Streltsov, 'the Russian Pele' who survived the GULAG for five years

At 18 he was already known as Russian Pele, but striker Eduard Streltsov became a legend by surviving five years of GULAG and returning to the pitch to be the best player in the Soviet Union. “It was like having Xavi's head in Balotelli's body,” said Alexandr Nilin, a biographer and close friend of the footballer.

'Streltsov' is the title of the film directed by Iliá Uchítel that opens this Tuesday in Moscow six months late due to the coronavirus pandemic. The tape is a kind of rehabilitation for the player, who was convicted of rape at the beginning of his football career, a charge that many now consider manufactured by the Soviet authorities, but which was never withdrawn.

The Russian Pele

“Streltsov was destined to become a world star, but he couldn't be”, commented to Efe Uchítel. Its irruption was meteoric. He made his debut at the age of 18 in the Torpedo, his lifelong team, and the following season was already the top scorer in the Soviet championship.

He hung up the national shirt for the first time in June 1955 in Stockholm and in the first half he had already scored a hat trick. against the team that would be a World Cup finalist three years later. He played a key role in the first title of the Soviet team, the gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics (1956), and his goal qualified the USSR for its first World Cup (1958).

Streltsov, who was not only a scorer, but was also a player with great technique – he liked to give high-heeled passes-, he was in seventh place in the 1957 Ballon d'Or vote, which crowned Alfredo di Stéfano.

The football scenes were shot in the Moscow Torpedo Stadium, which bears his name since 1997, during the World Cup in Russia in June 2018. The legendary footballer is played by the biggest young star of Russian cinema, Alexandr Petrov, a lover of the soccer since he was a child and he dreamed of starring in the movie. “Ironies of fate. Streltsov received popular love, but not international recognition. That is the tragedy.”, he pointed.

To the GULAG for violation

And it is that his career was cut short two weeks before the start of the World Cup in Sweden, when he was accused of raping a woman, which is why he was sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp at GULAG.

Streltsov wrote to his mother that he was innocent, but, at the same time, he acknowledged in a signed confession that he had committed the rape under the influence of alcohol, in exchange, according to the press, for being allowed to attend the World Cup, something that did not happen. .

Even today no one knows exactly what happened, although Uchítel and Petrov maintain that the footballer was the victim of a trap by the authorities who wanted to punish him for his reputation as a womanizer and his fondness for drinking, an image far removed from the ideal of the Soviet citizen.

Petrov points out that Streltsov, the sexual icon of his time before Yuri Gagarin, was not an ideal man, but he defended his innocence, as did the director's advisor, the famous Russian footballer Alexandr Mostovoi, who played for Celta de Vigo. “It is not true. They persecuted him for being the USSR. When you know the history, there are many things that do not add up,” Mostovoi told Efe.

Another Soviet football legend, Nikita Simonián, admits that no one knows what actually happened, but that everyone, teammates and rivals, has always wanted to believe that he did not commit a crime.

Return to football

In addition to being sent to a camp in the inhospitable Kirov region, where he worked in a lumber factory, he was once brutally beaten by criminals and spent four months in hospital. After five years at three camps in the European part of Russia, Streltsov was released, although he was unable to play football until 1965.

“The love that the people had for him was so great that they had to remove him from GULAG and two years later they let him return to the Torpedo and the national team. If he were not such a popular footballer, God knows what would have happened to him,” commented Uchítel.

The new Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, who is described in the film as opposed from the beginning to the judicial persecution of Streltsov fervently supported by his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev, decided to respond to the demands of the people.

As soon as he returned, he won the league title with the Torpedo – the second in the club's history – and in 1968 he was the top scorer in the Soviet league with 21 goals, which earned him the name of the best player in the country. “That can only be done by a very strong person,” Pele said when visiting Moscow in 2003.

He retired in 1970 as a star, despite never having played a World Cup or a European Championship, scoring 99 goals in 222 games for Torpedo and 25 in 38 games for the national team.

One of the last times he was seen in public was at the funeral of the legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin in March 1990, four months before he died at the age of 53.