Football by its very nature is defined by tragedy, triumph and in no small parts, controversy.
The story of Eduard Streltsov, the ‘Russian Pele’, is a powerful cocktail of all those elements. Streltsov was arguably the greatest footballer Russia ever produced and the man who masterminded the Soviet Union’s unlikely semifinal victory against Bulgaria in the 1956 Olympics. He was also convicted of rape.
Such is the dark nature surrounding his story it’s hard to separate fact from distorted fiction.
Streltsov could well have been innocent of raping Marina Lebedeva and fallen foul of a plot by the Soviet elite or he may have committed the crime and was deservedly imprisoned.
It is genuinely difficult to determine whether Streltsov was guilty or not. Given the nature of events he may have committed the horrific crime whilst still being in the crosshairs of the Soviet state as counter-intuitive as it sounds.
Even more confusing were the actions of Russian authorities ever since his passing.
In 1996, his former club Torpedo Moscow renamed their ground the Eduard Streltsov Stadium. Statues of him stand at Torpedo’s ground and the Luzhniki Stadium. His likeness, along with Lev Yashin’s and Konstantin Beskov’s, was used in a series of commemorative coins released in 2010 celebrating outstanding Russian sportsmen. Similarly in 2015, his image featured on a set of stamps showcasing ‘Legends of Russian Football’.
Despite this belated recognition of Streltsov’s talent the former Torpedo Moscow star has never been pardoned. Are these actions a tacit form of admission that Streltsov was indeed the victim of Soviet-era conspiracy or an attempt to gloss over the seriousness of the crime that he was convicted for?
Either way it only adds another level of intrigue to the tainted legacy of Eduard Streltsov.
It all started so promisingly too. Streltsov made his debut for Torpedo Moscow in 1954 at the age of just 16. He would go on to score four goals in his maiden campaign and then netting 15 times in 22 games the following season.
He soon played in the colours of the Soviet Union as Streltsov took his domestic form to the international stage regularly finding the target for his country. His defining match for the USSR came against Bulgaria in the 1956 Olympics. In a game that went into extra-time the Bulgarians took the lead in the 95th minute thanks to Ivan Kolev. That should have been that as the Soviet right back Nikolay Tyschenko suffered a broken collarbone whilst forward Valentin Ivanov was soldiering on with an injury. The Soviets were effectively playing with nine men, not that it mattered to Streltsov who scored the equalizer in the 112th minute before laying on the winner for Boris Tatushin four minutes later.
Streltsov though didn’t play in the final which the Soviets won beating Yugoslavia 1-0. Nikita Simonyan, who had taken Streltsov’s spot in the final, offered the Torpedo player his gold medal but to no avail.
“He said to me, ‘Nikita, I will win many other trophies,’” Simonyan revealed. Streltsov only went on to pick up two major club trophies in his career.
As an individual it’s easy to see why Streltsov was not popular with Soviet authorities. He was somewhat of a celebrity who enjoyed living the good life not to mention a healthy serving of alcohol and women for good measure. It was a lifestyle that sat in complete contrast to the Soviet ideal and didn’t go unnoticed. The beginning of his downfall could be traced to a meeting the forward had at the start of 1957 with the only woman ever to become a member of the Politburo, the Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva.
The pair spoke at a celebration of to commemorate the USSR’s Olympic triumph at the Kremlin. According to football journalist Jonathan Wilson, Furtseva’s 16-year old daughter Svetlana was infatuated with the handsome forward. When Yekaterina broached the subject of marriage with Svetlana, Streltsov bluntly replied, “I already have a fiancée and I will not marry her”. To add insult to injury the Soviet’s star footballer allegedly said later to a friend “I would never marry that monkey” or “I’d rather be hanged than marry such a girl”.
Streltsov made a powerful enemy as Furtseva was close to a certain Nikita Khrushchev.
From then on after Streltsov was treated coldly by the football and wider authorities. After receiving a red card in a match in Odessa the April after that fateful encounter Streltsov was lambasted by Sovetsky Sport with the headline “This is not a hero”. As if to further hammer the nails, in letters from ‘members of the proletariat’ were published decrying the Torpedo man as the embodiment of western imperialism and its ills. The timing of his marriage to Alla Demenko, which he managed to keep secret from the authorities, was criticized by the Department of Soviet Football claiming that his club, Torpedo, was ‘weak’ at ‘educational work’.
He was earmarked as a potential defector after clubs in Sweden and France became interested signing him. So concerned were authorities that they had a file on him with one observation claiming that “according to a verified source, Streltsov said to his friends in 1957 that he was always sorry to return to the USSR after trips abroad.”
The real turning point in the Soviet forward’s life happened on the 25th of May 1958 when he went to a dacha belonging to Eduard Karakhanov a military officer who had returned from a posting in the Far East. Streltsov was asked to attend the officer’s party and the forward didn’t need a second invitation. There he met Marina Lebedeva. The following day she accused the Soviet International of rape.
In a short space of time, the man whom many thought would light up the 1958 World Cup in Sweden if not win the trophy for the Soviet Union was sentenced to the Gulag for 12-years.
Even then the story isn’t that simple. Apparently, Streltsov was told he would be allowed to play in the World Cup if he confessed to the charges. He confessed but was not allowed to go.
The circumstances, charges and subsequent imprisoning of Streltsov raised all sorts of questions.
Who would want to frame Streltsov? Yekaterina Furtseva is the obvious candidate but Streltsov was more than capable of getting into trouble without anyone’s help.
Was Marina Lebedeva part of a conspiracy to ‘get’ Streltsov? She wrote a letter to the public prosecutor claiming Streltsov raped her and demanding justice. However a few days later she wrote again asking for a halt to criminal proceedings only to withdraw the request afterwards.
It seemingly points to a conspiracy but then when football journalist Jonathan Wilson spoke with teammates of Streltsov none of them were willing to say that Streltsov was innocent. They all agreed that he had slept with Lebedeva but were far more reluctant to speak when it came to the subject of Streltsov’s guilt or innocence.
Valentin Ivanov told Wilson “It’s a dark story. Who raped whom, it’s hard to say. I think if a girl goes to the suburbs for a night … then a guy is waiting for her, as it were … and she is the same… but I don’t believe it was a set-up, no. Maybe it was the host of the dacha. I don’t know who raped her, but she said it was Streltsov. So it’s a dark story.”
Nikita Simonyan revealed, “What happened with Streltsov you cannot explain. It is a mysterious thing. He wrote to his mother saying he was taking the blame for someone else. It was the system that punished Streltsov. I don’t know for sure if there was a rape on the part of Streltsov, but he and the girl slept together.”
Simonyan halted to show Wilson a photograph. It contained four images, two of Lebedeva and two of Streltsov. One shot pictured Lebedeva with bruises around her eyes, another showed a profile of Streltsov with three parallel scratches from nose to cheekbone. As Wilson pointed out it’s possible that the photographs were doctored or the images taken on later dates but the Soviet legal system hardly needed incontrovertible proof to secure a conviction.
Perhaps most tellingly though were the words of Streltsov’s international coach Gavril Kachalin who revealed to football historian Axel Vartanyen “When I tried to help Streltsov, I was told by police that Khrushchev himself had been informed about the case. I then dashed to a regional Communist Party committee headquarters and asked the first secretary to suspend the case until the end of the World Cup. I was told that nothing could be done and they pointed meaningfully upwards. I understood then that it was the end. I heard that Furtseva had it in for Streltsov, but who knows exactly what happened?”
Streltsov was released early from prison in 1963 spending five years behind bars. He was still prohibited from playing professional football. That ban was lifted though and he returned to Torpedo Moscow in 1965 where he won the league title. A few years later in 1968 Streltsov lifted the Soviet Cup with Torpedo scoring three goals in the tournament.
However the title and cup win doesn’t make up for the fact that the one-time bright young thing of Russian football was incarcerated in a Gulag rather than lighting up the 1958 World Cup. A 17-year old Pele captivated the fans in Sweden but the story could have been so different had Streltsov been part of the Soviet team.
Eduard Antolyevich Streltsov passed away as a result of throat cancer on the 22nd of July 1990 at the age of 53. Heavy drinking and smoking finally caught up with the “Russian Pele”.
Marina Lebedeva, provided an intriguing epilogue to the story of Eduard Streltsov. In 1997, a day after commemorations of the anniversary of the Torpedo forward’s death she was spotted laying flowers at his grave for reasons known only to herself.
The player described by author Aleksandr Nilin as “the boy from the land of wonder” dazzled his fans on the football pitch. The back-heel was dubbed the “Streltsov kick” by his supporters and his heroic exploits at the 1956 Olympics will always leave an indelible mark on Russian football if not posing the eternal, unanswerable question “what if?”
Streltsov’s was a career curtailed by controversy. Whether it was it was a result of a conspiracy or the actions of entitled sexual predator, we’ll never truly know.
He may well be one of the best players never to have graced the World Cup or European Championships and the efforts to exonerate him may well stem from a romantic notion of his potential greatness as a footballer. This in itself is troubling as supporters focus on his sporting achievements whilst summarily dismissing the severity of the crime he was convicted for.
Streltsov’s story is not a tale of black and white despite what fans and opponents would like to believe. There are far too many shades of grey to take into consideration.
With statues, stamps, coins and stadiums being used to commemorate him the rehabilitation of Streltsov’s image has been underway for quite some time. However the events and uncertainty of what happened on the 25th of May 1958 continues to cast a long, dark shadow on the “Russian Pele”.
No amount of collectable memorabilia can wipe away the darkness of the Streltsov saga and nor should it.