Domm NorrisComment

1956 & ALL THAT

Domm NorrisComment
Was this the Soviet Union's finest footballing hour? Let the debate begin...

There were plenty of momentous occasions that occurred during the year 1956. Elvis Presley first hit the charts with 'Heartbreak Hotel', Jim Laker took a record breaking 19 wickets for England in a match against Australia while Academy Award winning film director Danny Boyle was born. 1956 was also the year in which the Melbourne Olympic Games took place - with a football tournament that proved to be nothing short of crazy.

The competition was not exactly bursting with the household names of the era - namely those from Western Europe and South America - as other priorities were placed before such a 'mediocre' tournament. The withdrawal of 5 teams in the lead up to the Games meant that a total of 16 teams eventually competed - with the likes of India, Thailand and Indonesia making up the numbers. Despite the apparent lack of support for the tournament from the wider footballing community the likes of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia made the long trip south - along with a unified German team and a side made up of predominantly amateur players encompassing the whole of Great Britain. 

Despite the obvious lack of a competitive edge throughout the tournament there was a great deal of national pride hanging on its outcome - particularly from the internationally maligned Soviet Union. As of yet the Soviet Union had yet to fully make its mark on international football and would only be regarded as a powerful force in the game following the 1956 Olympics. You could argue that the tournament provided the nation with a springboard from which they could overcome the odds to become a dominant force on the world stage.

The Soviet Union's relationship with the international community was particularly strained at this time and there were clear expressions of this throughout the Olympics Games itself. For example you could often hear the home crowd cheering the announcement of a Hungarian athlete just as strongly as their Australian counterparts due to Hungary's continued suppression by the Soviet Union. It would have been hugely intriguing to have witnessed the Hungarian take on their Soviet 'enemies' on the field of play however they were one of the five sides who dropped out of the tournament before it began.



When the football finally became the main story of the tournament - away from the political and social overtures - it was filled with goals, goals and yet more goals. The sheer gulf in class between the predominantly professional teams and those who played at an amateur level resulted in results that are rarely - if ever - witnessed at such a high profile event today. Yugoslavia's 9-1 demolition of the United States and Bulgaria's 6-1 thrashing of Great Britain are only a couple of examples of how the scorelines took on rather extreme twists. It is no coincidence that the teams from the 'Eastern Bloc' quickly managed to establish themselves as the forerunners of the tournament. These sides looked upon the competition in a far more serious manner - with preparations being conducted thoroughly with each individual ready for the matches ahead. Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union all managed to work their way through the semi finals - along with India - and it was to eventually be the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia who would contest the final which was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of over 86,000 spectators - easily the highest attendance of the tournament.

 The final was a battle of changing political ideals. Yugoslavia's gradual movement away from the communist sentiments that they had borrowed heavily from the Soviet Union contrasted with the continued political extremism of the Soviets. The Non Aligned Movement, spearheaded by Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, meant that Yugoslavia became the first socialist state to truly challenge the ideals outlined by Joseph Stalin and contested the perception that had previously been outlined by the Communist International - basically an organisation of communists parties across the world - which called for socialism to be a unified force which would, in time, transform the world. Yugoslavia's changing attitudes therefore created an air of tension around the Olympic Games final which proved to the closest fought match of the tournament.

Anatoli Ilyin's goal just after half time proved to be enough for the Soviet Union to be crowned Olympic Champions. The Spartak Moscow player managed to add the Gold medal to the Soviet Top League winners medal he collected only a couple of months earlier. Yugoslavia's failure to impose themselves on the Soviet team proved to be the end of 4 years of bitter hurt for Soviet football after their defeat to the Yugoslav's in the previous Olympic Games. Anatoli Bashashkin managed to overcome the pains of being stripped of the captaincy in the wake of that defeat to see his team provide his nation with a hugely important political victory - one that would be cherished equally by both the Soviet government and its people.

The Olympic Games ultimately proved to be the tournament from which the Soviet Union became a recognised force of world football. In the 1958 World Cup the Soviet team managed to respectably reach the quarter finals of the tournament while in 1960 victory again reached the shores of Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union won the inaugural European Championships. With the likes of Lev Yashin, Valentin Ivanov and Igor Netto leading the team at the turn of the 1960's the future of Soviet football was extremely bright and while the nation didn't manage to win the holy grail that was the World Cup - or even another European Championships - the Soviet Union still managed to place themselves at the fore of world football for the best part of a decade.


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