Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Group 6 was a joke of fate : USSR, Hungary, and Greece competed with each other for a spot at 1978 World Cup finals. Now they were meeting again. Finland did not count. Tradition is powerful force and USSR was seen as favorite, just like in the previous campaign. But Hungary qualified for the World Cup and Greece was not a helpless outsider anymore. USSR itself experienced perhaps their worst decade. To a point, it was a group of equals – Hungary was pretty much at the Soviet level and Greece was on slow, but steady ascent in the 1970s. USSR was in particularly difficult situation : the strong Dinamo Kiev team of mid-70s aged and was in the difficult process of rebuilding. Spartak Moscow was emerging as the new leader of Soviet football, but the team was not fully formed and shaped. As usual, Soviet football politics did not help much – it was either team based on Moscow or on Kiev players, depending of the preferences of the current coach, whose not very objective view was supported by the old doctrine that the national team should be based on one or two club teams. Nikita Simonyan was the coach until September 1979 and he was Spartak man. He was replaced by Konstantin Beskov, who also coached Spartak at the same time. There were few Ukrainian players in the national team as a result. It was mainly Moscow team, based on Spartak. It was also shaky team – players were changed often, there was no stability, and some choices were more than questionable. The group matches went repeating the results from the previous World Cup qualification group : hosts won. USSR beat Greece 2-0 at Erevan and 20 days later lost with the same result in Budapest. Those the only matches USSR played in 1978 and they had no official match between October 1978 and May 1979. Then things went very wrong – Hungary managed 2-2 in Tbilisi, leading until the 75th minute. In June USSR travelled to Helsinki for a sure win. The match ended 1-1 – a big surprise, for even a weak Soviet team was expected to prevail. The contrast was shoking – USSR struggled for a tie with Finland, but Greece beat them 8-1. Simonyan was replaced with Beskov. Nothing was lost yet – USSR had to win their last two matches. Beskov called his chosen players and tried them in friendlies – here is the squad for the friendly with DDR, played on September 5, 1979. USSR was playing Greece a week later, so this was not an experimental team. 
Crouching : Vl. Bukievsky, E. Gess, F. Cherenkov, R. Shengelia, V. Darasselia, G. Yartzev, E. Sidorov, A. Makhovikov.
Middle row : V. Shemelev – masseur, S. Yurchishin, Vik. Samokhin, K. Beskov – coach, F. Novikov – assistant coach, A. Bubnov, D. Kipiani, A. Novikov, A. Maksimenkov. 
Top row : A. Mirzoyan, S. Shavlo, S. Nikulin, O. Romantzev, V. Pilguy, N. Gontar, S. Prigoda, Yu. Gavrilov, V. Khidiatulin.
Well – 11 Spartak players. 6 from Dinamo Moscow. Add Prigoda from Torpedo, and the total is 18 players from Moscow. Dinamo Tbilisi – 3 players. One may think Beskov included them very reluctantly – Tbilisi had exciting and successful team, so it was impossible to ignore Georgians. But they were few and for most positions Moscovites were prefferred, although they were not better than Georgians playing the same positions. Ukraine was represented by a single player – Yurchishin, who played in Second Division. The goalkeepers both played for Dinamo Moscow – a stange choice, although not without precedent : back in the 1960s Yashin and his back-up in Dinamo Moscow were both included in the national team. But neither played against Greece – Rinat Dassaev was the starter, rounding the players from Beskov's own club, Spartak, to 12. A few years back Lobanovsky did the same, calling even his reserves to the national team – the result was a disaster. And it was no different now : USSR played without inspiration, just lost on the pitch, and Greece won 1-0 in Athens. Beskov evaluated the lost match curiously : he said he was surprised by the lack of commitment of his players, but mostly blamed the unfamiliar hard pitch. As if USSR did not play against this very same Greece on this very pitch less than 2 years ago. One may easily conclude that the Soviets simply failed to study the opponent, not even checking their own memories. USSR was out. But it was not even the end – the lowest point was reached in the last day of October, when in front of 1000 (!) spectators USSR hosted Finland in Moscow. The match ended 2-2. The terrible decade of Soviet football ended by hitting rock bottom. Beskov – and not only he – appeared unruffled : with European championship in the drains, the national team was free to concentrate on preparation for the 1980 Olympic games. 
 Hungary had her own troubles – the 70s were a decade of decline, slow, but steady. The country still had good players, but not as good and not so many as in the previous decades. There were great difficulties in making really strong team and no matter what, it was always shaky. On top of it Hungary started exporting players after the 1978 World Cup, which meant the foreign based players were no longer included in the national team. This was changed soon, but the old mentality was still in force during the European campaign. Without those who went abroad and with many mainly concerned with going to play abroad, Hungary had trouble making a very strong team. The opposition was similar, so Hungary had a chance to reach the European finals, but equal opponents also mean they are difficult to overcome. Hungary excelled against USSR – a win and a tie. Against Greece it was the other way around : a tie and a loss. And against Finland... a home win and away loss. Hungary was exactly 50%... the record shows exactly the state of Hungarian football : right in the middle, neither strong, nor too weak.  They came near qualification, but did not deserve it. 

Hungary – having a chance to qualify, or may be not having a chance. 
 Greece won. The only big surprize group winner. It was chance victory, but Greek football was improving during the whole decade and gradually became tougher and tougher opponent. They were not great team, although the generation was talented. In other other group the Greeks would not win, but they had lucky draw – both Hungary and USSR were not in good shape. They were also familiar from the previous campaign, when Greece played successfully against each. The Greek team was experienced and high spirited. They also took home advantage to the full. The key match for them proved to be the away game with Hungary – a bit earlier Greece detroyed Hungary 4-1 at home and this counted too. Away, Greece managed a scoreless tie. Then they beat USSR 1-0 at home and it was over – they had 7 points. Hungary had 4 points and one match to play. USSR had also a match to play and 4 points. Greece qualified and the remaining games did not matter. 
Here are the heroes of Athens, beating USSR 1-0 : from left : Delikaris, Konstantinou, Galakos, Livatinos, Firos, Iosifidis, Ardizoglou, Nikoludis, Gounaris, Damanakis, Kapsis. 
It was not even the best Greek selection – Mavros did not play, for instance, but apparently was a team specificly selected for the task at hand – a sturdy, physical team, able to fight the Soviets, expected to be physical and not greatly imaginative and technical. It worked. Greece achieved their biggest success in history : qualified for a major international finals for the first time.
1. Greece                 3  1  2  13-7   7
2. Hungary              2  2  2  9-9      6
3. Finland                2  2  2  10-15  6
4. USSR                  1  3  2   7-8     5

Monday, April 27, 2015

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Monday, April 20, 2015

Saturday, April 18, 2015

 The year came to a close with the final standings in the European Championship qualification groups. The tournament was changed, following the formula of the World Cup. The host of the finals – Italy – qualified automatically. The rest of the European countries were divided into 7 groups, the winners going to the finals in 1980. Unlike the World Cup, the winners of the previous European championship had to go through the qualification phase. Two years of group matches finished by the end of 1979. The group stage was not without drama, highs and lows, but there were also easy and difficult groups – some winners were easily predictable and did not have much difficulties. 
Group 1 – five teams: England, Eyre, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, and Denmark. The Danes were the outsider, England was the big favorite, and the rest were considered equal. Easy group for England – they had no match, all opponents playing convenient for England football. England was a big disappointment since 1972, failing to reach 2 World Cup finals and missing the final stages of the 1976 European championship  too. However, short of some major English blunder, they were considered sure winners: the opposition was too weak. Denmark was still lowly team, Bulgaria was in a decline since 1974, the two Irish squads were perhaps capable of occasional heroic match, but no more. Even if England was not in good form, the fairly equal opponents most surely were going to cancel each other out. And they did precisely that. More or less, the only surprise was the away win of Northern Ireland in Bulgaria – 2-0. England had no real opponent and was head and shoulders above the rest. 
Northern Ireland finished 2nd and perhaps this squad tells why: the Irish were unable to field 11 classy players. They did not have a full team first division players – Derek Spence played for Southend and Bryan Hamilton for Swindon Town. Nothing new, really, but spirit was not enough of a weapon. England had an easy sail, losing only 1 point though the campaign – a 1-1 tie, visiting Eyre. 1. England 7 1 0 22-5 15 2. Northern Ireland 4 1 3 8-14 9 3. Eyre 2 3 3 9-8 7 4. Bulgaria 2 1 5 6-14 5 5. Denmark 1 2 5 13-17 4 
England to the finals – after three consecutive failures in the 1970s! The team looked more than impressive, lead by Kevin Keegan. Well, it looked like England was going to restore her fading glory. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Monday, April 13, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

European player of the year:

Monday, April 6, 2015

South America voted differently. Today the best player of  1979 seems natural choice – but it was not so back in time. There is peculiar trouble: the big names of the 1970s were shaky and not exactly successful. Journalists were torn between natural inclination to elect well known for years players, but since they were not satisfying a radical change perhaps was in order. The top ten reveals a clear split: Passarella was 8th, Kempes – suffering from injuries – 9th. Fillol – 4th. These won the world championship in 1978 – but were nothing a year later... Zico was 5th – the 'White Pele' still had no real victory with neither club, nor national team. The Uruguayan Fernando Morena was 6th – clearly a sympathy vote, for he played for small Spanish club – Rayo Vallecano – and was hardly noticed in Europe. Similar was the case of Carlos Caszely – the Chilean was never a big international news and perhaps was not as good as he was 5 years back. But he was well known name. The old guard was carried on reputation really – and compared to stars from the 1960s, may be found not so great. Argentina and Uruguay had miserable Copa America. Brazil also did not shine. Yet, the Paraguayans,who won both Copa America and Copa Libertadores were hardly great stars – interestingly, not a single player of Olimpia (Asuncion) made the top 10 and only one Paraguayan was included in it. The journalists went for the future – they voted for the young players, who were to really bloom in the next decade. May be a bit premature shift, but it was better than electing some old horse only because he played fantastic football 5 or 10 years ago. The next generation was represented by 4 players – the Argentine striker Ramon Diaz was 10th, his strength was largely based on the second Under-20 World Championship, which Argentina won and he was the top scorer of the finals. And this was the objective problem... great players normally play for highly successful teams. Unfortunately, this was not the case this year and it was very difficult to justify votes. At the end, even the final standing may have been affected by calculations of success – the top three places went to future stars. 
 Falcao was 3rd, perhaps the only more or less established player among the top three, but just beginning to be a key player for Brazil. Unfortunately for him, no international success – Internacional Porto Alegre won the Brazilian title, but that was all – Brazil did not excel this year.
 Second was Julio Cesar Moreno. For many – not just a rival of Maradona, but better than the Argentine. But... Moreno played for a small club – Sportivo Luqueno was the best provincial club of Paraguay, yet, not capable of overcoming the clubs from the capital. The Paraguayan league was small and compared to Brazil, Argentina, even Chile and Peru – a weaker one. Moreno really shined at Copa America and was instrumental to the victory of his country, but perhaps even this counted a bit against him: Argentina and Brazil played with strange teams, as if they did not care for the continental tournament. 
 First was Diego Maradona – but what can be said about his success? Like Moreno, he played for a smaller club – Argentinos Juniors were not bad, they had more than just Maradona, but they achieved nothing in the Argentinian championships. The national team was even worse. Maradona himself hardly played at Copa America. Yes, he was sensational, scored goals, the fans adored him, but without trophies it was difficult to judge him the best. Perhaps the Under-20 World championship tipped the scale in his favour – he captained Argentina to the title. Junior title... His teammate  Osvaldo Rinaldi said “Before every match, Diego played with the ball, putting it on his neck or his shoulders while the Japanese people couldn't stop applauding him. When I would see this, I would say to myself: "Wow, and the show hasn't even started yet". True, but this was in Japan – before still young and unsophisticated audience, easily impressed. It may have been different, if Argentina lost the final – they played against USSR, which had a team of players soon to become more than known around the world. To a point, Argentina even had lesser team than the Soviets. 
Standing from left:  Sergio Garcia, Sperandio, Carabelli, Rossi, Simon, H.Alves.
First row: Barbas, Escudero, Ramon Diaz, Maradona, Calderon. 
At the final Sperandio was replaced by already mentioned Rinaldi. Junior teams are never big indication for future stardom – some players expire early, others develop later. Simon, Barbas, and Calderon eventually became stars. Ramon Diaz – bigger one than the previous three. The rest faded into oblivion...  a junior team. Maradona won with it – the only victory he had this year, not the same as winning Copa America, but combined with his impressive play for his club, it sufficed. 
Diego Maradona, still teenager, but already captaining Argentinos Juniors, was voted the best South American player. 
Perhaps boringly familiar picture now – Maradona scored yet another goal – but it was new back than. It was matches like this one – he destroyed Boca Juniors with fantastic goals, despite the vicious tackles – which perhaps counted more than the junior world title. Maradona had arrived. May be it was even good that most established names of that time underperformed – Maradona became more visible. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

African player of the year:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015