In late 1945 George Orwell was in turmoil. The Second World War was over, scenes of VE Day celebrations were still fresh in the mind, and the English F.A. readied itself to host Dynamo Moscow – the first Russian team to set foot on British soil.
But Orwell wasn’t impressed. Triggered by the Dynamo visit, he branded all international sport as ‘mimic warfare’. Nations, he continued, ‘work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.’
The tour came at a difficult moment for Orwell. Post-revolutionary Russia, once the bastion of his hopes for socialist utopia, had descended into totalitarianism. Stalin’s foreign policy was now more concerned with promoting the Soviet state than uniting the workers of the world.
And football had a key role to play.
Western sport was no longer to be regarded as capitalist poison. Instead, it became a tool for displaying the strength of the Soviet system to the watching world.
From 1934, rather lengthy slogans such as ‘Catch up with and overtake bourgeois records in sport’ and ‘Bring worldwide glory to Soviet sport’ began appearing in a weekly newspaper published by the All-Union Committee for Physical Culture and Sports Affair.
This meant competitive fixtures with teams beyond the USSR and its sphere of influence.
In November 1945, after much lobbying, officials persuaded the British government to allow a Soviet team to travel and play a series of friendlies. Dynamo Moscow, recent winners of the Soviet Top League, were chosen to go.
It seemed the choice of location weighed heavily on Dynamo shoulders. Head coach, Mikhail Yakushin, described England as the ‘birthplace of football’. Forward Konstantin Beskov later remarked: ‘we only knew that England was the motherland of football, that English football was the best in the world.’
But the trip to Britain was a calculated move by Soviet officials. Back in 1937, the USSR had been humiliated by successive defeats at the hands of a touring team from the civil-war torn Basque country. Government newspaper Pravda reflected: ‘The performances of the Basque Country in the USSR showed that our best teams are far from high quality…It is clear that improving the quality of Soviet teams depends directly on matches against serious opposition.”
The British press certainly considered the Home Nations’ teams to be ‘serious opposition’. Frank Butler of the Sunday Express commented scathingly: ‘The Russians…are not nearly good enough to play our professional teams. Their players are simply a set of very earnest amateurs… I say this confidently.’
Stalin had some parting wisdom before Dynamo left. He summoned the squad to the Kremlin and implored them, in no uncertain terms, to return having made the Soviet people proud.
To British minds, the Dynamo team was a complete enigma. Although a wartime ally and fellow victor, the Soviet Union remained a geographically and culturally distant entity. Coupled with great longing for the first live fixtures after a wartime hiatus, the four games set the British public alight with excitement.
Dynamo played four fixtures. They were rather hastily arranged by the British footballing authorities and included an eclectic mix of opponents: Chelsea, Cardiff City, Arsenal and Rangers.
75,000 attended the first match against Chelsea. Crowds spilled from the burgeoning terraces onto the pitch. The referee, and then the police had to intervene a number of times to push back spectators who were encroaching on play. The Guardian reported that some even precariously scaled the stadium roof. At one point, the glass and iron surface gave way and two supports plunged dangerously into the crowds below.
Queues for the Arsenal encounter began at midnight the day before the match. Bomb damage to Highbury forced the match to be played, rather oddly, up the road at White Hart Lane. The line of fans continued to grow throughout the morning until police ordered the ground to open in advance for safety reasons. 40,000 were piled into the terraces by midday.
Ironically, a deep fog smothered North London that evening and obscured crucial parts of play from supporters and officials alike.
Dynamo travelled to Glasgow a week later. Tickets outside Ibrox were snapped up at ten times their face value.
The side from Moscow certainly packed in plenty of surprises. The British press was taken aback at a team who warmed up before play. Chelsea squad were equally disarmed when presented with individual bouquets of flowers during the line-up.
But most surprising of all was the Dynamo style of play. Soviet players continually changed position and ran different lines, dumbfounding their opponents who found themselves pulled out of formation.
The early form of ‘total football’ or ‘tiki-taka’ had been adopted by Dynamo in 1937 following the Basque humiliation. Former coach Boris Arkadyev, pushed on by state pressure, had spent hours drilling Dynamo players through what he termed a ‘radical perestroika in our football tactics.’
And now the fruits of their labour were clear to see. The first match at Stamford Bridge ended in a 3-3 draw. Dynamo goals were met with equal, if not greater, aplomb by the home support.
At the final whistle, crowds stormed the pitch and held Russian players aloft in celebration. Soviet radio commentator Vadim Sinyavsky roared down the line: “Listen comrades in Moscow, Leningrad, Tbilisi, Berlin, we have passed our first exam with honour.”
The speed of Dynamo’s play earned players’ praises too. Chelsea forward Tommy Lawton remarked: ‘The Russians do not dribble. They flash the ball from man to man in bewildering fashion, often while standing still.’
The remaining games produced two wins and a further draw. This included a 10-1 thrashing of Cardiff City, and victory against an Arsenal side who had achieved no less than five league wins and two FA Cup trophies in the decade preceding WWII.
Dynamo were welcomed back home as heroes. The Soviet sporting experiment was off and running. Fast forward a number of years. In 1958, the USSR reached their first World Cup competition. They were drawn in Group 4, alongside Brazil, Austria and, as chance would have it, England.
After finishing on equal points, the USSR and England faced each other in a play-off. The Soviets emerged with a narrow 1-0 victory.
Meanwhile, the ideological differences between the two nations had become entrenched in Cold War.
Football as ‘mimic warfare’ had taken on a pertinence Orwell could not have envisaged back in 1945.
But the reality was that both the USSR and Britain owed more to each other than either side may have cared to acknowledge.
For the USSR, the Dynamo tour had acted as confirmation that the Soviets could compete against western powers and that these contests were effective tools for displaying Soviet strength to the rest of the world.
Immediately after the tour, FIFA came calling and granted the USSR full membership. In the years that followed, contact between the Soviets and foreign sports groups rose exponentially. The number of sports groups from the USSR touring overseas increased from 23 in 1946 to 455 in 1961, as the state looked to increase opportunities to represent Soviet power abroad.
But the Dynamo tour also left its mark on the hosts. Before WWII, the Home Nations had developed a somewhat insular reputation amongst the wider football community. They had first withdrawn from FIFA in 1919 over plans to include the Central Powers as members, and then again in 1929 to protest at amateur players receiving pay.
Scotland and England had previously turned down places at the 1934 World Cup. An F.A. committeeman branded the tournament ‘a joke’, stating that ‘the national associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have quite enough to do in their own International Championship.’
There was a noted change in mindset after the Dynamo visit. After 17 years, the Home Nations agreed to resume their FIFA memberships. England featured in the World Cup for the first time in 1950.
British football had hardly been cut off from the rest of the world. Many domestic teams had enjoyed end of season tours overseas, whilst the Home Nations played friendlies each year against an assortment of European sides.
But the Dynamo tour was unusual; four British teams had battled against a relatively unknown side that had more than held its own. And, crucially, the British public had seen it. There was no escape for the footballing authorities. Integration in international competition was necessary.
At a time of heightened ideological division, the structures of Soviet and British football resembled each other more closely than before, and whilst most other channels of communication were strained, football remained an open point of contact between the two nations.
The shifts that made this possible can be traced, in part, to the Dynamo tour of 1945.