Roker Park once had a reputation as being one of the finest grounds in football, and in 1966 the eyes of the planet were drawn to the home of SAFC when it was used as one of the host venues for that year’s FIFA World Cup.
July saw the town come alive with window and street displays as local venues welcomed visiting players and fans – the Sunderland Empire even hosted a series of performances by the famous Georgian State Dance Company to coincide with the tournament and reflect the fact the Soviet Union were based in the region for their Group 4 fixtures.
This was the first time the competition had been awarded to an English-speaking country, and with Roker due to stage four games, including a prestigious knockout tie at the quarter-final phase, preparations had begun well in advance. As well as boosting the local economy and profile, the selection meant the stadium underwent a programme of renovations and improvements that would remain in place until it was demolished over 30 years later, with the construction of a new Fulwell End roof taking place in 1964 and further work seeing the installation of both permanent and temporary seating as well as the introduction of a new TV gantry on top of the Clock Stand and new reception areas, suites and offices behind the Main Stand.
With everything now set and the whole of Sunderland looking pristine, on this day 57 years ago, Wearside hosted its second World Cup fixture, with Italy coming up against the Soviet Union. The Italians had already won 2-0 at Roker earlier in the week, while coming back into the Soviet starting XI was the great Lev Yashin, who also had fond memories of playing there previously: in a pre-tournament interview, he spoke fondly about the time he was part of the Dynamo Moscow side that took on the Lads in a glamorous friendly over a decade earlier.
Despite easing past Chile on the Wednesday at Roker, Azzurri boss Edmondo Fabbri opted to freshen his team up and made the shock decision to drop star forward Gianni Rivera. It came as a surprise to the large number of Italians in the crowd that had added an element of colour to proceedings, and the changes failed to have the desired effect; the Red Army looked the more settled and just about shaded what was a tight encounter.
This proved to be the best attended but lowest scoring of the Sunderland World Cup, with the Soviet’s solitary goal just before the hour proving to be the winner and enhancing their growing dark horse credentials. A quality move on the left-hand side between Jozhef Sabo, Valery Voronin and Eduard Malofeyev saw the ball crossed into the box, and while seemingly being crowded out from a typically smothering Italy defence, winger Igor Chislenko somehow managed to turn and hit a fantastic shot over his markers.
Italy did pile forward late on, Yashin bravely making a superb stop in the final ten minutes to deny Ezio Pascutti, and in the face of some fairly spurious claims that the initial attempt had crossed the line, West German official Rudolf Kreitlein was unwavering. The referee had taken firm control throughout and he soon blew the full-time whistle to put the Soviet’s top of the group and confirm their progression to the next round.
In the capital later that night, England beat Mexico en route to what was, of course, a memorable success that is still remembered across the whole country even now. Sunderland has its own World Cup memories to look back on, too, however, as did the Soviet Union, who played twice more on Wearside before bowing out in the semi-finals.
Saturday 16 July 1966
World Cup Group 4
Soviet Union 1 (Chislenko 57’)
Roker Park, attendance 27,793