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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Baggy Shorts, They Conquered Britain

Around 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4, 1945, after more than a year of planning and three days of delay, 28 Russian men in identical long blue overcoats, old-fashioned yellow shoes, white trousers and dark fedora hats stepped off a plane at Croydon Aerodrome in south London. The Dinamo Moscow soccer team had arrived in the game's sacred birthplace for the Soviet Union's first ever full-scale tour of a Western country, a coming-out party not only for Russian football but for Soviet sport in general.

This summer, just over 50 years later, the Russian national soccer team is preparing to follow in the footsteps of the Dinamo Moscow team and travel to England for the European Championship finals. But while Russia is among the favorites in the contest, nothing the team does is likely to compare to that groundbreaking first tour.

Konstantin Beskov, the legendary Soviet coach and one of only three surviving players of the team of 1945, recalls the excitement and expectation that surrounded the month-long trip.

"We didn't know much about our opponents. Obviously, there were no VCRs with cassettes of the opposition playing, or advance scouting, a few of the things that today's teams rely heavily on," said Beskov, 75, in a recent interview. "All we knew was that we would face British teams -- the creators of the game -- on their own soil and we had to come out on top."

The "quiet men in blue overcoats" met with an enthusiastic reception from the British press and from a British public keen for entertainment after the hardships of the war years. The tour was also followed eagerly by fans at home in the Soviet Union. And the Russian team's success -- they won two of the four matches and drew two -- firmly established the Soviet Union in international football: After the first match against Chelsea, Jules Remit, president of the International Federation of Football Associations, called from Paris and invited the Soviets to join the world soccer organization. The following year, the Soviet Union became a member of FIFA.

According to the English Football Association's minutes, which reported on the whole event, negotiations for the tour had begun in 1944, when the FA, on behalf of the War Emergency Committee, approached the Soviet Union's ambassador in London, Mr. Maisky, to suggest club, select, or full international matches. Far more than just a sports competition, the tour was seen as an event of political significance -- negotiations were carried on at a surprisingly high level, with the minutes mentioning discussions with the foreign secretary and Clementine Churchill, the wife of then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among others. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, where the two countries had been allies, simple soccer matches were being turned into battlegrounds between two ideologies -- the communist East and the capitalist West. For Stalin's regime, the Soviet team's success was a great propaganda tool.

On Nov. 2, 1945, the Soviet side finally announced that its team was about to leave Moscow by air. With some difficulty -- accommodation in London was in high demand at the time -- the FA booked a number of hotel rooms to put up the visiting players and awaited the arrival of their Russian guests. The next day, a Saturday, however, there was no further news of the team. It was only on Sunday, after the FA had relinquished the hard-won hotel rooms, that the team and its support staff touched down in London.

The exasperation of the FA's secretary, Stanley Rous, fairly oozes between the lines of the next entry of the minutes:

"At 11.15 precisely on Sunday morning, November 4th, the Foreign Office informed me that the Russians would arrive at 2 o'clock. The motor coaches, which had been standing by for three days, were called into action, and the team was met at Croydon Aerodrome."

The Soviet All-Union Committee of Sport and Physical Training had decided to send its best club side to Britain: In October 1945, Dinamo had won the first national championship held in the Soviet Union since the 1941 season was interrupted by more pressing matters.

The Dinamo travelling party had been expected to bring 25 people, but arrived with 39, including 28 players, the coaching staff, a film unit, a radio commentator, a referee and a female interpreter.

Altogether, the organizers had left nothing on the tour to chance; the FA minutes contain a carefully itemized list of 14 stipulations from the visiting officials, including "(e) That they hoped that one of their opponents would be Arsenal F.C." and "(g) That they would take all their meals at the Embassy."

An article on the 50th anniversary of the trip in the Russian-language Football Weekly reported that the Soviets even brought their own food, since England was still on the wartime card-rationing system and they were uncertain that they would be able to get enough to eat. It was the Russian habit at the time that packing boxes should be shipped in cloth covers and the interpreter, whose surname of Yeleseyeva alone went into the records, was given the laborious task of sewing black cloth covers over each one of the crates of food, presumably because she was the only woman on the trip.

Despite the confusion over their arrival, the visitors were eventually found rooms at hotels around London, although some of the players had to spend the night at Wellington barracks, which they found lacking in amenities like pillows and sheets. Once established in London, the team went on to see the city's usual tourist sites with visits to Westminster, Hyde Park, Baker Street, Buckingham Palace, the National Gallery, the British Museum, Madame Tussaud's, St. Paul's and the Tower of London.

Wherever they went, Beskov recalls, they were met with enthusiasm by the general public.

"We received a very warm reception," said Beskov. "First, we had been allies during the war and then after they found out we were good players as well, the reception got even better."

Beskov also recalls, "people who had studied Russian were coming up and wanted to talk to us, to find out what we were like."

The players were followed by the press too, who snapped photos of them feeding the swans on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Not all of the publicity was positive however. The team attended a play one evening and during the intermission was taken backstage to meet the star. She appeared in heavy stage makeup and a revealing costume and started up a flirtation with Mikhail Yakushin, the coach. The next morning Dinamo's players found their picture in the Daily Express with a caption saying the Russians were spending their free time with an "actress with a frivolous reputation."

In his memoirs, Yakushin recalls one incident that demonstrates vividly the high level of public interest in the tour.

"I remember one reporter was more persistent than the others," Yakushin writes. "He wanted my impression of England and if they had it well-off in their country. I told him as an aside that I wanted to buy a doll for my daughter and your stores didn't have any."

The story ran in the paper the next day, and, as Yakushin recalled, "A few days later our embassy was getting lots and lots of dolls from all over the country, and one lady from Scotland sent a doll with the note that her grandmother had even played with it."

Meanwhile, the Russians were also preparing for their opening match against Chelsea. They were surprised that they were forbidden to practice in cleats on the English team's Stamford Bridge pitch, and had to wear sneakers instead. The next day they went to the lesser-known Shepherd Bush stadium, where they were allowed to practice in cleats and were again surprised -- to find that Shepherd Bush's grass was just as good as at the main field.

As the teams prepared, tickets for the game were selling briskly, with scalpers reportedly asking ?30 for a 50-pence ticket. Spectators began staking out spots on the terraces as early as 9 a.m. for a 2.30 p.m. start on the day of that first match, Tuesday, Nov. 13. Altogether, the game drew 85,000 fans.

"People wanted to get back to living," said Beskov. "It was like a spring, people wanted to get their minds off the war."

The games were a step into the unknown for players on both sides.

"We heard [Dinamo] was one of their best teams, but of course we didn't know anything about them," said Sir Stanley Matthews, 81 -- who played for Arsenal against the Soviets that year -- in a telephone interview from his home in Stoke-on-Trent, England.

The FA minutes of the tour suggest the Soviets recognized this unfamiliarity as a possible advantage and, setting a precedent that was to remain a permanent hallmark of the Soviet sport hierarchy, they were not above a little gamesmanship to improve their side's chances.

They stipulated that they should have a chance to see their opponents play a game before they played Dinamo; that they should be able to practice on the grounds to be used for the matches ahead of time; and that English player lists could not be changed without prior Dinamo approval.

So it is not surprising that the visitors' lack of knowledge was not quite so profound as their hosts'.

"Prior to the tour we heard that most British teams played a relatively simple game -- the so-called long-ball game," said Beskov. "On the attack, they would rely on a big, strong center-forward who plays well in the air."

Dinamo met just such a man in the first match of the tour in Chelsea's 1.82 meter, 85 kilogram Tommy Lawton, who had just transferred in from Everton for ?11,500. The tallest Dinamo defender stood just 1.74 meters and Alexei Khomich, the goalkeeper, was only 1.72 meters tall.

Beskov recalls that it was indeed Lawton who gave them the most trouble in the match.

Lawton scored a go-ahead goal in the 77th minute, but Vsevolod Bobrov equalized at 3-3 seven minutes from time and that was the final score.The FA minutes record that immediately after the game, the Soviets received 34 offers for further matches, ranging from First Division sides to the Luxembourg FA and the Bradford Hospital Fund Football Committee.

As closely followed as the game was in England, the interest in Britain could not compare to the attention the match received in the Soviet Union. Factories stopped work and provided live radio broadcast of the action, as called by Vadim Sinyavsky -- the voice of Soviet sports. Three days later, a special plane brought the game film to Moscow and the Udarnik, Novosti Dnya and Khronika movie theaters showed it to sell-out houses.

Bobrov, a rising star with CSKA, just short of his 23rd birthday, was one of four players Dinamo had borrowed from other teams for the tour.

Bobrov, the first Russian athlete to excel in both hockey and soccer, was a proven goal scorer who played on the national team in both sports.

He had hit for 25 goals in 21 games with the army soccer team in the 1945 season, but was best known for his hockey prowess. The first CSKA player to have his number retired, his picture in military uniform still hangs from the scoreboard in the team's arena in Moscow.

In the event, the additions were an important part of the team, with Bobrov leading all scorers on the tour with six goals, edging Beskov by one. Beskov, then 25, was along with Bobrov one of the youngest players on the tour for Dinamo. He had started organized soccer in 1938 with the Metallurg team at the Serp i Molot (Hammer and Sickle) factory, but long before that came pickup games with hand-laced balls in the dvory of the Zastava-Ilitcha neighborhood in eastern Moscow.

In 1940 Beskov was drafted and transferred to Dinamo, the militia team, but shortly thereafter the war disrupted everything, including football careers. Beskov served in a home defense battalion in Moscow and was decorated several times, including the Order of the Great Patriotic War, Second Class.

Even while fighting was still going on, the Soviets recognized the value of sports, especially soccer, for morale-building and propaganda. At the height of the siege of Leningrad in 1942, they staged an exhibition match in the bombed-out Dinamo stadium. Thus, after the war, it was not surprising that sport became a major tool in the Soviet Cold War arsenal.

For the English teams, the stakes were a little less urgent. Still five years away from its first -- disastrous -- appearance in the World Cup, England was the yardstick against which all other football was judged and, as the home of the sport, secure in its superiority. But that did not mean there was nothing at stake for the home sides.

As Matthews put it "there was always national pride when you put on your country's shirt."

Dinamo's second match, against second-division Cardiff City on Saturday, Nov. 17, drew 45,000 spectators for a lopsided 10-1 score in favor of the Soviets. Beskov struck four goals, while Bobrov and Yevgeny Arkhangelsky, another borrowed player -- from Dinamo Leningrad -- each had three.

The third match, against Arsenal, was the most eagerly anticipated, but the elements were against it as fog closed in and ruined the game.

"It was a farce from the very beginning," said Matthews. "You could see no more than 20 yards. The crowds wouldn't have been able to see a thing. I missed the first goal, because I was at midfield, out on the wing you know, and could not see the net."

Still, the crowds came. There were 54,000 people in the stands and Matthews said that another 10,000 were locked outside the gates for lack of room. The Soviet referee, Nikolai Latyshev, oversaw the match, which Matthews said was "not a problem at all" as the referee understood English.

Matthews, 81, who "retired from active coaching worldwide five years ago" and remains as president of Stoke City in the English First Division, was not a regular with Arsenal. A Stoke City fixture both at the start and end of his career and with Blackpool from 1947-1961, Matthews was still in the service when Dinamo toured.

"I was stationed in Blackpool," he said. "Arsenal was short of players so they asked my commanding officer if I could get leave to play and I went down to London for the game."

Matthews said that, because of the difficult playing conditions, he came away from the match with few distinct impressions of the team he faced. His analysis of the game's tactics? "It was counting absent heads."

After the last match there was a two-hour exchange of technical information involving coaches and players, including discussion of tactics, skills, training and practice methods. There were also banquets for the teams and, after the Chelsea match, the Soviets were presented with engraved cigarette lighters. The British team was also invited to tour the Soviet Union, but the project was never realized.

Perhaps because the series was never repeated, football styles in the two countries remained on their divergent paths, with the English game to this day known for its attacking, aerial style and Russian soccer favoring passing, movement and ball control.

Which is not to say that nothing came out of the series: Careers were made that would have a profound effect on the development of the Soviet game over the next five decades. Matthews was struck by the ability of Khomich, Dinamo's keeper, nicknamed "The Tiger" for his fearless dives at the feet of onrushing forwards.

While Khomich had a distinguished career, he is perhaps better known for developing his goaltending protege, Lev Yashin. In 1988, in a world poll of soccer writers, Yashin placed second behind Pele in the voting for an all-time all-star team.

Beskov, who retired as a player in 1954, coached for four decades. At one time or another he led all six Moscow clubs, with his most spectacular success coming with Spartak. He coached them from the second division to the top of the elite division in just two seasons. And all the teams he coached played a distinct, flowing brand of soccer like that of Dinamo in 1945, which came to be known as "Beskov's style."

"It is hard to describe the style in words," said the coach, who last fall celebrated his 75th birthday, the 50th anniversary of his marriage with Valeria, and 60 years in the game of soccer. "You must have a feel for the game."

In January, Beskov was presented with the Order of Service to the Motherland by President Boris Yeltsin.

The final game of the 1945 tour was a 2-2 draw with Glasgow Rangers in front of 90,000 fans at Ibrox Park on Wednesday, Nov. 28.

After the match, the hosts presented the visitors with "a silver cup suitably engraved in Russian and English," which still resides in the football museum in Dinamo Stadium. There was another dinner, at which the players were presented with wallets and the industrious Yeleseyeva received a pen and book. Finally there was a visit to the shrine of the game itself, Wembley Stadium, with more presentations.

The FA minutes close:

"After being delayed by fog, the party left on Friday morning, December 7th."

Russian soccer had come of age.