Spectators glancing at the scoreboard pre-match, inside Helsinki’s Ratina stadium 60 years ago to this Friday, would have seen that they were among a stellar 17,000 in attendance to watch two countries face off for a place in the last eight of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament. Seventy-five minutes into battle, another large number decorated that scoreboard: Yugoslavia 5-1 Soviet Union.
The Yugoslavs had finished runners-up in the previous edition four years earlier. Now, having won their opener 10-1 and in the midst of handing out a second successive thrashing, they appeared the favourites for gold. Yet nobody could have envisaged the struggle they would have to see off a Soviet ship that was seemingly sunk with just 15 minutes to spare – save for the man in the red No9 jersey.
Just two years earlier, Vsevolod Bobrov escaped possible death when, at the last minute, he decided to catch a train to a match instead of flying with the rest of his team-mates, whose plane crashed. Now it was his time to save his nation from certain death in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament.
The 29-year-old VVS Moscow striker, who had netted Soviet Union’s first goal, began making mission impossible, possible by setting up Vassili Trofimov to reduce Yugoslavia’s lead to 5-2. Bobrov immediately reduced the deficit further with a powerful strike, before completing his hat-trick in the 87th minute to take his side to within a goal of a replay. And that is what they earned when, with the seconds ticking down on the clock, midfielder Aleksandr Petrov equalised.
Soviet Union had scored four times in the last 14 minutes, without reply, to inspire what remains one of the greatest comebacks in football history. Despite taking an early lead through Bobrov in the replay two days later, however, Yugoslavia emerged 3-1 winners in what was the veteran’s last appearance for the team.
Yet, curiously, Bobrov did go on to win an Olympic gold. For as well as being the finest Soviet footballer of his generation, he was also its best ice hockey player and in 1956, he played the starring role as the Eastern European romped to glory at the Winter Olympics.
A testament to Bobrov’s extraordinary greatness was his third-place finish in the Russian Athlete of the 20th Century running, behind legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin and Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin, who went undefeated for 13 years and is one of the most dominant sportsmen of all time.
It would nevertheless be difficult to argue that those two Olympic gold-medalists produced a greater individual performance, between the sticks and on the mat respectively, than Bobrov did on 20 July 1952 – a squad of Yugoslavs and a swarm of Finns would validate that.