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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soccer Legend Recalls First Euro Final

Few will be thinking of Russia when the 2000 European Championship begins this weekend in Belgium and the Netherlands.

After its goalkeeper's tragic fumble in the final minutes of last October's qualifying match against Ukraine in Moscow, Russia will not be among the 16 teams fighting over the next three weeks for the Henri Delaunay trophy.

However, watching from the stands Saturday in Brussels when Belgium plays Sweden in the tournament opener will be a former Russian player with a place reserved at every championship.

Some 40 years ago, a young striker called Viktor Ponedelnik rose above his marker to head the ball into the Yugoslav net in the first European Championship final at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. The extra-time goal gave the Soviet Union a 2-1 victory and the honor of being the first European champion.

The team that won July 12, 1960, was one of the Soviet Union's greatest teams, boasting the likes of Lev Yashin f voted European Player of the Year in 1965 f captain Igor Netto and the speedy Georgian pair of Mikhail Meskhi and Slava Metreveli.

Ponedelnik's goal f and his name, which means Monday f went down in Soviet soccer folklore with much the same resonance as that of Geoff Hurst, scorer of a hat trick in England's World Cup victory in 1966. That's partly because the Soviet Union and Russia, just like England, have never won a second international trophy.

Before flying out Friday to Brussels, Ponedelnik retold that European final evening earlier this week.

"I remember how, 40 years ago, rain fell and the game turned out to be rough," said Ponedelnik, 63, whose memories of the game seem as fresh as if he played it yesterday.

The game started late on a Sunday in Paris, 10 p.m. Moscow time. With the score tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, the game went into extra time and Moscow edged into the next day. With seven minutes remaining, Ponedelnik scored the winner.

"When a player with such a name scored the goal," said Ponedelnik, his eyes laughing, "all the journalists wrote the headline 'Ponedelnik Zabivayet v Ponedelnik,' or 'Monday Scores on Monday.'"

Back in the Soviet Union, a nation of soccer fans and patriots had tuned into the radio to listen to the game.

"They said that in Moscow there wasn't one dark window," Ponedelnik recalled. "In every city ? nobody slept, the army never slept, citizens didn't sleep, everyone sat and listened. When they told us that, we literally had tears in our eyes."

Ponedelnik retells the game and the team's return with a mixture of joy and poignant grief. Of the 11 members of the winning team, he is one of only five alive today. Once the effusive official welcome at Luzhniki Stadium was over, many of the players struggled.

"In the Soviet Union, when you finished playing nobody needed you. You were thrown on the street," Ponedelnik said. "Many of the top [players] were killed. They started to drink, nobody helped them, teams didn't invite them."

Ponedelnik was a rare success story. Forced to quit professional soccer in 1966 at the age of 29 because of asthma, he became a journalist, rising to become the editor of Sovietsky Sport. At 63, he remains an impressive figure, large and burly f the physical center forward he was known as is still visib le to this day.

Others were neglected. At last year's celebration to mark 70 years since Yashin's birth f the great goalie died in 1990 f his friends were still angry at the way he was ignored after retirement.

It could have all been different.

After the Paris final, Santiago Bernabeau, president of Europe's greatest club, Real Madrid, pulled out his checkbook and offered to sign up five of the team. It was an incredible compliment from the man whose club had just won the first five European Champions Cup competitions.

But it was an impossible dream for players from behind the Iron Curtain.

"We were even scared to think about it," said Ponedelnik. "In every delegation there was a KGB representative. ? We said we had a contract with our club even though there was no contract."

Politics played a large part in the first European Championship. The Soviet Union won its quarterfinal against Spain by default after fascist dictator General Francisco Franco refused to let his side travel to Moscow for fear his ideological foe would win. In 1960, only the semifinals and the final were played in France.

Meanwhile, the very first game of the European Championship f a qualifying-round game held Sept. 29, 1958, at Luzhniki Stadium f was between the Soviet Union and Hungary. The Hungarians f World Cup runners-up in 1954 to West Germany f were lacking many star players who had emigrated after the Soviet invasion in 1956.

Two years later, one of Ponedelnik's finest moments was also inextricably linked to politics. Playing in front of an aggressive crowd at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires, Ponedelnik scored two goals, one a wonderful overhead scissor kick as the Soviet Union became the first European team to beat Argentina at home, with a 2-1 win.

When the game ended, the crowd stormed the barbed-wire fence that was supposed to keep the volatile fans away from the pitch.

"Blood ran, the fans ran toward us, we didn't know what to do, and then they started to tear off our tops and shorts as souvenirs," said Ponedelnik.

"The police intervened and the three or four people who still had some shirts left were brought into the tunnel. We'd just got into the tunnel when the police started to tear off our T-shirt and shorts. They were fans as well."

The team's performance was of paramount important for the Soviet Embassy, which had been plagued by gun and grenade attacks from fascist sympathizers. Before the match, the local ambassador begged the team to do well.

At the reception afterward, ecstatic diplomats cried and kissed the players, Ponedelnik recalled.

"Boys, you don't understand what you have done, what soccer is here," said the ambassador.

"After this, not one fascist will get closer than a kilometer to our embassy. ? No delegation from the party or the government could do what you have done with your victory."