The impact of Soviet Bloc countries on the early evolution of the European Championships was profound, and yet their heroes of yesteryear haven’t had their due amid cultural condescension. My old man was determined his son wouldn’t join the ranks of the ignorant.  

My favourite football chant belongs to the supporters of Heart of Midlothian and is based on a 19th century Mexican folk song. It features a legendary Russian goalkeeper; two stalwart Tynecastle heroes and a reference to the Hibees.  

Ay ay ay ay  

Cruikshank is better than Yashin,  

Busby is better than Eu-se-bi-o  

The Hibees are in for a thrashin’   

It’s the reference to Lev Yashin that enchanted me. He was probably the finest player the world has ever seen in that position and the only goalkeeper ever to have been voted European Footballer of the Year.  

He also piqued my childhood interest in the European Championships, then known as the European Nations Cup. In the midst of the Cold War which was at its chilliest in the early 1960s, Lev Yashin seemed to embody the concept of football, the universal game, bringing nations together and removing racial, national and ideological boundaries.   

He was the pre-eminent member of the powerful Soviet Union international team who won the inaugural European Nations Cup in 1960 and were beaten finalists four years later.   

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I still remember my dad – years later – pointing to Yashin in a picture taken in 1965 which shows him and Ferenc Puskás carrying Sir Stanley Mathews on their shoulders after the great English winger’s testimonial match between an International XI and Stan’s XI.   

The European Nations Cup took around two decades to implant itself in the imagination of the British footballing public. This was partly due to the messiah-like status given to England’s World Cup-winning team of 1966 and the beatific brilliance of Pele and his Brazilian team-mates in winning three World Cups between 1958 and 1970.   

I vaguely remember watching that 1970 final in which Brazil defeated Italy 4-1 in Mexico City. But it was the Nations Cup two years later in which West Germany defeated the Soviet Union 3-0 in Belgium that captivated me more. I’d been allowed to stay up to watch the green-shirted Germans, inspired by Gunther Netzer, destroy an over-hyped England at Wembley in the semi-finals. But I wanted the Soviets to win the final.   

I’d been mesmerised by their startling blood-red shirts with the letters CCCP picked out in white across their chests. Other countries’ teams sported their national flag or another patriotic symbol, but the Soviet Union’s jerseys were proclaiming a cause and a belief. CCCP was an acronym for the Russian phrase "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик" (Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik), which translates as ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ in English.   

I was also transfixed by the actual Nations Cup trophy itself. It looked like the centrepiece of an ornamental and over-elaborate silver gift that an elderly couple might be given on their 50th wedding anniversary or a retirement present for the floor manager of a cleaning company in Redcar.   

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Until the late 1970s it was difficult for a schoolboy to glean much information about the history of the European Nations Cup. Scotland had never threatened the final stages in any way and England, in spite of their World Cup success, had underperformed. And so, the traditional myopia of the Scottish and UK football press contrived to ensure there was rarely more than scant mention of it.  

Another major factor in this was the remarkable record of Eastern Bloc countries in the first 16 years of the Nations Cup. The Soviet Union defeated Yugoslavia in 1960 and were defeated narrowly by host nation Spain in 1964.   

In 1968, home advantage helped Italy to victory in the final against the Yugoslavs, but only after a replay. And four years after the Soviets lost to West Germany in 1972, Czechoslovakia defeated the reigning champions on penalties after a thrilling 2-2 draw. The winning penalty was an act of sorcery that’s been travelling around the world ever since: the feint and chip by Antonín Panenka that made the imperious Sepp Maier (the second greatest goalkeeper in the world) look foolish.   

Those Eastern European national teams and the club sides which fed them were often subject to a collective cultural condescension based on Cold War stereotypes disseminated by western propaganda. They were ‘dour’, ‘fit’, ‘unflinching’ and, of course, ‘inscrutable’. They were often referred to as ‘crack’. Those ‘crack’ Yugoslavs or the ‘crack’ Dinamo Zagreb team or the ‘crack’ Red Star Belgrade team. It was a handy, catch-all term chosen to stand in for any informed or detailed information about the players.   

But my dad knew about some of these players and he tried to source books that told me about them. Three Christmas presents stand out in my childhood: the 1970 Brazil strip; a pair of Adidas Beckenbauer football boots in 1973; and the International Book of Football in between.   


(Image: Herald Scotland)

It was in this book, and occasionally the Rothmans annual football bible, where you could glean information about the brilliant footballers who fed my obsession with those sides from behind the Iron Curtain.    

That inaugural 1960 Nations Cup series consisted merely of the two semi-finals and the final. Lev Yashin with his athleticism and his agility and his trademark all-black outfit was a stand-out player, but so was Valentin Ivanov who scored two goals in the semi-final against Yugoslavia and who was joint top scorer at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. The Yugoslavs had Dragan Jerkovic, also joint winner of the 1962 top scorer award.   

It was many years before I could ever discover any footage of the 1968 final in Rome and, prior to the internet and social media, it was difficult to get many detailed reports. Happily, UEFA now has footage of all those early Nations Cup finals on their various websites. What a thrill it is still to see Yashin and Ivanov in their grainy pomp as well as Dragan Džajić, the mighty Yugoslav forward and the great Czech, Jozef Masopust.   

This period saw the final days of the great Hungarian teams featuring Puskás, Sándor Koscis and Flórián Albert, who beat Jimmy Johnstone to the 1967 European Player of the Year award.    

My abiding memory of a rainy holiday on a caravan site in Girvan in 1972 was my dad searching for any hotels along the east coast of the Firth of Clyde that might be showing that final between West Germany and the Soviet Union.  

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In 1989 the magnificent post-punk band Half Man Half Biscuit released All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit. In 1972, all I wanted for Christmas (and many others afterwards) was that beautiful Soviet Union CCCP top. Lumley’s in Sauchiehall Street didn’t stock it, though.    

I’m hoping to get one for Christmas, 2024. And if not that then maybe the red 1976 Czechoslovakia jersey with that hexagonal badge in the middle of the chest that Panenka and his pals wore as they put the Germans to the sword.