Lovchev: The Soviet players were shaking at the Azteca
Evgeny Lovchev reveals his nerves going into the Opening Match at Mexico 1970
He admits the Soviet Union coach pulled a trick to protect his player from the heat
Lovchev raves about Pele and Brazil
The legendary Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, which has hosted a FIFA World Cup™ Final on two occasions, is currently celebrating its 50-year anniversary. One of the highlights in the stadium's existence was undoubtedly Mexico 1970 and the Opening Match between the hosts and Soviet Union, a game in which a renowned ex-Spartak Moscow defender and 1972 Soviet Footballer of the Year Evgeny Lovchev took part. Almost 46 years later, Lovchev, now a prominent football analyst for Russian sports media, visited the famous arena once again.
“Before the Estadio Azteca, I had played in front of 100,000 fans," Lovchev told FIFA.com. "At the Luzhniki Stadium, my native club Spartak Moscow would draw crowds that big for games against Dynamo Kyiv, Dinamo Tbilisi, Dinamo Moscow and Torpedo Moscow.
"We were used to that number of supporters, but still it was a very different case in Mexico. Of course, everyone was shaking inside, despite the fact we had a pretty experienced side. That kind of thing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!”
The Soviet Union's preparations for the tournament began a year and a half earlier. The team adapted to Mexican conditions with friendlies against Mexico themselves, El Salvador and Bulgaria, where they acclimatised to playing at altitude.
“I dreamed of winning the World Cup, for sure,” Lovchev said, smiling. “But as the Opening Match drew nearer, we came to an understanding that we had finally reached what we had been working towards for ages.
"We felt nervous and anxious, and it felt like a dream. We knew that this was the first match and there'd be more than 100,000 fans in the stands, plus we were playing the host country in such ferocious heat.”
The Opening Match kicked off at midday local time so people in Europe could watch the game, as this was the first World Cup to be broadcast live across different continents. As a result, the contest was played under fierce heat. As Lovchev remembers, the temperature hit 40°C even in the shade.
“We were supposed to go out on to the pitch before the game for the team presentations and stand there in the full blaze of the sun throughout the [opening] ceremony, listening to speeches and watching all the dances. However, our coach Gavril Kachalin instead chose to send the subs out, bolstering them with our captain Shesternyov. We emerged from the cool of the changing room just before kick-off!”
Mexico 1970 was when bookings were introduced. And Lovchev, who was one of the first players in World Cup history to receive a yellow card, remembers the moment well.
“Our game against Mexico was even and fair," he said. "The opposition went on the attack and their little forward who played on the right cut inside and set himself to shoot.
"I was running behind him and had to stop him getting any further. I stepped across the back of the Mexican player and just barely clipped his heel. I'll remember that referee, Kurt Tschenscher from West Germany, for the rest of my life: that was virtually the only yellow card I ever got in my entire career!”
The game ended in a goalless draw and after three matches in the group stage, Soviet Union and Mexico were level on points at the top and their opponents in the quarter-finals had to be decided by the toss of a coin. Whoever finished in first place as a result would stay in Mexico City to face Uruguay, while the other team would have to travel to Toluca where Italy were waiting.
“We had a day off and we went out of the city for a barbecue," said Lovchev. "Valery Porkuyan was thought of as the ‘lucky one’ in the group, so was nominated for the coin-toss. We were sitting in the countryside when we saw the car stop on the road some way in front of us and Valery jumped out, waving with joy. We were delighted as we knew that meant we were going to play Uruguay in Mexico City.”
The Soviets ended their 1970 journey in the quarter-finals with an extra-time defeat by Uruguay.
“We ended up receiving just our daily allowance in Mexico, as we would only get prize money if we equalled the semi-final finish from the previous World Cup in England," Lovchev said.
Nevertheless Lovchev has pleasant memories of that tournament.
“I remember especially Pele's performance – what about his exploits!?" he said. "Remember when he shot from the centre-circle against Czechoslovakia and the goalkeeper Ivo Viktor had to rush back towards his goalmouth? It didn't actually go in but I have been remembering that shot for my whole life. The same is true for Brazil’s incredible performance against Italy in the Final.
“I was young back then and couldn't look at things with the perspective I have today. We had three top coaches who helped calm us down. Givi Chokheli, Nikita Simonyan and Viktor Maslov would travel around and analyse our opponents before coming back to our little hotel and telling us everything they knew.
"The environment didn't feel oppressive, we prepared for the matches and our opponents as if we were at home. Kachalin sometimes even sketched out the formations on the ground.”