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Those of us who grew up following European football in the ’70s and ’80s are familiar with the continent being split, east and west.

The split came after the Second World War. In the aftermath of Nazi surrender, the continent was divided up under the guidance of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. There have been various stories of how Stalin managed to mislead his Allied partners and gained control of more of Europe than maybe the countries themselves wanted.

This group became known as ‘The Soviet Bloc’, or ‘Eastern Bloc’. These were a series of one-party communist states under the leadership of the Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Since its break-up, we have become more familiar with the individual countries who have emerged: Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova and Belarus were all part of this group.

In addition to what was the USSR, the communist bloc included Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The Soviet’s control of this bloc was tested by Yugoslavia.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed after the First World War with the merging of the states of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and the independent Kingdom of Serbia. When Yugoslavia was occupied during WWII, a resistance group led by Josef Broz Tito fought against the German-led occupation. After the war, the monarchy was disbanded and a communist government was installed. This government was led by Tito.

The problems all began when Tito wanted to expand the idea of a Balkan Federation. He discussed with the Bulgarian leader, Georgi Dimitrov to merge the two countries. This would also absorb Albania and Greece, creating a powerful bloc which would rival the Soviet group. Stalin was against this.

Tito supported the communist push for control of Greece, whereas Stalin kept his distance after a secret informal agreement he made with Churchill. Not known for keeping his promises, Stalin at least did not try and influence communism in Greece at the British request. Tito was less submissive.

In October 1947 a forum was set up, the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties, commonly known as Communist Information Bureau or ‘Comniform’. Its purpose was to coordinate actions between Communist parties under Soviet direction, and the headquarters was set up in Belgrade. For all the world, it appeared the Yugoslavs were staunch supporters. However, Tito increasingly refused to accept Moscow as the supreme Communist authority.

Two of Tito’s officials were summoned to Moscow and consequently, a series of letters were exchanged between the two regimes, each criticising the other. Yugoslavia boycotted the second meeting of the Comniform in January 1948.

As a result, Yugoslavia was expelled from Comniform by summer 1948. The world wondered if the communist dream was going to fall apart. It didn’t. Stalin ordered its allies to rebuild their military forces and he strengthened his grip on the bloc. Yugoslavia was still a communist country, but now very much on the outside of the Eastern bloc. Tito had dared to defy Stalin and the two remained enemies, although no military penalty was ordered on Yugoslavia.

Against this backdrop, the draw for the Olympics football tournament created a fascinating fixture. USSR vs Yugoslavia

1952 Summer Olympics

Helsinki had been chosen as the venue for the second Olympics since the war. The city had actually been selected for the 1940 games but this was cancelled due to the war. Yugoslavia had won the Silver Medal at the London games four years earlier. For the Soviet Union, it was their first entrance at the summer games. Previous regimes in Russia had viewed the games as elitist and proponents of western capitalism. But Stalin saw the opportunity to show off the strength and might of what it was to be Soviet.

The Preliminary round gave the world its first glimpse of what became the great Hungarian team of the 1950s. They beat Romania, 2-1. Italy recorded an 8-0 thrashing of the USA with Brazil thumping the Dutch 5-1. Great Britain failed at the first hurdle losing 3-5 after extra time to Luxembourg. The game was 1-1 at the end of normal time, but in the first period of extra time, Luxembourg scored four!

The biggest margin of victory was by Yugoslavia who put India to the sword, 10-1. Branko Zebec scored four. Zebec represented his country in the 1954 and 1958 World Cups. Later he was the manager of the Bayern Munich side which beat Leeds United in the 1975 European Cup Final. He was the manager of a Hamburg side that included Kevin Keegan and guided them to the Bundesliga and Keegan to two successive European Footballer of Year awards.

Five days later Yugoslavia lined up at Tampere against the Soviet Union.

Both Tito and Stalin had sent telegrams to their teams, emphasising how beating their opponent was essential. The stakes were definitely high.

The match was refereed by Arthur Ellis, who later earned notoriety as a judge on BBC’s It’s a Knockout in the ’70s.

The Soviet Union were managed by the legendary, Boris Arkadyev. Arkadyev is credited with laying the foundations for total football and tiki-taka.

Yugoslavia were clinical in the first half. Red Star Belgrade striker, Rajko Mitic opened the scoring in the 29th minute. His club colleague, defender Tihomir Ognjanov, then doubled the lead four minutes later. Just before the break, Zebec made it 3-0 and the Yugoslavs went into half-time in dominant mood.

The second half was barely a minute old when Zebec’s Partizan teammate, Stjepan Bobek, put them 4-0 up. Tito must’ve been crowing in his rakia by this point.

Eight minutes into the second period, the Soviets, at last, got back into the game. VVS Moscow striker, Vsevolod Bobrov grabbed a goal back.

But any thoughts the Soviets had of mounting a comeback seemed quashed when Zebec scored his second of the game and Yugoslavia now lead 5-1, with just a third of the game to go.

Going into the final quarter of an hour the scoreline hadn’t changed. But then Dinamo Moscow forward, Vassili Trofimov scored. Two minutes later and Bobrov scored again.

Suddenly 1-5 had become 3-5. They couldn’t, could they?

Three minutes to go and with the Soviets in the ascendency, Bobrov found the net for his hat-trick to make it 4-5. Then with 60 seconds to go Alexandr Petrov scored an equaliser and the incredible had happened.

From 1-5 down the Soviet Union had drawn level, 5-5.

Extra time was called for but wasn’t sufficient to separate the two sides. A replay was now needed.

Two days later they were back in the same stadium for the re-match. This time, the USSR drew first blood when Bobrov put them in front on six minutes. Mitic then equalised before Bobek converted a penalty on the half-hour and Yugoslavia lead 2-1 at the break. Within 10 minutes of the restart, Zlatko Cajkovski had scored a third for Yugoslavia and this time they were able to keep their opponents at bay.

Yugoslavia won 3-1 and progressed to the Quarter-Finals. They saw off Denmark 5-3, beat West Germany 3-1 in the Semis to reach the Final.

The Olympic Final 1952 saw Yugoslavia up against the Mighty Magyars, Hungary with Puskas, Czibor, Bozsik and Hidegkuti. Puskas and Czibor scored the goals to give Hungary the Gold Medal and this was the start of the era of that great Hungarian side.


20th July 1952, Ratina Stadium, Tampere. 17,000

YUGOSLAVIA   (3)   5   (Mitic 29, Ognjanov 33, Zebec 44, 59, Bobek 46)

USSR   (0)   5   (Bobrov 53, 77, 87, Trofimov 75, Petrov 89)

YUGOSLAVIA: Beara; Stankovic, Horvat, Ognjanov, Crnkovic; Vukas, Cajkovski, Boskov; Zebec, Bobek, Mitic

USSR: Ivanov; Krizhevski, Netto, Nyrkov, Bashaskhin; Trofimov, Petrov, Nikolaev, Beskov; Maryutin, Bobrov


22nd July 1952, Ratina Stadium, Tampere. 16,916

YUGOSLAVIA   (2)   3   (Mitic 19, Bobek 29 pen, Cajkovski 54)

USSR   (1)   1   (Bobrov 6)

YUGOSLAVIA: Beara; Stankovic, Horvat, Ognjanov, Crnkovic; Vukas, Cajkovski, Boskov; Zebec, Bobek, Mitic

USSR: Ivanov; Krizhevski, Netto, Nyrkov, Bashaskhin; Trofimov, Petrov, Nikolaev, Beskov; Chkuaseli, Bobrov

The Aftermath

The Communist regime in Moscow did not take defeat lightly. They kept the result secret until after Stalin’s death in March 1953.

After the War four Soviet clubs embarked on tours throughout Europe. CDKA Moscow (now known as CSKA) went to Yugoslavia to play four matches. CDKA were known as the Army team and coached by Arkadyev. Players from the club made up a quarter of the Olympics squad. After the defeat to Yugoslavia, the CDKA team were forced to withdraw from the league and later disbanded. Arkadyev also faced sanction by being stripped of his Merited Master of Sports of USSR title.

During the Olympics FA Chairman, Sir Stanley Rous invited the Hungarians to a friendly at Wembley a year later and the rest, as they say, is history.

Four years later in Melbourne, the USSR had their revenge when they reached the Olympic Final to find themselves up against who else, but Yugoslavia. With Lev Yashin in goal, Anatoli Ilyin scored the only goal of the game the Soviet’s won their first football Gold Medal. For Yugoslavia, it meant a third successive Olympic Silver.