Eduard Streltsov is one of the greatest footballers that the Soviet Union produced. The gifted midfielder, with his ability to dictate play and thread sumptuous passes, was a joy to watch on the field. However, his story went in an unexpected direction in 1958.
The handsome footballer was also known for his activities off the pitch. Particularly his womanising ways, heavy drinking and living an extravagant life were some of the vices that the young footballer was accustomed to. All these habits made him a figure that the high ranking officials of the communist Soviet regime despised and associated with the evils of western imperialism.
Nonetheless, Streltsov kept doing what he did best on the football pitch and was on course to be part of the Soviet national team for the 1958 World Cup. Had it not been for the events that ensued he might have been another young prospect dazzling the world of football in Sweden along with a certain 17-year-old Brazilian prodigy named Pele. But things didn’t turn out according to Streltsov’s script.
Streltsov was an integral part of the Soviet national side that won gold at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. The elegant forward was instrumental in helping his side get past Bulgaria in the semi-final. After the match was tied 0-0 at full time, and the Bulgarians took the lead in the fifth minute of the first half extra time, the forward brought his team level with his 112th minute strike. He soon put his team ahead after Boris Tatushin converted from his expert assist four minutes later, and it proved to be the winning goal.
The team became the cynosure of all eyes in the Soviet Union and the triumphant heroes were invited by the Politburo to celebrate their historic win. The story goes that Svetlana Furtseva – the 16-year-old daughter of the first female Politburo member Ekaterina Furtseva – was besotted with Streltsov. And when Ekaterina proposed Streltsov to marry her daughter, the footballer rebuffed the offer.
“I already have a fiancée and I will not marry her [Svetlana]”, is what Streltsov is reported to have said. He was later heard to have remarked either “I would never marry that monkey” or “I would rather be hanged than marry such a girl”.
During the preparations for the 1958 World Cup, he was invited to a party by a former Soviet military officer. Tragedy struck the then 21-year-old Torpedo Moscow forward when a woman named Marina Lebedeva accused him of rape at the party. And the footballer was arrested following Lebedeva’s allegations, although there were many contradictions in the evidence she presented.
Streltsov was told that he would be part of the 1958 World Cup squad if he confessed to the rape. However, despite his confession, he was sentenced for 12 years to the forced labour camps of the Gulag. The then national team coach, Gavriil Kachalin, later claimed that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was personally involved and the Communist regime was hell bent on punishing the footballer for his disrespect for Furtseva’s daughter.
Streltsov was released after five years of incarceration and went on to win Soviet Player of the Year award for two successive years, in 1967 and 1968, along with Soviet Cup in 1966 for Torpedo.
The particulars of his case have never been established and Streltsov’s remains one of the most tragic stories in Soviet football.