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Born: Wednesday 21 July 1937, Moscow, USSR (now Russia)
Died: Sunday 22 July 1990, Moscow, USSR (aged 53)
Position: Centre Forward/Attacking Midfielder
One of the Soviet Union's most talented outfield players, Eduard Streltsov is also one of the most controversial figures in the history of football. A centre-forward blessed with immense natural ability, his career was interrupted for many years by a rape conviction which many feel was unjust and which his supporters continue to try to overturn. It is probable that the truth of what happened will never be fully established.
Born in the Moscow suburb of Perovo on 21 July 1937, Streltsov's father settled in Kiev after the Second World War leaving his mother to raise him alone. As a result, the family were not well off and playing football was the main source of enjoyment through his childhood. At the age of 13 he joined the works team of a local factory, quickly becoming a regular at centre-forward, before attracting the attention of Torpedo Moscow following a friendly match against their youth team.
Joining Torpedo in 1953, Streltsov became a first team regular the following year and by 1955 was recognised as one of the leading strikers in the Soviet Union. A tall, powerful and yet remarkably quick player, he was especially renowned for his superb first touch. Leading goalscorer in the Soviet league in 1955, Streltsov earned his first international cap a month before his 18th birthday. In a friendly against Sweden in Stockholm, he scored a first half hat-trick to announce his arrival on the international stage in style.
After helping Torpedo to finish fifth in the league in 1956, Streltsov was selected in the Soviet squad for the Olympic Games in Melbourne. In the first round he scored what proved to be the winning goal against Germany, before playing a crucial role in the semi-final victory over Bulgaria. With the Soviets trailing in extra-time and having two players struggling with injury, he scored the equaliser himself and then set up the winner four minutes from time.
Unfortunately for Streltsov, coach Gavriil Kachalin preferred to pair club team-mates up front and when his Torpedo colleague Valentin Ivanov was ruled out of the final with injury, Streltsov missed out as well. The Soviets beat Yugoslavia 1-0, but at the time only players who appeared in the match got medals and so he missed out on Olympic gold. By the time medals were retrospectively awarded to all squad members in 2006, Streltsov had been dead for more than 15 years.
The disappointment of missing the Olympic final was partially eased by an excellent season in 1957, leading Torpedo to second place in the league. Streltsov's performances attracted the attention of Dinamo Moscow, a team heavily influenced by the KGB. He turned down the chance to join the club, which according to his supporters was a decision which influenced many of his later problems
In November 1957, he scored the opening goal in the Soviet Union's 2-0 win over Poland in a World Cup qualifying play-off, which took them to the finals in Sweden. He was expected to be one of the stars of a highly fancied team, but his life changed forever just weeks before the tournament. Attending a party hosted by a Russian military officer, Streltsov left with a young woman, Marina Lebedeva. The following day he was arrested and charged with raping her.
He confessed to the crime, but the evidence against him was sketchy, with inconsistencies in the accounts of what had happened. Streltsov's supporters claim that the establishment wanted to fit him up, possibly because of his refusal to join Dinamo. Others suggest that his often wild lifestyle was frowned upon by the authorities, or that the whole incident was punishment for his insulting and refusing to marry the daughter of the first female member of the Politburo - a personal friend of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Although he admitted guilt, there is significant debate in Russia about the circumstances in which that confession was obtained. Streltsov had been told that if he confessed, he would be allowed to play in the World Cup, but having done so he was instead sentenced to 12 years forced labour and banned for life from professional football. Without Streltsov in the team, the Soviet Union were eliminated from the World Cup in the quarter-finals by hosts Sweden.
Streltsov was eventually released after serving just five years, during which he had initially suffered a number of beatings but eventually found support among those prisoners who knew him from his football career. While in prison he had been allowed to play football for his camp team and on his release he played for the ZiL amateur factory team where Torpedo were based. Although he was still banned from professional football, he regularly attended Torpedo matches and there was significant public demand for him to be allowed to play.
Eventually, new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev personally overturned the ban shortly after coming to power and Streltsov returned to Torpedo in October 1964. Despite his conviction, Streltsov was welcomed back with open arms by supporters. In his first season back in the team, he led Torpedo to the second league title in their history - the first having come while he was in prison. He was not brought back into the national team immediately, but did return in October 1966 for a friendly against Turkey, more than eight years after his previous appearance.
His second spell with Torpedo proved to be the most successful period of Streltsov's career, with the team reaching the cup final in 1966 where they lost to Dynamo Kiev. In 1967, despite Torpedo having a poor season, Streltsov was named Soviet Footballer of the Year. A year later he led his team to another cup final, contributing a vital winning goal in a last 16 replay against CSKA. This time Torpedo were victorious, beating Pakhtakor Tashkent 1-0, with Streltsov again being named player of the year.
Despite that success however, his international career came to an end in 1968 when he was left out of the Soviet Union's second leg comeback win over Hungary in the European Championship quarter-final. He was not selected for the squad for the final stages in Italy, and never played for his country again. Having reached his 30s, Streltsov had lost some of the physical presence he had previously had but carved out a new role for himself as an attacking midfield player for Torpedo, taking on a deeper role and becoming more of a creator than a goalscorer.
Streltsov retired following the 1970 season, having scored 99 goals in 222 league game for Torpedo despite missing almost seven years of his professional career. He remained at Torpedo in his retirement, gaining coaching qualifications and taking charge of the club's youth team. In his early 50s, he suffered from throat cancer which his first wife would later attribute to having eaten food contaminated by radiation while he was in prison.
Eduard Streltsov died of cancer on 22 July 1990, the day after his 53rd birthday. In 1997, it was rumoured that Lebedeva had been seen laying flowers on his grave on the anniversary of his death, adding to the confusion about what really happened in 1958. His legacy is divided between those who believe he was guilty and those who believe he was set up, but he remains a popular figure at Torpedo where the club's stadium is named after him.
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- Published on Saturday, 10 November 2012 00:09