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