Mark Godfrey

Barbed wire and flowers – the politics of Cold War football

Mark Godfrey
Barbed wire and flowers – the politics of Cold War football

This article first appeared in Issue 13 of The Football Pink fanzine

STEVE RINGWOOD revisits the days of post-war Europe, propaganda and political espionage; when a game of football was more than just sporting competition – it was a battle of ideologies and who could show theirs was superior.

The battlegrounds of the Cold War took many unlikely forms: art galleries and cinemas, theatres and concert halls. On 23rd October 1955 one would be marked off by chalk lines and corner flags; the unwitting conscripts from the West a group of British amateur footballers. Oblivious to any sense of conflict beyond the sporting, this pitch in Sofia was merely a stage for the match of their lives, the first in a two legged tie against Bulgaria; the prize a place in the finals tournament at the Melbourne Olympic games the following winter. The British squad, consisting entirely of Englishmen, contained a handful of players with experience of playing amongst professionals, though all were amateurs in the traditional sense; a teacher, a vacuum flask salesman, a tile slabber, an engineer, a gas fitter, a cattle farmer, a handful of office clerks and even two schoolboys. What awaited them was quite extraordinary, the stakes higher than they would ever know.

The writer David Caute offers some context with his eloquent description of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the West as, 'simultaneously a traditional political-military confrontation between empires…and at the same time an ideological and cultural contest on a global scale and without historical precedent’. Proxy wars were fought in Korea and Indochina yet the main protagonists never actually came to blows; the stockpiling of atomic weaponry by both the United States and the Russians meant that both sides were keen to avoid confrontation erupting into catastrophic nuclear war. The result has been described as ‘politics and the pursuit of victory by other means’, as each sought to out-manoeuvre the other in various cultural arenas with a view to demonstrating their supremacy in all fields. The importance of sport in this fight for primacy is underlined by the historian Peter Beck: ‘Competitors might see themselves as engaged in a purely sporting activity, but in practice they were often perceived and presented by governments, the media and public opinion as projections of national values and strengths, as well as weaknesses, in the context of the Cold War’.

In 1948 the Communist Party Central Committee of the Soviet Union redefined its policy targets, declaring the goal of winning ‘world supremacy in the major sports’ within ‘the next few years’. With this the focus switched from an obsession with mass participation aimed at fulfilling the requirements of national labour and defence to that of developing elite competitors, aided by state planning and scientific coaching methods, who would provide ‘irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the moribund culture of capitalist states’. The plan was a system of state imposed shamateurism that would essentially allow their best athletes to have, it was hoped, a competitive edge against other amateur Olympic competitors from around the world. In a football context this meant that the best players, having previously been paid as professional sportsmen, were forced to accept sinecures, or nominal employment positions, whether as soldiers in the army, physical education instructors, students or at desk jobs in one or other of the various state agencies controlling clubs. Prior to the match in Bulgaria the British Embassy in Sofia would advise London of this situation in some detail, stating as an example that ‘a Dynamo player may work for an hour a day at a typewriter in the central Post Office, but the rest of the day he will be free to train or play in matches’.

In the wider political context this posed a complex problem for Britain, and the response was far from straightforward. The relative autonomy of its Football Associations made Whitehall nervous, a sense prevailing that there was an absence of any consideration for the political ramifications of fixture planning. Inevitably this meant that the Foreign Office was forced to walk a line between public non-intervention and private political expediency. Consular dispatches are littered with references to internal pressure being brought to bear on individual football clubs, journalists, broadcasters and above all the Football Association. Following the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 such pressure would persuade the FA to cancel proposed fixtures against not only the Czechs but against Hungary and Yugoslavia. An Arsenal visit to Moscow in October 1954 to face Dynamo would prompt detailed tactical advice to be dispatched to London from the embassy. ‘The long ball pass is not often used’ and ‘the goal-keeper has adopted the method of the quick long throw out to the wing halves to set attacks into motion’ were amongst warnings that a paranoid Moscow station hoped could be forwarded to the FA in advance of travel. Accompanying the official party on this trip to commentate for the BBC was Raymond Glendenning. It was suggested in a Foreign Office note that he had ‘previously made some rather unnecessary remarks on his visit to Hungary’ and that he had been ‘warned not to make too favourable comments which the Russians could quote out of context’.

Yet despite extensive preparations before each encounter it was often impossible to safeguard against off the cuff comments from unwitting sportsmen. A heavy Arsenal defeat by Dynamo during the 1954 trip prompted one committee member from the London club to admit at the post match reception that, ‘you have given us a good hiding. When we go back we shall put in some practice then give you a beating!’ Subsequent dispatches from the Embassy in Moscow reveal with some anger how these words were translated and printed to maximum effect: ‘You have given us a good lesson and we have learned much from you. We shall go on learning so that we shall be able to play better when we next meet each other’. The frustration of those overseas charged with upholding precious British prestige was evident. In their opinion the Arsenal visit, ‘did nothing to improve Anglo-Soviet relations, and that its main effect was to minister to Russian self-satisfaction and to their conviction of their complete superiority over us in fields in which we are traditionally expert’. They continued, ‘it is therefore important that our footballers should not make fools of themselves each time they go to Moscow’. Criticism even extended to the normally respected FA Secretary and his contribution during the tour; a scribbled Foreign Office note agreeing with the Moscow embassy that ‘it would be useful if Sir Stanley Rous could be deflated’.

Foreign Office correspondence highlights how the usual diplomatic concerns had been in evidence before the match in Sofia. As the British Embassy in the city was dispatching detailed information regarding the status of Bulgarian footballers, London was worrying over a lack of advance contact with the FA. A letter from the Foreign Office to Ambassador Geoffrey Furlonge would finish, ‘we should be interested to hear how the trip went off, although I fear that from the point of view of the prestige of British football it is not likely to be a great success’. It seems that at a later stage the suggestion was even put to FA Secretary Sir Stanley Rous that the match would be ‘exploited for purposes of Communist political propaganda’, with the official wondering ‘whether there was anything which could be done to prevent this sort of situation’. Recent realities on the pitch were unlikely to have dampened diplomatic concerns. Nevertheless, a number of practice matches were organised for the British team against professional opposition, exposing the players to the higher quality of football they were expected to meet in Bulgaria.

With the FA feeling they had given the players every opportunity to prepare on the pitch, an attempt was then made to familiarise them with their Bulgarian opponents. The day following the final practice match against Luton Town, the players were assembled for the viewing of a number of ‘instructional films’. Pat Neil was a schoolboy amateur from Portsmouth with a handful of first team appearances under his belt. His memory of the meeting is hazy but he recalls it being initially a rudimentary introduction to Bulgaria. ‘No-one had ever been there, it was an unusual sort of a fixture, what would the people look like and what goes on there?’ Eric Cross joined the squad with his Ilford colleague and future England Amateurs captain Henry Dodkins; both earned their living with the same firm in Essex, Eric as an engineer, Henry as an office clerk. Cross offers some perspective when he relates how his employers refused to pay him for the leave he took. Despite this he was excited by the prospect, recalling not having any idea what awaited them behind the Iron Curtain. Derek Lewin, who worked with his father running the family food company in Manchester, suggests that, ‘we were probably naive to the possibility of the trip being in any way anything other than just an important game we had to play in the hope of reaching Melbourne; very much a case of sport having no interest in what was going on in the world’. It seems as though the players were essentially being warned what to expect from a country that had been described the previous year by the incoming British Ambassador to Bulgaria as being ‘until recently primitive’, and populated by a ‘tough and basically peasant population’ with roads ‘which are almost entirely given up to horse carts, or, more frequently ox-waggons’.

The team were shown stills of certain Bulgarian players. One memory that seems to have stuck is an initial impression of big, tough players, yet Pat Neil admits that other than these photographs the British had very little knowledge of the team they were about to face and the atmosphere that awaited them; ‘I don’t think anyone had seen them play, and in those days there were no films available’. Nevertheless, this was at a time when the idea of ‘continental football’ as something very distinct from the British style seemed to be rapidly overtaking the domestic game, with Neil remembering, ‘we were expected to be given a football lesson’. These visits gave British players the opportunity to find out first-hand how Eastern Bloc sport operated, and Neil explains that, even if knowledge of tactics and personnel was limited, there was certainly an understanding that ‘in fact there were no amateurs and professionals over there, just players. The idea of a differentiation between one and the other didn’t exist’. He recalls, ‘we learnt more and more when we were there, in our discussions through interpreters we knew that a lot of players belonged to one football club, and that was the army club which was state controlled and state funded. So although they had rank and were employees of the state, they were nevertheless employed primarily to play football’.

The Times correspondent Geoffrey Green travelled with the squad and described how the reception in Sofia ‘could have been no greater had it been for some high delegation from the USSR’. The fixture marked the occasion of the first ever visit to Bulgaria by a British football team and an excitable crowd would meet the team at the airport. On descending the plane each member of the party was presented, as was customary in Eastern Bloc states, with a bouquet of flowers by a band of Bulgarian officials from the Committee for Physioculture and Sport. Neil recalls how walking from the runway, ‘we were constantly impeded by newspaper reporters, many of whom spoke good English, and who wanted us to make comments’. These types of encounters were always a concern for British authorities, and the players, who had been briefed and were advised not to speak in too much detail to the local press. Green described how ‘the route from the airport to the hotel was cleared of all traffic’ and that ‘crowds lined the way and waved from windows’. Their arrival at the hotel saw police cordons holding back ‘swaying crowds, expectant, smiling, and calling out the names of some English players that they had learnt by heart’. Neil would write in a report for his school magazine that ‘the entrance to the hotel was so crowded that we were unable to leave the bus, and until the police had cleared it, we dared not move’. Green’s thoughts in his article the following morning probably echoed those of the group, ‘all this commotion over a match played by the amateur footballers of England takes some understanding’.

There had been half a million written applications for the 45,000 tickets available; this in a country of just over seven million inhabitants. Touts were everywhere, with the British embassy suggesting that tickets originally on sale for the equivalent of 8/- were selling on the black market for £12. 10. 0d. In a wider national context such an amount was extraordinary and some rudimentary comparisons provided by the embassy offered a further insight into the nature of the country’s economy. The inflated price roughly equated to commodities deemed valuable in the country districts such as a calf or two young pigs, and there were even suggestions that on the day of the match supporters around the stadium were offering sheep in exchange for tickets. For their part, the local population were surprised that the same levels of enthusiasm were not in evidence back in Britain.

The reaction to such intense local interest from sections of the British party was predictable, with thoughts turning immediately to the vulnerability of wider national prestige. There was concern that the Bulgarians were greeting the arrival of the full English national side. ‘There is an impression in some quarters’ wrote Green ‘that the full strength of English football has come to Sofia and it is something we are trying to dispel’. FA Secretary Sir Stanley Rous had also been ‘at great pains in Bulgaria to emphasise to all and sundry the true nature of the English team’. The embassy reported later that ‘it was doubtful how many of the population really appreciated that our team was far from representative of the real strength of our football’. The embassy in Sofia for their part made it clear that they felt the locals had ‘exaggerated ideas of British football prowess’. They were keen to paint the response partly in terms of collective defiance, a release of the ‘pent-up emotions of a people long compelled, under Communist pressure, to applaud only prescribed things at prescribed times’, as well as ‘a perhaps largely unconscious desire to defy the regime by exhibiting open cordiality towards representatives of one of its chief Cold War opponents’. The reality appears to have been more complex.

Communist authorities in the Eastern Bloc intended their national football teams to strengthen a sense of socialist unity. Bulgarians seemed to use these occasions to express something quite different, to celebrate a supressed national identity. Jordan Yosifov, whose father Yordan played in goal for Bulgaria, remembers how ‘each and every manifestation of the Bulgarian players at the time was considered of great significance equally by both the football fans and the players’. Beyond this, however, there was a more fundamental fascination towards visitors from the West. For many the West became associated less with political features like democracy than by its expanding economy, consumption and specific life style. Pat Neil described how the people were ‘determined to get a good look at us…if we went for a walk down the street they would follow us and stare’. Others recall the desire amongst locals to purchase goods from them, particularly clothing. Both Jim Lewis and Eric Cross tell of instances where Bulgarians came to their rooms looking to purchase the new nylon shirts they had brought with them. Cross remembers that they were also particularly interested in the acquisition of razor blades.

Despite British diplomatic concerns for the state of the national game, Jordan Yosifov confirms that in fact there was huge respect for the tradition of the visiting team, recalling how any group of players from England, still considered by Bulgarians as the home of football, would have been ‘met with great interest’. Yet it was more than just these traditions of the British game that marked the match out as special. Yosifov describes the excitement at what Bulgarians felt were ‘world-class footballers irrespective of their qualification as amateurs’. The term ‘world-class’ may seem excessive for a team of amateurs but it should be remembered that the British team did in fact contain a number of names playing at the top level of the English game and the Bulgarian public would have been aware of this. Perhaps true to the insular nature of British football during the period, virtually no information about the Bulgarian players had been published in the British press. Yet in Bulgaria the situation was quite different, with local newspapers carrying a number of articles in the run up to match day explaining the make-up of the British team. Some pieces, written in translation by British journalists, described how certain among the visiting squad ‘play in professional teams without being paid and this way retain the right to play as amateurs’, with others explaining that ‘it must be clear that in Great Britain there exists a great difference between an amateur and a professional’.

Within these articles there was a good deal of debate surrounding possible British starting elevens, and these discussions revealed the pedigree of certain players. In particular, Jim Lewis and Seamus O’Connell, a Thermos flask salesman and cattle farmer respectively, were, as amateurs, important parts of the Chelsea team that had won the club’s first league championship the previous season. Youngsters Pat Neil and Alick Jeffrey, another schoolboy, were both seen as hugely exciting prospects in the English game, Neil in particular already having had experience of playing in the top division with Portsmouth. There had also been a suggestion that Arsenal amateur Denzil Flanagan would be selected; the London club being perhaps the most famous British team of the era, particularly during the inter-war years before the Iron Curtain fell. Additionally, captain Bob Hardisty, a school teacher and vastly experienced Olympian, was arguably the most celebrated amateur player in England. So here in fact was an opportunity for Bulgarian supporters to see a handful of top class English players. The diplomats nevertheless continued to worry, betraying the gap that so often existed between officialdom and reality. It would later emerge that the presence of Neil and Jeffrey for example concerned the British Ambassador Furlonge. He would suggest in a subsequent dispatch, seemingly ignorant of their precocious footballing abilities, that it would perhaps be better if the inclusion of two schoolboys was not ‘too widely known, lest further confirmation should be given to our national reputation for insanity’.

Training offered the players their first opportunity to glimpse the enormous disparity between sporting investment and the hardship seen around the rest of the city. The newly constructed Vasil Levski stadium would stage the match, and was at the disposal of the British squad for training. The training methods and general preparation of the British immediately exposed the amateurism of the visiting set-up, and was in stark contrast to that of the Bulgarians, who, it was reported, had ‘been training together for months and who had for the past fortnight been segregated and specially fed at the seaside’. Defender Kiril Rakarov’s comments suggest the importance, both sporting and political, that was attached to the match for his side: ‘the moral and psychological preparations were carried out in a way that the players were faced with a single option - to win’. Pat Neil’s memories suggest an altogether more traditional approach from the British, ‘to be honest we didn’t train, we went onto the field and kicked a few balls’. Lancastrian Derek Lewin of Bishop Auckland had trained full time as an amateur with Manchester United during his preparation for the match. He remembers that ‘the physical side of training was not controlled...I had routines to follow and was pulled in from training long before I had completed all I had worked on over many months’.

The British management, on a technical level, were simply out of their depth. This was perhaps best exemplified by manager Norman Creek’s attempts at team bonding; Pat Neil recalls that on one occasion to try and bring the team together he had suggested, ‘if you don’t smoke perhaps you could have a cigarette?’ Their first training session would attract 25,000 locals by captain Bob Hardisty’s estimation, and the British players didn’t have to wait long to get an insight into the realities of the Bulgarian regime. Neil recalls that only around ‘two thousand people were allowed in’ whilst the remaining thousands locked outside were ‘very upset and caused so much trouble that the mounted police had to charge them’. Eric Cross remembers how some of the supporters had attempted to climb the fencing but had been shot at by the security. He describes how the players simply froze with horror before distractedly continuing with their football.

Match day arrived and the British players would be afforded another occasion to witness the importance of their visit. An official report described how ‘the Militia made elaborate traffic control arrangements, involving the placing of barricades of lorries across all the main streets adjoining the stadium, and the complete prohibition of circulation along, and even of egress from houses in, the streets’. The stadium was full well before the match and the crowd would include the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Valko Chervenkov, the majority of the Praesedium (essentially the executive body of the Bulgarian Communist Party), the entire Diplomatic Corps, the Orthodox Patriarch and ‘just about everyone of importance in the country’. Geoffrey Furlonge would appear in the British dressing room prior to the match for a final few ‘official’ words of inspiration before the players emerged onto the pitch for the national anthems and another round of bouquets. A recent draw with Hungary underlined the quality of the Bulgarian squad, three of whom would travel to Chile for the 1962 World Cup a few years later. Yet the sporting mismatch was perhaps best personified by the local number 10, Ivan Kolev. A Bulgarian Footballer of the Year, he would also play in two World Cups and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or on four occasions. Tactically the British set up with the intention of keeping the score manageable for the return fixture, and their expectations were not disappointed as they spent much of the game fending off continuous waves of attacks. The visitors defended stoutly and a final score of 2-0, with Bulgarian goals in either half from Stefanov and Yanev, was seen by many as a moral victory of sorts.

The second leg at Wembley the following May ended in a 3-3 stalemate, ensuring Bulgarian progression to Melbourne where they would ultimately claim the bronze medal. The British Olympic adventure did not end there, however. The huge cost of sending a squad to Australia lead to the withdrawal of a number of competing nations, including defending champions Hungary, and an offer of re-admission was subsequently extended to Great Britain. A thrill for the players, it seems likely the event was a further headache for the authorities back home. For despite a crushing victory over a weak Thailand side in their opening game, British hopes ended in heavy defeat a few days later once again at the hands of Bulgaria. To compound the misery for those diplomats following events anxiously from London, the Soviet Union would take the gold medal.

Looking back on those few days in Sofia it seems remarkable that more wasn’t made of the fundamental irony; the unpaid amateurs sent to fight the capitalist cause against the privileged professionals defending egalitarian communism. Some might suggest it revealed unspoken truths on both sides, others the inherent hypocrisy of blind allegiance to ideology. Yet strip away the politics and there remains a very human story. A tale of ordinary people bridging the divide; that space deemed so impassable by those above them. Pat Neil wrote shortly afterwards that he spent a ‘most happy and wonderful few days’ and remembers that he was able to exchange addresses with several locals. On returning to Portsmouth he looked forward to letters from two young Bulgarian girls, Dincha and Suzy. The latter he recalls was an air hostess and would in time even begin corresponding with his mother, sending occasional small gifts for the family. Pat and Dincha shared an interest in foreign languages, writing to each other in French during his years of national service. Another gentleman, Dr Stephan Dobrev, spent a good deal of time with the team during their visit and would subsequently send Pat a beautiful souvenir photo album. Later still Dobrev had written asking for a pair of English shoes as a gift for his wife, and these were promptly sent from the Neil household at some expense. In the wider Cold War context of suspicion and subtext it was heartening to learn from this particular episode that, despite everything, one male character trait appeared universal; the Bulgarian returned the shoes a few weeks later having requested the wrong size.

My thanks to Kaloyan Ivanov for his kind help with translation.

STEVE RINGWOOD - @steve_ringwood