of the overseas brigade. Vagiz Khidiatullin, the accomplished sweeper who had played an important role in the Soviets' run to the 1988 final, moved to Toulouse on a contract of $30,000 dollars per month. From this amount, the Soviet authorities took a staggering $29,000 in tax. The reason given to him? "Our ambassador [in France] only gets $1,200 a month. You can't earn more than the ambassador!"

Despite this humiliation, Khidiatullin did well in France. But the most high-profile move of all turned out to be the most disappointing.

Since the retirement of their hero Michel Platini in 1987, Juventus had been looking for a player worthy of wearing the coveted No.10 shirt that had belonged to the Frenchman. They decided on the Dynamo Kyiv and USSR playmaker Alexander Zavarov, and secured his services in the summer of 1988 after complex negotiations with the Soviet bureaucracy. Like Khidiatullin, Zavarov received a paltry wage after the Soviet state had taken its share. But there were consolations, such as a top-of-the-line Fiat courtesy of the Agnelli family.

Zavarov made an encouraging start, scoring twice in a Coppa Italia tie against Brescia and finding the net in his Serie A debut, against Cesena. As the season wore on, however, his form fell away. Struggling with the language, the culture and the new tactical demands of Italian football, and unwilling to face up to the intrusive Italian press, Zavarov ended up frequently warming the bench during the spring.

Juventus were prepared to put him out on loan, but decided instead to give him a comrade from his former days to brighten his time in Turin: they signed Sergey Aleinikov, his USSR team-mate from the 1986 World Cup and the 1988 Euros. Unfortunately, Aleinikov too found the transition difficult and the fans unforgiving; struggling for fitness and fluency, he was given the nickname "Alentikov" in reference to his supposedly sluggish play. And Zavarov's second season, punctuated by injury, was no more successful than his first.

In a very touching gesture, Zavarov's Juventus predecessor Michel Platini, only too aware of the tremendous pressures of the Italian game, helped to arrange a transfer to his boyhood club Nancy for the unsettled playmaker. Much happier in the less frenzied environment of French football, Zavarov settled well in his new digs and spent his thirties in France, easing into retirement at the little Saint-Dizier club. So much for Juventus.

Zavarov's experience was, in a way, typical of so many of the early Soviet expatriate footballers; reared in an environment in which the team ethic was paramount and the press was kept at arm's length, he ultimately found the pressures of a big club intolerable. It was probably with some relief that he, and Aleinikov, returned to the USSR team - and Valery Lobanovskyi - prior to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The Soviet Union might be on the point of collapse, but Lobanovskyi's experienced players, now toughened by the rigours of European club football, were expected to make a good showing in their second World Cup.

The very first game in Italy shattered those illusions. To be concluded in Part 8.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

 

The Maybe Men, Part 6

Italy were generally favoured to win their semi-final against the USSR at the 1988 Nations Cup. The Italian team had undergone rejuvenation since their limp exit from the 1986 World Cup, with a number of fine young players, mostly from AC Milan, joining the starting eleven. They would enjoy the vast majority of the support in Stuttgart, they had defeated the Soviets 4-1 earlier in the year, and they would have been buoyed too by the news that the Soviets' talismanic striker, Igor Belanov, would miss the game after suffering an injury against England in their final group match.

Only a few minutes into the game, there came another bad blow for the Soviets. Oleg Kuznetsov, the defensive brigadier whom Valery Lobanovskyi had always considered the side's natural leader, picked up a soft yellow card from the fussy, inconsistent Belgian referee, Alexis Ponnet. It was Kuznetsov's second caution of the tournament, and he would now be out of their next game.

It says something for Kuznetsov's character that he turned in one of his finest performances in what was to be his last game of the tournament. Maladyets Kuznetsov, the Russian commentator frequently cried during the game. Bravo, Kuznetsov. And the praise was not undeserved.

It was this game, perhaps more than any other, that demonstrated how Lobanovskyi's methods worked at their best. Facing a technically superior team, he relied on his tactic of flooding the midfield to reduce the space available to the creative players in the opposition. Kuznetsov, tackling furiously and venturing frequently into midfield to stop Italian attacks before they started, was the key figure, but the entire team contributed.

Up front, the Soviets offered less than they had in previous games. Oleg Protasov, Belanov's replacement in the lone striker role, was far less mobile, and the tight marking of Riccardo Ferri meant that he found the going very hard in the first half. Alexander Zavarov, too, was having an unusually quiet night. At the other end, the young Gianluca Vialli missed two good chances in the first half, and appeared to be out of sorts. 

The Soviet tackling was not always legal, and a struggling Vladimir Bessonov also received a yellow card for a clumsy challenge on the half-hour. Lobanovskyi took the shrewd decision to withdraw his usual right-back in favour of the more robust Anatoly Demianenko. Just before half-time, the reflexes of Rinat Dasaev rescued the Soviets again, when he made an excellent save from Giuseppe Giannini's header.

At half-time, the Italian manager Azeglio Vicini took the decision to replace Vialli's strike partner, Roberto Mancini, with the veteran Sandro Altobelli. It seemed more logical for the misfiring Vialli to have been withdrawn, but Vicini was always loyal to the Sampdoria striker, even starting him in the World Cup semi-final two years later in place of a firing Roberto Baggio.

The attrition continued for a while, with neither side looking likely to break through. But on the hour, the Soviets scored an unexpected goal, and fittingly it was Kuznetsov who started the move, winning the ball at the base of midfield and advancing to the edge of the box. The ball broke for the right-sided midfielder Gennady Litovchenko, who beat Walter Zenga smartly after his initial shot had been blocked.

The Italians were taken aback, and conceded another just two minutes later. Zavarov, finally coming to life, drew two defenders to him on the left before sliding the ball across to Protasov in the middle, who had for once escaped the attentions of Ferri. He finished confidently with his left foot. 

And that, in short, was that. The Italians, tired and short of ideas, never looked like getting back into the game, with a wild shot over the bar from Vialli on 80 minutes all they had to offer in the closing stages. The USSR had reached the final.

There they would meet the Dutch again, who had grown as the tournament had progressed, with van Basten now in peak form. They had gained some revenge for the 1974 World Cup final by beating West Germany in the semis thanks to a moderately dubious penalty; with Kuznetsov out, they looked like the favourites for the final.

Without Kuznetsov, Lobanovskyi made the decision to sacrifice one of his midfielders, Sergey Aleinikov, to a man-marking job on van Basten. It's tempting to think that "Loba" chose the outsider, the Dynamo Minsk man, for this task, to allow his Kyiv charges to continue their practised co-ordination further upfield.

The Soviets started the game well, but failed to create many good chances; this time Belanov was fit to start, but he was below his usual effectiveness. The Dutch worked their way slowly into the game, and just after the half-hour, they went ahead. Following another excellent save by Dasaev from Ruud Gullit's free kick, the Soviets rushed out when the subsequent corner was cleared...apart from the unfortunate Aleinikov, who was playing van Basten onside. Erwin Koeman's cross reached the tall striker, he headed back across goal, and Gullit powered a header past Dasaev.

Just after half-time came van Basten's famous volley, one of the most spectacular goals ever seen in the final of a major competition. In truth, however, his cross-shot from Arnold Muhren's innocuous cross was something of a fluke. And it was an incident after that goal which was truly decisive in the encounter. 

The Soviets were initially spurred into action by van Basten's goal, and Belanov hit the post following a free kick only a couple of minutes afterwards. Then, in a moment of utter madness, the Dutch keeper Hans van Breukelen chased after Sergey Gotsmanov, who was attempting to retrieve a ball heading over the by-line, well away from goal. van Breukelen clumsily upended him: penalty.

It looked like a perfect, unexpected chance for the USSR to get back into the game. Belanov took the kick, fired low to his left...and van Breukelen saved. There was just one problem: he was a mile off his line when the kick was taken. The penalty should, of course, have been retaken. But it wasn't: the "save" was allowed to stand.

After two such close calls, one of them a manifest injustice, our old friend avos' began to affect the Soviets. To say that they lay down and died after the penalty would be almost an understatement. The Dutch simply frolicked in the final minutes; the Milan colleagues Gullit and van Basten began to combine with ease and elegance, and the Soviets seemed utterly despondent. None more so than Zavarov, every inch a "mood" player.

2-0 it inevitably finished. The absence of Kuznetsov had been keenly felt, but not perhaps as keenly as the sense that it just wasn't to be their day.

Up next: the great Soviet exodus, and the last, tragic hurrah - the 1990 World Cup in Italy.


Sunday, April 17, 2022

 

The Maybe Men, Part 5

Following the 1986 World Cup, Valery Lobanovskyi stayed on as USSR coach, while still taking charge of Dynamo Kyiv. It was a heady time for Soviet football; in the wake of their efforts in Mexico, Lobanovskyi was named European Coach of the Season, while Igor Belanov won the coveted Ballon d'Or (his partner in crime in the Kyiv and Soviet attack, Alexander Zavarov, came sixth in the voting). 

Further success arrived in the following season, with Kyiv reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup and taking out the USSR Cup as well. In the qualifiers for the Nations Cup, meanwhile, the Soviets had been placed in the same group as the defending champions France. Yet they shocked the French by beating them 2-0 in Paris early in the qualifying series, the first goal coming from yet another slick Belanov-Zavarov combination. Lobanovskyi's men went on to qualify handsomely.

It was a pivotal time for many of the Kyiv and Soviet stars, who were now mostly in their mid-to-late twenties. Glasnost and perestroika meant a new openness to the west, and that included western clubs. "Loba" had managed to keep his beloved club team together thus far, but after the Nations Cup in West Germany, a rapid exodus ensued.

The line-up for the 1988 Euros was impressive. As well as the German hosts, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and England were all there, not to mention the Danes who had been so impressive in Mexico. The USSR were to face Holland, Ireland and England in the opening round.

In many ways, it was the first game at the tournament between the Soviets and the Dutch, rather than their meeting in the final, which was the more significant. The Netherlands team featured not only Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, both coming off a successful season with AC Milan, but several players from the dazzling young Ajax side which had succeeded Dynamo Kyiv as Cup-Winners Cup winners. 

Both sides, it must be said, began the game badly. The Soviets, playing a dour, defensive game, failed to find their rhythm and committed a surprising number of clumsy fouls. The Dutch coach Rinus Michels, 1974 hero redux, had surprisingly omitted van Basten from the starting line-up. Without his presence, they looked laboured in attack, and the unwillingness of the Dutch fullbacks to get forward meant that they were often smothered by the Soviets in midfield. It looked like their best chance to score would be from one of the many free kicks that the Soviets gave away, and indeed Ronald Koeman forced Rinat Dasaev into a superb save from one of them on 18 minutes. Once again, the distinguished Russian gloveman was on top form, making another important save from Gullit at the end of the first half.

There had been a good deal of whistling at the quality of the football in the first period, but in the second, the Soviets began to click. The quick crossfield balls to Belanov, such a feature of their performances in 1986, began to materialise: first it was Zavarov, neatly picking out the Ballon d'Or winner who advanced and forced the Dutch keeper Hans van Breukelen into a save. The Dutch failed to heed the warning, and only two minutes later there was a repeat, with Vasily Rats this time finding Belanov with his unerring left foot. The latter advanced, and sent a beautifully-weighted pass across the top of the box back to Rats, who had sneaked forward unnoticed. His left foot did the rest.

van Basten belatedly arrived, but with the game situation as it was, there was to be no sumptuous interplay with his Milan colleague; instead, the Dutch relied on the lofted ball into the mixer, with two tall frontmen to aim for. Gullit, strangely, buried himself out on the right wing, where he was far from effective. Although Dasaev had to make one more good save, from Jan Wouters, and although the new Soviet sweeper Vagiz Khidiatullin twice almost contrived to score an own goal, the score remained at 1-0. van Basten would not be left on the bench again.

It was an encouraging beginning for Lobanovskyi and his men, and just as in Mexico, they followed it up with a draw and then another win. The draw was against the physical Irish, for whom Liverpool's Ronnie Whelan scored a spectacular overhead volley (almost as spectacular, in fact, as the famous goal from the final), but Belanov once again saved his team's bacon 15 minutes from the end, making a good goal for another Kyiv striker, Oleg Protasov.

Against a creaking England, whose midfield hero Glenn Hoddle was in wretched form, the Soviets were dominant from the start. Although England responded to Sergey Aleinikov's early goal with a typical set-piece header from the young Tony Adams, who had been tortured by van Basten in the previous match, the Soviets ran out comfortable 3-1 winners in the end. Another newcomer to the team, the lively midfielder Alexey Mikhailichenko, scored a headed goal following a superb team move, and a substitute, Viktor Pasulko, added a third from close range.

Italy awaited in the semi-finals. An Italian team featuring a number of talented young players, including the core of the Milan side which was to dominate European football in the next few years.

The game was to be perhaps Lobanovskyi's finest tactical triumph. More in Part 6.


Saturday, April 16, 2022

 

The Maybe Men, Part 4

Which was the greatest World Cup match of all? Plenty of votes would go to the Italy-Brazil match of 1982, in which the eventual champions beat the book and Paolo Rossi scored his redemptive hat-trick. The Italy-West Germany semi-final of 1970 is another perennial favourite, the Jahrhundertspiel which featured a flurry of goals in extra time. Then there was the Holland-Argentina epic of 1998, with its unforgettable deciding goal. A good candidate from the most recent tournament in 2018 was the wonderfully exciting Belgium-Japan game from the second round.

But it's still hard to go past the enthralling game between Belgium and Valery Lobanovskyi's Soviet Union team from the second round of the 1986 tournament. It had everything: drama, controversy, a frantic finish, an infinity of talking points, and, of course, seven goals.

Belgium had given little indication so far in the tournament that they would have much of an impact on it. Although placed in one of the supposedly weaker groups, they had struggled in the first round, losing to the hosts, and finished third in the section, only just scraping into the next round thanks to the new knockout format of the 24-team competition. The Soviets, on the other hand, had impressed all with their teamwork and energy. The Belgians had "a mountain to climb," according to the Sunday Telegraph. "Belgium has its hands full here," suggested the Boston Globe, suggesting in passing that the Soviets "could win it all".

Lobanovskyi's men had history on their side as well: the Soviets had twice beaten Belgium at the World Cup, handsomely in 1970 and somewhat tediously in 1982, when the Belgians had been badly affected by injuries.

That the Belgians confounded the predictions had a lot to do with their own unexpected improvement, a little to do with an almost inexplicable decision by Lobanovskyi at a crucial point in the match, and a bit to do with the hand of fate - avos' at work again - which dealt the Soviets a cruel blow.

Andrey Bal, another Kyiv player brought in to replace Nikolay Larionov after the first two games, has been partly blamed for the defeat by some critics. But the truth is that the entire Soviet defence had its deficiencies exposed in the course of the game. 

Lobanovskyi's men certainly looked like the favourites early on, and Igor Belanov scored a glorious individual goal on 28 minutes. Receiving from, inevitably, Alexander Zavarov, he took a touch to evade the attention of young Stéphane De Mol and sent an unstoppable right-footed thunderbolt past Jean-Marie Pfaff in the Belgian goal.

Although the Belgians showed some signs of life after the goal, the Soviets still looked likely to run out comfortable winners early in the second half. Following an excellent team move, Belanov headed against the post, with Pavel Yakovenko having his subsequent shot cleared off the line. 

On 56 minutes, however, the Belgians equalised, and the manner in which the goal was given away was undoubtedly sloppy. Frank Vercauteren sent a deep, benign-looking cross over from the left. Anatoly Demianenko leapt to head it clear but missed completely, and Enzo Scifo had time to take a touch at the far post and score, with Ivan Yaremchuk, his marker, turned to stone.

Rocked by this unexpected setback, the Soviets went into their shell somewhat. The two men who kept the flame of invention burning for the side were Belanov, still toiling incessantly up front, and Zavarov, still finding ideas just behind him. After nearly playing Belanov through just after the hour, Zavarov hit paydirt with an absolute signature move: surging through the centre and drawing three Belgian defenders to him, he released the ball perfectly for Belanov, who sent a cross-shot expertly past Pfaff. "That deadly duo click again," enthused an American commentator.

But that was the last time they were to click at the 1986 World Cup, for a strange reason. Three minutes after the goal, Lobanovskyi did something which rarely attracts a mention in accounts of the game, but it was surely crucial.

He took Zavarov off.

The one player who had been a torment to the Belgians in the second half with his vision, his enterprise and his close control (he had drawn a foul which merited a yellow card just prior to the goal), and who provided the springboard for Belanov's brilliance in the box, was withdrawn.

The reasons subsequently given make little sense. Was "Loba" resting him for the quarter-final? Never mind the fact that a one-goal advantage hardly justifies such a luxury, Zavarov could hardly have been exhausted; he had only played half an hour of the previous game. Did the coach want to stiffen the defence? Unlikely, because he brought on another striker in Sergey Rodionov.

In any event, after Vasily Rats missed a good chance to seal matters when the ball broke to him on the left, came the controversial second equaliser.

A long ball forward by De Mol reached the veteran Jan Ceulemans, having an excellent game, completely unmarked in the Soviet box. He pivoted to score, but...wasn't he offside? Although it is impossible to tell from contemporary replays, it seems very likely. And most importantly of all, the linesman, Arminio Sanchez of Spain, actually raised his flag...only to lower it again. 

It was a dreadful blow, but the Soviets initially fought on. Yaremchuk hit the bar after good work from Rodionov on the right, and when Scifo tried a repeat performance at the far post, Dasaev made a brilliant point-blank save, earning sporting applause from the young Belgian midfielder.

In extra time, the Soviets' defensive lapses became more serious. Shortly before the end of the first additional period, a corner was played short to the Belgian right-back Eric Gerets; his cross found De Mol at the far post, with the Soviet defenders standing around like cattle. The young Anderlecht defender powered his header home.

Seven minutes later, the Soviet defence went to sleep again, and Belgium went further ahead. Following another right-wing corner from Vercauteren, the ball was played into the centre and headed tantalisingly upwards by the Belgian substitute Leo Clijsters: Bal, in a daze, lost track of Nico Claesen, who volleyed past Dasaev. 4-2.

The USSR were given a lifeline when Belanov won a fairly soft penalty straight afterwards, banging it home to complete his hat-trick. But in the breathless final minutes it was the Belgians who came close to adding to the scoreline: another Belgian substitute, Leo van der Elst, shot just wide of Dasaev's far post, and the keeper had to make a smart save from Vercauteren soon afterwards. In the last minute, Yevtushenko's desperate attempt to lob an out-of-position Pfaff had the Belgian keeper momentarily in a panic, but he got back in time to tip the ball over.

It was a heartbreaking way for Lobanovskyi's young side to exit the event, but they had won many friends in Mexico. And two years later, in West Germany, they were ready for another shot at an international title - and they almost got there. To be continued.


Friday, April 15, 2022

 

The Maybe Men, Part 3

The USSR's first opponents at the 1986 World Cup, Hungary, came to the tournament with quite a reputation. They had stormed through what looked like a tough qualifying group, featuring both the Netherlands and World Cup regulars Austria. The Soviets, on the other hand, had limped into second place in their group with a series of narrow home wins, and their form in friendlies heading into the event had been mediocre. 

But they had, of course, undergone a major change since then: Valery Lobanovskyi had arrived, bringing a number of his Dynamo Kyiv charges with him. The national team was essentially a carbon copy of the club side which had recently triumphed in the Cup-Winners Cup.

The USSR defeated Hungary 6-0, and it could have been eight or nine.

The result was not all about tactical or physical superiority; had Pavel Yakovenko not scored a somewhat fortunate goal after only a couple of minutes, and Sergey Aleinikov not followed it up with a superb strike from distance to make it 2-0 before the Hungarians knew what was happening, it is unlikely that the Magyars would have collapsed as they did. But it is fair enough to say that the game was a tactical lesson writ large.

Above all, the Hungarians were completely unable to deal with the constant, bewildering movement of Igor Belanov up front, and the quick release to the lone striker in which the Kyiv crew had become so adept. The third Soviet goal was a perfect illustration of the strategy in action; following a turnover, an alert Vasily Rats sent a pinpoint crossfield ball through to Belanov, who had once again drifted away from his marker. Into the box he went, out went a defender's leg, penalty. And Belanov himself converted it. Only a few minutes later, Belanov had another such chance when played in by Alexander Zavarov, having a splendid game.

It remained 3-0 at half-time. A storming run through the midfield by Yakovenko set up the winger Ivan Yaremchuk for the fourth, and soon afterwards the substitute Vadim Yevtushenko provoked an own goal with a killing through-pass, after one of Zavarov's signature straight-into-the-traffic runs had pulled the Hungarian defence out of shape. The final goal saw Zavarov at his best again, dodging a tackle in midfield before playing an exquisite pass through for Aleinikov. The Dynamo Minsk man miscontrolled the ball and allowed the Hungarian keeper Peter Disztl to smother, but another USSR substitute, Sergey Rodionov, was on hand to slot the ball home.

And there were other chances. Yevtushenko missed a penalty late in the second half; and later miscued a simple header in front of goal. Rodionov, too, should have scored a second when the shell-shocked Hungarian defence presented him with a clear run at goal. It was a thorough humiliation, and the Hungarians duly went out of the tournament in the first round. They have not been back to the World Cup since.

Next up for Lobanovskyi's men were the European champions, France. Although this tournament would be the last hurrah for the glorious French side of the eighties, with Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse all the wrong side of 30, they were still a formidable proposition.

It was a pleasingly even game, with a draw a pretty fair result. The Soviets might have had a penalty early on when Zavarov, his close control impressive as always, surged into a crowd of French shirts in the centre and appeared to be fouled in the box. At the other end, a shot from the young French striker Yannick Stopyra was well saved by Rinat Dasaev in the USSR goal.

A few words ought to be said about Dasaev, one of the few non-Kyiv players in Lobanovskyi's side. One of the revelations of the 1982 World Cup, in which he had excelled despite an otherwise underwhelming USSR performance, Dasaev was now recognised as one of the finest keepers in the game. It would clearly have been churlish of Lobanovskyi to favour the Kyiv goalie Viktor Chanov, although the latter would make an appearance in the Soviets' next, less relevant, match. 

Dasaev needed to be on his mettle at free kicks, because the Soviets certainly gave away a fair few. From one of these, shortly before half-time, Platini hit the post. But it was the USSR who went ahead on 54 minutes, when Rats' magnificent left foot sent a bullet of a long shot past Joel Bats in the French goal. 

To their credit, the European champions did not lose their heads, and scored a fine equaliser eight minutes later, when Luis Fernandez sneaked into a hole in the centre of the Soviet defence to beat Dasaev. Lobanovskyi liked to play with only a sweeper and a rather adventurous centre-back in the middle of defence, and the Soviets' weakness in this area would be a thorn in their side in this and subsequent tournaments.

Although Rats continued to trouble the French with his insidious inswinging corners from the right throughout the second half, France finished the stronger side, and Dasaev had to make another excellent save from a young Jean-Pierre Papin twenty minutes from the close.

Against the group minnows Canada in their final group game, the Soviets fielded several reserves, including the old Kyiv hero Oleg Blokhin. One of the players rested was Belanov, and in the first half it was clear how much his enterprise and off-the-ball movement was missed. Soon after he arrived as a substitute, he cleverly set up Blokhin to score the opening goal. The veteran injured himself in the process, and made way for Zavarov, who combined superbly with Belanov to score the second.

The Soviets had surprised and delighted the neutrals in the first round. In the second phase, now a knockout again after the bizarre experiment of 1982, their opponents would be Belgium.

The story of that game, one of the most lively and dramatic in World Cup history, follows in Part 4.


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