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Original Issue

They Kicked Off the Cold War

The 1945 British—U.S.S.R. soccer matches were meant to generate goodwill. They came out like Pearl Harbor

By the end of 1946, Stalin, Molotov, Gromyko and a flurry of vetoes in the U.N. Security Council had established the cold war as a fact among all but the most sanguine observers of the world scene. And surely the ensuing 2½ decades of acrimony between East and West are traceable to those early disputes over Berlin, Austria and the other loose ends of global conflict. Surely.

Still, Lord Chesterfield warned us against "the custom of profound historians who always assign deep causes for great events," and if students of this era will glance back just a bit further they might find that the cold war actually began with a blast from a referee's whistle and a foot planted squarely into a soccer ball on a cold and dismal October afternoon in 1945 in southwest London.

In the beginning, the intention in bringing a Soviet soccer contingent to England had been quite benign. The notion had been to solidify the friendship and goodwill that grew from battle against a common foe. And the Russians, in accepting the English Football Association's invitation shortly after V-J Day, seemed to share the spirit. But when, two weeks after their arrival, the Moscow Dynamos left London for home, they did so in sullen silence.

In that fortnight they had played four games, winning two, tieing two and scoring 19 goals to their opponents" nine. But if their record was notable, their comportment was not—except for its surliness. They began by refusing to talk to reporters at the airport or sign the autograph books of English schoolboys. They insisted on their own food and their own referee. They refused to speak to the interpreter assigned to them by the Foreign Office. They insulted England's most prestigious manager and finally they cut the trip short—picking up the ball, as it were, and going home. In the meantime, they had played some glorious, history making soccer.

The day of the Russians' arrival was inauspicious. London was at its most Dickensian, much of it in ruins from the bombings and rocket attacks. Everything was in short supply, including coal to heat the homes. Food rationing was even more severe than during the war. National morale had never been lower. To further deepen the gloom, the weather turned dank, foggy and chilling.

Accommodations, like everything else that grim autumn, were tight, but the authorities found beds for the visiting Russian team at the Wellington Barracks, home of the Guards. The Russians arrived on schedule but did not wait to hear the reception speech, being hustled instead to a waiting bus by Soviet Embassy officials. Along with their baggage, the Dynamos were loaded down with food—canned goods, fresh fruit, loaves of bread. Despite all the nourishment, they looked thin and pale, anything but athletic, and their haircuts were dreadful. They showed they had manners to match when they immediately set up a howl over their quarters.

Next morning they began their training at a local ground. Three or four practice balls were thrown out to them. Again they protested. For a party of 14, they said through their lady interpreter, they needed 14 balls. "We don't have 14 balls," the dismayed British protested. "And we don't know where to find them. There's been a war on, y'know." The Russians were implacable, however, and somehow the balls were found.

Public curiosity about the strange guests increased daily. As a result, their suspicion became legend. Vladimir Sinyavsky, the team's radio commentator, explained it later to a Russian magazine. "We were met according to English fashion," he wrote, "rather dryly, without flags, music or flowers. Officials of the British Association coldly shook our hands and then threw us to the journalists to be torn to pieces."

What the British never realized was that the Russians were genuinely shocked at their reception. In the Soviet Union they were considered privileged personages, like ballet dancers. They had even been draft exempt throughout the war, being used instead to entertain with exhibition matches. Such a thing would have been inconceivable to the British.

The first game of the tour was against Chelsea. Chelsea teams, historically, have played as though they were embarrassed to be on the field. They were a vaudeville joke, like the old Brooklyn Dodgers and the early Mets. (Today they play as the Mets do today—give or take a good year from Tom Seaver—but this was 1945.) Excitement was intense for the Chelsea match. Eighty thousand people stormed the Stamford Bridge Stadium, even spilling onto the sidelines.

It was the British custom for the two teams to come out with a soccer ball each and loosen up at each end by taking a few shots at the goalkeeper. But the Dynamos did nothing that was expected of them. The 11 players, clad in somewhat dingy blue, came out early with several balls and streamed all over the field, doing calisthenics and playing tricks with the balls. Then they all ran off again.

Chelsea, which usually played in royal blue, deferred to the visitors and emerged tactfully clad in red. A few minutes later the Dynamos appeared again, this time without any ball but each man with a posy of flowers, which he presented to his opposite number. The Chelsea players simpered and turned a color to match their shirts, and the crowd roared. This promised to be fun.

For the first few minutes of the game the Russians were clearly disconcerted by the noise and rowdiness of the crowd. Small boys, pushed to the front, sat with their feet almost on the pitch, and Chelsea took advantage of the Russian lapse by scoring twice. But then the Russian revelation began.

As with most sports fans, soccer buffs tend to think of their sport's golden age as in the distant past. In English soccer the golden age had come in the first decade of this century, when Britannia ruled the game with a dazzling, aggressive style of play. But between the wars the game in England (though not in Scotland) became increasingly technical and defensive, a match of reinforced defense with only three sharpshooters up front looking for a breakaway. What 80,000 Englishmen in Stamford Bridge Stadium now saw, as the Russian team took control, was like a reincarnation of the old-style soccer—open, flowing, moving always into intricate and daring attacks. Old-timers in the crowd smiled and nudged younger companions. "That," they said, "is how we played the game." The Russians, bless them, hadn't learned a thing since 1914, and now the youngsters could appreciate what their fathers had been talking about all these years.

Despite the Russian style Chelsea somehow led 2-0 at halftime. But in the second half the Russians swept through them to score twice. Chelsea fought back desperately and, thanks to the genius of their two great stars, Bobby Walker and Tommy Lawton, took the lead 3-2. The Russians scored last, and the game ended 3-3. By the next morning all Britain was aware that soccer would never be the same again and that England could no longer look disparagingly on "foreigners." No less important, British boys for the first time in history had foreign idols to worship: the flying forward, Kartsev, and the acrobatic, crowd-pleasing goalkeeper, "Tiger" Khomitch.

The Dynamos went to play Cardiff, a third-division team roughly equivalent to a Triple-A team in American baseball. The Russians smashed the inexperienced and part-time Welshmen 10-1. The Chelsea experience was no optical illusion. The Russians were superb.

The next game was in London again, against Arsenal. Arsenal was, and still is, the symbol to foreigners of English soccer. The parallels between the "Gunners" of London and the "Bombers" of Yankee Stadium is extraordinary at almost every level, from their ups and downs, the animosity and love they engendered, to their stars, Babe Ruth and Wee Alex James, Iron Man Lou Gehrig and Iron Man Ted Drake.

But the war had decimated Arsenal. Even its park, Arsenal Stadium, had been requisitioned. George Allison, the jowly, short-tempered manager, could not even find 11 Arsenal players available. He cast around London to see if any other players were on leave. Ronnie Rooke of Fulham, a powerful but aging center forward, was in town, and so were the great Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen of Blackpool. Allison drafted them into the team at the last minute.

The Russians promptly objected. Sinyavsky declared to Moscow by radio that the Dynamos were no longer playing Arsenal, but "All-England." As this statement was repeated in the press and on radio, English public opinion, until now amused by the antics of their rum guests, changed to irritation. Only the English Football Association could pick England. Allison was furious and tension had become fissionable when, on the morning of the game, a pea-souper descended on London, necessitating a merciful postponement. Or so it seemed.

The Russians, to the amazement of all, insisted on playing. Worse still, the Russian referee, Latychev, tried a fatuous experiment in umpiring, placing the two linesmen on the one line, while he refereed from the other. The whistle blew, and 22 shadows moved here and there like ghosts in the gloom while press cameras flashed like flame throwers. The referee flagrantly favored his compatriots. Fouls, offsides, shirt-pulling practiced by the Dynamos were ignored, while the slightest Arsenal infringement incurred a whistle. At one point the Dynamos even played with 12 men; one player, apparently injured, was replaced by a substitute, but the injured man stayed on the field and continued to play. The result was Dynamos 4, Arsenal 3.

"The Dynamos have beaten England," Sinyavsky exulted.

That night Arsenal gave a banquet for the Russians at the Covent Garden theater. Allison sat and glowered, issuing comments about his adversaries that never saw the light of print thanks to the censorship policies still in effect. The entire tour had now turned sour. The Dynamos announced that their next game would be their last, and even though several clubs had already printed tickets, no one was sorry.

Meanwhile, some of the wiser soccer critics had noticed something about the visitors. The Russians, who always displayed such pregame vigor, turned out not to be the physical supermen they seemed. Toward the end of the game with Arsenal, some of them were clearly at the end of their tether.

The last game was to be against the Glasgow Rangers. The rivalry between the Protestant Rangers and the Catholic Celtics of Glasgow is infamous around the globe today for its riots, drunkenness, hooliganism and bloodshed. Today the Celtics are the dominating team, but until six seasons ago they were usually second best to the Rangers. In 1939, if not in 1945, the Rangers were arguably the finest club team in the world (in Britain, unlike the United States, the major competitions were stopped for the war).

The Glaswegians scorched into the Dynamos as though the Russians were the apostles of the Pope himself. A brutal chopping match before nearly 90,000 screaming spectators ended in a 2-2 tie, the Russians frantically packing their goal, the rubber-legged goalkeeper Khomitch saving them time after time from humiliating defeat. They then went home, and a sigh of relief was breathed.

Back in Moscow, the Russians offered their own version of the tour. Chelsea had bought Tommy Lawton for £14,000 in order to beat the Dynamos (Chelsea had indeed bought Lawton from Everton, but before they had ever heard of the Dynamos). George Allison fainted when Arsenal lost because he had made a big bet on them. He ordered the players to beat up Ronnie Rooke for not winning. "Outrageous," Allison burbled. "The Foreign Office should protest." A musical called Nineteen to Nine was presented in Moscow in which the British footballers were represented as fat capitalists (in 1945!).

The Dynamos' visit had some interesting and lasting social effects in Britain. For millions of workingmen there, many of them sympathetic to the Communist experiment, this exposure of Soviet man and manners was a deep disappointment. But the British also knew they had been taught a major lesson in football. The week following the Russians' departure. Queen's Park Rangers experimented with a multiball pregame warmup and with calisthenics. But British players, unlike the Russians, were not given special rations, and the effort so debilitated them that they lost 6-0.

The tour was a watershed for European football, opening the game to international competition and new heights of spectator interest. Paradoxically, the country to benefit least was the Soviet Union. The '50s and '60s were the eras of the glorious Magyars and then of the stupendous all-white-clad players of Spain's Real Madrid. England won the World Cup in 1966, and Manchester United of England and the Celtics of Scotland have both won the European Cup. But through all these years the Russians have won nothing.