Political interference within football in the 1960s was as common as a Real Madrid European Cup victory in the decade preceding. The ideological tug-of-war between Francoist Spain and Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union redefined the true meaning of political interference, all within the setting of international football’s newest competition at the time- the European Nations Cup.
The first billing of the tournament began with qualifying in 1958, some 33 years after France’s Henri Delaunay birthed the idea. Delaunay unfortunately never lived to see his creation but one can only imagine that he would not have envisioned the maiden tournament divulging into a political battlefield for two conflicting world ideologies.
Spain had entered the competition as a strong favourite, considering there would be an absence of World Cup Runners Up Sweden as well as Italy, West Germany and England. Eastern Bloc countries made up almost half of the competitors.
The Spanish squad was coached by the managerial star-to-be Helenio Herrera, master of catenaccio football at Inter Milan in the years to follow. Seven players from Real Madrid’s five-time European Cup-winning side played for the international team. There were certainly no unanswered questions about the credentials of the Spain side.
Under the protective gaze of Francisco Franco, Real Madrid became the unofficial favoured club, benefiting from distant dealings and rewards. Spain’s Foreign Minister at the time, Fernando María Castiella, said: “Real Madrid is a style of sportsmanship. It is the best embassy we have ever had.” Franco was therefore well aware of the importance that football teams held in foreign image and this would have played on his mind tenfold when it came to the national side.
Spain sent 40,000 to fight on Hitler’s Eastern Front against the Soviet Union during World War Two, with thousands still remaining as prisoners of war behind the Iron Curtain, even in 1960. Furthermore, Spain’s alignment with the United States severed any hope of reconciliation and marked out clear lines of loyalty. Therefore, when Spain were drawn with the Soviet Union over two legs, the possibility of a Communist incursion under the cover of the match concerned Franco. Furthermore, the mandatory requirement of a visiting team’s national anthem to be played along with their flag being displayed appeared too much. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle would not have been a good look draped around Spain.
Two days before the team were to fly to Moscow for the first leg, the decision was made from above; “We’re not going to Moscow. Franco said so.” Star forward Alfredo Di Stéfano was enraged as disbelief set in amongst the players. Di Stéfano, one of the greatest forwards of his time, would never represent Spain at the finals of an international tournament as a result.
The greatest Spanish side ever at the time was not trusted to uphold the image of fascism. Defeat wasn’t to be risked at any cost in the mind of Franco. In the following days, any mention of the ghost fixture in the press only referenced nothing more than the USSR progressing to the knockout stage. The whole ordeal was buried along with Spanish hopes of becoming the first European champions. Instead, the worst-case scenario unfolded. The USSR would proceed to win the tournament, beating Yugoslavia 2-1 in Paris.
Khrushchev pounced upon the opportunity for political gain with a ruthless guile: “The whole world is laughing at (Franco’s) latest trick. From his position as the right-sided defender of American prestige, he has scored an own goal by banning the Spanish footballers from competing against the Soviet team.”
In addition, the newspaper, Futbol, published a poem that light-heartedly mocked Franco’s moustache as reeking of American dollars.
Spain’s participation at the World Cup in Chile two years later failed to recuperate any credibility, finishing last in a group that included Brazil, Czechoslovakia and Mexico. Transition loomed and Spain would ban all foreign players at both international and club level, thus making the likes of Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás ineligible. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s World Cup would end at the quarter-final stage, suffering a 2-1 defeat to the hosts.
Spain would welcome the second instalment of the European Nations Cup in 1964, where the tournament would grow by 12 teams compared to the 1960 layout. The Spanish defeated Romania, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in qualification whilst edging a respected Hungary side 2-1 in the tournament phase to reach the final. The first defending champions of the cup, the USSR, would impressively sweep aside Italy, Sweden and a talented Denmark team on their way to the final in Madrid. The Soviets were heading straight into the heart of Fascism.
Despite continued reservations that had not subsided from four years earlier, Franco was, ironically, powerless this time around as it would have been unfathomable for the host nation to withdraw from the final. Khrushchev would not be handed a free swing at Fascism a second time. Instead, Spain would defend their reputation by way of a sporting final in Franco’s own backyard.
Kick off beckoned as camera shots of the estimated 80,000 spectators in the Bernabéu were broadcast to 15 different countries. The most politically charged sporting event since the 1936 Berlin Olympics was about to unfold. Franco had taken his seat in the stand; the die was cast.
The final itself was reportedly played two hours ahead of schedule in an attempt to force the Soviet players to contend with the late June heat in Madrid. Every avenue of advantage was pursued in an attempt to gift the Spanish an edge.
Spain began as expected, methodically controlling the pace of the game in midfield and prodding at the Soviet defence with testing long balls. Just six minutes had passed before the deadlock was broken. Luis Suarez (the original) picked the ball in the opposition half and delivered a right-sided cross that evaded a Soviet defender only to fall to Chus Pereda, who showed no nerves as he thumped the ball past the great Soviet captain Lev Yashin from six yards out.
However, the packed Bernabeu would fall silent two minutes later as Galimzian Khusainov made a great run to poke the ball under Spain’s acclaimed Basque goalkeeper, José Ángel Iribar, after a well-worked attack that began in the hands of Yashin. The remainder of the match resorted to Spanish domination in midfield, interrupted only by the occasional Soviet counter-attack. With just six minutes remaining, another failed clearance from the Soviet defence provided Marcelino with a half-chance, jumping at the ball and showing great technique to flick it forcefully with his head past a helpless Yashin. The Spanish flags began to unfold in the crowd as the USSR went all out in the final minutes to no avail. Fascism was triumphant. Chants of ‘Franco’filled the stadium, encouraged by security.
Tactically, Spain had outplayed the Soviet Union, outnumbering them by two-to-one in midfield; a near-impossible task when one of the four Spanish midfielders was now successive European Cup-winning Luis Suarez who appeared unplayable at times. Under the fresh tutelage of Konstantin Beskov, the Soviet Union had moved to replicate the 1958 World Cup-winning Brazil team’s 4-2-4 formation, placing an emphasis on individualistic wing play whilst retaining their collective footballing principles.
On the other hand, Spain retained the tried and tested W-M formation, stacking their midfield and halting the Soviets from developing any rhythm. Few would have predicted the Soviet Union, never mind any national team of the time, to realistically travel to Spain’s capital and win. The result for the Soviet Union was a respectable one, even if this would not be reflected at home in Moscow. Beskov would be shamelessly removed from his position in the following weeks, with the decision to have been ordered by Khrushchev, who himself would also be ousted from power before the end of 1964.
The possibility that if the Soviet Union had managed to win in Madrid, Franco could have been presenting the cup to the Soviet captain in front of the world is a narrative that undermines every last aspect of Francoist Spain.
Instead, it would be the Spanish players that eradicated the painful memories of 1960 by lifting the trophy and dedicating the victory to General Franco. The opening two tournaments of the European Nations Cup had certainly been dominated by a clash of ideologies, of course amalgamated with some wonderful football along the way.