July 10, Euro 1960 final: Soviet Union 2-1 Yugoslavia
Heard about the trophy won by an Impregnable Spider? You’re about to, because that was the nickname of the key man as the Russians won the inaugural European Championships in 1960.
Well, actually, we should clear up some nomenclatures. It was actually the European Nations’ Cup (as was the 1964 edition; the name we now know started in 1968). And “the Russians” were playing for the USSR, the Soviet Union, which also included modern-day Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.
Indeed, the USSR’s starting XI in that final included three Georgians – defender Givi Chokheli, inside-right Slava Metreveli and left-winger Mikheil Meskhi. The two forwards would each play a large part in making history.
Speaking of history, there were parallels between this first Euros final and the first European Cup final, four years earlier: both were held at the Parc des Princes in Paris, and both were refereed by England’s Arthur Ellis – later a member of the Pools Panel and a referee on TV gameshow It’s a Knockout.
From the start, the Soviets took Euro 60 seriously. They were coached by Gavriil Kachalin, who had led the USSR to gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and coached them at the 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cups. His on-field leader was Spartak Moscow’s Igor Netto, another Melbourne veteran and the USSR’s captain from 1952 to 1965.
A midfielder of no little class, Netto is nevertheless best remembered for an extraordinary act of sportsmanship at the 1962 World Cup, during the final group game which his country needed to win; when the Soviets were awarded a ‘goal’ which had gone in through the side netting, Netto convinced the referee to overturn it.
While the USSR were a well-drilled team, their opponents had more flair. Yugoslavia could rely on the crafty showman Dragoslav Sekularac at inside-right and cannon-footed captain Bora Kostic on the left wing. Displaying the tactical and positional nous that was beginning to change football – both sides here played the old 3-2-5, but Brazil had recently won the 1958 World Cup with the 4-2-4 that was starting to overturn decades of positional orthodoxy – the Yugoslavs had the better of the first half as the Soviets dug grimly in.
That said, when Yugoslavia took the lead shortly before half-time, it was hardly a classic, Partizan Belgrade forward Milan Galic bundling home a Drazan Jerkovic cross-shot. Galic was en route to scoring in 10 consecutive internationals.
Four minutes after half-time the Soviets were gifted a leveller when Blagoje Vidinic fumbled Valentin Bubukin's long shot and Metreveli pounced. Even so, Yugoslavia still dominated proceedings, but that’s where the Impregnable Spider came in. A deflection would be the only way Yugoslavia could get past the mighty Lev Yashin, commonly regarded then as the world’s greatest goalkeeper, and one given to lyrical descriptions of his trade.
“What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed?” Yashin once asked, rhetorically. “He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future.”
Another Olympic gold medallist, Yashin was on his way to 75 caps – he would appear at Mexico 1970 at the age of 40. A big figure dressed entirely in black, he seemed to psych out strikers by his sheer presence and reputation, as well as his ability: “His positional play was excellent,” said Gordon Banks. “He had outstanding agility for such a big guy. He was the model for goalkeeping for the next 10 to 15 years.”
Referencing the first human to orbit the earth, Yashin later said “The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save.” He didn’t get the chance to experience that pleasure in the 1960 final but he did stop several thunderous free-kicks from Kostic among an array of Yugoslav-demoralising saves.
The Soviets might have nicked it late on but Valentin Ivanov missed a decent chance, and the first Euros final went into extra time. Again Yugoslavia pressed, with Jerkovic somehow unable to turn home a ball sitting enticingly on the goal-line, but the Soviets’ superior fitness started to tell.
With seven minutes left before a replay – with penalty shootouts yet to be a thing, the final was the tournament’s only game which wouldn’t have been settled on a coin-toss if tied – the “Georgian Garrincha” Meskhi found the energy to pile down the left and lift over a cross nodded home gleefully by forward Viktor Ponedelnik. Then just 23, Ponedelnik would call it “the star moment of my life”.
Ponedelnik later became a football journalist, and on this glorious night his surname was a gift to soccer scribes back home: late Sunday evening in Paris had already turned in Moscow to Monday, which just happens to be what Ponedelnik means in Russian. "My surname was a dream for headline writers," grinned the hero.
Each USSR player was given $200 in prize money, and the capital rewards could have been much greater. Schmoozing through a post-game reception at the Eiffel Tower was Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu. “He was ready to buy half of our squad with no hesitation,” said Ponedelnik, but such a move could never be sanctioned by Soviet authorities: “We avoided the conversation,” demurred the matchwinner.
Indeed, the trophy was a significant PR coup for communism, but it proved to be a false dawn for the USSR. They would reach (and lose) three more Euro finals – 1964 v Spain, 1972 v West Germany and 1988 v Holland – before the Soviet Union collapsed. Yugoslavia would taste triumph, in 1976, but that’s another story...
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