A National Team Without a Nation: the Story of the CIS National Team

This is Part 3 of a three part series chronicling the effects of the end of the Cold War on football in Europe.  [Part 1]|[Part 2] 

Between the time that the USSR national team qualified for Euro 1992 and the tournament began, the Soviet Union fell victim to the end of the Cold War.  No longer able to withstand nationalist pressure and economic stagnation, by the end of 1991 the Soviet empire had dissolved into 15 separated independent republics.  There was still a European championship to play, but no team left to play it. And yet, the somewhat awkward circumstances of no longer being a country did not prove to be an impediment to the participation of the Soviet national team in Euro 1992, albeit under a different name.  The curious case of the CIS national represents yet another aftereffect of the End of History on European football.

The league dismantled

Signs that the collapse of the USSR was imminent began to appear as early as the mid-1980s. Mass anti-Soviet protests calling for independence first erupted in the Baltic states, then quickly spread to the Caucasus and beyond.  Tensions inside the football grounds mirrored the unrest on the streets.   In a 1986 friendly between the Soviet Union and England held in Tbilisi the Georgian fans cheered on the English instead of the ‘home’ team.  Crowds in Yerevan chanted ‘Latvia’ and ‘Lithuania’ when hosting teams from Vilnius and Riga as a sign of solidarity with their own independence movements.   It was hardly a shock when in 1990 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost the first free elections held in the three Baltic states, Georgia, and Armenia, foreshadowing their inevitable independence.

Soviet players celebrate their qualification to Euro 92

Soviet players celebrate their qualification to Euro 92

The repercussions of the 1990 elections were immediately felt throughout the Soviet footballing landscape.  The Georgian teams were the first to go.  Dinamo Tbilisi, two time Soviet Top League champions and, with their 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, the only Soviet team other than Dynamo Kiev to conquer a European trophy, withdrew from the league right before the start of the 1990 season.  Guria Lanckhuti, who had been promoted to the Top League after finishing as runners up in the 1989 First League, also refused to participate.

Žalgiris Vilnius soon followed.  Žalgiris were by far the most successful team from the Baltic republics during the Soviet Era, finishing as high as 3rd and participating in the UEFA Cup twice in the late 1980s.  They withdrew from the Soviet championship one match into the 1990 season.

The birth of a national team

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from office and the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time.  69 years after its founding, the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist.  The Commonwealth of Independent States had by this point already been formed in preparation for the formalization of the collapse that everyone knew was coming.  The CIS was, and continues to be, a loose association of former Soviet republics who have agreed to cooperate in matters of trade, security, and human rights.  The charter of the organization stressed, however, that all members where sovereign and independent states; a successor state to the Soviet Union, it was not.  By the end of 1991 eleven of the fifteen former Soviet republics had joined the CIS.  The Baltic states and Georgia were the only ones not to sign the agreement, though the latter would end up becoming a member two years later.

The USSR national team had secured their spot at the European Championships in Sweden after going undefeated in their qualifying group.  But suddenly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their participation in tournament was up in the air.  The question did not linger for long.  On January 11 representatives from nine of the fifteen republics met in Moscow and established the CIS Football Federation.  Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia did not attend but allowed their players to represent the CIS national team on a temporary basis.  The Baltic states were absent altogether.  Two days later FIFA declared the CIS Football Federation to be the rightful successor of the Football Federation of the Soviet Union, effectively ensuring that the CIS national team would be able to compete at the Euros.

Coming to America

Rather fittingly, the first match that the national team of the former Soviet Union played in the post-Cold War era was a friendly against the United States in Miami on January 25. Nineteen American cities were vying to be selected as one of the nine venues to host the upcoming 1994 FIFA World Cup, Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium among them.  The atmosphere was surreal.  Though the Soviet Union was gone, they retained the use of Soviet symbols. Thom Meredith, director of events of the US Soccer Federation, was caught off guard: “They’ve decided to use the old flag and anthem until someone comes up with something new… I’m going out to get a Soviet flag today, and I have other people looking for the anthem.”

During the match itself Marcelo Balboa missed a 60th minute penalty after Kakha Skharadze was called for a hand ball in the box.  Seven minutes later (current ESPN commentator) Janusz Michallik gave the ball away in his own half to Ahrik Tsveiba, whose deflected effort left American goalkeeper Tony Meola stranded and gave the CIS the lead. 1-0 was how the match would finish.  Skharadze and Tsveiba, by the way, were both Georgian, and were playing for the CIS national team despite the fact that Georgia was not yet a member of the organization.

Back home football was not a priority, especially not a friendly whose purpose was to determine venues for a World Cup being hosted by your traditional adversary.  Aleksandr Tukmanov was the head of the CIS delegation who traveled to the United States.  He is quoted in the New York Times as saying:

“It’s very difficult to make any kind of plans or prognosis [regarding the future of the national team].  There are many problems our population faces. One is to alleviate any kind of situation where there’s going to be conflicts with nationalities. Another is how to get food and human necessities to people without the long lines.”

CIS Manager Anatoly Byshovets

CIS Manager Anatoly Byshovets

Charlie Nobles was the New York Times reporter who covered the match.  In his match report he wrote almost exclusively about its political undertones, calling the CIS national team “a product of the commonwealth’s first attempt at capitalism.”  Nobles’ Soviet counterpart Robert Edelman, in contrast, makes no mention of the political situation – the words commonwealth or CIS do not once appear in his report.  He does, however, include a few sly digs at the United States.  Edelman claims that he heard someone in the stands say that Marcelo Balboa should have stuck to basketball and points out that Michallik was a Polish immigrant who received American citizenship just a year prior to the friendly.

CIS national team manager, Anatoly Byshovets, meanwhile, stated that most of his players were competing for “key reserve roles” for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.  What an optimistic view this would turn out to be.

Following the victory in Miami (which in the end was not selected as a venue) the CIS defeated El Salvador 3-0 in a friendly in San Salvador, then returned to the US for another match against the Americans in Detroit.  This time, the US emerged with a 2-1 victory, the first time they ever defeated the Soviet Union in any of its incarnations.  Eric Wynalda, another current pundit on American television, opened the scoring and Balboa atoned for his miss in Miami by converting a 75th minute penalty.  Maybe switching from basketball to football was the right decision after all.

A temporary solution

A trip to the Holy Land for a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem followed.  This was the 400th match for the Soviet CIS national team.  But for journalist Oleh Kucherenko, they were one and the same:

“For our national team this was an anniversary – its 400th match.  And even it is now under a different name, it is still the same team comprising of the strongest former – as it is now customary to say – USSR.  And the players in this team, regardless of what the politicians do, are one family.  Better yet, the national team won its 400th match.  And not just anywhere, but in the holy city of Jerusalem.”


Sergey Kiriakov during the match against Israel

The CIS won 2-1.   The victory over Israel was followed by a series of friendlies to prepare for Euro 1992.  The CIS drew against Spain, England, and Denmark, only managing a victory against German club Schalke 04.  But as much as Kuchurenko wanted to believe that the USSR national team still existed and that nothing had changed since the good old days, history was not on his side.

In between the match against Spain and Schalke the team traveled to Mexico to play two friendlies against César Luis Menotti’s el Tri side.  They lost the first match 4-0 in Mexico City before drawing 1-1 in Tampico.  This friendly wasn’t quite like the others.  In all of the aforementioned matches played by the CIS national team the squad was multinational. Ukrainians and Georgians were always well represented.  The squad that traveled to Mexico, however, was composed entirely of Russian players. Some sources consider this a friendly between Mexico and Russia, not the CIS. It is a match not officially recorded by the Russian Football Federation, nor is it considered an official match of the CIS national team. But whether or not the history books want to acknowledge it, this was effectively the first match of the Russian national team in the post-Soviet era.

Not that the Russians were the only ones to preemptively organize friendlies while the CIS national team was still existence.  The Georgians had already played their first match in 1990, a 2-2 draw with Lithuania.  Ukraine’s first match after independence was a 3-1 defeat to Hungary on April 29, 1992 – the same day that the CIS drew 2-2 with England in Moscow.  By this point it had become clear that the CIS national team was in no way a legitimate successor  to the mighty Soviet sides of years gone by.  It was nothing more than a stopgap measure to allow the former Soviet Union to save face and participate in the 1992 European Championships.

The disastrous Euros

And so, the CIS national team arrived in Sweden for the Euros.  They were drawn in a group with Germany (who were representing a united Germany for the first time since the end of World War II), Holland, and Scotland.  Paul Walters, reporting for The Guardian, wrote a column about the team:

“The CIS may just about exist in political terms.  In sporting terms it is merely a transitional device.  Its one and only – and suicidal – purpose is to bridge the chaos between between the disappearance of the old Soviet sporting structure at midnight on December 31 and the independent emergence of the various republics of the old Soviet empire.” 


The CIS squad before the match against Germany

Their performances on the pitch were about as inspiring as one could expect from “a transitional device.”  When the players stepped on the pitch at Idrottsparken Stadium in Norrköping for their opening match against Germany, they were wearing maroon-coloured kits with the tiny letters CIS emblazoned across their chests, a far cry from the grandiose CCCP that adorned the iconic red kits in the Soviet Era.  The flag that was raised was not the familiar golden hammer and sickle on a field of red, but a plain white flag with C.I.S. written in blue.  The anthem played before kick off did not open with the now-archaic lyrics “unbreakable union of free republics.”  Beethoven’s 9th symphony was played instead.

The CIS took the lead against the reigning World Cup champions in the 64th minute through a penalty converted by Igor Dobrovolski.  They were minutes away from an opening victory, only for the Germans to strike in typically German fashion and equalize two minutes from full time.  In their second match the CIS were thoroughly outplayed by the Dutch and were lucky to hold the Oranje to a 0-0 draw.  Holland outshot the CIS 17-4 and had a van Basten goal controversially disallowed late in the 2nd half.

The flag of the CIS national team

The flag of the CIS national team

To have any hope of advancing to the next round the CIS needed to beat Scotland, preferably by at least two goals in the case of a draw in the other match between Holland and Germany.  Scotland had already been eliminated after two successive defeats and the CIS, despite their mediocre performances, were clearly favorites.

By the 16th minute they were down 2-0. Gary McAllister’s 84th minute penalty was the final death blow for a national team without a nation.  Kucherenko, in his report, compared the fate of the CIS national team to that of the country as a whole:

“I would add another reason for the setbacks at this tournament: a psychological one, a reason to which no one pays attention… we don’t have flag or an anthem – instead the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was performed.  For everyone else: the anthem is performed, the players sing, the fans in the stands sing too.  And only we are entirely indifferent.  And how could it be otherwise? For whom are they playing?  Who are they representing?  Yes, this was a heartbreaking defeat. Unfortunately we as a people are getting used to one setback after another, and not just on the football pitch.  And this is something we must learn to accept.”


The defeat to Scotland was the last match ever played by the CIS national team.  It came less than six months after their victory over the United States, which makes them perhaps the shortest-lived national team of all time.  Soon after the Euros FIFA declared Russia to be the legitimate successor of both the USSR and CIS national teams, giving the spot in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers and leaving everyone else to start from scratch.

But before they started from scratch, they sent out a unified national team to a major international tournament for one last time.  The performance of the CIS national team at Euro 92 was an abject failure.  It only came into existence as a result of the End of History, yet it stands out in the history of the European championships.  Not for any footballing reasons, of course.  But for the fact that it was a national team without a nation.

The End of History and the Demise of East German Football

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series.  To read Part 1, click here

The draw to determine the groups for the UEFA Euro 1992 qualifying cycle took place on 2 February, 1990 in Stockholm.  By that point the Berlin wall had already come down and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had announced a 10-point program aimed at increased cooperation between the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany) and the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) with an ultimate aim of reunification.  But reunification had not yet been formalized, and thus the East German national team participated in the draw. Sensationally, they were drawn with West Germany in Group 5, along with Belgium, Wales, and Luxembourg.  But before the qualifiers even began, the End of History interfered.

Football culture in the Socialist Fatherland

West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer  shakes hands with East Germany captain Bernd Bransch before the match

West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer shakes hands with his East Germany counterpart Bernd Bransch before their meeting in the 1974 World Cup

Prior to 1992 the head-to-head record between two national teams of East and West Germany was one sided, as one would imagine.  But, surprisingly, one sided in favour of the East Germans.  At the 1972 Olympics East defeated West 3-2 in a second round match in Munich and ended up sharing the bronze medal with the Soviet Union.  Two years later they met again on a more visible and prestigious stage: the World Cup.  And once again the match took place in West Germany, this time in Hamburg.  In a result that no one expected, East Germany beat their estranged compatriots 1-0, a victory that was politically exploited by East German propagandists.  But these results were an anomaly and not even remotely representative of the footballing balance of power between the two countries.  East Germany may have won the match and the group at the World Cup, but it was West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer who lifted the Cup in Munich a fortnight later.

Football never really gained favour amongst the East German sporting authorities.  The GDR was an Olympic force when it came to gymnastics, athletics, and swimming, but apart from their famous victory in Hamburg their record in football competitions was utterly unremarkable, the 1974 World Cup being their only ever appearance at a major international tournament. Manfred Ewald, the East German Minister of Sport and President of his country’s Olympic Committee, remarked that “football has its own special value: individualism and fanaticism are stronger than discipline and rationalism.”

Matthias Sammer lifting the DFB-Pokal trophy with Dynamo Dresden, 1990

Matthias Sammer lifting the DFB-Pokal trophy with Dynamo Dresden, 1990

Such values were looked upon with derision in a socialist state in which the collective was far more important than the individual.  When future Ballon d’Or winner Matthias Sammer began to display a knack for flair and leadership as a member of the Dynamo Dresden youth academy, his superiors quickly moved to discourage such dangerous attitudes, which in their eyes were symptomatic of the larger decadence of capitalistic society.  As Sammer recalls: “one day the squad members were given new boots… mine were the only ones that didn’t fit.  They were three sizes too large.  It was pure harassment, as individualism wasn’t tolerated.” After all, as Ewald proclaimed, “sport isn’t private amusement, it is social and patriotic education.”

Admittedly East German clubs did achieve modest success on the European stage.  1. FC Magdeburg defeated AC Milan in the 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup Final and Carl Zeiss Jena narrowly lost to Dinamo Tbilisi in the final of the same competition seven years later.  But the integrity of the DDR-Oberliga was shattered when the Stasi decided that the club under their patronage, FC Dynamo Berlin, should dominate the East German football league from there on out.  After Dynamo Dresden clinched the league title in 1978, Minister of State Security and chief of the Stasi Erich Mielke allegedly paid a visit to Dresden’s dressing room and informed that it was now Berlin’s turn to win. Dynamo Berlin, derisively labeled the elf Schweine (eleven pigs), proceeded to win the next ten titles without even attempting to maintain any semblance of fairness.  The biased refereeing was so obvious that the press, public officials, and even fans –  average home attendance at matches fell from 15,000 to 5,500 through the 80s – publicly voiced their disapproval, but to no avail.  

Considering the blatant match-fixing and complete lack of competitiveness in the Oberliga, it is not surprising that many East German football supporters looked instead to the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Television, and along with it access to Western channels, made it relatively easy for the dedicated fan to follow a Bundesliga club instead of suffering through the futility of supporting a local side.  Overly enthusiastic support, however, could draw the attention of the Stasi.  In Football Against the Enemy Simon Kuper recounts the story of Helmut Klopsfleisch, a resident of East Berlin who at every opportunity traveled to Eastern Bloc countries to back “any Western side against any Eastern side.”  Especially if the Western side happened to be his beloved Hertha Berlin, from which he was exiled by the Berlin wall. Klopsfleisch was so fanatic in his support that the Stasi had an entire file on him, and in 1989 he was even permitted to emigrate to the West, a testament to just how much of a thorn in the side of the East German authorities he had been.

The fact that Klopsfleisch was allowed to emigrate was a clear sign that the times were changing.  In May of 1989 Hungary removed its border fence and hundreds of East Germans on holiday took advantage of the opportunity and escaped to Austria.  The iron curtain had been breached.  After months of protests, the Berlin wall finally fell on November 1989.  But the collapse of the wall was not synonymous with reunification, as the constitutional process to absorb the GDR into the FRG would take almost a year.  So with East Germany still legally a sovereign state, its national team continued to participate in official competitions.

In the league, meanwhile, Dynamo Berlin’s monopoly on the championship was finally broken in 1988-89, as Dynamo Dresden regained their title eleven years after the Stasi had decided that their time was up.  But the influence and power of the Stasi was waning, and they could no longer fix matches and intimidate referees with such impunity.  Sensing that the tide was turning, Dynamo Berlin changed their name to FC Berlin during the 1989-90 season.  FC Karl-Marx-Stadt followed suit and became Chemnitzer FC the following year.  Dresden defended their title in 1990, but the next season was declared to be the last one of the DDR-Oberliga.  The top two finishers in the 1990-91 campaign would be granted entry into the Bundesliga the following season.    Hansa Rostock won their first ever East German title and were joined in the Bundesliga by runners up Dynamo Dresden.

A generation unfufilled, or the arrival of capitalism

The late 80s were the closest East German football ever got to a ‘Golden Generation.’  At the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile (now known as the FIFA Under-20 World Cup) the East Germans, led by the likes of Matthias Sammer and Rico Steinmann, won their group and defeated Bulgaria 2-0 in the quarterfinals.  They were narrowly defeated by eventual champions Yugoslavia in the semifinals, but then beat the hosts on penalties to take 3rd place. Then, during the tail end of the qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup, the senior side came back from behind to defeat the Soviet Union 2-1 and set up a final match against Austria where all they needed was a win to qualify.  But it was not to be.

Just one week before the match the wall came down.  4,000 East German fans traveled to Vienna for the match, though it is unclear how many of them actually came to support their national team and how many were simply taking advantage of the sudden loosening of travel restrictions.  The  East German players had barely arrived at their hotel when “they were swamped by agents, scouts and managers from Bundesliga sides” who sensed an opportunity to poach talent from the GDR.  Whether this sudden attention had any effect on the players is unknown, but they lost 3-0, ruining any chances of a second World Cup appearance.  Before long Sammer, Steinmann, and Andreas Thom were all swept up by Bundesliga clubs.

West Germany, meanwhile, qualified easily and after breezing through the group stage they defeated the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and England to set up a final against defending champions Argentina.  Many Ossis, as East German residents were commonly called, openly supported the West German side, no longer fearful of arousing the suspicions of the Stasi.  In a memorable scene from the German film Good Bye, Lenin! an Ossi is desperate to get a satellite dish set up it time to watch the semifinal against England.  Frustrated by the lack of progress, he storms off to his neighbour’s flat instead.  The final, an incredibly dour match, was decided by a controversial 85th minute penalty dispatched by Andreas Brehme.  On paper, this was West Germany’s third World Cup.  But in reality this World Cup belonged to all the German people, Wessis and Ossis, separated for 44 years by a barrier both literal and figurative.  It wasn’t quite Das Wunder von Bern, but it was certainly a seminal event that has gained a spot in German football lore, more for its symbolic value than for the performance on the pitch.

A national team disappears…

So what, then, became of the East German national team?  Though the lengthy legal reunification process was well underway by the beginning of 1990, the GDR remained a nominally sovereign state and thus its national team continued to play international matches. Their first match after the 3-0 loss to Austria was a defeat to a Cantona-inspired France side by the same scoreline in a friendly tournament in Kuwait.  But that result would prove to be the last loss the East German national team ever suffered on the pitch.  They beat Kuwait 2-1 in the final match of the tournament and then on April 1 defeated the United States 3-2 at the Berlin Sportforum, the ground of Dynamo Berlin, in a match devoid of the political undertones that surely would have clouded it had it taken place even a year earlier.  A week later Egypt was beaten 2-0 at the Ernst-Thälmann-Stadium in Karl-Marx-Stadt.  By the summer Karl-Marx-Stadt reverted to its former name of Chemnitz and the Ernst-Thälmann-Stadium, named after a communist leader active during the Weimar Republic, was renamed Sportforum Chemnitz.

The matches against the USA and Egypt were the last ever that the GDR national team played at home.  But interest in the national team had long been waning.  In the 70s East Germany regularly drew crowds in the tens of thousands to their matches, including an astounding 100,000 that packed into the Leipzig Central Stadium in 1971 to witness the home team lose 2-1 to Yugoslavia in a Euro 1972 qualifier.  But by the late 1980s the national team struggled to fill the stadiums.  Only 16,000 fans saw the GDR register an impressive victory over the USSR in a 1990 World Cup qualifier.  At the last two home matches attendance was pitiful.  Only 4,000 showed up for the friendly against the USA; barely 1,000 saw East Germany’s last ever home match.  In May East Germany was invited to play a friendly at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro for what would be a World Cup tune-up for the Brazilians.  The host nation paid for the flights and accommodations of their visitors, who came back from 3-1 down to claim an impressive draw.

The East German national team salutes the crowd after their last ever match, Anderlecht, 1990

The East German national team salutes the crowd after their last ever match, Anderlecht, 1990

The friendly against Brazil took place on 13 May.  Five days later West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl signed a social and economic unification treaty with his East German counterpart Sabine Bergmann-Pohl.  But the Euro 92 qualifiers had already been scheduled.  East Germany was supposed to start their qualifying campaign away to Belgium on September 12.  As reunification was imminent. the match was reclassified as a friendly.  In the last match that the East German national team ever played, they defeated Belgium 2-0 in Anderlecht.  Captain Matthias Sammer scored both goals.  Fittingly, Sammer was already playing for Bundesliga club VfB Stuttgart.

On October 3 the German Democratic Republic officially ceased to exist.  The match between East and West Germany was scheduled for 21 November in Leipzig, but by that time the former had been incorporated into the latter.  Instead, the footballing authorities decided to make the fixture a ‘friendship match’ to celebrate reunification, not entirely unlike the ‘friendship match’ that took place between Germany and Austria after the Anschluss.  Matthias Sammer already had his sights on a spot on the West German squad team for Euro 1992, but he promised his teammates that he would turn out one last time for East Germany.

The match never took place.  Hooliganism and skinhead culture had emerged in the stadiums of the Oberliga in the 1980s and by the end of the decade had become a widespread phenomenon.  Anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi chants were a common occurrence.  By the late 80s arrests related to football had reached 1,000. In a particularly nasty incident hundreds of skinheads marched through Berlin before the 1998 FDGB-Pokal final, then chanted neo-Nazi slogans throughout the match.  The West German authorities, fearing for the safety of the players, called off the match.  The East German national team, like the country, ceased to exist.  Its history ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, a bureaucratic decision made in response to hooliganism.

Post-Reunification Struggles

Matthias Sammer received his call up and was included in the [no longer West] German squad for Euro 92, along with fellow Ossis Thomas Doll and Andreas Thom.  Sammer went on to become one of the best German players of his generation.  He became a European Championship winner in 1996, starting every single match en route to a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic in the final.  He was named Player of the Tournament and the following year added a Ballon d’Or to his impressive trophy haul after captaining Borussia Dortmund to Champions League glory.

But Sammer’s successful career is hardly a typical experience of an East German player in a united Germany.  Twenty two years removed from reunification, the gulf between West and East German football remains vast.  East German clubs were ill-equipped for the transition to a market economy.  Their best players were quickly sold off to Western clubs.  Corruption was rampant, as club officials were eager to line their own pockets rather that reinvest in their squads.  Dynamo Dresden were fought against relegation battles for the entirety of their brief stay in the Bundesliga and finally succumbed to their fate in the 1994-95 season.   But by then they were so far in debt that they were denied a license for the 2. Bundesliga and were demoted to the 4th tier Regionalliga Nord.  They have not made it back to the Bundesliga since. Dynamo Berlin, meanwhile, currently compete in the fifth tier, drawing crowds of 900 die-hards.

Other than Dynamo Dresden the only former Eastern clubs who have played in the Bundesliga are Hansa Rostock, Energie Cottbus, and VfB Leipzig.  Of those three the most successful has been Hansa, finishing 6th twice.  Energie Cottbus has never finished higher than 13th, while Leipzig finished dead last in their only top flight appearance.  In 2004 Leipzig, the first champions of German football, went bankrupt.  They have since been resurrected by a group of dedicated fans as 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, reverting to the name used during the socialist era. Red Bull Leipzig are now the big boys in town.

The footballing disparity between East and West remains massive.  As Uli Hesse writes in Tor! “the former GDR was quickly becoming a barren footballing wasteland instead of the ‘blooming landscape’ Chancellor Kohl had promised.”  Many grounds remain decrepit, racism is rampant, and attendance figures are poor.  The divide is visible when looking at the national team as well: at Euro 2012 just two of the squad were born in the former East Germany: Toni Kroos and Marcel Schmelzer.

The End of History led to the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, as well as of East German football.  East Germany was never a footballing powerhouse able to compete with their West German counterparts, but it did have a proud footballing tradition.  Some of its most historic clubs are now toiling in the lower divisions, and very few players from the East are called up by the Nationalmannschaft.  Not that there is no reason to be optimistic. Infrastructure is gradually being improved new stadiums are being built, and “the time may finally come for these well-supported, traditional sides to return to former glories.”  Nevertheless, the effect of the End of History on the East German national team and on East German football as a whole cannot be overstated.  But while in the case of East Germany a national team disappeared, further East a national team was invented…

Part 3: Collapse and Invention, will be published shortly.

Sources and Recommended Reading

Tor! The Story of German Football by Uli Hesse is the preeminent history of German football.

Ostklassiker , a fantastic blog about East German football run by @valedave.  This article was used as source material, but everything on there is well worth your time.

The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football by David Goldblatt is, as always, an invaluable text when it comes to the history of the beautiful game.

Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper

Special thanks to John Fisher for his help in translating several German language articles that were used as source material for this piece.

The End of History and the 1990 World Cup

This is Part 1 of a 3 part series.  Part 2 is here.


In the midst of the 1989 revolutions that toppled Communist regimes all over Central and Eastern Europe, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that the end of the Cold War was a harbinger of what he deemed “the end of history.”  With Communism thoroughly discredited, he argued, the Western liberal democratic model would be the final form of human government.  Considering the euphoria that was sweeping through Europe and the World during the Autumn of Nations, it is not difficult to see where Fukuyama was coming from. Starting in Poland and quickly spreading to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the Warsaw Pact states, the sudden, unexpected wave of revolutions quickly razed to the ground the iron curtain that had divided the continent in half since the end of the Second World War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Two years later even the Soviet Union, the ‘evil empire’ which for 40 years had kept all of its so-called ‘allies’ on a tight, often bloody leash, collapsed and disintegrated into 15 different states.  These were turbulent times in world history that drastically altered the global geopolitical balance. But it was not just geopolitics that were affected.  The End of History was certainly not the End of Football, but the beautiful game was not left untouched.  Two tournaments, the 1990 World Cup and the qualifying cycle for the 1992 European Championships, reveal to what extent the 1989 revolutions and subsequent political instability affected the European footballing landscape.

Italia 90: The Last Throes of Socialist Football

Six months after the peaceful Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, the national team participated in their first major tournament since the 1982 World Cup. A select few Czechoslovak players were allowed to ply their trade abroad before the events of 1989.  The most prominent one was without a doubt Antonín Panenka, immortalized in history by the cheeky penalty that now bears his name, who moved to Austrian club Rapid Wien in 1981.  But by 1990 the situation had changed drastically; 8 of the 22 player squad now played in Western Europe, including Luděk Mikloško at West Ham and František Straka at Borussia Mönchengladbach.  The national team, who had clinched qualification the day before the mass protests in Bratislava signaled the beginning of the end for the Communists, performed admirably in Italy, going out 1-0 to eventual winners West Germany in the quarterfinals.


Romanian defender Gheorghe Popescu and Cameroon striker Roger Milla in a group stage match

Romania, curiously, also ensured their qualification to the 1990 World Cup on the day before the Timișoara uprising set off a chain of events that culminated with the summary trial and execution of the General Secretary of the Romanian Communisty Nicolae Ceaușescu. Coincidence?  Probably. Unlike the peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia the Romanian uprising was anything but, with casualties numbering in the thousands.  But football went on as usual.  The scheduling of the season was not affected as the Divizia A, the top division of Romanian football, was on winter break at the time of the revolution.  But two teams, FC Olt Scorniceşti from Ceaușescu’s home town and Victoria Bucureşti, the club backed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, were dissolved.  All of their matches in the second half of the season were awarded as 3-0 victories to the opposition.  After the dust settled, the national team made their way to Italy for their first World Cup appearance om twenty years.  Every player in the squad that traveled to Italy was based in Romania.  Though some Romanian footballers were allowed to play abroad, and others defected, the national team was always made up exclusively of domestically based players, and 1990 was no exception.  Romania got off to a fantastic start in Italy with a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in Bari but were dumped out on penalties by the Republic of Ireland in the second round.  Only in 1994 did Romanian players based in Western Europe represent their country in a major tournament.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was a shadow of its former self by 1990, both in its footballing prowess and in its prestige and influence.  By the time of the World Cup the Communist party had been soundly defeated in the Baltic States, Moldova, and Armenia in the first competitive elections in Soviet history.  Nationalist movements were on the rise in every republic, and Party leaders in Moscow were struggling to retain control of the Union. The disappointing performance of the national team at the World Cup mirrored political developments back home.  Just two years removed from reaching the final of the Euro 1988 Final, they were unceremoniously dumped out in the first round in Italy.  After losing to Romania and Argentina in their first two matches, the Soviets needed to beat Cameroon by at least four goals and hope that the Argentina-Romania match did not end in a draw.  It was not an inconceivable scenario.  Cameroon had shocked the world and defeated Argentina 1-0 in the tournament’s opening match, then proved that it was no fluke with a 2-1 victory over Romania.  They had already booked their passage to the next round and were obviously not at their best against the Soviet Union, who did what they needed to do and won 4-0.  Their fate was not in their hands, however, and a 1-1 draw between Argentina and Romania eliminated them from the tournament.

Is it possible to make a connection between the crumbling USSR and the poor play of its national team?  Perhaps one could argue that the Perestroika-induced exodus of some of the squad’s brightest talents to Western clubs upset the team chemistry.  Lobanskyi’s 1988 squad was constructed around a core of Dynamo Kyiv players; Dynamo fans often joked that the Soviet national team was “Dynamo Kyiv weakened by the presence of players from other clubs.”   By the time of the World Cup there was much more diversity in terms of represented clubs in the starting eleven.  More realistically, however, the squad simply was not as good as it had been in 1988 and, as Lobanovskyi made sure to point out, refereeing decisions didn’t go in their favor. Though the players did not know it at the time, 1990 was the last time the USSR would appear at a major international tournament.


Zvonimir Boban becomes a hero

Whereas the sluggish, bloated Soviet Union was hobbling along toward a drawn out but largely peaceful demise, Yugoslavia was on the verge of  a violent breakup that would turn out to the deadliest European conflict since World War II.  After the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980 the republic descended into a decade of economic stagnation and rising nationalist sentiments among the various ethnicities.  By January of 1990 the all-Yugoslav Communist Party was dissolved and in the coming months nationalist parties swept elections in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia.  Football was not immune to the increasing politicization of the country according to ethnic lines.  On May 13, 1990, Dinamo Zagreb took on Red Star Belgrade at home in a match that took place just weeks after pro-independence Croatian parties won the majority of the votes.  The match is sometimes considered to be the symbolic beginning of the Yugoslav wars, especially by Croatian nationalists.  By this time both Dinamo and Red Star had become associated with the Croatian and Serbian nationalist movements.  A massive riot broke out between the Bad Blue Boys and the Delije, the organized supporters groups of Dinamo and Red Star, respectively.  Dinamo midfielder Zvonimir Boban famously kicked a police officer who was attempting to arrest a Dinamo supporter and as a result was suspended from the national team, instantly becoming a Croatian national hero in the process.

Despite simmering tensions at home Yugoslavia sent a multiethnic team (though without the suspended Boban) with players from both Dinamo and Red Star.  Against Spain in the round of 16 the starting XI was composed of five Bosnians, two Serbians, a Croatian, a Montenegrin, a Slovenian, and a Macedonian.  In the words of Jonathan Wilson, this Yugoslavia side was “the embodiment of Yugoslavia’s federal ideal.” A 2-1 victory set up a quarterfinal match-up with Diego Maradona’s Argentina, but at that point domestic politics began to interfere with the harmony of the squad.  Slovenian midfielder Srečko Katanec received death threats from back home warning him not to play and begged to be left out of the squad, fearing for the safety of his family in Ljubljana. Yugoslavia still put in a brave performance against Argentina and held out for a 0-0 draw despite being reduced to ten men after just 31 minutes, but went out on penalties. As their manager Ivica Osim said, “The team was far, far better than the country. This was to be Yugoslavia’s last appearance on the world stage, both as a football team and as a nation.     

Events off the pitch had already clearly made their mark on football during the 1990 World Cup, but it took place in relatively quiet circumstances, with politics taking a back seat.  But during the qualifiers for the next European Championships, the normalcy would be shattered.

Part 2: The End of History and the Demise of the GDR

The Anschluss Match and the Martyrdom of Matthias Sindelar

In footballing circles, the term Anschluss Match generally refers to one of the most shameful moments in the history of the World Cup. Algeria, debutantes at the 1982 World Cup, shocked the world with a 2-1 victory over West Germany in their opening match.  Only a West Germany victory over Austria by a one or two goal margin would see Algeria eliminated in the final match of the group.  And that’s exactly what happened.  After Horst Hrubesch gave the Germans a 1-0 lead early on at the El Molinón Stadium in Gijón, both teams effectively stopped playing, content with the result.  The West German commentator lamented “What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football.”  The match ended 1-0, and Algeria were out. Spanish newspapers denounced the match as “El Anschluss,” a reference to the unification of Germany and Austria in 1938.   In Algeria it is still known as by this name.  But forty four years prior to the Anschluss match in Gijón, the actual Anschluss occurred.  

Anschluss is a German term whose literal definition is ‘connection,’ but its political connotation exclusively refers to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.  The idea of unifying all the German peoples into one state was not a new one.  German nationalists throughout the 19th century argued for such a state, but Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification, opted for a Prussia-dominated “Little Germany” solution that excluded Austria and its vast Central European lands.  But the belief that Austria and Germany should be united never died out and became fashionable once again in the interwar years.   Though unification of Germany and Austria was explicitly prohibited under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the reaction to Hitler’s increasingly assertive foreign policy was meek and non-confrontational.  The proponents of appeasement, the diplomatic trend of the day, asserted that by making concessions and avoiding conflict, Hitler’s territorial ambitions would eventually be satisfied. Therefore the reaction to the Anschluss did not exceed a mild rebuke from the international community.   

In celebration of the long-awaited unification, the German and Austrian authorities, recognizing the popular appeal of football, planned a friendly match between the two national teams.  What was supposed to be a celebratory draw turned into an unexpected victory for the Austrians and an outpouring of Austrian nationalism. One player, Mathias Sindelar, the magician at the heart of the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, stood out in his resistance to the Nazification of Austria and its national team.  His performance in the Anschluss match and his refusal to play for the combined German national team made him an icon of Austrian defiance, and his untimely death made him a martyr of Austrian football. The story of the Anschluss Match and the defiance of Sinderlar is one that deserves to be remembered, for it serves as yet another reminder of how football transcends the boundaries of the pitch and takes on a mythical narrative of its own.

Red Vienna and Coffeehouse Football

Football first made its mark in Austria in the Styrian city of Graz, where it was introduced by a medical student named Georg August Wagner who had been “infected by the football bacillus” in his native Prague, where the sport had already attained a modest level of popularity.  Wagner organized the first football match in present day Austria in 1894 and quickly became a popular pastime amongst the city’s students.  While the game was first incorporated into the existing institutional framework provided by the city’s cycling club, the sport soon became too big and an independent football club was established in 1898.

But it was in Vienna where football would truly make its mark.  Fin de siècle Vienna was home to a sizable contingent of British diplomats, businessmen, and engineers who brought their sports with them to the continent.  The first match in the Habsburg capital took place in 1894 between members of the Vienna Cricket Club and a team of Scottish gardeners of the Rothschild estate.  In 1897 a cup competition open to all teams from the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Der Challenge Cup was created, though nearly all teams came from either Vienna, Budapest, or Prague.  The game’s popularity skyrocketed.  English clubs regularly toured the city; a 1905 match between Everton and Spurs drew a record crowd of 10,000 people.  A Viennese football league was founded in 1911, and shortly before the outbreak of the First World War 20,000 fans attended a match between Austria and Hungary.

After the war the Habsburg monarchy collapsed and the Empire was dissolved.  Vienna the capital of a vast multi-ethnic Empire, was suddenly transformed into the capital of a small nation-state populated predominantly by ethnic Germans.  The postwar years saw the rise of left wing politics in the Austrian capital.  Jakob Reumann was elected the first Social Democratic mayor of Vienna in 1921; the party would remain in control of Vienna for over a decade.  This period of Viennese history saw the construction of public housing, the expansion of youth and social services, and the implementation of a progressive tax.  During this time the city earned the moniker Rotes Wien, or Red Vienna.  The American journalist John Gunther wrote of this period:

The disequilibrium between Marxist Vienna and the clerical countryside was the dominating Motiv of Austrian politics until the rise of Hitler. Vienna was socialist, anti-clerical, and, as a municipality, fairly rich. The hinterland was poor, backward, conservative, Roman Catholic, and jealous of Vienna’s higher standard of living.”

This disequilibrium applies not just to the political atmosphere and the standard of living, but to football as well.  The popularity of the sport continued to grow at a rapid pace.  In 1914 there were 14,000 registered players in Austria.  By 1921 this number had more than doubled to 37,000, and in 1924 the first professional league outside of Britain was established.  But the vast majority of these players were from Vienna and the Austrian national team was effectively a Viennese XI.  The ‘national’ league was exclusively a Viennese league in all but name.  It was not until 1949 that a true national league was formed.  In interwar Vienna football was emblematic of the city’s exceptionalism in a wider Austrian context and “clearly stood against the ‘idiocy of rural life.'”

Vienna contained a multitude of football clubs – by 1935 no fewer than 25 professional Viennese teams competed in the top two divisions.  Austria Wien and Rapid Wien were the two of the most culturally and socially significant clubs and are representative of the wider divisions in Viennese society.  Rapid Wien was founded as Wiener Arbeiter in 1898 by the employees of a hat factory and acquired a reputation as the team of the proletariat.  Despite being forced to change their name by the authorities, they remained true to their working class roots.  Their base of support came from the Vorstädte, the newly constructed industrial suburbs populated by factory workers who, after the enactment of the eight-hour work week, suddenly found themselves with a lot of free time.  Much of that free time was dedicated to watching football as countless new clubs sprung up in every district of Vienna, though Rapid remained the archetype of the Viennese working class team.  An article from the Illustriertes Sportblatt dating from 1927 writes of Rapid:

“They have never disappointed their audience since they never give up and fight right up to the end. Their players are nearly exclusively ‘home brewed’; the management is conservative; and adventurous business politics are not their cup of tea.  Rapid has its roots within the population and it never loses contact to the home ground. The ‘Green and Whites’ constitute a suburbian club in the best sense of the word.”

Austria Wien were cut from an entirely different cloth.  They were founded as Wiener Amateur by players and officials of the Vienna Football and Cricket Club and changed their name to Austria Wien after the professionalization of football.  In stark contrast to Rapid, Austria became the team of the flourishing bourgeoisie who frequented coffeehouses to discuss politics, art, and, increasingly, football.  The same article of Illustriertes Sportblatt referenced above describes the club as playing “salary football” clouded by “dense coffeehouse smog.”  The coffeehouse was at the center of all things Austrian football and fans of all teams, not just those of the bourgeois Austria Wien, congregated in coffeehouses to socialize and discuss the affairs of their club.  But Austria epitomized this coffeehouse culture associated with the intelligentsia, and were even headquartered in various coffeehouses of the Innere Stadt, Vienna’s historic city center.

Der Papierene and the Rise of the Wunderteam

The dichotomy of the two Vienna clubs is summarized by the social scientist Roman Horak, who writes that “”If ‘SK Rapid’ stood for proletarian toughness and the suburb, then ‘Austria’ stood for the city, coffeehouse, and the liberal Jewish middle class.”  It is somewhat ironic, then, that the hero of Austria Wien and of the Viennese bourgeoisie was of decidedly proletarian stock.  Matěj Šindelář was born in 1903 in a small Moravian village into a family of modest means. His father was a bricklayer and his mother struggled to take care of their four children.  In 1905 the family moved to Vienna and settled in the Favoriten district, a heavily industrialized area.  He began playing football in the streets and quickly stood out out for his uncanny dribbling ability.  After his father was killed on the Isonzo Front during the First World War, young Matthias, as he was known by then, began an apprenticeship as a locksmith.

But his future was to lie in football, not in the gritty factories of the Vorstädte.  In 1918 Sindelar joined the youth team of ASV Hertha, whose stadium was located next to his house in Favoriten.  He played for Hertha while continuing his apprenticeship, and by the age of 18 he debuted with the senior team in the Austrian championship.  An uncharacteristic forward with a slight physique and an aversion to physical play, Sindelar quickly earned the nickname Der Papierene, the Paper Man.  In 1924 Hertha slid into a financial crisis and Sindelar signed for Austria Wien, then still known as Wiener Amateur.  Within a season he broke into the first team.  He was part of the side that won the league and cup double in 1926 and by 1927 was the club’s leading goalscorer, though Austria Wien dropped to a disappointing 7th in the league table and would not win another league title until after the Second World War.

Sindelar earned his first international cap at 23 years old and promptly scored on his debut, a 2-1 friendly victory over Czechoslovakia.  Despite playing well he soon fell out of favor with national team manager Hugo Meisl, a strict disciplinarian who, in spite of Sindelar’s obvious talents, favored a traditional center forward.  For several years Sindelar couldn’t get a cap.  Then, in 1931, a group of journalists purportedly confronted Meisl in Vienna’s Ring Café and demanded that he reinstate Sindelar into the side.  Meisl relented and Sindelar started as an unconventional center forward in Austria’s next international fixture against Scotland.  He was magnificent, and Scotland were swept aside 5-0 in a way that simply was not supposed to happen when the Home Nations went up against continental opposition.  At that moment, the Wunderteam was born.

An Illustration of the Wunderteam

With little but grainy black and white footage available, it is difficult in this day and age to form an accurate picture of Sindelar’s style. But his contemporaries were fervent in their praise of the Paper Man.  Friedrich Torberg, a mainstay in Red Vienna’s coffeehouse scene, wrote:

“He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected.  He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern.  He just had… genius.”

With the unorthodox but incredibly talented Sindelar leading the line, the Austrian national team became a European footballing force.  Germany were defeated 5-0 in Berlin and 6-0 in Vienna, with Sindelar scoring a hat trick in front of the home fans.  He scored in an 8-1 victory over Switzerland and again in an 8-2 thrashing of Austria’s old imperial rival Hungary.  Their fluid play earned them the nickname “the Danubian Whirl” and in 1932 they won the second edition of the International European Cup, a Central European international competition open to Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland that was contested in a similar manner to the British Home Championship.

Their true test was to come in December 1932, when the Wunderteam traveled to London to take on the mighty England. The English national team was, despite the proclamations of the media, hardly the standard bearer of the sport and had been beaten by continental teams on numerous occasions.  But at home they retained a certain aura and were unbeaten on their own soil against foreign opposition.  England won 4-3 at Stamford Bridge, but the Times awarded the Austrians the “moral victory.”  The English papers raved about the intricate passing and fluid movement of the Wunderteam, with the Daily Mail calling their performance “a revelation.”  Though they could not break the spell of English domestic invincibility – that task would be left to their spiritual successors, the Hungarians, two decades later – they gained plenty of admirers for their style of play.  Sindelar was at the center of everything, and after the match against England he was reportedly offered a contract on the spot to sign for Arsenal, though like many of the tales surrounding the Paper Man it may well be apocryphal.

Austrofascism and the Death of Red Vienna 

Red Vienna may have been a bastion of liberalism and Social Democratic governance but it was hardly representative of the entire nation.  The Christian Social Party dominated politics at the national level; every Chancellor of Austria in the 1920s was either a member of or governed in coalition with the party.  But underneath this superficial stability the country was becoming more and more polarized.  Paramilitary forced were organized by both the right and left.  Tensions between the two escalated into a full blown crisis during the July Revolt of 1927, when a protest against the acquittal of three right-wing paramilitary members charged with the murder of a World War I veteran and a young boy resulted in the deaths of 89 people.  Violence continued to escalate, and the fragile First Austrian Republic was unceremoniously dismantled in 1933 when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss took advantage of a loophole in the parliamentary voting procedures, dissolved the legislative assembly, and moved toward establishing a dictatorial regime.

A Fatherland Front rally in 1936

Cursory histories of twentieth century Europe focus on the Fascist triumvirate of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, ignoring similar developments elsewhere.  But interwar Europe witnessed the establishment of right-wing dictatorships in states as diverse as Portugal, Hungary, Romania, and of course Austria, which adopted its own peculiar version of the ideology that historians have since dubbed ‘Austrofascism.’  By May of 1934 Dollfuss, having emerged victorious in the Austrian Civil War, established a one-party state with all parties other than the Fatherland Front banned.  While an explicitly anti-Nazi party with close links to the Roman Catholic Church and a strong opposition to unification with Germany, the iconography and aesthetics of the Fatherland Front clearly borrowed some elements from National Socialism (see image above).  The symbolic death of Red Vienna came in the form of the destruction of the Karl Marx Hof, the public housing estate that was as a monument to the city’s socialist leanings.  Red Vienna was no more.

Political developments in Vienna inevitably affected the national selection.  As David Goldblatt writes in The Ball is Round, “it was therefore a tired and troubled Wunderteam that arrived in Italy and it showed.”  Their performances in the early matches were underwhelming.  Extra time was needed to defeat the French in the first round and a narrow victory over Hungary in the quarterfinals ensured a semifinal date with hosts Italy.  Austria was at a disadvantage before the match even kicked off. A swampy pitch following heavy rains hampered the style of the Austrians, who relied on quick, short passing. Furthermore, suspicion of referee favoritism toward the home side and even direct intervention by Mussolini himself put the integrity of the tournament into question.  The BBC documentary Football and Fascism alleges that before the match Il Duce had dinner with the Swedish referee Ivan Elkind and instructed him to ensure an Italian victory.  Elkind is said to have turned a blind eye to the blatant, incessant fouling of the Italians, and after a dismal 90 minutes during which the Austrians could barely even muster a shot on goal the Azzuri ran out 1-0 victors.

It is all too tempting to draw a direct connection between internal political developments and the disappointing results of the national team at the 1934 World Cup.  But the extent to which the tumultuous events on the home front affected their performances in Italy is an entirely speculative matter.  Perhaps, as Jonathan Wilson suggest in Inverting the Pyramid, the Wunderteam was simply past its peak by 1934.  Vittorio Pozzo’s legendary Italian side was less technical and less fluid than the Austrians but their tactical awareness and physical preparedness was second to none.  Pozzo’s decision to have Mario Monti man mark Sindelar was a stroke of genius; the Paper Man’s influence in the semifinal was negligible. Though their victory in 1934 was stained by the allegations of corruption, they proved that it was no fluke by repeating as World Cup Champions in France four years later.

But while there may be no direct link between politics and football results, the decline of the Wunderteam parallels the fate of the country.  For both the Wunderteam and independent Austria, 1934 was the beginning of the end.  After defeat against Italy in the semifinals Austria surprisingly lost 3-2 to Germany in the third place match.  Two months later Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in response to his crackdown against the Nazi Party, whose popularity was rapidly rising.  In the ensuing crisis, Italy’s support was essential in preventing Austria’s annexation by Germany.  After the World Cup the previously invincible Austrians suffered friendly defeats against Hungary, Italy, and Poland, and on two occasions could only muster a draw with Czechoslovakia.  A victory over England in Vienna in 1936 provided a cathartic moment, but by that points the Wunderteam, if it could even be called that, was in an irreversible decline.  In both football and geopolitics Austria was being outmaneuvered by its more powerful neighbors.

Anschluss and Resistance

On March 12, 1938, German troops triumphantly entered Austria.  Cheering crowds greeted the Nazis in Vienna, and 200,000 gathered at Vienna’s Heidenplatz on March 15 to hear Hitler proclaim the incorporation of Germany’s eastern province into the Third Reich.  This time, there would be no Italian diplomatic intervention on behalf of Austria. Fatherland Front politicians were powerless in the face of German panzers.  An independent Austrian state ceased to exist.

German troops enter Vienna

One week before the scheduled plebiscite to ratify what had already occurred, a celebration match was scheduled between the national teams of Austria and Germany before they united into one.  The ‘Anschluss Match’ has been subject to such romanticization over the years that it is impossible to discern fact from fiction.  But as the story goes, Matthias Sindelar, a committed Social Democrat, reluctantly took part in the match, which was supposed to end in a conciliatory draw.  David Goldlbatt’s description of the match brilliantly captures its mythological narrative:

“In the first half Sindelar misses a hatful of chances, some say with such exquisite touch that they could only be read as gestures of defiance.  After halftime his patience snaps and he scores.  A second goal, an audacious lob from Sesta, seals the game and Sindelar wheels away to dance before the Nazi functionaries and their Austrian satraps in the VIP box.  The crowd roar ‘Österreich! Österreich!'” 

Austria won 2-0 thanks to Sindelar’s audacious, inspirational performance in the last match Austria would play until after the war.  After the match the Reichssportführer, the Nazi official in charge of sport, expressed surprise at the patriotism of the Austrians.  Similar expressions of anti-German sentiment at the football ground continued sporadically throughout the war. Simon Kuper in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War, recounts how “When the German club Schalke visited Vienna… the SD (the intelligence agency of the SS) reported anti-German chants, fights, stone-throwing, and fanatical support for the home team among the tens of thousands of spectators.”

But these incidents should not be interpreted as being emblematic of a wider pattern of resistance.  The Anschluss match was not the catalyst for an anti-Nazi movement, but “a swansong for the great Viennese football culture and the fragile metropolitan social ecology that had sustained it.”  99.7% of the Austrian population voted in favor of Anschluss, and though these figures are obviously inflated in general most Austrians were in favor of union with Germany.  Viennese football culture was destroyed.  Hakoah, Vienna’s Jewish club, was immediately disbanded.  Other clubs with significant numbers of Jewish members and officials, FK Austria among them, also faced the wrath of the Nazis. Though powerful in its symbolism, Sindelar’s act of defiance was a fleeting gesture, Austria’s last moment of pride before it was turned into Ostmark, the Eastern realm of the Third Reich.

A Mysterious Death

As for Sindelar himself, the Anschluss match was the last time he ever played football. Already 35 and with bad knees, he refused the entreaties of Sepp Herberger to turn out for the new, combined national team.  It is doubtful that his presence would have made much of a difference.  Herberger was under strict orders for the national team to be composed of six Germans and five Austrians or vice versa for every match.  Theoretically combining two of the best teams of the era should have yielded fantastic results, but in reality the tensions between the two sets of players and the differences in their playing styles were too much to overcome in such a short period of time.  At the 1938 World Cup in France, Germany only managed a 1-1 draw with Switzerland and was embarrassingly eliminated after a 4-2 defeat in the replay.

Sindelar in action

Sindelar quietly retired to a civilian life.  He purchased a café from a Jewish man who was forced to give it up because of the new anti-Semitic laws and settled into his new life as a coffeehouse owner. On the night of January 22, after a night of heavy drinking and gambling, Sindelar returned to his apartment with his girlfriend.  The next morning, after he was nowhere to be found, his friend Gustav Hartmann broke down his door and found him naked and dead.

The death was officially ruled an accident due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective heater, a theory given credence by the fact that the neighbors had been complaining of a smell in the days before Sindelar’s death.  But that version of events was not accepted by the public, 20,000 of whom turned out for his funeral.  Two days afterwards the Austrian newspaper Kroner Zeitung alleged that “everything points towards this great man having become the victim of murder through poisoning.” Sindelar’s friend Egon Ulbrich, who was with him the night before his death, claimed that the death was declared an accident only so that he could receive a state funeral.  Under Nazi law, such funerals were not allowed for those who had been murdered or committed suicide.  Suicide was touted as another possible explanation.  In his obituary of Sindelar the theater critic Alfred Polgar wrote:

“The good Sindelar loved the city, whose child and pride he was, to its death.  He was so inextricably entwined with it that he had to die when it did.  All the evidence points to suicide prompted by loyalty to his homeland.  For to live and play football in the downtrodden, broken, tormented city meant deceiving Vienna with a repulsive spectre of itself… but how can one play football like that?  And live, when a life without football is nothing?”

Whether this version is accurate, or whether it is simply a refusal to admit that someone like Sindelar could die such a mundane death, is a question whose answer is lost to history.  But the theory that he committed suicide is so cathartic, so tragically beautiful that it is no surprise that it is preferred to the explanation of death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Sindelar, the symbol of Red Vienna and its football culture, died alongside his beloved city.  He has since been named both the best Austrian footballer and the best Austrian sportsman of the 20th century.  But his enduring reputation cannot be simply explained by his prowess on the pitch.  In death, Sindelar became a martyr of the Viennese football culture that had been destroyed by the Anschluss.  As Jonathan Wilson writes, “to its end, the football of the coffeehouse remained heroically romantic.”

Sources and Recommended Reading

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, especially the chapter ‘How Fascism Destroyed the Coffeehouse.’

The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt

Ajax, the Dutch, the War by Simon Kuper

Football and Fascism a BBC documentary available on YouTube

The chapter ‘Germany vs. Austria: National Identity’ by Roman Horak in the book German Football edited by Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young

‘Viennese Football Culture: Some Remarks on its History and Sociology’ by Roman Horak in Volume 5, Issue 4 of the journal Innovation in Social Sciences Research

The Absurdity of MLS Nomenclature

By European standards, Major League Soccer, the highest level on the footballing pyramid in both the United States and Canada, is still in its infancy.  After countless failed leagues plagued by infighting, mismanagement, and disorganization, the idea for Major League Soccer emerged as part of the USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.  The league was launched in 1996 with ten teams, expanding to twelve two years later.

At first the league struggled with both attendance figures and television ratings.  Attempts to ‘Americanize’ the game by instituting rules such as shootouts in which a a player started 35 yards away from goal and had five seconds to beat the keeper and score to resolve ties and a clock that counted backwards from 45:00 down to zero failed to attract interest from new fans and alienated traditional ones.  In the first five years of its existence MLS lost $250 million and in 2001 two teams were forced to fold, reducing the number of teams back the original ten. Most teams played in stadiums rented from American Football teams, the capacities of which dwarfed the average attendance.  The pitiful performance of the United States at the 1998 World Cup, when the squad made up mostly of MLS players lost all of their first round matches, was a testament to the league’s poor quality.

Fifteen years on, things are looking up for Major League Soccer.  The league now has nineteen teams and all but five have “soccer-specific” stadiums.  As of 2012 the MLS is the 8th best attended football league in the world.  The best-supported team, the Seattle Sounders, have an average attendance of nearly 43,000 and their derby with the Portland Timbers has drawn around 67,000 fans in both of the past two seasons, figures that would be considered impressive in the top European leagues.  A recent article from Forbes mentions that attendance figures have steadily risen over 35% since 2000 and more and more Americans are identifying themselves as fans of the sport.  The growth of MLS has not been ignored on the other side of the pond; even the BBC recently published an article entitled ‘Can the MLS Revolution Survive and Thrive’, pointing out that the MLS is now the third most popular league in the United States in terms of average attendance, trailing only the NFL (American football) and the MLB (baseball).

The league has had undeniable success, but it is impossible to overlook the numerous idiosyncrasies that set it apart from its European counterparts.  First of all, the champion is determined not by points total at the end of the season, but by a playoff system (though this is not unique to the MLS as several Latin American leagues also utilize a playoff system).  There is no promotion or relegation.  The league has a salary cap of $2.95 million dollars to ensure relative parity, but teams are also allowed three ‘Designated Players’ whose salaries do not count toward the salary cap.  Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy are two such designated players, and their salaries take up two thirds of the entire wage bill. Meanwhile, teammate Kafi Opare toils for the league minimum yearly salary of $35,125, less than 1/100th of what Donovan earns.  Because the teams are all ‘franchised’ and effectively owned by the league, the transfer system is an incredibly muddled affair.  For example, in Clint Dempsey’s highly publicized move from Spurs to Seattle Sounders, the $9 million transfer fee was covered by MLS, not Seattle.

While these issues are well documented and oft-discussed, there is another rather distinctive aspect of MLS that is rarely brought up: the naming practices of certain clubs.  In recent years there has been a noticeable trend of ‘Europeanization’ when it comes to the way the teams are named: Dallas Burn changed its name to FC Dallas, the Kansas City Wizards became Sporting Kansas City, and a new team in Salt Lake City adopted the name ‘Real.’  This pattern is not universal, of course.  Traditional American naming practices which are so looked down upon in England (just look at the recation to the decision to rename Hull City to Hull Tigers) are still prevalent.  You still have your Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy, etc.  But the Europeanization is impossible to ignore because of its sheer absurdity. Not that there is anything wrong with European influence on the league.  The rise of organized fan groups and the culture of the tifo, especially in the Pacific Northwest clubs of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland (see this Portland Timbers tifo for an example), are a testament to the passion and dedication of American and Canadian supporters who take inspiration from their continental counterparts.

But there is a distinction between inspiration and wholesale appropriation of cultural institutions with which a club shares no connections.  The former is an inevitable process of cross-cultural exchange; Italian Ultra culture, for example, has influenced supporter groups from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans and beyond.  But the latter is a hollow attempt at mimicry.  Here, then, are the three teams which best exemplify this unfortunate phenomenon.

Sporting Kansas City

We begin with the least egregious offender.  Sporting Kansas City were founded as the Kansas City Wiz in 1996 before changing their name to the Wizards the following year.  They were a moderately successful side who won their first MLS Cup in 2000 and the US Open Cup in 2004. But they were among the least popular clubs in the league, with very poor attendance, low television ratings, and merchandise sales that were dead last in the league.  Then, in 2010, the club’s ownership decided to entirely overhaul and rejuvenate the organization.  This project included a new stadium, a forceful marketing offensive to get locals interested in the team, and of course, a name change. In a New York Times article on the Kansas City renaissance, Sam Borden discusses the name change:

“Among the top suggestions was the Kansas City Bees because, the consultants said, the bee is the official insect of both Missouri and Kansas.  Instead, the club opted for Sporting Kansas City, a European-sounding name that was emblematic of its hope of becoming more than just a soccer team. The Sporting name also dovetailed with the club’s European-style soccer stadium and concerted effort to appeal to the serious soccer fan.”

The word choice is important here: it is a “European-sounding” name, not a European name. The justification of the name by alluding to becoming “more than just a soccer team” is a noble but misguided effort.  As of now, Sporting Kansas City are just that: a soccer team.  The name Sporting actually means something more.  Sporting Clube de Portugal, commonly known outside of Portugal as Sporting Lisbon, are the most widely recognized club who are known by that name.  And unlike Sporting Kansas City, they are actually a multi-sports club, fielding teams and supporting athletes in sports as diverse as archery, handball, and weightlifting.  It is, true to its name, a sporting club.  Admittedly, not all clubs that bear the Sporting name are still multi-sport clubs.  Sporting de Gijón of Spain currently only fields a football team, but in the past also fielded hockey, rugby, and handball teams.  The Sporting name is therefore not a misnomer but a continuation of the club’s historical legacy.  A legacy which Sporting Kansas City is trying to fabricate.

To be fair to the Kansas City club, their president announced plans to add rugby and lacrosse teams to the club to make it reflect its name.  As of now, however, these plans have not yet come to pass.  The Kansas City Blues rugby team does play the football team’s training facility as its home ground but is not formally a part of the Sporting club.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Sporting’s effort to adopt a more European sounding name or to market itself as “more than just a soccer team.”  But when this marketing strategy involves co-opting a piece of cultural heritage which has no connection to your own club, the entire project begins to feel forced and artificial.

Houston Dynamo

The merits on which Houston Dynamo made this list probably have more to do with ignorance as opposed to deliberate cultural appropriation.  The club was founded in 2005, when the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, and began play in 2006.  The team was originally to be named Houston 1836 in reference to the year of the city’s founding.  The name was plagued by controversy, however, as 1836 is also the year of the Texas Revolution and the proposed crest featured a silhouette of General Sam Houston, a prominent figure in the revolution and Texas’s subsequent independence from Mexico.  The issue quickly became politicized and the 1836 name was dropped as a result of protests from the city’s substantial Hispanic majority.

In the midst of the fallout from the 1836 controversy, the Houston ownership opted for a new name for the nascent club: the Houston Dynamo.  President Oliver Luck explained the choice and apologized for the 1836 debacle:

“Dynamo is a word to describe someone who never fatigues, never gives up.  The new name is symbolic of Houston as an energetic, hard-working, risk-taking kind of town.  We never intended for the team’s name to offend any member of the Houston community.  We listened hard to the fan reaction and believe that the Houston Dynamo name is an exciting, appropriate and locally relevant new team brand.”

The name was also an homage to the Houston Dynamos, a team that played between 1983 and 1991 in various failed leagues before folding itself.  But dropping that last letter was significant. Dynamo, according to the Houston Chronicle, is “popular in European soccer, with teams such as Dynamo Moscow (Russia) and Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) among the most popular in the continent.”  The blatant hyperbole notwithstanding, the Chronicle makes a fair assessment. Dynamo, or Dinamo depending on the country, is a very common name for European teams. In addition to the two teams listed above, there is a Dinamo Tbilisi, Dinamo Minsk, Dinamo Bucharest, Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Dresden, and countless others.

What the chronicle fails to mention is that all of these clubs happen to be from the Soviet Union or the Soviet Bloc.  This is no coincidence.  Dinamo Moscow, a multi-sports club which was the first to bear the name, was founded by Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1923.  Dzerzhinsky is best known for establishing the Cheka, the notorious Soviet secret police agency that was a forerunner to the KGB.  In subsequent years, new Dynamo club were established with affiliations with either the Ministry of the Interior or the secret police in their respective countries.  In East Germany, for example, Stasi chief Erich Mielke was also the chairman of Sportvereinigung Dynamo, which ran many sporting clubs including the football club Dynamo Dresden.

It is highly doubtful that Oliver Luck had repressive Communist regimes or mass executions in mind when he unveiled the name ‘Dynamo’ for his Houston club.  Nor is it likely that the now defunct Soviet Ministry of Interior Affair has managed to clandestinely establish a football club on the Gulf of Mexico coast.  But the name Dynamo is inextricably linked to clubs with certain political connections which are hardly the sort that Houston – or any Western side for that matter – want to associate with their club.  Accidental appropriation is perhaps the best way to describe the situation, but it does not lessen the absurdity of the fact that a Texan team has adopted a name reserved for clubs in Communist countries affiliated with brutal, repressive organizations.

Real Salt Lake

The most flagrant example of this regrettable trend can be found in the quaint Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, which Real Salt Lake call home.  Real Salt Lake was founded in 2004 and there is no mystery about the origin of the name.  Then owner Dave Checketts explained that:

“In Madrid, I was looking at an organization that was amazing. I wanted to draw on Real Madrid’s brand credibility. And we wanted a name where no one would question what sport the team is playing, and that’s what Real Salt Lake is.”

He does have a point.  Real Madrid are, in terms of revenue, the biggest team in the world and sit comfortably in first place in Deloitte’s Football Money League.  Their brand is unmistakable, and there’s no question about what sport is the team is playing.  Even the most casual sports fan knows that Real Madrid = football.

But is brand recognition and marketability enough of a reason to name your club?  Let’s start with the obvious.  Real is a Spanish word meaning Royal.  Think about that for a second.  First off, the name is Spanish.  One might think that this could be a strategy to  increase the club’s appeal among the Hispanic community, but only 22.3% of the population of Salt Lake City is of Hispanic origin.  In comparison, in Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, the three other cities in the Southwest with MLS teams, the percentage of Hispanics is 44%, 42.4%, and 48.5%, respectively.  Of course, these figures do not disprove the idea that the Spanish language name was chosen with the Hispanic community in mind.  But there is no evidence to support the idea that this thought crosses the minds of the executives making the decision.  No, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish word Real was picked for any reason other than its association with Real Madrid.

Second, the translation of the word is Royal.  Royal.  In a country whose revered Declaration of Independence is essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to the King of England.  In a country founded on the explicit rejection of the institution of monarchy.  A country whose Constitution prohibits the government from granting titles of nobility.  What possible relevance does the name Royal hold to Salt Lake City, Utah, or anywhere in the United States for that matter?

Finally, the name Real does not just apply to Madrid.  Real Madrid wasn’t even the original name of the Madrid club; they were founded as Madrid FC and only became known by their modern name after being granted the title ‘Real’ by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII in 1920. Real Madrid were far from the only team to receive the patronage of the Spanish King, nor were they the first.  That honor was bestowed upon Real Club Deportivo La Coruña in 1907.  The clubs that received patronage tended to be from geographically diverse areas of Spain, e.g. Real Betis in Andalucia, Real Sociedead in the Basque Country, Real Club Deportivo Español in Catalonia, etc.  No word on whether Alfonso XIII ever made it out to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, however.

Admittedly Real Salt Lake have established an agreement with Real Madrid which involves biennial friendlies, annual training for RSL players at Real Madrid’s facilities, and the creation of a youth academy in Utah.  Though considering the nature of Real Madrid’s ‘special relationship’ with Spurs, it may not be long until we see Angel di Maria or Karim Benzema shipped off to the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake’s major regional rival.

The christening of the Salt Lake club as ‘Real’ for explicitly business and branding purposes represents the most glaring example of cultural appropriation by MLS clubs.  The name has literally nothing to do with the community, with the city, or with the people.  It is simply a marketing ploy to increase the club’s brand recognition.  And while it is true that Real Madrid is an instantly recognizable brand, it is far, far more than that.  It is a club with deep roots in its community, an institution with a name that carries a legacy that far outweighs any marketing gimmick.

Final Thoughts

This article should not be taken as a condemnation of the MLS as a whole, but rather of the specific practices of cultural and historical appropriation mentioned above.  The sad irony of the situation is that this attempt at importing tradition and prestige is entirely unnecessary.

Teams such as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are drawing on the culture and history of their own locales while taking inspiration from European fan groups, and by doing so establishing a burgeoning tradition of supporter culture.  Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and Houston Dynamo are all popular, successful clubs with impressive attendance figures.  Is this success really dependent on their names?  Would they not be better off adopting names that better reflect the cultural traditions of their cities?

As it stands, this is hardly an issue.  But, if, as senior spokesman Dan Courtemanche mentioned in the aforementioned BBC article, the goal of the MLS is to be among the best leagues of the world, surely nourishing a homegrown tradition and history is a better option than attempting to import pre-manufactured legacy and prestige from overseas.

Glorious Failures: Hungary’s Golden Team

This is part one of a three-part series.

The Glorious Failure Phenomenon

As a rule, success in football is measured by trophies.  Setting aside all ideological arguments over the merits of beauty over efficiency aside, the teams that have gone down in history are those that have won when it counts: World Cups, European Championships, European Cups, League Titles, etc.  Greatness requires victory.

And yet, there are exceptions.  A select few international sides have been able to transcend their failures on the pitch to take their place among the pantheon of greatness.  The 1954 Hungary, 1974 Holland, and 1982 Brazil sides are emblematic of this ‘glorious failure’ phenomenon.  Over the next several weeks Café Futebol will examine these three legendary sides and attempt to understand the reasons for why their reputations arguably outweigh their accomplishments.  This will not be a general history of these sides; more than enough has been written on that front.  Instead, this series will focus on why history has been so kind to these glorious losers, when so many others have been cast aside and forgotten.  We start with the Magical Magyars.

The Legend of the Aranycsapat

To anyone well-versed in footballing history, the Hungarian side of the 1950s needs no introduction. Boasting such star names as Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and, Nándor Hidegkuti, and with the innovative Gusztáv Sebes at the helm, the Aranycsapat (Hungarian for Golden Team, as they are known) were the best team in the world in the early 1950s.  They eased to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 and the following year gave England a footballing lesson and shocked the English football establishment to its core.  The 6-3 victory at Wembley is considered one of the greatest performances of all time, and they followed it up with a 7-1 victory over the Three Lions in Budapest the following year.  From 1950 through 1956 they accumulated a record of 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat.  That defeat, however, happened in the 1954 World Cup Final.

The Aranycsapat

Despite their failure to win when it mattered most, the Aranycsapat is widely recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.  In his fantastic blog Football Pantheon, journalist Miguel Delaney places them 7th in his list of the greatest international teams of all time, a full 17 slots ahead of the West German side which defeated them in that fateful final.  From a purely results-oriented perspective, it is obvious that the Magical Magyars were awfully impressive; their record contains just one blemish, albeit a very prominent one.  Nevertheless, to truly understand their significance in football history and lofty reputation as one of the greatest sides of all time, we must look beyond just results.

Tactical Innovation

In stark contrast to the rigid traditionalism which hampered tactical evolution in England, footballing attitudes on the continent were much more conducive to change and experimentation.  Vienna was a hotspot for such innovation and it gave rise to what has since become known as the ‘Danubian School’ of football.  Jimmy Hogan, an expatriate Englishman who stressed the merits of passing and movement, found the Central Europeans much more receptive to his ideas than his compatriots. Hugo Meisl’s success with the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s and their exhilarating style of play reinforced the Danubians’ belief in the tenets preached by Hogan, and a tactical tradition was established. Though Meisl was essentially a conservative and a did not stray from the 2-3-5 formation, his use of Mathias Sindelar as a withdrawn centre forward proved prophetic.

Hungarian football was firmly within the Viennese sphere of influence and its coaches tended to be adherents of the Danubian School.  By the time the second World War had ended the 2-3-5 has been replaced as the dominant formation by the W-M, effectively a 3-2-2-3.  The focal point of this system was a centre forward who was usually big, powerful, and neither particularly skillful nor technical. The legendary journalist Brian Glanville characterized the classic English conception of the #9 as “the brainless bull at the gate.”

Márton Bukovi, manager of Hungarian club side MTK, lacked such a player, and thus decided to improvise.  He took one of his wing-halves, Péter Palotás, and put him in the centre forward role.  He was a centre forward in name only.  In reality, he was withdrawn into the midfield and played effectively as an attacking midfielder.  The experiment was succesful, and Palotás went on to start for the national team and was a regular for the side that won gold at the 1952 Olympic Games.  But in September of that year, Hungary manager Gusztáv Sebes made a fateful substitution.  During a friendly which Hungary was losing 2-0 to Switzerland, he brought on the 30 year old Nándor Hidegkuti to replace Palotás.  Hungary came back to win 4-2, and Hidegkuti’s performance was so impressive that he became the undisputed starter. Though often referred to as a withdrawn centre-forward, Jonathan Wilson argues in his exhaustive history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid that “he was, in modern terminology, simply an attacking midfielder.”

The ‘invention’ of the attacking midfielder as a re-imagining of the role of the centre forward was just one of the tactical innovations pioneered by the Hungarians.  The two full backs, Mihály Lantos and Jenő Buzánszky, were given license to roam down the flanks.  In the midfield, József Bozsik advanced forward to support Hidegkuti while his midfield partner József Zakariás sat back and was played almost as an auxiliary centre back.  According to Wilson, this set up was “a hair’s breadth from 4-2-4.”  Considering that the 4-2-4 was the formation so successfully adopted by the Brazilians.  It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the early advocates of 4-2-4 in Brazil was Béla Guttman, a Hungarian manager who introduced the formation during his spell at São Paulo in 1957-58.   

It is important not to view the tactical innovations of the Magical Magyars in isolation from tactical development as a whole.  Bukovi, Sebes, and Guttman, were all heavily influenced by the Danubian School and their tactical philosophies represent a historical continuity with their predecessors, not a break with the past.  The withdrawn centre forward, after all, was not even a Hungarian invention. Hungarian managers took already existing ideas and tweaked them according to their own needs and to better suit the circumstances.  Nevertheless, few tactical developments have resonated so heavily in the world and especially in the home of football.  The impact of the Aranycsapat would have been impossible without one sterling performance at Wembley.

Glory at Wembley…

On their way to the Gold Medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Hungary met Sweden in the semifinals.  Sweden were supposed to be one of the favorites, but were cast aside 6-0. Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA and future FIFA President, was in attendance and extended an invitation to his Hungarian counterpart to come play a friendly at Wembley.  The game was set for November 1953.  Sebes prepared his side meticulously.  They used heavier British balls and practiced on a pitch the size of Wembley.  The world had by now taken notice of the Hungarians, but few could have expected what was to come.

England was not unbeatable, as their embarrassing defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup demonstrated, but still the English media were unyielding in their belief that they were the best side in the world, theirs was the right way of playing the game.  Up until 1953 England has only ever lost one match against foreign opposition, and that was to Ireland four years prior.  England’s perceived domination in that match and Ireland’s status as a former colony probably mitigated the reaction to that result.  The world had been catching up to England for a long time, but they were oblivious.  Journalist Frank Coles wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by a little firm tackling.”  Here it was, the pervasive attitude that a bit of English grit and determination was all that was needed.

Billy Wright exchanges pennants with Puskás before the famous match (source: BBC)

“How long does it take for am empire to die? How long does it take to lose a match?” asks David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round. Forty-five seconds.  That is how long it takes for the Hungarians to take the lead in a fluid passing move.  Hungary dominates the match. England’s defense has no idea how to to deal with Hidegkuti’s withdrawn position.  They are unable to keep up with their quick passing, their impeccable technique.  One moment in particular starts out. In the 24th minute, with Hungary up 2-1, Puskás collects a low ball from Zoltán Czibor at the edge of the 6-yard box.  With England captain Billy Wright bearing down, Puskás calmly drags the ball back and beats the England keeper on the near post.  Wright ends up slide tackling empty air.  The final score was 6-3, but the consensus was that the result was very flattering to the English.

No other match has so thoroughly shocked England and so upset their conception of the balance of power in world football.  The myth of English superiority was dispelled in such a convincing manner that Brian Glanville dubbed it a defeat “that gave eyes to the blind.” According to Sir Bobby Robson, “That one game alone changed our thinking. We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of the defeat in England.  A 7-1 result in Budapest the following year, to this day England’s worst ever result, confirmed Hungary’s superiority. Coaching methods were overhauled, archaic tactics called into question, and continental training regimens adopted. The 6-3 is perhaps the single most significant moment that explains the enduring legacy of the Aranycsapat.  Obviously they were a fantastic side, but the 6-3 demonstrated just how good they were.  Whether England were even worthy opponents is irrelevant; the shock they gave to the establishment and was enough to forever cement their place among the greatest sides of all time.

…And Tragedy in Bern

Nevertheless, as significant as the 6-3 was, it was still just a friendly result.  The World Cup the following summer would allow the Aranycsapot the opportunity to confirm what many already thought: that they were the best team in the world.  Hungary were the favorites in the tournament and started off brilliantly.  In the first round they hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3.   After getting past Brazil in the quarterfinals in an ugly, violent encounter that has come to be known as “The Battle of Berne,” the Hungarians defeated defending champions Uruguay 4-2 in the semifinals to set up a rematch with West Germany.

The final was supposed to be crowning moment of all of their achievements over the past two years. Everything was going according to plan, as Hungary took a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the match.  But just ten minutes later the scores were level, and six minutes from time West Germany took the lead.  Puskás had a goal controversially disallowed for an offside and that was that.  In Germany this match is known as the “Miracle of Bern,” the match that has come to symbolize the country’s emergence from the post-war depression and its development into an economic power in the years to come. But in Hungary, it was a tragedy.

The match and the reasons for the defeat have been subject to endless analysis.  Having already beaten the Germans so easily in the opening round, they were clearly the favorites in the final.  So what went wrong?

Only five of the players who started in the 8-3 defeat for West Germany featured in the final.  As the story goes, Sepp Herberger decided to rest his players and study Hungary while not showing his hand, as he was confident of a win against Turkey in the ensuing playoff.  The veracity of this version of events is still disputed, but Herberger’s assistant Helmut Schön insists that it is true.

In the 8-3 against West Germany Puskás was tackled from behind by Werner Liebrich and was taken off injured.  He missed the next two matches with what was later revealed to be a hairline fracture.  In a book published the following year Puskás claimed that Liebrich set out deliberately to injure him, though in later years he retracted this accusation.  Whether Liebrich was trying to injure Puskás or not, when he returned for the final he was clearly not at his best.

To accomodate Puskás, Sebes was forced to switch Csibor to the right, Mihály Tóth played on the left, and Lászlo Budai was dropped.  In the subsequent inquest into Sebes’s tactical decision, some claimed that Tóth was only selected due to being the Sebes’s son-in-law, despite the fact that Sebes’s only daughter at the time was 10 and definitely not married.

West Germany celebrate their improbable victory (Source: goal.com)

Though questionable tactics may have contributed to the result, ultimately Hungary were simply unlucky.  Their best player was injured.  It rained heavily in Bern the day before the final and all throughout the match; the waterlogged pitch severely impeded Hungary’s passing game.  Most importantly, Puskás’s 88th minute equalizer was disallowed by the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths in what is generally believed to be the wrong decision.  “I could have murdered him,” said Puskás, “to lose the World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.”

The Aranycsapat were denied their moment of catharsis.  The perception of their defeat as tragic and unjust has contributed to their legend.  The innovative, brilliant side that thrashed England at Wembley ended up agonizingly short of their final goal.  Perhaps the romantic idealization of the side is only possible as a result of their ultimate failure.  The narrative is made all the more alluring by the unjust and unlucky nature of the defeat to the West Germans.

The Political Aspect

Unlike the hero’s welcome they received after the 6-3 in Wembley, the reaction of the Hungarian public to the defeat in Bern was that of disappointment, anger, and violence.  The apartments of some players were ransacked, and wild allegations of the players throwing the match for a fleet of Mercedes were widely circulated.   Puskás bore the brunt of the public’s discontent and was dropped from the national team for his own safety.

The protests and demonstrations against the side that soon escalated into open discontent with the Communist regime.  According to Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Aranycsapat, “in those demonstrations… lay the seeds of the 1956 uprising.

Sebes, a trade union organizer in interwar France and thus a man with impressive socialist credentials, claimed that “if Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter revolution but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.”

It is all too tempting to conflate Hungary’s failure on the pitch with the subsequent political events of the 1950s, and such a view is a vast oversimplification of the obviously complex geopolitical situation.  Nevertheless, for better or worse the fate of the Aranycsapat and the Hungarian regime are inextricably tied together.  Grosics, a man with questionable political leanings who had a reputation as a loner and intellectual, was arrested several months after the Bern debacle and was imprisoned for 15 months.

Sebes was retained as national team manager and Hungary then went on an unbeaten streak for 18 months.  But after a string of poor results in early 1956 – a 3-1 defeat in Turkey, a 4-2 home loss to Czechoslovakia, and then throwing away a 3-1 half-time lead against Belgium – Sebes was publicly condemned by the Ministry of Sport for his bourgeois leanings and dismissed from his post.

As the national team disintegrated, so did the regime.  After Stalin’s death the reformist Imre Nagy became the Prime Minister in 1953 but just two years later he was deposed and expelled from the Communist Party, replaced by the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi.  The hardline Stalinism of Rákosi, however, ran counter to the overall trend of de-Stalinization east of the Iron Curtain.  Rákosi was eventually removed in June of 1956 and there were popular calls for the reinstatement of Nagy.  In September the growing sense of self-determination and independence felt by the Hungarians was supplied with a footballing parallel as Hungary beat the Soviet Union for the first time ever in a friendly in Moscow.

But the Hungarian awakening would soon come to a violent end.  On October 23, 10,000 protesters met in the center of Budapest to march in solidarity with the Polish workers’ movement.  The protest soon escalated into a street battle between protesters and sympathizers against the secret police and Soviet loyalists.  A statue of Stalin was destroyed and by the 25th Nagy was reinstated as Prime Minister.

Less than two weeks later the Soviets invaded and crushed the Hungarian resistance.  Nagy was captured and eventually executed and a new puppet regime established.

During the revolution two of Hungary’s leading clubs, MTK and Honvéd, left the country and eventually embarked on tours of Western Europe and Latin America.  Most players returned home but three of the Honvéd squad: Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor, chose to remain in Western Europe and found new clubs.  Without these three players, the Aranycsapat was no more.  Though the Golden Team way have already been in decline since Bern, the Revolution ensured that there would be no renaissance.

Hungarian football has never reached the heights of the Golden Team.  As former Hungarian striker Tibor Nyilasi remarked, ‘it is as though Hungarian football is frozen at that moment, as though we have never moved on from then.”

Enduring Legacy

To return to our original question, why is Hungary’s Golden Team considered one of the best teams of all time, despite their failure to win a World Cup?  Why are they often ranked ahead of such victorious teams as the Uruguayans in 1950, the Brazilians of 1994, and even the West Germans of 1954, the team that defeated them in the final in Bern?

First and foremost, the Aranycsapat were simply a brilliant footballing side.  Their performances at the Olympics and especially at Wembley resonated throughout the footballing world.  Their tactical innovations paved the way for the legendary Brazilian sides of 1958 and beyond.  Their quality is beyond question.

But they never won the World Cup.  The juxtaposition between the glory of the 6-3 and the tragedy of Bern is what makes the Magical Magyars such a fascinating example of the glorious failure phenomenon.

Finally, the dismantling of the squad and of Hungarian football in general as a result of the Hungarian Uprising has cemented their status as the ultimate example greatness unfulfilled.  They may not have won the World Cup, but their place among the greatest sides of all time is completely understandable and justified.  Their story has everything but the catharsis of a World Cup victory.


Jonathan Wilson’s books, Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain, provided invaluable source material for this article, as did Davild Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round.

Pinochet, the Cold War, and the Most Pathetic Match Ever Played

November 21, 1973. Estadio Nacional. Santiago. The match to determine the final participant of the 1974 FIFA World Cup is about to take place between Chile and the Soviet Union. The Chileans take the field and line up for the national anthem. They wave to the fans and kick off. But this is no ordinary World Cup qualifier. It is, rather, one of the most absurd sights ever seen on a football pitch. The reason? The Soviets are not there. Chile dribble the length of the field unopposed and roll the ball into an unguarded net, a strictly symbolic goal to ensure victory. The story behind this mockery of a match is yet another example of the inevitable intersection between sport and politics, a narrative of Cold War intrigues spilling over onto the pitch and producing what the legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano deemed “the most pathetic match in the history of football.”

To qualify for the 1974 World Cup the winner of Group 3 in the CONMEBOL zone had to play the winner of Group 9 in UEFA zone for the final spot in the competition. Chile was placed in a group with Peru and Venezuela, but Venezuela withdrew before qualifying began. Peru and Chile finished level on both points and goal difference, and a play-off was scheduled to determine the winner of the group. In Europe, meanwhile, the Soviet Union recovered from an initial loss to France in Paris to win the remainder of their matches and clinch their spot in the play-off. Back in South America, the Chileans beat Peru 2-1 in the play-off held in Montevideo. The stage was set for Chile and the Soviet Union to battle it out for a ticket to West Germany. The first leg was to take place in Moscow on September 26; the return leg, in Santiago on November 21. After defeating a side from Porto Alegre 5-0 in a friendly, the Chileans were set to depart for Moscow on September 11. But history took an unexpected turn.

The bombs fall on the Presidential Palace

The bombs fall on the Presidential Palace

In 1970 Salvador Allende became the first democratically-elected Marxist President in Latin America. His government immediately began to enforce socialist policies. Many of Chile’s industries including the copper mines and banks were nationalized, and a land reform program was implemented. Despite support from the workers and trade unions, Allende faced huge opposition from the Army, industrialists, and Congress. To make things worse for the President, the existence of another Soviet ally in its own hemisphere did not sit well with the United States. The details of the events of September 11, 1973 remain murky. But what is known is that the Chilean military, with the tacit support of the CIA, overthrew Allende in a coup d’état led by the commander-in-chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet. As the bombs fell around him, Allende made a famous last speech inside of the under-siege presidential palace in which he defiantly refused to accept an offer of safe passage and vowed to stay in the country. Shortly afterward, he allegedly committed suicide with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro.


The military Junta immediately dissolved congress and outlawed all political parties in the Popular Unity coalition that had been allied with Allende’s government. The economic reforms of Allende were reversed. Chile adopted neo-liberal policies that opened up the country to world markets. Pinochet, who emerged as the leader of the junta, initiated a campaign of brutal repression against all political opponents including communists and trade unionists. Thousands of people were either killed or simply disappeared. The National Stadium of Santiago was converted into a detention center. Locker rooms were made into prison cells, and the velodrome was used for interrogations. Torture was rampant. Gregorio Meno Barrales, a former socialist governor of the Puente Alto locality and a victim of the regime, said of his experiences in the stadium:

Every day they let twenty, fifty people go… they called them by loudspeaker. They made them sign a document declaring that they ‘had not been poorly treated in the stadium’ (although some still had visible sings of torture and beatings). Everyone signed, it was the price you had to pay… we all hoped to hear our name in the ‘lists of freedom,’ [our sentiments] were logical and legitimate. We were guilty only of being defenders of the legitimate constitution.”

Guitarists allegedly had their fingers broken and were then forced to play their instruments. Army vehicles blasted the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at full volume to drown out the cries of the detainees. It is estimated over 40,000 people spent time in the stadium; between September 11 and November 7 alone, 12,000 people were interned there.

An event of such magnitude inevitably affected the country’s football scene. The day of the coup the Chilean national team was supposed to have a meeting at the Juan Pinto Duràn training complex to finalize the details of the trip to Moscow. But the meeting never took place. Eduardo Herrera, the left back, played club football at Wanderers of Valparaíso and was staying at Hotel Carrera, some 100 meters from the facilities. He recalls:

“When we arrived at the field the coach, Luis Álamos, ordered us to return home. But I had to return to the hotel and on the way the soldiers stopped me about 10 times. I was not arrested only because I had a bag with the inscription “Chilean National Football Team.”

Victor Jara, the iconic singer and activist, was arrested, tortured, and executed shortly after the coup. The death of Pablo Neruda, though brought on by cancer rather than the regime, was made all the more traumatic due to the fact that Pinochet refused to allow a public burial. The funeral was a muted affair, but thousands of Chileans defied the authorities and crowded the streets in mourning.

Clearly Chileans had more to worry about than the fortunes of their national team in such a tense environment, but the first leg against the Soviets was fast approaching. Several players, including Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Velíz, were well-known socialist sympathizers and feared for the safety of their families while abroad. There were doubts as to whether the match could even be played, as the junta ordered that no one be allowed to leave the country. But it just so happened that Dr. Jacobo Helo, the physician of the national side, was also the personal doctor of General Gustavo Leigh, head of the Air Force and one of the leaders of the coup. Helo convinced the general that the national team could bolster the international standing and image of the regime. The junta relented and allowed the side to travel, but with a clearly-worded warning: “If you talk, your families will suffer the consequences.”

The Chilean National Team, 1973

The Chilean National Team, 1973

Though the nature of the relationship of Chile and the USSR during the Allende presidency is a matter of historical debate, it is clear that Chile was closer to the Soviets than to the Americans. The coup changed that. As the Chileans arrived in Moscow, Washington officially recognized the junta as the legitimate government of Chile. Several days afterward the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Chile and recalled their ambassador. The climate could not have been more hostile. Two Chilean players were detained at the Sheremetyevo airport for hours for “discrepancies in their passport photos” in what was clearly a political statement.

On the 26th of September, the Lenin Stadium hosted the first leg of the World Cup qualifier. It was an unusually cold autumn in Russia; the temperature was recorded at 5 degrees below zero Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit). The Soviet Union dominated the match, but the Chileans held out for a 0-0 draw in large part due to the heroic performances of Alberto Quintano and Elìas Figueroa, the two center backs. However, the Chileans allegedly also benefited from some dubious refereeing. Hugo Gasc, the only Chilean journalist to make the trek to Moscow, later stated:

“Luckily the referee was a rabid anti-communist. Together with Francisco Fluxá, president of the delegation, we had convinced him that he could not let us lose in Moscow, and the truth is that his officiating helped us significantly.”

Everything was still up for grabs in the return leg. Despite the best efforts of the junta to keep the use of the stadium as a prison a secret, it was obvious that something was amiss and the rumors were widely reported by the international media. The Chilean football authorities proposed moving the match to Viña del Mar, but the junta insisted the match be played in Santiago to show the world that the capital was peaceful. Fluxá, the president of the federation, later revealed to a newspaper:

the soldiers told us that we could say only that the National Stadium was ‘a transit center where people without documents were identified.’ To avoid problems, we proposed the Sausalito (the stadium in Viña del Mar) as an alternative. I spoke to General Leigh and he explained to me that ‘by orders from up high we cannot have it at the Sausalito, the match takes place in the National Stadium, or it does not take place at all.’”

The Soviets and their allies in Europe and Africa launched a complaint. In a communique to FIFA, the Soviet Union announced:

The football federation of the USSR has asked the international football federation to hold the match in a third country seeing as how in the stadium, stained with the blood of the patriots of the people of Chile, Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform on moral grounds.”

In response to these complaints FIFA sent a delegation to Santiago to examine the stadium. The delegation, headed by FIFA Vice President Abilio d’Almeida and General Secretary Helmuth Kaeser, arrived in Santiago on October 24. The military did everything possible to remove all evidence that the stadium was being used as a prison and torture center. Despite the fact that there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of detainees still in the stadium, they succeeded. In a press conference given alongside the Chilean Minister of Defense, Admiral Patricio Cardajal, the FIFA officials announced “the report that we will submit to our authorities will be a reflection of what we have seen: total calm.” Whether FIFA had been successfully duped by the Chileans, or whether they were aware of the situation and simply chose to ignore it, is a question whose answer is lost to history. But what was important is that the world governing body had given the green light for the match to go ahead in Santiago; humanitarian considerations were clearly secondary.

The Soviet Union refused to travel to Santiago. The press reacted with outrage. In the weekly newspaper ‘Football-Hockey’ the journalist Lev Filatov wrote:

The day that the FIFA committee arrived in Santiago, the stadium was still being used as a concentration camp. But the delegation received guarantees from the junta that the stadium would still be free, and that the junta guarantees that the match will be held in ‘normal circumstances.’ But until this day the stadium remains a concentration camp, and bloody terror still reigns in Chile.”

Sir Stanley Rous

Sir Stanley Rous

The Soviets also speculated about the possibility of a conspiracy engineered by then FIFA President, Englishman Stanley Rous. The newspaper ‘Soviet Sport’ pointed out that Rous himself succeeded in changing the venue of a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Bulgaria from Belfast to Sheffield at the height of The Troubles. So if Rous has no qualms about holding matches at neutral stadiums in times of political upheaval, the newspaper asked, what kept him from putting pressure on the Chileans in this case? Their response was that by insisting that the match be held at the National Stadium in Chile, Rous hoped that the socialist countries would boycott the tournament. This would allow Rous’s England, who had failed to qualify, a backdoor entry into the World Cup.  Such rhetoric was widespread in the media of the Soviet Union and that of their satellite states. Perhaps the most piercing condemnation of the decision came from the East Germans, who asked FIFA if they would consider holding a match at Dachau.

The standard account of the Soviet decision seems to be that they refused to play in Santiago on humanitarian grounds; the junta was using the stadium as a prison for dissidents of the regime, and thus the Soviet Union could not in good conscience allow its sportsmen to play there. While there may certainly be an element of authenticity to this narrative, like most events of the Cold War the truth is far more ambiguous and murky than the words of a government official or the article of a censored publication suggest. An interview with Evgeny Lovchev, a defender for Spartak Moscow and the Soviet national team at the time of the events in question, sheds some light on the political realities of the situation. According to Lovchev:

our lack of desire to go up against the football players of the country that had been taken over by the dictator Pinochet was less a show of support for the opponents of the new regime and more simply the fact that the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Sports Committee feared the possibility of our defeat.”

Later in the interview, Lovchev reveals that the head coach of the side, Evgeny Goryanskiy refused to promise a victory in Santiago to the authorities, who thus refused to let the team travel to Chile. Lovchev believes that had the Soviets won the first leg in Moscow, they would have been allowed to play in Santiago. Instead, Lovchev holds the view that the party bureaucracy denied the players an opportunity to battle for a place in the competition. Fearful of a propaganda defeat to their latest Cold War adversary, the Soviet authorities opted to settle for the moral high ground and boycotted the match.

Whatever the true motives of the Soviets were,they had voluntarily given up their chance to perform at the 1974 World Cup finals. With the refusal of the Soviet Union to travel to Santiago, Chile all but qualified for the tournament. But the story does not end here. Inexplicably, on the date the 2nd leg was to take place, the Chilean players lined up in the stadium, as if there were an opponent to play.

“This game is beyond metaphor, its evil is real,” writes David Goldblatt in his Global History of Football. In the video above you can see for yourself the farce put on by General Pinochet and the junta.  The stands are half-full, the fans unenthusiastic, the players almost embarrassed to be taking part in this travesty.  Why the Chilean authorities chose to go through with the match, and why the 3-0 result usually used as the default when one team fails to show up was unused, is not known.  Perhaps the match was meant as a propaganda victory, although how rolling the ball into an empty net with no opponent in sight constitutes a propaganda victory by any stretch of the imagination is anyone’s guess.

After the match, to placate the 18,000 fans that had bought their ticket for the match but had instead witnessed a farce, a friendly was organized against the legendary Brazilian club Santos.  In what was supposed to be a celebration of their qualification to the World Cup, Chile was promptly humiliated 5-0 by the visitors.   At the World Cup in West Germany, Chile’s performance was uninspiring.  They lost to the hosts and could only manage draws against Australia and East Germany, crashing out after the first round.

Pinochet remained in power until 1990.  The Soviet regime outlasted him by one year, collapsing in 1991.  It is unlikely that we will ever discover the truth behind all of the decisions taken by the various actors in this little snippet of Cold War drama.  But one thing we can learn from this episode: sport and politics, despite claims to the contrary, are forever and inextricably tied together.  The same was true during the Cold War, and the same is true today.

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Pablo Aro Geraldes, whose wonderful article on the subject was both the inspiration for this post and provided much of the material.