50 years ago this month, the Soviet Union recorded their best-ever result at a FIFA World Cup™ when they reached the semi-finals at England 1966. The Soviets made it to the last four at the third time of asking, securing the highest finish from either the USSR or Russia at the tournament.
Many players from that Soviet side are no longer with us, which makes the opportunity to chat with one of the stars of that historic accomplishment even more valuable. Zenit Leningrad left-back Vasily Danilov represented his country on 23 occasions and the World Cup of half a century ago was the highlight of his career.
“I was delighted at the chance to travel to England because it hurt to miss out on the 1962 World Cup,” Danilov, 75, explained to FIFA.com. “I should have featured then but I was forced to stay at home because of appendicitis. That said, I made it to the competition in 1966!” Danilov played four matches out of six in England but never managed to return to those heights due to a knee injury he picked up on his return home that cut short his playing days.
“Back then you didn't have the medical care that's available today: I spent a long time in the treatment room but couldn't get back to full fitness,” revealed one of the best full-backs of his generation with regret. “It's a shame because I was invited to play for the World XI alongside Lev Yashin and Valery Voronin but I had to undergo an operation on my knee." During his career, Danilov came up against such legends of world football as Pele and Eusebio, and once even swapped shirts with Garrincha after a friendly with Brazil.
An audience with the Queen
At the 1966 World Cup, Danilov was not selected for his team's opening 3-0 win against Korea DPR, but his replacement Leonid Ostrovsky failed to shine so he was named in the starting line-up for the 1-0 win against group favourites Italy. Danilov then played against Hungary in the quarter-final, West Germany in semi-final and Portugal in the third place play-off. Danilov recalls the Soviet players received a warm welcome in England, with the locals taking an interest in the team and giving them support.
“We were greeted at the airport as honoured guests," he said. "We also went to a banquet hosted by the Queen after the stolen World Cup trophy was found. The Queen greeted us and we kissed her hand – fantastic! Everyone in stadium was behind us against the Italians. You could hear them chanting 'Russia' and 'USSR'. People knew about Yashin and Voronin in England and they really wanted to see [Eduard] Streltsov, but he wasn't allowed to travel. The Soviet authorities were afraid he wouldn't come home, although that was a stupid thought. He was one of the best players in the world.”
“I remember Beckenbauer's shot”
Danilov recalls feeling particularly nervous on the eve of the quarter-final against Hungary. “The night before the game the coach said to me: 'Well then, Vasya, will you be sleeping easily tonight? Look here, if Bene scores tomorrow (Ferenc Bene, the top Hungarian striker of that era – ed.) then I'm sorry but...' And he actually did end up scoring! Albert Shesternyov lost his man, even though I had warned him, and so I was forced to go into the tackle. The ball ran through to Bene and he scored. Overall I played well against him though, and we survived. The coach had no complaints.”
The Soviet Union took the lead after a move involving Danilov ended with Igor Chislenko bundling the ball across the line. The game ended 2-1 to the USSR, who thereby earned their spot in the semi-finals. Looking back, Danilov believes the USSR could have achieved more, but their strong starting XI was often and sometimes unexpectedly changed.
“With all due respect to those who played, the coach didn't always get it right with his team selections," he said. "Anzor Kavazashvili should have been in goal for the semi-final against the Germans. Yashin was looking odd, he was pale and didn't seem as if he was ready to play. I remember Beckenbauer's ill-fated shot. I tried to close him down but couldn't, even though the goal was still some distance away. As a result, we didn't make it through – we could have reached the final. Our team wasn't at its strongest on that occasion, two or three players weren't playing and in those days you weren't allowed substitutes."
Franz Beckenbauer's strike in the 68th minute made it 2-0 to the Germans and with the Soviets forced to play with ten men following Chislenko's expulsion they could only manage to pull one back. The match for third place was another tightly-contested affair. “We could have beaten Portugal," said Danilov. "But Murtaz Khurtsilava, who wasn't in the right mental state to play and had asked not to be put in the team, handballed in the area which allowed Eusebio to give them the lead." The Soviet Union drew level before a Torres goal in the 89th minute secured Portugal the win.
Before the tournament, the authorities had set the Soviet Union the task of a semi-final finish. The team hit their target but did not receive any particular gratitude in return. “They had told us that we'd receive honours if we got past the quarter-finals," said Danilov. "But then they started saying: 'Well, you should have reached the final'.” The fourth-place finish in England is still the best achievement from the USSR and Russia at World Cups and Danilov has his own reasons why their success has never been bettered.
“In my opinion, the problem is that for every successive tournament there was always a new team,” he explained. “The older players were cleared out and they started from scratch all over again. They prepared with one team and played with another.”
Danilov cherishes his memories of facing the best strikers in the world of that era, such as Brazilian duo Garrincha and Pele, Sweden's Kurt Hamrin and Bene from Hungary. “I can still remember and I find it hard to believe," he concluded. "I dreamed of seeing them on the television and then I actually managed to play against them!”