Red Army: Documentary examines Soviet Union ice hockey in the 1980s

A new film reveals the brutality that lay behind the brilliance
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They were one of the greatest ice hockey teams in history, winning Olympic gold medals and regularly vanquishing their US and Canadian rivals. They were also the poster boys for a Soviet system they themselves had started to question. Welcome to the "Red Army" team of the 1980s, now the subject of a new documentary executive-produced by Werner Herzog.

Red Army is a sports doc with a difference. Western audiences will be startled by some of its revelations about sporting stardom behind the Iron Curtain. The famous old Bill Shankly formulation about football being "much, much more" than a matter of life and death takes on an ironic resonance when applied to elite Soviet athletes. For the ice hockey players in the Soviet Union's Red Army team, it was obligatory to win. As one of the interviewees in the film puts it, the team "represented the peak of what the Soviet Union had achieved". The KGB were among their biggest fans. Their continuing success was seen as proof "that the Soviet system was the best system". That's quite a burden for young athletes playing the game they love.

Slava Fetisov was the captain of the Red Army team and is reckoned as one of the greatest ice hockey players of all time. He is the central figure in the doc, directed by Gabe Polsky. This isn't just because of his prowess on the rink. It's also due to his rebelliousness. He began to question coaches who demanded so much from the players and offered so little in return.

It is one of the paradoxes about sport that the Soviet system produced teams that played in a creative, improvisatory style that left their Western opponents utterly bamboozled. French film director Jean-Luc Godard once compared seeing the great Hungarian football team of the 1950s for the first time to discovering free jazz. The team, spearheaded by Ferenc Puskás, demolished England 6-3 at Wembley. Fetisov's Red Army team achieved similar feats against the US and Canada at the height of the Cold War. The rugged (and often violent) individualism of the Americans was no match for their intricate teamwork.

It used to be said that Fetisov could skate backwards as fast as his Western opponents could skate forwards.

Polsky's film is about politics and money as much as it is about sport. There's a darkly comic element to the unravelling of the Soviet team as they began to rebel against their martinet head coach Viktor Tikhonov. (One player joked that if he ever he needed a heart transplant, he would take Tikhonov's because "he never used it".) The players were huge stars and yet earned a pittance and were forced to train in isolation for up to 11 months a year, separated from their families. It was therefore no surprise that when, in the late 1980s, they were offered fortunes to play in North America's National Hockey League, several contemplated defection.

When I met Fetisov in Cannes before the premiere of Red Army, he couldn't help but wax nostalgic about how much tougher the sport was in his day. I had the temerity to ask about the dangers of head injuries and concussion in such a violent sport. "This is the man's game," he told me. "In my time, when we played, we had no shields and little protection for our heads." At one game in the World Championships in 1977, when he was 18 years old, he was cut under the eye. The doctor was stitching him up on the bench when the coach told him to go back on the ice. He did so, with the doctor's needle still under his eye.

One of the fascinations of Red Army is that it continually confounds expectations. Whatever the struggles the Soviet players faced at home, they had just as tough a time when they signed contracts with NHL teams. Fetisov seemed the quintessential rebel, turning his back on the Soviet system and building a new life in North America. However, he returned to Russia to become Vladimir Putin's minister of sport from 2002 to 2008 and was heavily involved in the Sochi Winter Olympics. He is passionate about sport being used to help steer kids away from drugs and alcohol and, as he puts it, "to bring them back from the internet to real life".

The documentary makes it very clear that sport was an instrument of propaganda in the Soviet system, but that the US likewise saw sporting success as a way of trumpeting American values during the Cold War. (Witness the ecstatic celebrations of the so-called "Miracle On Ice" when the US team beat the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.)

Speak to Fetisov himself and it becomes apparent that there are certain traits that all top athletes share regardless of whether they grew up in Soviet-era Russia or the West. They share the same desperation to keep on winning. "It's the animal instinct," the old Red Army captain reflects. "When you get the blood, you try it once, you want to draw more."

'Red Army' premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; it will be released in the UK later this year