A New Competition System
Until 1961, the European Championship was open to any country who wished to register. The result was that more and more teams wanted to play and the competition was becoming difficult to organise.
In 1961, FIBA decided to reduce the number of participants in the final round to 16. The decision came into effect at the 1963 tournament in Wroclaw, Poland. Registration was still open to anybody, but qualification rounds would be held to determine the final 16.
Another innovation came in the 1965 championship, which for the first time was held in different cities. The Soviet Union was the host and they proposed to split the preliminary rounds between Tiblisi and Moscow. The system proved to be a success and was adopted on a regular basis in the following championships.
|Alexander Gomelski masterminded Soviet dominance in the 1960’s
The First Modern Championship
The 1967 European Championship is considered to be the first of the modern age. It was hosted in Finland in Tampere and Helskinki.
It was the first time that the international media were in attendance and games were televised across Europe. The Finns organised an excellent tournament which in many ways, set the standards for today. It was possible for fans and media in Tampere, to watch games in Helsinki via short circuit television and statistics were also available in both venues.
In modern times, such luxuries have become the norm, but in the 1960’s these innovations were nothing short of revolutionary.
The Soviet Machine Rolls On
On the court, the Soviets were showing no signs of relinquishing their grip on the reins of power. They managed to do what they had not in the 50’s, namely win a gold medal in all 5 championships in the decade.
Their win streak of 55 games was slightly soiled by a loss to Yugoslavia in the preliminary round of the 1969 tournament, but in the final they reversed the defeat and emerged with a 7th consecutive gold medal.
As of 1961 the team was under the tutelage of Alexander Gomelski and he had a wealth of talent at his fingertips. Gomelski knew that his strength and depth allowed him to play a style of basketball which no country could match.
Each of his teams went 12-deep and the Soviets often played full court defense for 40 minutes. Gomelski employed a constant rotation system to ensure that none of his players tired out. The result, predictably, was that no opponent could keep up and the Soviets were almost unbeatable.
Size was still a big asset for the Soviets, but the guards were also a key to their success. It was the Armenian Alatchan who led the team from the backcourt in the early 60’s. In 1967 Sergey Belov arrived on the scene and would go on to make a case as the best player in the history of European baskeball.
The Yugsolavs Wake Up
|Yugoslavia’s Kresimir Cosic burst onto the scene in the 1960’s
While the Soviets were far ahead in the distance at the top of the mountain, a new force was appearing in the distance.Yugoslavia had not distinguished itself as a basketball nation before the 1960’s, but in 1961 they were awarded the tournament and it was held in Belgrade. Basketball was already very popular in the Balkans and 12,000 fans turned up to watch the final, between the home side and the Soviet Union.
Yugoslavia’s sudden success can be attributed mainly to center Radivoj Korac who was making a case as Europe’s top player. Korac averaged a tournament high 24 ppg, but he was unable to play the Soviets single-handedly and they lost in the final, 60-53.
Korac, accompanied by point guard Ivan Danue, would go onto bring Yugoslavia to new heights in the following years. Korac was unstoppable in 1963 and 1965 and top scored in both championships, while his team won another silver and bronze medal.
But the Soviets were still clearly in control and in 1967 the Yugoslav coach Ranko Zeravica decided to look to the future. Korac was dropped from the team as were most of the other veterans in favour of building a new generation for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
The average age of the team was just 22 and their inexperience showed. They finished in 9th position.
However, just 2 years later, Zeravica looked like a genius. The new look Yugoslavia won silver at the 1968 Olympics and center Kresimir Cosic had usurped Korac’s position as their greatest talent.
At 210 cm, Cosic was the first big man with guard-like skills and was perfectly capable of playing inside and outside. It was Cosic who led Yugoslavia to an historic win over the Soviets in the first round of the 1969 European Championship. His 3 clutch baskets saw off a late rally and Yugoslavia won, 73-61.
Everybody knew that the 2 teams would meet again in the final, but this time the Soviets were ready. Gomeslki used the veteran Gennadi Volnov to guard the 20-year old Cosic and he held him to just 6 points. The Soviets still had to work for their victory, but prevailed 81-72.
Although Yugoslavia had not yet conquered the Soviets, it was just a matter of time before their time would come.
The First MVP
The 1960’s saw MVP’s and All-Tournament teams elected on a regular basis. The first MVP honour went to Spain’s Emiliano Rodriguez in 1963. The 187 cm forward was described by L’Equipe as an “unstoppable offensive weapon”.
In 1967 the All-Tournament team made its debut, honours going to Sergey Belov (Soviet Union), Modestas Paulaskas (Soviet Union), Jiri Zednicek (Czechoslovakia), Jiri Zidek (Czechoslovakia) and Veiko Vainio (Finland). By virtue of receiving the most votes, Zednicek was MVP.