Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Group 9, the only one not giving direct spot at the finals. Apart from that – an easy and hardly interesting group at first. It was expected to be a Soviet walkover: Greece was an outsider and point donor, Hungary, as Soviet satellite, was to bend over. USSR was seen as the sure winner, and the only interest was reserved for the next stage – which country from South America will meet the Soviets for the real contest for World Cup spot. And everything started exactly as expected in 1976 – Hungary tied the away match with Greece – 1-1. A tie serving USSR. May the Soviets were too confident in their own expectations of easy win: they made bizarre and possibly unique in football history schedule for their games: all were to be played in one month time – from April 24 to May 18, 1977. It was like playing normal club championship – one fixed squad playing a season. A mini-season, but regular nevertheless – a match every week. The advantage was obvious: a stable group of used to each other players, getting better and better thanks to familiarity every next match. The disadvantage was not seen at all – injuries, sudden lack of form, or tactical changes left the team without options. There was no time to include new players, for there was no way to try them between official matches. And this precisely happened: the Soviets did not have the best of teams at the time. After the extreme of Lobanovsky, who played the entire Dinamo Kiev, the next coach went in the opposite direction, making a diverse team from many clubs, but not many players from Dinamo. Neither concept was wise. USSR struggled for some years anyway. They won their first match, hosting Greece, 2-0, but the team was obviously deficient and draw a lot of criticism. There were problems in midfield and consequently in attack. The second match was lost, to the surprise of everybody – Hungary won in Budapest 2-1. USSR displayed many problems – it was not that Hungary was great, but rather Soviet clueless play. Muntyan suffered from injury and was able to play only as a substitute. Soviet observers pointed out that his absence was critical. Strikers were pathetic too. But there was no time to change anything and the same squad went to face Greece in Athens. They lost 0-1. Curiously, the Soviet reports of the match were very brief and not very troubled (rather disinterested actually) – the referee was blamed in passing. Only much later a myth was built about crooked refereeing in this game – if not for the referee, USSR surely was going to reach the finals. But this is what one can hear today, not in 1977. Back than... USSR was not yet eliminated. Pulling a bit of strength, the Soviets won their last match – 2-0 against Hungary in Tbilisi. 4 points and 5-3 goal-difference would suffice and then an urgent changes of the team must start. Clearly, the current squad was a disaster and now everything was in the friendly feet of the Hungarians. Objectively, they were not very strong and little friendly tie may not even look suspicious. But the Hungarians betrayed the Soviet 'trust' – they won 3-0 and finished first. So much for Communist cooperation... it was not for the first time the Soviets were 'betrayed' by satellites.

1.Hungary 4 2 1 1 6- 4 5

2.Soviet Union 4 2 0 2 5- 3 4

3.Greece 4 1 1 2 2- 6 3

The outcome was mostly Soviet fault – their fantastic schedule turned against them. Greece was quite capable of playing an equal game against weaker opponents; Hungary was not exactly a nation loving the Soviets and orders and agreements could be sabotaged by players. Facing problems, USSR simply had no time to find solution. On the other Hungary got a moral boost and a shaky team suddenly became ambitious.
1977 Hungarian squad – it had potential and slowly was getting into shape. They still had a play-off with South American opposition, but winning the first round certainly improved moral and motivated the team.