The Monument to Eduard Streltsov

The monument to Eduard Streltsov, “Russia’s greatest football player.”

The next stop is the monument to Eduard Streltsov, reputed as the best Muscovite football (soccer) player from the Soviet era, erected outside the football stadium that also bears his name and serves as the home arena for Streltsov’s former team, Torpedo Moscow. Many aspects of Soviet sports culture are represented in this humble statue of Streltsov –the most trivial perhaps being that the three most popular spectator sports were men’s football, hockey, and basketball, but more importantly, the sentiment towards domestically competitive sporting matches was not passive and disapproving as the government would have preferred of its citizens. In fact, the opposite could be said: Spectator sports provided Soviet citizens with an unprecedented capacity for self-expression, where open criticism of sports officials and rowdy behavior from fans – many times culminating in riots – conflicted with the Soviet policies of censorship and community. [1]

Young Streltsov playing for the U.S.S.R. national team in 1957-58.

The issue over Streltsov highlighted this aspect rather well: Before the 1958 World Cup, in which he was set to compete, Streltsov was accused of raping a woman and convicted to work in a forced labor camp, despite there being inconclusive evidence. The Soviet populace was largely annoyed with their government’s decision, for the 1958 World Cup marked the international debut of Brazilian football star Pelé, and Streltsov’s absence prevented what may have been a similar level of fame, as well as the Soviet Union’s victory in the tournament. As such, Eduard Streltsov is, even today, often regarded as the “Russian Pelé”[2]. Regardless, the Soviet people openly opposing their government’s decision was an occurrence unheard of, and was only made possible under the cover that spectator sports offered.

Whereas the Olympics and other international competitions were heavily orchestrated by the government as political demonstrations – very products of the Soviet command economy – spectator sports were left more to the people, and so ordinary denizens flocked to them to find satisfaction. As author Robert Edelman puts it: “spectator sport can best be seen as part of the long-suffering, underprioritized consumer sector whose chronic failures played so crucial a role in the erosion of Soviet power”[1]. By allotting the common man some amount of control over his own happiness, the Soviet government diminished its totalitarian reign; although sports culture could not be described as an essential force in the fall of the Soviet Union, it can certainly be called a factor.