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Born: Saturday 22 May 1937, Rostov-on-Don, USSR (now Russia)
Position: Centre Forward
Striker Viktor Ponedelnik was one of the stars of the only Soviet Union team to win a major international tournament, scoring the winning goal in the inaugural European Championship final in 1960. One of his country's most gifted attacking players, he was forced to retire from playing at a relatively early age due to health problems but went on to become a successful journalist and author of several books about football.
Ponedelnik was born in Rostov-on-Don on 22 May 1937. His surname, which means 'Monday' in Russian, is claimed to have come about when the day of the week was incorrectly written on the family's paperwork at the time of peasant reform in Russia many decades earlier. Like most Russian players of his era, he began playing football amid severe poverty during the Second World War and the immediate post-war era.
A versatile striker who was equally comfortable on either foot or in the air, Ponedelnik's career began with local second-tier side Torpedo in 1956. He made a remarkable impact at the lower level, soon being talked about in terms of an international call-up. He remained with Torpedo until the end of 1958, by which time the club had been renamed RostSelMash, eventually leaving to join city rivals SKA and getting the chance to play in the top division for the first time.
It was at SKA that Ponedelnik's career really took off. He helped the club to finish fourth in the Soviet league in 1959 and midway through another good season a year later, finally got his long-talked of chance in the national team. The Soviet Union had qualified for the four-team final stage of the first ever European Championship, to be played in France, and Ponedelnik's debut came in a friendly against Poland in Moscow, part of the preparations for that tournament.
In a crushing 7-1 win, he scored a fantastic hat-trick and ensured his place in the starting line-up for the European semi-final against Czechoslovakia. Again he got on the score sheet, with the second goal in a 3-0 win, to set up a final against Yugoslavia. In the final, the Soviets trailed at half-time but quickly levelled the score in the second period, and the match ended up going to extra-time. Seven minutes from the end, Ponedelnik rose to meet a cross from the left and headed the winning goal, securing his place in the tournament's history books with a goal which he would later describe as the highlight of his career.
Following that tournament, Ponedelnik and several of his team-mates got the opportunity to move to European Cup holders Real Madrid, but moving abroad was not the done thing for Soviet footballers at the time. Amid fears that they were being watched by the KGB, the players declined the offer and Ponedelnik stayed with SKA. Having made the decision to remain in the Soviet Union, he became established as the national team's first choice centre-forward and his international career went from strength to strength.
He scored in each of his first five games for the national team, also adding two important goals in qualification for the 1962 World Cup in Chile. The Soviets qualified for those finals, in style and were considered one of the favourites for the title. Initially, the World Cup seemed to be going very well for the Soviet team, with Ponedelnik's goal late goal putting the seal on a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia in their opening game. When he scored again to give the team a 4-1 lead over Colombia, all was going according to plan.
However, amid several mistakes from legendary keeper Lev Yashin they could only draw that match 4-4 and although they successfully reached the quarter-finals, the signs of trouble were clear. Yashin suffered two concussions in the tournament and was below his best, with the Soviets losing to hosts Chile in the last eight. Ponedelnik was certain that had Yashin been fully fit, his team would have at least progressed to a meeting with defending champions Brazil.
In 1963, Ponedelnik helped the Soviet Union to get off to a good start in the defence of their European title, scoring the opening goal in their 2-0 first leg win over Italy. The following summer, after a 1-1 draw in Sweden in the first leg of the quarter-final, his two goals in the return match in Moscow helped to secure a 4-2 aggregate victory and a place in the last four in Spain. The Soviets cruised past Denmark to reach their second successive final, helped by another Ponedelnik goal, but a late Spanish goal in the final ended their hopes of a successful defence of the title.
At domestic level, Ponedelnik helped SKA to remain a fixture in the top half of the table, finishing in fourth place in both 1963 and 1964. By the end of the 1965 season, Spartak Moscow had begun to take an interest in him and he appeared for the club in a friendly match in Israel. However, his move to the club was beset with administrative problems and he never actually appeared in a competitive match for the club. After undergoing surgery for appendicitis, he also missed out on the Soviet squad for the 1966 World Cup.
Having lost match fitness and still being denied the opportunity to begin his career with Spartak, Ponedelnik eventually decided to retire from football at the age of 29. He briefly moved into coaching with old club RostSelMash, before leaving active involvement in football and becoming a journalist. For many years Ponedelnik worked for the 'Sovetsky Sport' newspaper as football editor, as well as spending some years as chairman of the Russian football federation during the Soviet era.
In his later years, Ponedelnik has spoken critically of the way former players were treated under Soviet rule. Many players were discarded and fotgotten following the end of their playing careers, a number of them developing alcohol problems and dying at a relatively early age. One of the few members of the 1960 European Championship winning side who was able to forge a successful career after retirement, Ponedelnik is now one of the last survivors of that team.
References (all accessed 8 November 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 08 November 2012 16:43