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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Soccer Honors the 'Pele' It Lost

He was perhaps the greatest Russian soccer player, but never had a chance to prove it against the world's best.


He could have starred in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden for the then Soviet national team but, instead, Eduard Streltsov went to prison for a crime many think he didn't commit.


Now, almost four decades later, Russian soccer is paying tribute to the great centerforward with an international tournament, involving eight teams of veteran players.


The tournament, which started Tuesday and finishes Saturday, pits old rivals like Torpedo Moscow, Dinamo Kiev and Tbilisi and honors the player they simply called Strelets.


Streltsov, who would have turned 60 this month, has been compared to the legendary Pele.


Like the great Brazilian, Streltsov made his national debut at the ripe age of 17, scoring a hat-trick in the 6-0 victory over Sweden in 1955.


"Talent-wise Streltsov was equal to Pele," said Russian soccer historian Aksel Vartanyan, editor of the book "100 Years of Russian Soccer." "Unfortunately he didn't protect his god-given talent like he should have.


"Tall, good-looking, with curly blond hair, he was adored by thousands of fans, particularly women. Streltsov's biggest problem was that he just couldn't say no to many of his so-called friends -- too much partying, drinking, lots of women -- he wasted his talent too much too soon."


Only days before the Soviets were about to depart for Sweden in June of 1958, Streltsov and his two teammates, Boris Tatushin and Mikhail Ogonkov, were arrested and charged with rape. The charges against Tatushin and Ogonkov were later dropped.


"He wasn't guilty," recalled Valentin Ivanov, Streltsov's long-time partner on Torpedo and the Soviet team. "The prosecution didn't have much of a case against him, but they wanted to make Eduard a scapegoat. Streltsov was in dire need of help from the public, but no one ... said a word in his defense."


The verdict was harsh. Streltsov spent the next six years in a labor camp, chopping down trees in the Siberian forests.


"Now you can understand how much our team missed Eduard in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, where we ended up losing 2-0 to the hosts in the quarterfinal," said Ivanov, who played against Sweden. "With him in the lineup we could easily have made the final against Brazil."


Instead, Streltsov was entertaining prison guards in Siberia with his unique soccer skills.


"The legend goes that when the prison chief wanted to quiet restless inmates he would order a soccer match between security guards and prisoners, with Streltsov as the main attraction," said Vartanyan.


"When he came back to big league soccer in 1965 he was still the best player we had," said Vartanyan. "That season he led Torpedo to its second Soviet league title."


Still, despite being voted the country's Player of the Year for the next two seasons, Streltsov had to miss the 1966 World Cup in England because under the Soviet law of the time he was prohibited from leaving the country after serving jail time.


Streltsov, who retired from soccer in 1970, died of cancer in 1990.


"He will always be remembered as the real fan's favorite," Ivanov said. "Finally our soccer officials are about to honor him as well."