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© Sportingn / WikiCommons
© Sportingn / WikiCommons

13 Legendary Soviet Footballers

Picture of Jonny Blair
Updated: 10 January 2018

Now that the draw has been made for the group stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, it’s time to take a look at the history of Soviet football. Before 1991, the USSR had its own national team, and enjoyed some peak moments including winning the European Championships in 1960 and the Olympics in 1956. Here are 13 legendary Soviet footballers.

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USSR 1972 |  © Sean Tipp Ryan / Flickr

Lev Yashin

Position – Goalkeeper
Caps – 74

Lev Yashin often tops polls along with Pat Jennings, Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon as the world’s greatest ever goalkeeper. Ask anyone who followed Soviet Union football back in the 1950s and 1960s, and they will tell you how good ‘the Black Panther’ really was. He played in four World Cups (1958, 1962, 1966, 1970) and saved over 150 penalty kicks during his career, a record which may never be beaten. Yashin won the Soviet League five times and the Soviet Cup three times for Dinamo Moscow, who he also represented ice hockey for. Yashin inspired the USSR to achieve fourth place at the 1966 World Cup, a Gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, and to become Champions of Europe in 1960. Yashin has a stamp with his picture on it in Russia, but is also recognised globally, with a coin in America and a statue in Brazil dedicated to him.

Oleg Blokhin

Position – Striker
Caps – 112 (a Soviet Union record)
Goals – 42 (a Soviet Union record)

Put simply, Oleg Blokhin won the most caps, scored the most goals and is arguably the most famous Soviet Union footballer of all time. What might come as a surprise is that he is one of the former Soviet Union players who is actually from Ukraine. In a career that spanned over 600 matches, Blokhin scored just over 250 goals, 42 of them for his country. Blokhin won the Ballon D’Or in 1975 and had a career full of medals. With his club team Dinamo Kiev, he twice won the European Cup Winners Cup, eight times won the Soviet League and five times the Soviet Cup. After retiring, Blokhin has also managed AEK Athens, Dinamo Kiev and the Ukrainian national team.

Rinat Dasaev

Position – Goalkeeper
Caps – 91

Another legendary goalkeeper from the world of Soviet Union football is Rinat Dasaev, once named world goalkeeper of the year. Dasaev played for the Soviet national team from 1979 until the collapse of the country in 1991. He helped the team to Bronze in the 1980 Olympics, and to runner-up in the 1988 European Championships. Dasaev also played in the 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups and with 91 caps, is the second-most capped player in the history of the Soviet Union football team. Dasaev excelled at club level too, winning the Soviet League twice and the Soviet Cup once with his club Spartak Moscow, who he also represented all over Europe.

Valentin Ivanov

Position – Winger / Striker
Caps – 59
Goals – 26

Valentin Ivanov could just be the best player in Soviet history. He was (joint) leading scorer at both the 1960 European Nations Cup and the 1962 World Cup – the only Soviet player to achieve either feat. Ivanov also won the Soviet League twice, the Soviet Cup once, as well as an Olympic Gold Medal (1956) and the European Championships (1960). He had a lengthy career from 1950 to 1966, and was capped 59 times for the Soviet Union, scoring 26 goals. As the country no longer exists, he finished as the Soviet national football team’s third-highest goalscorer of all time, behind only Oleg Blokhin and Oleg Protasov (who also both make this list). Hailing from Moscow, Ivanov spent most of his club career at Torpedo Moscow, scoring 124 goals in 286 appearances in the Soviet League. After his death in 2011, Ivanov was remembered on a stamp issued in his native Russia.

Anatoliy Demyanenko

Position –  Left-back
Caps – 80
Goals – 6

Anatoliy Demyanenko was a left-sided player who played both attacking left and left-back. One of the unsung heroes who guided the Soviet Union to the 1986 World Cup, he won 80 caps. He also chimed in with the odd goal for a full-back, scoring six times for his country, in a career where he played not only in the Soviet Union, but also in East Germany and Poland. In 1986 he was a European Cup Winners Cup winner with Dinamo Kiev.

Vladimir Bessonov

Position – Right-back
Caps – 79
Goals – 4

Vladimir Bessonov is another full-back with legendary status during Soviet Union times. Bessonov played in three World Cups in an international career spanning thirteen years. At club level he played for Dinamo Kiev and Maccabi Haifa, winning the European Cup Winners Cup in 1986. Bessonov is part of a sporting family, as his wife was twice world champion in rhythmic gymnastics and his daughter has won an Olympic bronze medal twice. Ironically in Bessonov’s last World Cup match in 1990, he received a red card against Argentina and never played for the Soviet Union again.

Igor Belanov

Position – Attacking midfielder
Caps – 33
Goals – 8

Igor Belanov will long be remembered for his 1986 World Cup hat-trick. However, football buffs will also know that the Soviet Union still lost that match 4-3 to Belgium, and went out. That said, it was still a magical moment for Igor Belanov, who was named European Footballer of the Year that year in a three year period where he won five trophies at club level for Dinamo Kiev. In his club career Belanov played in Germany, Ukraine and the Soviet Union, scoring 111 goals in 404 goals. He was also runner up in the 1988 European Championships.

Viktor Ponedelnik

Position – Striker
Caps – 29
Goals – 20

Now for some of the early heroes of Soviet Union football – Lev Yashin may have been the goalkeeper when the USSR won the inaugural European Championships in 1960, but it was Viktor Ponedelnik who scored the famous winning goal with seven minutes of extra time left. In doing so, the Soviet Union won the first ever European Championships beating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final in Paris. Ponedelnik also struck the third goal in the semi-final, writing himself into the history books. Ponedelnik’s international record was very impressive – he scored 20 goals in 29 matches in a short period of only four years.

Slava Metreveli

Position – Winger
Caps – 48
Goals – 11

Another true hero from the 1960 European Championship winning side is Slava Metreveli. Metreveli was born is modern-day Georgia, yet spent his career playing for Torpedo Gorky, Torpedo Moscow and Dinamo Tbilisi. His international tally was 11 goals in 48 appearances, and he also scored over 100 goals at club level – a great return for a winger. He scored the first goal in the 1960 European Championship Final en route to the 2-1 victory, and was also in the Soviet Union squad for three World Cups.

Sergei Aleinikov

Position – Defensive midfielder
Caps – 73
Goals – 6

Sergei Aleinikov grew up in what is modern day Belarus, and was known for being a defensive midfielder. He made 73 appearances for the Soviet Union, scoring six goals, from 1984 to 1991. However, his international career didn’t end after the break up of the USSR, as Aleinikov also played for the CIS in 1992 and later for his native Belarus. At club level, he played for Dinamo Minsk, but also had periods in Italy and Japan, including a 30 match season at Juventus where he scored three goals.

Albert Shesternyov

Position – Defender / Sweeper
Caps – 90

Albert Shesternyov is generally regarded as the best football defender in Soviet football history in a career that saw him captain the Soviet Union, winning 90 caps in an era where fewer matches were played. In fact, only Rinat Dasaev and Oleg Blokhin won more caps than Shesternyov. He captained his country for 62 of his 90 caps and played his entire club career at CSKA Moscow, a team he later managed. Shesternyov played in three World Cups and one European Championship.

Eduard Streltsov

Position – Attacking midfielder
Caps – 38
Goals – 25

Once dubbed ‘the Russian Pele‘, Eduard Streltsov is widely regarded as the most talented outfield player the Soviet Union ever produced. He played club football for Torpedo Moscow, and has undoubtedly the most intriguing story on this list. He won 38 caps and scored 25 goals despite being absent for the national team for eight years (from 1958 to 1966), the reason being that he was accused of rape and sentenced to twelve years in the notorious Gulag labour camps in the Soviet Union. He was released after five years in the camps, and by 1965 was back playing club football. He missed the famous 1960 European Championship win, and shockingly never played in the World Cup despite the Soviet Union qualifying in 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970. He did however play in the Olympic Gold medal winning team of 1956 and has been remembered on a stamp.

Oleg Protasov

Position –  Striker
Caps – 68
Goals – 29

Only Oleg Blokhin scored more goals for the Soviet Union than Oleg Protasov. Protasov scored 29 times and played in two World Cups, gaining 68 caps. Protasov was the European Silver Boot winner in 1984 and Soviet player of the year in 1987. In his club career he won medals aplenty and played in Greece, Japan, Ukraine and the Soviet Union. In that time he scored 214 goals in 446 matches.