The First Euros: The Soviets vs. The Spanish

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The end of Second World War introduced a new Europe. From the communist east to the capitalist west - the continent was steeped in opposing ideologies and radical ideas. The Soviet Union had grown into a genuine superpower with a nuclear arsenal to rival even the USA. Repressive rule from Stalin and later, Khrushchev, had caused friction in Europe with many critics believing the USSR to be lacking the freedoms of the west. To the south-west of the continent, Spain was also under the control of a ruthless dictatorship. A result of the cataclysmic Spanish Civil War - the country found itself under the watchful eye of General Franco. In football, both had begun to form excellent national teams and the birth of UEFA's European Nations' Cup offered both the chance to dominate Europe - at least in football.

The founding of UEFA in 1954 had seen General Secretary Henri Delaunay intent on promoting the idea of an international competition exclusive to Europe. Described by UEFA as a ‘fascinating genesis’, its origins can be traced back to 1927.[1] Three years before the World Cup, Delaunay and Austrian football pioneer Hugo Meisl had suggested the idea of European Football Championships to FIFA, but to no avail. Almost 30 years later, Delaunay succeeded, in spite of reservations from FIFA once again. The tournament was to be set in two stages with a two-legged knockout ‘qualification’ campaign before a final tournament comprising the remaining four sides.

Henri Delauney Trophy

As it seems with any new innovation in football, the introduction of the European Nations’ Cup was not welcomed by everyone. West Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the home nations (surprise, surprise) all refused to take part. Disappointingly, particularly with players, the home nations had believed their own four team tournament to be of a higher standard with Gordon Banks describing their attitude as ‘insular’.[2] For all British football’s renaissance in the late 1950s, such a decision was frustrating.

The grievances didn't end there. Indeed, even those who took part were sceptical of potential opposition. Spain, in particular, had been vocal in their mistrust of the Soviet Union, who in turn were quick to display similar views. At club level, Spanish football had flourished in the latter half of the 1950s. Real Madrid had well and truly dominated the recently formed European Cup, winning a remarkable 5 in-a-row (1955-60). Franco was said to be a supporter of Madrid and would frequently attend matches. These Football Times wrote in 2017 that Real Madrid offered the 'perfect PR tool', with their success 'projecting a idea a wealthy, happy and united Spain that was at odds with the reality'.[3] 

Sport had become a critical element of Franco's regime. Franco had three leading ideas disseminated through the use of football. Firstly, football was to be used as an opportunity to promote the ideals of fascism. Secondly, through victory, it would help to improve the dictator’s global image and finally it was to become a catalyst to spark regionalist oppositions opposed to Francoism.[4] Sports historian Timothy Ashton believes the government had seen an opportunity to use football to reflect its ideals.[5] Furthermore, the growth of television had proven vital to the dictator's hold on power. Transmissions of patriotic messages and soon became one of the dictatorship's favourite means of propagation.[6] 

The Soviet Union could also boast a dictatorship of its own. Despite being the antithesis of a far-right fascist rule, or at least on paper, football would also be key to the USSR's global image. Following the atomic conclusion to World War II, all eyes turned to Moscow to see how the new superpower would react to US military might. Developing their own nuclear arsenal and rigid totalitarian policies under Stalin (some of which had loosed through Khrushchev's 'de-Stalinisation'), the Soviet Union was not to be taken lightly. Despite boasting strong domestic sides, the nation had refused to enter any of its clubs into the newly formed European Cup. Officially claiming that such fixtures would lead to an 'overloaded schedule', a possible political reason for such a refusal has been questioned by some.[7]

Internationally, however, the USSR had grown considerably into one of the world's best teams. Following gold medal victory at the 1956 Olympic Games, they would reach the knockout rounds of the 1958 World Cup. Emerging from the 'group of death' which featured the likes of Brazil, England and Austria, the football world began to take notice. Defeating US-ally England in a play-off did much to boost Soviet nationalism at home and anti-Soviet sentiment in the West. In fact, football had managed to transcend the Iron Curtain. According to Alan McDougall, it was one of the few cultural outlets to do so.[8]

Olympic Champions, 1956

17 teams entered the tournament with the Republic of Ireland and Czechoslovakia facing off in a preliminary round. Chosen at random, the winner would enter the first qualifying proper. Both the Soviet Union and Spain comfortably progressed into the quarter-finals following victories of Hungary and Poland respectively. Poland was, in 1960, under the control of a communist regime and triumph for Spain was met with great fervour from the Iberian nation. Fiercely anti-communist, the 1960 Euros offered a chance for Franco to highlight what he saw as the inadequecies of Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, the Spanish believed that defeat to a communist nation could be seen equally as damaging. It comes as almost an inevitability that the USSR and Spain would be drawn against each other in the last 8. The British press was quick to note the 'sporting and political interest' which enshrouded the contest. It was hoped by many that the tie would help to 'break the ice' between the two nations with the two-legged fixture set to become the first direct contact between the rivals since 1939. Such was the predicted animosity, UEFA had even toyed with idea of playing the matches at neutral venues like Geneva and Vienna.[9]

Despite originally agreeing to play the tie, Spanish officials would eventually change their minds. Those in Madrid had clamoured for tickets and the draw of the Soviet's had even surpassed that of the English, who were due to play Spain at the Bernabeu in May. Perhaps this explains Franco's later withdrawal as pro-communist feelings may have been bolstered by the arrival of Yashin, Ivanov and co. The USSR were willing to play the tie. Perhaps encouraged by what they had believed to be their strongest ever side, victory was likely. They were through to the final tournament without having to play their quarter-final.

The final tournament was a dream for the far-left. Three of the four qualified nations were from the Eastern Bloc - USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Hosts France would complete the selection and the first Euros were about to begin. The Soviet Union would comfortably ease into the final after a 3-0 thumping of Czechoslovakia in Marseille. The other semi-final saw one of the game's greatest ever games as Yugoslavia narrowly edged out the hosts 5-4. It would mean a final between two nations 'behind the iron curtain'. For all of Spain's suspicion and anxiety over pro-communist feeling, their withdrawal could be seen as a failure. Now, a communist country was to rule the continent.

The final was surprisingly broadcast on the BBC with one writer from the Belfast Telegraph writing about how he was ‘entranced by the skill of the players’ and the ‘gallant pronunciation of the players' names by commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’.[10] The match had seen only 17,000 supporters in attendance but an exceptional performance from the Soviet Union. With the scores being level at full-time it would take until the 113th minute for the winner to be found. Viktor Ponedelnik’s header proved to be the difference and the first European Nations' Cup was heading to the USSR. 

The European Nations' Cup had proven a moderate success and four years later, it would be boosted by the entries from nine more countries. The home nations (except Scotland) even took part and the final four of the competition saw a more even West/East split. Denmark and Hungary would join the Soviets and the Spanish in Spain. The final would see Spain face the Soviet Union. After the debacle four years previous, there is a sense of inevitability about it. This time, the Spanish would play the tie and even emerge as winners. Failure to compete in 1960 and a failure to progress at the 1962 World Cup meant Franco had no option but to embrace the Euros. 
'Marcelino’s winning goal had shown the limits of state power in manipulating football to construct images and representations of a peaceful, stable, consensual Spanish society.'[11]
Politics and football are intrinsically linked. In the modern day, we are often told that the two should be kept apart but in reality it is almost impossible. The early 1960s demonstrated how states understood the role football can play in the promotion of patriotism and sadly at times, nationalism. Sport could be seen as a way of reflecting the wider nation behind the badge. In 1960, the USSR had grown into one the two dominant superpowers and by emerging victorious, they had flexed their muscle before what would be one of history's most pivotal decades, the 1960s. On the other hand, Spanish victory in '64 highlighted the shift in rhetoric from within Spain as it opened itself to a new Europe. Next year's Euros will see both nations compete once again for UEFA's top prize - let's hope they meet somewhere along the line!


[1] UEFA Publication, ‘UEFA’s Euro: 60 years on’, UEFA Direct, Issue 179, 01 July 2018, Available at:
[2] Gordon Banks, Banksy: The Autobiography of an English Football Hero (London: Penguin, 2003)
[3] Nick Fitzgerald, 'The Story of Real Madrid and the Franco Regime', These Football Times, 2017
[4] Duncan Shaw, Football and Francoism (Madrid, Alianza, 1987)
[5] Timothy Ashton, Soccer in Spain: Politics, Literature and Film (Plymouth: Scarecrow, 2013) p.28
[6] Quiroga, Alejandro, 'Spanish Fury: Football and National Identities under Franco', European history quarterly, 2015, Volume 45, Issue 3
[7] Philippe Vonnard, 'A Competition that Shook European Football: The Origins of the European Champion Clubs' Cup, 1954–1955', Sport in History, 2014, Volume 34, Issue 4
[8] Alan McDougall, East Germany and the Europeanisation of Football', Sport in History, 2015, Volume 35, Issue 4
[9] Torbay Express and South Devon Echo, 18 April 1960 
[10] Belfast Telegraph, 11 July 1960
[11] Jim O'Brien, 'Football, Identity and Mass Populism in Spanish Society', Social Sciences and Educational Research Review, 2015 

©The Football History Boys, 2020


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