In the first of a mini-series recounting a specific story from each of our triumphant European campaigns ahead of the return of Champions League football this month, we tell the tale of Chelsea’s first adventure behind the Iron Curtain…
Europe looked very different in 1970. A line, initially imaginary but later more concrete, split the continent roughly in half. The Soviet Union and its allied communist states were to the east of this so-called Iron Curtain. In an era of limited travel and knowledge compared with today, it resembled something of an unknown quantity to those in the west.
Chelsea had played in Belgrade in 1959 in the Fairs Cup, but that was after Tito had broken ties with Stalin and the Soviet Union. Our maiden trip behind the Iron Curtain, therefore, was to Bulgaria in October 1970. CSKA Sofia were our Cup Winners’ Cup second round opponents.
The Central Sports Club of the Army had thrashed Finnish side FC Haka 11-1 on aggregate in the previous round. The visit of Chelsea provoked such interest locally it was deemed necessary to swap their home ground, the Bulgarian Army Stadium, for the much larger Vasil Levski National Stadium, which held twice as many people.
‘We just went out there on the plane and we didn't know anything about them, we didn't have a clue,’ recalled Tommy Baldwin, who partnered Peter Osgood up front for the first leg.
‘There wasn't so much hype about going to Bulgaria, I think everyone just expected us not to do very well because they'd never been beaten at home and if we'd got a draw there, whatever it was, that would have been good.’
As it turned out, the trip was memorable on and off the pitch. Baldwin headed in the only goal from a Keith Weller cross, condemning CSKA to their maiden European defeat on home soil. It was no mean feat considering they had reached the semi-finals of the European Cup only three years earlier.
Away from the action, Baldwin and his team-mates were in for something of a culture shock.
‘We couldn't get any Coke. Food-wise it was very difficult. You couldn't have your Rice Crispies or Cornflakes because they didn't do anything like that. It was all very basic food, just bread, meat and vegetables.
‘There was a pretty lively crowd. There were a lot of army uniforms around because many of the teams in the Iron Curtain used to come from the army in those days.
‘Afterwards we had a dinner with the other team and the CSKA players all came in their army uniforms. I was just wondering if we were going to get out okay!
‘But they were a good lot as I remember it. You see the other team afterwards and you have a drink with them and what have you. They seemed pretty jovial, not at all like you see in the movies about the communist soldiers.’
Chelsea won the second leg back on home soil a fortnight later, also 1-0 (pictured top). After battling past Bruges and Manchester City in the quarters and semis respectively, we defeated the great Real Madrid in the final in Athens. A replay was required, and our first European silverware was all the more special for it.
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