USSR vs. YUGOSLAVIA
If Yugoslavia had been nipping at the Soviets’ heels in the 60’s, in the 70’s they tore a huge chunk out of their dominance. By the end of the decade, Yugoslavia had won three gold medals, compared to two for the Soviets, and established themselves as Europe’s premier force.
The battle for supremacy began at the 1970 World Championships. Yugoslavia was the home nation and emerged with the first major title in the country’s history, but the win came with a slight asterisk. The format of the competition was round robin in the final round and although Yugoslavia topped the standings with a 5-1 record, their only loss was to the Soviets, 72-87.
The battle resumed at the 1971 European Championships in West Germany. Mirko Novosel, who would go on to become head coach of the side, made his debut as an assistant, but on the court, Kresimir Cosic was still the star.
|FIBA Secretary General William Jones presents Soviet star Sergey Belov with the gold medal at the 1971 European Championship in Germany|
Both sides cruised through the tournament undefeated and met in the finals. For most of the game it seemed as though Yugoslavia would finally beat their nemesis, but it was not to be. Cosic, who was elected MVP, was held to 3-of-20 shooting by Alzan Zarmuhamedov and the Soviets earned a tough win, 69-64.
It was the 8th consecutive gold for the Soviet Union in European Championship play.
But all good things come to an end, and in 1973, Yugoslavia began a run of their own winning three gold medals in a row. The sensation of the 73’ tournament was Spain’s semi-final defeat of the Soviets, who were without centers Sergei Belov, Vladimir Andrejev and Alzan Zarmukhamedov.
Yugoslavia took advantage and easily beat Spain in the final (78-67).
The only taint against Yugoslavia’s new-found title as Europe’s best, was the fact that they had not yet beaten the Soviets in a major competition,
That finally changed in 1975 (the 40-year anniversary of the event), when the Championship was held on Yugoslav soil. Mirko Novosel was now the team’s head coach and Mirza Delibasic made his debut as the team’s point guard.
Once again both teams remained unbeaten in preliminary round play and met in Belgrade at the new Pionir Hall for the final. Sergey Belov was at the height of his powers with the Soviet side, but his 29 points was not enough to prevent his side’s first-ever loss in a European Championship final.
Yugoslavia’s inside power was too much for their opponents and although the contest was close, the home team prevailed 90-84.
Yugoslavia repeated the feat at the next Championship which was held in Belgium. Their 74-61 finals win prompted Alexander Gomelski to call the Yugoslavs “the best team in basketball”.
But just as they established themselves, the Soviets proved in the 1979 event, that they were far from a spent force. In 1978, Yugoslavia cemented their status by winning the World Championships in the Philippines, but the next year saw a reverse in fortunes.
The 1979 European Championship was held in Italy and Yugoslavia suffered a nightmare start when they lost to a Mickey Berkowitz-led Israel (76-77) in the opening round. Despite the setback, they still made the final round but met a Soviet Union team in an uncompromising mood.
After 11 straight losses, the Soviets finally beat their arch-rivals, 96-77. The hero of the game was 21-year old guard Serguei Tarakanov who scored 21 second half points in the win. The defeat ended Yugoslavia’s hopes of a fourth consecutive gold, and the Soviets went on to beat Israel in the final to finish the 70’s on a high.
|Yugoslavia are presented the trophy at the 1975 European Championship, their second consecutive win|
Until the 1970’s, the upper echelon of basketball had been reserved for Europe’s eastern countries. While some western nations had excelled (notably France with four medals), it was the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland who had the power.
Western Europe had produced its share of great players, notably 63’ MVP Emiliano Rodriguez (ESP) Sandro Riminucci (ITA), Georgios Kolokithas (GRE), Veikko Vainio (FIN) and Eric Beugnot (FRA), but a great team was yet to appear.
In the 70’s Italy became Europe’s strongest club power and Ignis Varese advanced to ten consecutive European Cup finals, winning five. On the national team front, players such as Dino Meneghin and Pierluigi Marzorati were taking Italy to new heights. They won three bronze medals in the 70’s and in 1980, they would win Olympic silver in Moscow.
Spain were also beginning to emerge as a basketball power. Led by the naturalised Clifford Luyk and Wayne Brabender (who both originated from the USA), Spain won a silver medal in 1973.
Finally, Israel proved that size was not necessarily a requisite for success. In 1979 they shocked the basetball world, beating Yugoslavia and going on to win a silver medal.