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Viktor PONEDELNIK

Viktor Ponedelnik

Date of birth: 22 May 1937

Viktor Ponedelnik is a former Soviet football player, regarded as one of the best strikers in Soviet football history.

Ponedelnik first started playing for a local team, Rostselmash, in 1956. In 1958 he switched to SKA Rostov-on-Don and was invited to join the Soviet national team.

In the 1960 European Championship, the only major Championship ever won by the Soviet Union, Ponedelnik headed home the winning goal in extra time in the final game against Yugoslavia. Ponedelnik retired in 1966 after gaining weight and undergoing surgery for appendicitis. He scored 20 (according to some accounts, 21) goals in 29 games for his country.

In later years, Ponedelnik worked as a coach, a sports journalist, an editor of a sports publication, and an advisor to the President of the Russian Federation.

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Some 40 years ago, a young striker named Viktor Ponedelnik rose to head the ball into the Yugoslav net in the first European Championship final at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. The goal gave the Soviet Union a 2-1 victory and the first European championship.

Viktor Ponedelnik

Viktor Ponedelnik

The team that won July 12, 1960, was one of the Soviet Union's greatest teams, boasting the likes of Lev Yashin - voted European Player of the Year in 1965 - Igor Netto and the speedy Georgian pair of Mikhail Meskhi and Slava Metreveli.

Ponedelnik's goal - and his name - went down in Soviet soccer folklore much like Geoff Hurst's hat trick in England's 1966 World Cup victory. Like England, the Soviet Union and Russia have yet to win a second international trophy.

Before flying to Brussels, he retold that European final evening. "I remember how, 40 years ago, rain fell and the game turned out to be rough," said Ponedelnik, 63, whose memories of the game seem as fresh as yesterday.

The game started late on a Sunday in Paris, 10 p.m. Moscow time. With the score tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, the game went into extra time and Moscow edged into the next day. With seven minutes remaining, Ponedelnik scored the winner.

"When I scored the goal," said Ponedelnik, his eyes laughing, "all the journalists wrote the headline Ponedelnik Zabivayet v Ponedelnik [Monday Scores on Monday]."

Back in the Soviet Union, a nation of soccer fans and patriots had tuned into the radio to listen to the game.

"They said that in Moscow there wasn't one dark window," Ponedelnik recalled. "In every city ... nobody slept, the army never slept, citizens didn't sleep, everyone sat and listened. When they told us that, we literally had tears in our eyes."

Ponedelnik retells the game and the team's return with a mixture of joy and poignant grief. Of the 11 team members , he is one of only five alive today.

Once the effusive official welcome at Luzhniki Stadium was over, many of the players struggled.

"In the Soviet Union, when you finished playing nobody needed you. You were thrown on the street," Ponedelnik said. "Many of the top [players] were killed. They started to drink, nobody helped them, teams didn't invite them."

Ponedelnik was a rare success story. Forced to quit professional soccer in 1966 at the age of 29 because of asthma, he became a journalist, rising to become the editor of Sovietsky Sport. At 63, he remains an impressive figure, large and burly - the physical center forward he was known as is still visible to this day.

Others were neglected. At last year's celebration to mark 70 years since Yashin's birth - the great goalie died in 1990 - his friends were still angry at the way he was ignored after his retirement.

It could have all been different.

After the game in Paris, Santiago Bernabeau, president of the greatest team in European club soccer, Real Madrid, pulled out his check book and offered to sign up five of the team. It was an incredible compliment from the man whose club had just won the first five European Champions Cup competitions.

But it was an impossible dream for players from behind the Iron Curtain.

"We were even scared to think about it," said Ponedelnik. "In every delegation there was a KGB representative. ... We said we had a contract with our club even though there was no contract."

Two years later, one of Ponedelnik's finest moments was also linked to politics. Playing at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires, Ponedelnik scored two goals, one a wonderful overhead scissors kick as the Soviet Union became the first European team to beat Argentina at home, with a 2-1 win.

After his first goal, the crowd went silent; but when the game ended, the crowd stormed the barbed-wire fence that was supposed to keep the volatile fans away from the pitch.

"Blood ran, the fans ran toward us, we didn't know what to do, and then they started to tear off our tops and shorts as souvenirs," said Ponedelnik. "The police intervened and the three or four people who still had some shirts left were brought into the tunnel. We'd just got into the tunnel when the police started to tear off our t-shirt and shorts. They were fans as well."

The team's performance was important for more than sporting reasons to the Soviet Embassy, plagued by gun and grenade attacks from fascist sympathizers. At the reception afterward, ecstatic diplomats cried and kissed the players.

"Boys, you don't understand what you have done, what soccer is here," said the ambassador. "After this, not one fascist will get closer than a kilometer to our embassy. ... Not one delegation from the party or the goverment could do what you have done with your victory."

Kevin O'FLYNN. The St. Petersburg Times, 1999 ã.

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