The story behind the photo: the silent men in blue overcoats, who shocked England

Soviet and Russian sports journalism boasts an eventful history, and football is a big part of it. This new section is about famous sports and football photographs and celebrated Soviet and Russian sports photographers.
Share 04 May 2016
© Central Press/Getty Images

Soviet athletes never took part in any Olympic Games or world championships before the end of the 2nd World War. That state of affairs could no longer continue after the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany. Right after the war, in 1945, England invited Soviet footballers to spar with some of its best football clubs.

The honour of representing Russia overseas was entrusted to Moscow’s Dinamo, fortified by the addition of Vsevolod Bobrov (CDKA), Evgeny Arkhangelsky and Boris Oreshkin (Leningrad’s Dinamo) to the line-up of players.  

The squad had no right to lose. The football “delegation” was given an official going-away party in the Kremlin, and Kliment Voroshilov himself gave an admonitory speech. But no one really knew if the Soviet squad had the wherewithal to take on top international footballers, let alone win.  

The football homeland awaited the arrival of the Soviet team with impatience. Everyone wanted to know what Soviet people looked like and what kind of football they played. The English papers sounded condescending at first, describing the Soviet team as “beginners, amateurs, some factory workers who work during the day and use the little free time they have to play football, usually at night.”   

When Dinamo arrived in London on November 4, they were met by a large crowd of reporters and film cameramen. But the Soviet footballers turned out to be men of few words – “silent men in blue overcoats,” as the English press described them. Even more impressive were the big crates of food which the Russians had brought with them.  

Dinamo was to play its first match with London’s Chelsea. That’s the match shown in the photo. Stamford Bridge was packed, completely sold out. More people wanted to watch the game than the arena could accommodate, so people climbed up some roofs and billboard stands. The more fortunate crammed into the balconies of the nearby buildings. An estimated 100,000 to 120,000 people watched that game.  

The game ended in a draw, and that put an end to all the derogatory talk about Russian football. On the contrary, the papers were filled with rave reviews about the guest team. The English were particularly impressed by the Russian goalkeeper, Aleksey Khomich. Chelsea captain John Harris said: “At least two of Lawton’s kicks were such that no goalkeeper could possibly save, but Khomich somehow did, in a sort of a tiger jump.”   

Dinamo continued with their tour, playing against Cardiff, Arsenal and Glasgow Rangers. Against all the odds, the Russians did not lose a single match. They positively destroyed Cardiff 10-1, won 4-3 against Arsenal, and drew 2-2 with Rangers. Dinamo had an aggregate score of 19-9 in its favour for the whole tour. Khomich was lauded as a real hero. The British christened him “Tiger,” admired his playing style and his litheness. He was actually offered money to transfer to an English club. To which Tiger said, famously: “Tiger is not for sale.”

 

Maria Vashchuk