Player Feature: Eduard Streltsov

1 08 2010

Ok, massive caveat required here. Eduard Streltsov was convicted of rape and was imprisoned for the crime from 1958-1963. As such, unlike Ghostgoal’s other player features, I do not wish to suggest he is a player to be celebrated. However, Streltsov remains a fascinating figure, perhaps the fascinating figure of Russian football…

“Streltsov, I would argue, has immense symbolic value. I would say he has come to stand for nothing less than the unblemished soul of Russian football.” [Jonathan Wilson, Behind The Curtain]

Eduard Streltsov was born on the 21st of July 1937. At the age of just 16 he had made his debut for Torpedo Moscow. By the summer of 1956, still a teenager, he had played a key role in the USSR’s Olympic winning side thanks to his strength, skill and footballing intelligence. With 18 goals in his 21 internationals there was good reason on the eve of the 1958 World Cup to believe that the tournament would belong to Eduard Streltsov rather than Pele & Garrincha. As it turned out, he would spend the next 5 years in Soviet prisons.

Streltsov visited the party of a Soviet military officer two weeks prior to the World Cup of 1958. There he is accused of raping Marina Lebedeva, a 20 year old girl also at the party. In some ways, the story appears quite clear in that the girl formally accused Strelstov the following day and he subsequently pleaded guilty. Such is the nature of Soviet intrigue, however, that much of the events surrounding the case are shrouded in mystery and political intrigue. Lebedeva later requested that the court proceedings be stopped on the grounds that she forgave him. Some 40 years later there is anecdotal evidence of Lebedeva being seen weeping at Streltsov’s graveside, running away when confronted. And why was Streltsov at a military dacha anyway? Some have speculated that the whole evening was a set-up. Some say Strelstov was persuaded to plead guilty on a promise that he would still be allowed to play in the World Cup. Perhaps it was related to a bizarre incident a year earlier when the USSR Culture Minister suggested that Strelstov marry her daughter and the player was heard to drunkenly insult the girl claiming he “would never marry that monkey”. Or was it a more general concern that the good-looking, hard drinking, womanising Streltsov was too independent and a bad influence on the Soviet youth that needed to be suppressed?

One of the amazing elements to the Eduard Strelstov story is the way he was received upon his return from the prison camps and his subsequent renaissance. After a difficult first year in prison, where he was badly beaten by fellow inmates, things improved for him and he was released in 1963. He was not allowed to play for Torpedo but he played for a factory team, drawing significant crowds. He did continue to travel with his former side and when noticed by the supporters he would attract chants demanding he take to the field. Finally, in October 1964 at the age of 27, he was permitted to return to action for Torpedo following a change of heart by the Soviet President himself, Leonid Brezhnev. That first season, Torpedo won the league for the first time since 1960. In 1967 and again in 1968, Eduard Streltsov was voted Soviet Player of the Year, even returning to the USSR national side to score a further 7 international goals. Remarkable achievements made only more poignant by the fact that he arguably spent the best years of his career behind bars.

Today, the perception of the Strelstov legacy arguably depends on the not so simple question of whether you believe him to be innocent or not. To some he is a rapist, to others – as Jonathan Wilson points out – a glorious marytr who symbolises the ability to withstand oppression and emerge triumphant. There are a significant number in the latter camp, and a statue of Eduard Strelstov still stands at the Luzhniki Olympic Complex honouring the man regarded by many as Russia’s greatest ever player.




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