Were Casuals the USSR’s last ever opponents?

When Jarek Zaba was shown the programme cover of a bizarre looking 1991 fixture between the Casuals a team of international Soviet veterans, he wanted to find out more. He spoke to some of those who were involved with the club at the time, including goalkeeper Gary Brigden and first team manager Steve Bangs (main picture). What he discovered was extraordinary…

It started innocently enough. 

One morning in the summer of 2020, Stuart Tree shared to the Broadway to Brazil WhatsApp group a photo of a programme cover. Underneath the Corinthian-Casuals name were photos of footballers that looked distinctly higher profile than English non league players, with the heading ‘International Veterans of the Soviet Union / British Tour December 1991’. 

Two things stood out to me on first glance. First, the sporting disparity between international Soviet footballers and the Corinthian-Casuals of the early ‘90s – playing in the Spartan League at the time, these can hardly be called our golden years. 

But anyone with a passing interest in Soviet history would also raise an eyebrow at the date of the tour. December 1991 happens to be the precise time the Soviet Union was dissolved, ushering in a new geopolitical world order and the end of the Cold War. Not the most standard context for a team bonding getaway. 

The inside pages of the programme revealed that the visiting Soviet vets boasted a glittering pedigree: Olympic medallists, European Cup Winners Cup finalists, and several members of the Soviet Union’s 1966 World Cup side, who reached the semi finals in England. 

We soon realised that as bizarre as this appeared, it was one of the lesser told stories in Corinthian-Casuals history, and so it became a focus for the second series of Broadway to Brazil. While the sporting mismatch is a theme we know all too well, this was a rare opportunity to have a look at the Casuals as hosts rather than visitors. And so we set off to find some of those involved with the club at the time. 

Firstly club committee members Brian Wakefield and David Harrison were enormously helpful in providing the context of the tour. Brian revealed it was the result of his connections to George Scanlan, a teammate of his at Pegasus (an Oxford and Cambridge combined side) and an outstanding linguist who had developed connections with Soviet clubs as an interpreter. 

George had alerted Brian to the dire straits of Soviet football, as the government was pulling its funding amidst the political turmoil. The formation of the veterans side was in fact something of a fundraising exercise to plug this gap. As the British tour programme explains:

The visit … is very much part of the growing independence of Soviet sports clubs. The days of large scale financial support from the central government are over. With the Soviet economy in difficulties little money is left over for sport.”

Brian also explained how this was in fact a return visit – around Easter 1991 the Casuals had visited Moscow to support the Soviet clubs. When it was the turn of the Soviets to visit England, they had fixtures lined up against a ‘Ex-Southampton and Celebrity XI’ at Basingstoke Town, and an ‘International Invitation XI’ at Met Police’s Imber Court. The first fixture featured Kevin Keegan, Trevor Brooking, Frank Worthington and Alan Ball, whilst the latter saw the Soviets take on a team of amateur internationals. 

Corinthian-Casuals were the third and final fixture of the tour, taking place on 12 December 1991. Four days earlier, just as the Soviets were playing in Basingstoke, President Boris Yeltsin joined the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to sign the Belovezh Accords, a declaration that the USSR had effectively ceased to exist. 

Not that this seemed to put the vets off their game. Gary Brigden was the Corinthian-Casuals first team goalkeeper at this time, and watched from the sidelines as our own group of veterans tried to keep up with the Soviets. 

“I remember it being a bitterly cold night – foggy,” Gary recalled. “But the Soviet Union side, you just could not get the ball of them. Every single pass was to feet. I mean, the goalkeeper was half volleying balls 60 yards across the pitch, straight to feet. It didn’t travel more than a couple of foot off the air – a couple of foot all the way across, no bouncing in between. It was just incredible, the technique.”

As veterans their movement may not have been the sharpest, but Gary explained how their speed of thought more than made up for it. “They were in a position to receive the ball way before anyone else,” he continued. 

“They didn’t need to be fit because they never lost the ball. However many people were around them, they would find a way to pass to their own player. And not a pass that was difficult to control. It was a measured ball into where their player was standing, despite the fact they had three men tight on them. It was just unbelievable.”

Pleasingly we were also able to speak to one of the players on the pitch that day. Steve Bangs happened to be the first team manager at the time, but that didn’t prevent him from being given the most daunting task of the night: marking the Soviet Union’s star man, Igor Chislenko (53 caps, 20 goals). 

“I really remember it well,” says Steve. “It was a freezing cold match! A number of our vets were very good players themselves – ex England amateur internationals and the like. I was one of the younger players, and the word got out that their man guy was Chislenko who had played in the 1966 World Cup. So I was given the job of marking him.” 

It turned out man marking Igor Chislenko on a bitterly cold evening was far from straightforward. “It was probably 0 degrees out there. As soon as he realised I was marking him man to man, he walked to the centre circle and stood still for ten minutes! Didn’t move. I was absolutely freezing!” 

Steve pleaded to the sidelines: “I said, ‘I can’t stand here for the whole game, I’m going to die!’ So I let him go and of course as soon as I dropped off him, he started running the game. He was a magnificent player; he dominated the game in its entirety.”

For Steve, memories of the Soviet players are of incredible football technique and jovial people, even if they did walk away with some of the clubhouse merchandise. “Their control and passing were outstanding,” he said. “We all got some drinks in for them in the bar afterwards – they had a lot to drink, and they all smoked so it was full of smoke. And they stole all the ashtrays! We couldn’t believe it at the time but I suppose times were hard over there.”

Gary Brigden recalled the scoreline as being 2-0 to the Soviets, which we have been unable to officially verify. But one thing that seems certain is that this fixture was a true celebration of the Corinthian sporting spirit. Whilst the traditions of the original Corinthians may have shared very little ideologically with revolutionary communism – to say the least – the common language of football was still able to cross the divide of the Iron Curtain. 

“They seemed a decent bunch,” said Gary. “Very confident as you might expect from ex pros. But not flashy or disrespectful. Genuinely decent people.” 

The red flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time on December 25 1991. As I pondered the fate of the Soviet veterans as they returned to the new Russian Federation following their English tour, it struck me that no other team called the Soviet Union would likely have played a match from this date onwards. (The USSR men’s team had played their last fixture against Cyprus on 13 November 1991). 

On this basis, I believe the veterans game at King George’s Field on 12 December 1991 to be the last match featuring a team under the Soviet Union banner… therefore making the Corinthian-Casuals the last ever sporting opponent of a global superpower! 

To learn more about the story behind this incredible fixture, listen to the Broadway to Brazil podcast, Series 2, Episode 6: The Russians Are Coming! Find it on the player below, on our Podcasts page, or on all podcast apps.