To mark 40 days until the 21st incarnation of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, we turn the clock back 40 years to 1977, taking a closer look at what it took to win the very first title. Held in Tunisia, it was the Soviet Union that walked away from the inaugural tournament with gold around their necks and, in the eyes of Sergei Baltacha, it was an experience that was key in creating one of their best ever sides.
“We had a very good team. We knew we could play well together and knew we could achieve something,” Baltacha explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
A run that saw them top their group, before two penalty shoot-out triumphs handed them gold in Tunisia, impacted on more than just the versatile defender’s trophy cabinet. “It set us up for life,” he insisted. “I played in a World Cup, a European Championship final, won the Olympic Games, but this was like a warm-up for us before the main adult competitions [laughs]!”
A union on the field
But, taking to the field in the baking Tunisian sun, there were no half measures given on the field by this band of brothers, including eventual Spain 1982 team-mates Vagiz Khidiyatullin, Andrei Bal and Vladimir Bessonov – the eventual adidas Golden Ball winner in Tunisia.
“We were friends off the pitch as well as on it, so we really dug in for each other,” Baltacha reflected. “Winning a tournament is dependent on having the right environment and this experience set the example I followed for my entire life.”
Togetherness alone was not enough to lead them to glory though; plenty of grit was needed.
Having won their opening pair of games against Iraq and Paraguay, a draw with Austria teed up a semi-final clash with Uruguay. “At that age it’s not often that you’ve played against sides from that far away, so you’re always learning,” the 59-year-old, who now coaches at Charlton Athletic, said, “but Uruguay was a very difficult game. They’re a solid side, technically good, well organised and we only won on penalties.”
Winning a tournament is dependent on having the right environment and this experience set the example I followed for my entire life.
Based out of a student campus in the city of Sfax, coach Sergei Moysagin had the foresight to have them practising spot-kicks from day one in North Africa, but even then they only negotiated that shoot-out thanks to a secret weapon.
In a move replicated more than three decades later at Brazil 2014 by the Netherlands, Soviet Union’s substitute goalkeeper was summoned to save the day not once, but twice. “Yuri Sivuha would only come on for penalties at the last minute but he saved us in both the semi-final and final,” Baltacha recalled.
However, during the tournament finale, it was far from plain sailing. After a late Bessonov equaliser levelled things up at 2-2 in normal time, Baltacha – as the team’s designated penalty taker – dramatically stepped up first for them in the shoot-out. “[Their goalkeeper] saved it,” he retold.
“As he did I thought ‘oh my god’, but he came off his line too early and I got the chance to retake it. Then I had the challenge of what to do next. There were a lot of mind games, but I picked the same corner and this time it went in. This was another step towards developing this kind of mental toughness.”
The sides exchanged goals for an emotionally-draining 20 minutes. “The score went 6-6, 7-7 and I was thinking ‘when will this be over?’”. All the way up to 9-8, when Viktor Kaplun slotted away the winner. “When we finally won I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy.”
While they left the Stade Olimpique El Menzah with gold around their necks, Baltacha revealed with a smile that their kit bags departed somewhat lighter. “We lost our boots!” he exclaimed. “All the fans came down from the stands and, having left our boots and shinpads on the pitch, after we’d been celebrating for ten or 15 minutes realised they had gone [laughs]!”
Now, in just 40 days’ time, 24 sides will aim to replicate that first triumph and lift the title for the 21st time in Suwon on 11 June.
Story by FIFA Media.