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

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.

The Hungarian ‘Golden Team’: How Creativity, Joy and Self-Expression Flourished under Authoritarianism

From a Western European perspective, the Hungarian ‘golden team’ of the 1950s can seem to stand outside of history. Exotic and flamboyant, they appeared from behind the iron curtain during the darkest days of Stalinist and post-Stalinist repression, playing football that celebrated the skill of the individual and affirmed a joie de vivre that few, if any, sides have since been able to match. Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the side ceased to exist as suddenly as it had arrived.golden team

Were the Marvellous Magyars a historical aberration? A celebration the capacity of the individual spirit to retain its creativity and optimism under the most terrible repression?

For me, this traditional view of the team falls down on two levels. Firstly, by failing to recognise how the Hungarian team of the 1950s fits into a continual tradition of European football, with roots in the Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ of the 1930s, and an influence that runs through to the Dynamo Kiev and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and the Brazillian national teams of the 60s and 70s. Secondly, by downplaying the role of manager Gustav Sebes, it cannot account for the many ways in which he made the team successful because of, rather than despite, communist rule.
Anyone who doubts the greatness of the Aranycsapat need only run down some of its achievements: most goals (27) and highest average goals per game (5.4) in a single world cup final stage (both 1954); 31 games unbeaten, and only 1 defeat between 1950 and 1956 – the infamous 1954 World cup final defeat to Germany; 1952 Olympic champions, and of course the famous 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England.

This success was achieved due to superior levels of fitness and technique, as well as decisive tactical innovations – three factors that are directly attributable to the manager Gustav Sebes.
With an unimpeachable pre-war background as a trade union organiser in Paris, Sebes was handed complete control of the national side by the authorities, and was able to use all the levers of state power to shape the team in his image. Recognising the benefits of an international side that played together regularly, (as the Italian and Austrian National sides had in the 1930s) he ensured that the bulk of the national side would all play for the same club. When Hungarian football clubs were nationalised in 1949, Sebes was instrumental in ensuring that Honved became the army club, and he subsequently directed conscription to bring together most of the best players available. Ferenc Puskas and Jozsef Bozsik were already at Honved, and Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor, Laszlo Budai, Gyula Lorant and Gyula Grosics were all conscripted to the club.

Honved players were given military ranks, and subject to a full-time fitness regime and advanced dietary techniques to ensure that they were able to maintain a high tempo for 90 minutes. A master of detail, Sebes prepared for the 1953 match against England by training with the heavier balls that were in use in England, and on a pitch with the exact dimensions of Wembley. Sebes also instigated technical training, with the intention that his players would have a core set of skills that would enable them to play in any position. This underpinned his key tactical innovation – the withdrawn centre forward, that so perplexed England’s back line in 1953 and 1954, (although some credit for this innovation must also go to Marton Bukovi, who had used a similar formation at MTK). This expectation that players have the skills to play in many different positions on the pitch clearly anticipates the philosophies of the Ajax and Dynamo Kiev teams of the 1970s. Whilst our modern eyes might see the flamboyance and improvisation of the Golden Team as the antithesis of uniformist Stalinism, for Sebes his team were playing ‘socialist football’ – each pulling an equal weight, each able to play in any position, and no one position or player privileged over his teammates.

More than any other Warsaw Pact nation, Hungary carried the legacy of the first great flowering of cultured and intellectualised football in inter-war Vienna, although Budapest was far behind Vienna in the Danubian School hierarchy. Direct links can be traced through some of the players and managers who were influential on the development of the Golden Team – for example, Bela Guttman, who popularised the formation that led Brazil to their breakthrough World Cup victory in 1958, had played in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, and managed a young Ferenc Puskas at Kispest FC in 1947-8 until he left the club after falling out with his star player.

In seeking to understand how the Aranycsapat flourished, it is also useful to have a better understanding of political developments in Hungary between 1945 and 1956. Stalinist communism did not arrive fully formed in Hungary in 1945, rather, the country went through four distinct phases: firstly a multi-party democracy led by the Independent Smallholders’ Association that lasted until 1949, followed by a period of nationalisations, repression and purges under the newly declared People’s Republic of Hungary, then a period of reformism that developed under Prime Minister Imre Nagy after Stalin’s death in 1953, and lasted until the revolution and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1956. The 1956 revolution finally brought the disintegration of the Golden Team – when Soviet Troops invaded Hungary, the bulk of the team were out of the country playing against Athletic Bilbao in the first round of the European Cup. Rather than return to the country, the team embarked on a fundraising tour (managed by Bela Guttman for the South American leg) before they went their separate ways. Although banned from football for two years, most resurrected their careers in Western Europe – Puskas in particular achieving a second greatness at Real Madrid.

Throughout these tumultuous political circumstances, Sebes was able to make use of all the advantages of authoritarianism to create a disciplined, well-trained team. Whilst with hindsight, it is easy for us to see the free-flowing attacking football they played as anathema to our usual ideas of grim Soviet uniformity, Sebes himself was a committed socialist, who felt that his team was an expression of the most positive factors of a collectivist philosophy. It does not take too much of a leap of the imagination to see the Golden Team as representatives of the more liberal and pluralist form of socialism that was being developed by Marshal Tito across the border in Yugoslavia, and which was a model for many in the reformist movement in Hungary during this period.

O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa

This is part 3 of a 3 part series

Read Part 1 : European Cup: Early Iberian Successes

Read Part 2 : La Época Dorada del Real Madrid: 1955-60

As incredible as Real Madrid’s five consecutive trophies were, it was inevitable that they would be toppled. Amongst an extremely competitive playing field, were an impressive Hamburg side, inspired by Uwe Seeler, arch-rivals Barcelona with their skilful Hungarian imports and the newly-crowned 1959/60 champions of England, Harry Potts’ Burnley side. In order to bolster his squad Potts made his first cash signing for the Clarets before the 1959/60 season. He splashed out £5,000 to secure the services of Alex Elder. He wouldn’t make a cash signing again for eight years. Anyway, I digress. The side that stepped up to the plate and took the European crown were the leading club from the other Iberian capital, Lisbon.

Benfica became the second side from the Peninsula to make their mark on the European Cup, quickly establishing themselves on the international stage as a formidable opponent. To this day the Portuguese side boast one of the highest memberships of any club in the world, and enjoy a huge national and international fanbase on the basis of their all-conquering twice European Champions side. The Lisbon club went on to contest five European Cup finals in the 1960s (more than any other club in that period, Internazionale and Real Madrid having played in three).

eusebio guttmann

Eusebio pictured with Bela Guttman and Mário Coluna (right)

Their success was built upon a number of factors, not least the forward-thinking tactical acumen of Bela Guttmann. If Real were astute in bringing Hungary’s finest player to their club in the late fifties, Benfica’s decision to hire (arguably) Hungary’s most innovative coach, Guttman was certainly no less influential.

Guttmann, a Jewish Hungarian, acquired his ideas during a playing career that began and finished predictably with two of the top Jewish clubs of the time (Budapest’s MTK Hungaria and Hakoah Vienna). In between two spells with the Vienna club Guttman even played in the American Soccer league turning out for the Brooklyn Wanderers and the New York Giants in the twenties, and winning honours with both.

Guttmann’s career would really take off, however, as a manager. Guttman’s arduous and nomadic apprenticeship saw him manage (in this order) Hakoah Vienna, Enschede (now FC Twente), Hakoah Vienna (again), Újpest, Vasas, Ciocanul Bucharest, Újpest (again), Kispest, Padova, Triestina, Quilmes (Argentina), Peñarol (Uruguay), APOEL Nicosia, Milan, Vicenza, Honvéd, São Paulo and Porto from 1933 to 1959, in between fleeing Nazi persecution before and during the Second World War.

Clearly not one to get too romantically attached to one place, Guttmann employed a synthesis of styles carefully honed during his frequent travels to trial and successfully incorporate the 4-2-4 system that would successfully conquer Europe for Benfica.

A formidable front-line of central strikers Eusébio da Silva Ferreira and José Águas, flanked by José Augusto and António José Simões would terrorise the defences of Europe during the 1960s.

After the 1962 triumph, Guttmann became all too acutely aware of his value to the operation, duly beginning negotiations to up his salary to a level commensurate with his value and contribution to the club. Guttman, however, was not noted for his modesty. In fact he could be seen as an early precursor to the great Brian Clough or José Mourinho in the egomaniac stakes.

Benfica’s hierarchy, operating in a nationalistic environment, were never likely to grant Guttmann his wish, and as the Hungarian’s history suggests, he was happy to move on once again to pastures new. Upon leaving Guttmann felt fit to offer his skills as a clairvoyant in assessing ‘os encarnados’ chances for the forthcoming century in the following infamous statement:

Nos próximos 100 anos, o Benfica não voltará a ser campeão europeu (In the next 100 years Benfica won’t be the champions of Europe again)

As is well known and documented, to date, this has proved true with Benfica ending as losing finalists in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1988 and 1990 (not forgetting 1983 and 2013 of course) respectively.

If the wily Guttman’s accrued tactical nous was pivotal in Benfica’s triumph then the influence of the geo-political factors that allowed the Lisbon club to pluck the finest talent from the countries ‘overseas provinces’, specifically Angola and Mozambique, must also be acknowledged and analysed.

As most of the colonial powers retreated from empire in the aftermath of World War II, António de Oliveira Salazar clung on to Portugal’s splintered empire by means of rebranding its subjugated colonies as a single national state spread across continents.

Salazar’s one-party corporatist authoritarian Estado Novo (new state) was fiercely criticised by the international community. The regime’s brutal repression of civil liberties and political freedom gave rise to decades of closed isolationism, poverty and repression for the Portuguese people.

Indeed, up until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 the Estado Novo ensured that Portugal pursued an integralist path privileging monarchism, conservatism, steep hierarchical structure and Roman Catholicism and systematically marginalising all its opponents ranging from Anti-Colonialist movements,  Trade Unionism, Marxism, Womens’ Movements, Social Democracy, Secularism, Progressivism or any other pluralist tendency with the potential to encourage diversity or social equality.

Logically enough, any such authoritarian regime could not function without a sinister underhand secret service with the sole objective of protecting the regime through a combination of terror tactics and victimising known organised opposition. The PIDE (Policia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado – International and Defence of State Police) took charge of ruthlessly eliminating ideological opponents of the regime. Political prisoners were taken to Tarrafal (Cape Verde) where they were routinely torture and often never seen again..

Against this backdrop the (economically and mentally) impoverished Portuguese masses needed an outlet for their frustrations and some escapism from the horror of everyday life. As a result of the political travails, the successes achieved by Benfica were a release valve for the entire nation, not only in the capital Lisbon. This explains, in large part, a phenomenon that is clearly reflected in the incredible number of Benfiquistas both nationally and internationally today. If one club can be said to have embodied Portugal socially and culturally, it could only be Benfica.

The socio-political situation in Portugal was inseparable from the rise of Benfica. Just a couple of months after even Conservative leader Harold Macmillan had begrudgingly conceded the death knell of English colonialism with his Cape Town ‘wind of change’ speech, Benfica were fielding a side featuring a spine of players plucked from Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique) and Portuguese Angola.

Beyond dispute is the fact that the Salazar regime left Portugal as a pariah state in Western Europe. Right-wing dictatorship in Spain and Portugal comfortably outlasted its equivalents in Germany and Italy, and inevitably left a stronger imprint on Spanish and Portuguese Society respectively.

Portugal’s long colonial history had left behind a mixed legacy, not only at home but also abroad. Vasco Da Gama’s voyages during what Europeans call the Age of Discovery were eulogised in Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Luís Vaz de Camões and Portugal’s place in history was secured. Portuguese colonial history differed fundamentally from that of other European powers as they were more prone to miscigenação (miscegenation).

According to eminent Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre this was, in great part, down to the historical miscegenation in Portugal, dating back to the Moors and the Romans. Freyre spoke of a Lusotropicalism in the following idealistic terms:

‘Given the unique cultural and racial background of metropolitan Portugal, Portuguese explorers and colonizers demonstrated a special ability – found among no other people in the world – to adapt to tropical lands and peoples’

The Portuguese colonizer, basically poor and humble, did not have the exploitive motivations of his counterpart from the more industrialized countries in Europe. Consequently, he immediately entered into cordial relations with non-European populations he met in the tropics. This is clearly demonstrated through Portugal’s initial contacts with the Bakongo Kingdom in the latter part of the fifteenth century. The ultimate proof of the absence of racism among the Portuguese, however, is found in Brazil, whose large and socially prominent mestiço population is living testimony to the freedom of social and sexual intercourse between Portuguese and non-Europeans’

Freyre’s romanticised multi-racial theories were long ignored by the Portuguese regime, as they touched on truths inconvenient to a fascist regime’s ideology.

In the early 1950s, however, looking for justification for a prolonged Portuguese presence in Africa, a simplified and decidedly nationalistic slant on Lusotropicalism , re-branded as Portugalidade (Portugueseness), was opportunistically appropriated by the regime and the Estatuto da Indigena (Statute for Indigenous peoples) was quickly rushed out to formalise the rights of indigenous people in Portugal’s colonies. Hitherto they were neither recognised with citizenship nor benefitted from any civil or legal rights. Even after this, as will be seen later, the rights of those in the ‘provinces’ were still significantly inferior to those of metropolitan Portuguese, as one might expect in a Fascist dictatorship.

The Machievelian attempt to re-brand Portugal’s empire as one big happy family may have convinced a domestic audience with access to a limited amount of information, but in Africa, in the wake of several successful independence movements in neighbouring countries, a revolutionary consciousness was beginning to develop.

In Guinea-Bissau revolutionary socialist Amilcar Cabral was stirring the masses towards liberation. Cabral and many of his freewheeling milieu spoke of a battle not against Portugal and its people, but against Portuguese colonialism. Inspired by leaders advocating Pan-Africanism like Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, the seeds were sown for a long battle for independence.

The early sixties also provided a literary angle to the revolutionary struggle. In Lourenço Marques (the Portuguese name for Maputo), Mozambican writer Luis Bernardo Honwana wrote Nós Matámos o Cão-Tinhoso ,1964 (We killed the mangy dog), a subtle metaphorical social critique which belies its rather simple title.

The ‘mangy dog’ represents the decadent system of Portuguese Colonialism. Honwana’s collection of short-stories exposes the crude racial hierarchy operating in Portuguese colonial society. The characters represent their respective positions in the divisive social hierarchy, namely branco (white), assimilado (assimilated), indígena (indigenous) and mestiço (mixed race), all with their attendant rights and status. Honwana depicts a Portuguese Colonialism worlds apart from the idealism of Freyre, which so suited the needs of the dictatorship back in Portugal.


Luis Bernardo Honwana, an influential writer and FRELIMO militant

A number of Portuguese African writers began to articulate a multitude of issues ranging from the treatment of women to the need to change the economic and political systems within the countries. Agostinho Neto was so popular that he met Che Guevara and became Angola’s first post-independence leader. Paulina Chiziane became the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel. Jose Craiverinha became attached to the Négritude movement that had gathered pace in Francophone Africa.

However, significantly from a footballing perspective, the statute for indigenous peoples allowed the assimilation of ‘culturally Europeanised’ indigenous people. The idea of the mixed race pluricontinental state free from prejudice, seems rather undermined by the premise that in order to reach the highest cultural level, it is necessary to Europeanise culturally, but this is the perverse logic of a fascist dictatorship. In any case this law opened the door for a number of Portuguese Africa’s finest footballers to ply their trade in Europe, a move that would prove pivotal in Benfica’s emergence as a power of European football.

This thinly veiled prolongation of colonialism meant that Portuguese teams were able to draw upon (read: steal) from a large catchment area of untapped African talent, a situation that has only intensified rather than disappeared in the supposedly post-colonial world we inhabit today.

One of the great pioneer African players in European football was Larbi Ben Barek. The Maghrebi superstar was hugely successful in both France and Spain enjoying memorable spells with Marseille and Atletico Madrid among others. It’s worth noting that the introduction of African born players to Portuguese players pre-dates Eusebio by some time.

One of the first ‘culturally Europeanised’ players, Sebastião Lucas da Fonseca, better known as Matateu, was the first import of note. Spotted playing in his native Lourenço Marques (modern-day Maputo). The man they called a oitava maravilha do mundo (the eighth wonder of the world), was a prolific goalscorer in Portuguese football, scoring 218 times in 289 outings for Belenenses and twice securing the prestigious Bola da Prata (Silver Ball) awarded to the leading goalscorer in Portuguese Football. He also represented the Portuguese national team, again scoring 13 in 27 goals, proving his prowess on the international stage. This successful foray into Portuguese East Africa encouraged other Portuguese clubs to cast an eye over the best their colonies (or overseas provinces) could offer.

The eventual emergence of Eusebio in African football can be traced back to Hilário, (not Chelsea’s 3rd goalkeeper but rather Hilário Rosário da Conceição) who offered to arrange a trial for Eusebio with Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting Lisbon), where he had been playing since 1959.


Salazar and Franco

Hilario knew of Eusebio through the Sporting Lourenço Marques club. Eusébio, naturally, was flattered and very much interested in the move. When he arrived in Lisbon it quickly became apparent that Sporting were not the only team interested. Legend has it the young Mozambican fled to a quiet village in the Algarve while the ensuing battle for his signature unravelled.

Why he instead signed for Benfica, is subject to intense argument and counter-argument, insult and counter-insult. What is for sure, is that Sporting’s loss was Benfica’s gain. The legendary marksman made an instant impact at the Estádio da Luz where he would score an incredible 462 goals in 437 appearances. His legend was made, however, on the European stage, where Benfica would reach two consecutive finals in 1961 and 1962.

In the 1961 final Barcelona, with two prominent members of the Aranycsapat (Kocsis and Czibor) at their disposal, were unable to contain a Benfica side with a beautiful balance of guile, brute force and stamina. Mário Coluna, fittingly, would score the decisive goal, adding to an unfortunate own goal attributed to Barcelona goalkeeper and captain Antoni Ramallets and an early equaliser from Benfica skipper José Águas. The victory sparked wild celebrations in Lisbon, as the Portuguese side announced their arrival on the international scene.

A year later, in the final, against Real, a classic of European Football was witnessed. The five times champions, battled their way to the final with a number of survivors from the great 1950s squad, including Puskas, Di Stefano, Santamaria and Gento. A clash between the five times winners and the defending champions, appeared mouth-watering, and wouldn’t let down an expectant public.

The man from Mafalala (a suburb of Maputo which would go on to be a flashpoint in the nascent struggle for Mozambican Independence) struck twice at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium to deny Real’s veteran hitman Ferenc Puskas who had scored a first half hat-trick for the Madrid club. Benfica toppled Real 5-3 in a classic topsy-turvy final,

On both occasions Benfica were unable to crown their European victory with an Intercontinental Cup victory, falling to the Peñarol of Alberto Spencer in 1961 and the Santos of Pelé and Coutinho  in 1962.

Eusebio, in fact, first figured on Pelé’s radar when Santos met Benfica in 1961. The Brazilians ran out 6-3 winners thanks to the brilliance of Coutinho and Pelé, but Benfica’s young substitute caught the eye, grabbing a 20 minute hat-trick after coming off the bench.

His debut in Portugal was also marked with a hat-trick. Luckily, such was his quality, he continued to dazzle, eventually gaining the title ‘O Rei (the King). Not a bad title for a black African in a fascist dictatorship.

Of course, one man does not a team make. The African contingent in the Benfica side also included the not inconsiderable presence of Mario Coluna in the midfield, Alberto da Costa Pereira in goal (plucked from Clube Ferroviário de Lourenço-Marques, the capital’s railway team) and the Angolans wing-forward José Águas and Joaquim Santana, who both hail from the port town of Lobito.

Added to that, the tricky, diminutive António Simões, who was known in Portuguese football circles as the giant gnome. Simões is currently assistant to Carlos Queiroz, who looks on course to take the Iranian national team to Brazil 2014.

Coluna was known as ‘o monstrous sagrado’ (the sacred monster – doesn’t translate so well). His physical presence, stamina and strength made him (literally) an enormous asset in midfield. Comfortably transcending the narrow stereotype of the modern African midfielder, Coluna possessed a rare poise in the middle of the field. His elegant control of the ball gave himself time to rifle in powerful long-range efforts or pick out dangerous passes to play in a team-mate.

Coluna’s significance doesn’t end with his on-field ability though. The gentle giant from Mozambique personifies the international, universal appeal of Benfica. During the prolonged struggle for Mozambican Independence, Coluna joined FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique – Mozambican Liberation Front) to fight against the Portuguese. He speaks about his experience:

“Convidaram-me para ser membro do Partido FRELIMO e deputado da Assembleia da República. Aceitei. Atribuíram-me a ‘Ordem Eduardo Mondlane do Terceiro Grau’, a mais alta condecoração do Estado, mas não se recordam em devolver o meu prédio, que comprei com dinheiro de futebol” (They called me up into FRELIMO. I accepted, they gave me the Third Grade Eduardo Mondlane Order, which is the highest state decoration, but they didn’t remember to return me my house. The one I bought with the money I earned playing football) Mário Coluna

Coluna’s remarkable life saw him move from being twice Champion of Europe living in a right-wing dictatorship to being a relatively wealthy citizen in a fledgling independent nation swinging dramatically to the left under staunch Marxist Samora Michel. Mozambique became a strong ally with Cuba, and the country that he left was no longer recognisable to him.

“Nasci em Magude e depois vim para Lourenço Marques (hoje Maputo) aos 4 anos. Quero fazer chegar ao meu Governo que voltei a Moçambique porque nasci aqui. Sou bem-vindo no Benfica de Portugal com direito à casa e dinheiro, mas preferi voltar para minha terra” (I was born in Magude, and then I moved to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) at 4 years old. I want my government to know I returned to Mozambique because I was born here. I am welcome at Benfica with rights to a house and with money, but I preferred to return to my homeland.

Coluna however, remains in Mozambique, loyal to his homeland. In sharp contrast, Eusebio, pragmatically and diplomatically, has opted for the relative comfort of life in Portugal.

Eusebio is, beyond any reasonable doubt, Portugal’s greatest ever player, not only because he was part of the great Benfica side that secured Portugal’s first European Cup triumphs but also because he brought his form onto the national stage. The recent pretender Ronaldo, of course, has also reached a World Cup Semi Final, but he has not lit up a World Cup in the way that Eusebio did in England in 1966.

Eusebio took the Golden Boot for his 9 goals, including 4 in a memorable comeback from 3-0 down in the Quarter Final against North Korea. He also won the heart of the Portuguese public in the Jogo das Lágrimas (Game of the Tears) against England in 1966. The young striker broke down in a Gazza-esque outburst at the end of the game, clearly displaying his loyalty to the motherland. To this day the Portuguese complain bitterly at the eleventh-hour change of venue which allowed England to remain in London and meant Portugal had to travel down from Liverpool to face their opponents.

Incidentally, in the same game, in an act of conspicuously un-Corinthian spirit, Jackie Charlton handled the ball on the line (in much the same way as Luis Suarez did in South Africa) but was greeted by a shamelessly unrepentant ‘oh Jackie Charlton had to do that’ from Kenneth Wolstenholme. Any possibility of controversy was buried by the fact that Eusebio (unlike Asamoah Gyan) comfortably tucked away the resulting penalty, but the incident was symptomatic of the English double-standards that reigned under Stanley Rous, and continue in our parochial mentality to this day.

Portugal, of course,  would enjoy a revenge of sorts, deservedly edging out England in consecutive Penalty Shoot-Outs after 2-2 draws in 2004 and 2006.

The great Portuguese returned to Wembley in 1968 to face Manchester United. In the dying minutes, with the sides deadlocked at 1-1, the deadly finisher par-excellence uncharacteristically hammered his shot directly at Alex Stepney, who gratefully collected, allowing United to re-group for Extra Time, where they ran out comfortable 4-1 winners thanks to the genius of Best, Charlton and Law. More characteristically, the assimilated Portuguese gentleman generously congratulated the Englishman on the save, ensuring a continuance of jolly Anglo-Portuguese relations, an enduring diplomatic alliance, which began with the Windsor Treaty of 1386.

When the great Real Madrid and Benfica sides of the early days of the European Cup are remembered, two of the three best remembered players in the Madrid side hail from outside of Europe (and others besides), whilst the Benfica side boasted four or five key players that were born in Africa. Without these key additions it is dubious whether the Iberian Peninsula could have denied the rest of the continent a success in the opening seven years of the tournament.

Whilst there is much to celebrate and admire in the respective histories of Real Madrid and Benfica it is important that the overarching themes of the era are not lost in the annals of history. At a time when the legacy of Civil War, dictatorship and colonialism is hotly contested, it is important that a balanced picture of history, and by extension footballing history, emerges.

Recently Madrid has seen the unveiling of Margaret Thatcher Street and the removal of a monument celebrating the role of International Brigade Volunteers on the Republican side. Knowing the pettiness of Spanish Politics it is not inconceivable these two moves be reversed once again the next time the left takes power.

What is surely more important is to be able to view history in a detached balance way, without airbrushing inconvenient truths out, such as the manifest racism towards the great majority of people in Portugal’s colonies at the time of Benfica’s rise. The fact that Coluna fought against Portugal in his country’s war for independence makes him no less of a hero at the Estádio da Luz. It is simply historical fact. The Benfica team were aided greatly by the intransigent undemocratic leadership of that era, though the country surely suffered greatly.

The importation and integration of players from ex-colonies has long been an advantage for Spanish and Portuguese clubs, and remains so today, owing to linguistic and cultural common ground with the world’s second great footballing continent. The accompanying ease of gaining dual nationality for players from ex-colonies has served them well in comparison to. English clubs, for example, who have been unable to benefit to the same extent as each of their significant colonies has, if not actively rejected football, then certainly embraced other sports to a greater degree, and thus haven’t proved fertile ground for the importation of players. Even with the insane wealth of Manchester City, it is unlikely that, given the choice, the next Neymar or Messi would opt for England over Mediterranean Europe. Allied to this is the role of tactical innovation and re-invention of the sides that has best allowed the players from other continents to express themselves.

Real Madrid and Benfica can thank, in no small part, their early European victories for their hegemonic position in their respective countries. Their aloof, aristocratic position in the hierarchy, if anything, will probably be protected, rather than challenged by the disingenuous FFP initiative. It stands to reason that the status quo will only be protected by a rule that allows the biggest clubs to continue spending their immense gains from gate receipts and merchandising and the smaller clubs to struggle by on their meagre earnings. The hugely unequal distribution of television monies on the Iberian Peninsula can only exacerbate this, meaning the only clubs under any threat are the nouveau riche who are spending considerably beyond their means, and don’t have the guaranteed revenue streams of the traditional clubs.

Regarding Africa and Latin America, the plundering of the best talent ensures that national leagues in those continents are blocked from reaching anything like the standard of those in Europe and means that the countries’ only chance of putting one over on their ex-colonial masters is in international competition. This fact, in large part, explains the disparity in passion for the national team between African and Latin American countries, where it represents the only chance to put one over on the old world, to Europe, where international football is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, particularly in countries where the national side is mired in mediocrity, that is only magnified by the presence of the world’s finest talent in the club league.

Of course, there is never a shortage of people happy to criticise our larger football clubs for their exploitation of the flagrant inequalities that govern the common migration patterns we see with players today. Realistically, however, the problem starts and ends where football and society intersect. The existence of gross infrastructural and economic inequalities are not the fault of football clubs, but rather generations of politicians, people and companies with their cronyism, clientelism, corruption and exploitation.  An intransigent, corrupt, bloated organisation like FIFA doesn’t help, but the real problems lie with our governments. Until they are tackled clubs like Benfica and Real Madrid will continue to sweep up the best talent from wherever they are allowed to by the socio-economic conditions.

La Época Dorada del Real Madrid: 1955-60

This is part 2 of a 3 part series.

Read Part 1 : European Cup: Early Iberian Successes

Read Part 3 : O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa

Continental competition in Europe and the época dorada (golden era) of Real Madrid began in 1955 propelled by the genius of their new signings from South America: Alfredo Di Stefano (recruited from Colombia’s Millonarios), and his compatriot Hector Rial (from Nacional of Uruguay).

The two Argentine imports would play a pivotal role in carving out Real Madrid’s reputation today as the aristocrats of European football, a superclub which almost every player in world football would aspire to represent.

Los Merengues, though, only really took off under the leadership of Santiago Bernabéu. Until then they had lived in the shadows of Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona and their potential for propaganda usage had not registered with the regime.


Bernabéu set out immediately to improve the club’s long-term prospects by planning an enormous new stadium on the Paseo de la Castellana at Chamartín, the club’s traditional home. The well-connected Real supremo and his cohort Rafael Salgado obtained credit from Banco Mercantil, allowing the club to re-locate to a newer much bigger site. The stadium opened as the New Chamartín, but would eventually be named after Bernabéu.

An important turning point in the club’s history occurred when Di Stefano famously finished up at Real Madrid after protracted negotiations with Barcelona in Bogotá, where he had been playing since a footballers strike broke out in 1949 in his native Argentina. Santiago Bernabéu took advantage of the indecision, persuading Di Stefano to sign for the Madrid club instead.

It is alleged that an agreement existed whereby Di Stefano would play 2 years at Madrid and then 2 years at Barcelona. This was a response to the Spanish Federation’s law preventing foreign players from appearing in the Spanish League. It is to be noted that a number of foreign players (particularly from South America) mysteriously became Spanish citizens on the strength of the most tenuous evidence. Once again, footballing history would repeat itself many times over.

Barcelona and Real Madrid’s tug-of-war to bring the best talent over from the new world was not only a prelude to many an off-the-field battle between the two hegemons, but also a tacit acknowledgment of the strength of the Latin American game at that time. After World War Two, South America stole a march on the decimated nations of Europe, and it was no coincidence that the 1950 World Cup final, known in Brazil as el maracanazo, was contested by two South American sides.

The rivalry between the cities Barcelona and Madrid was already well established, based on historical enmity and tensions existing at the time between Madrid, from where Franco’s centralist authoritarian administration operated and Barcelona, where the Catalan people’s language and culture was fiercely repressed.

di stefReal Madrid as an institution has a mixed and complex history, but in the eyes of many observers outside the capital, they were (and still are) the team of the establishment. The Madrid club were under the presidency of Santiago Bernabéu, for many the personification Spanish upper class arrogance. Bernabéu fought on the nationalist (fascist) side in the Civil War, was a very well connected Castillian with no interest in recognising historical regional differences within Spain and seemed to represent the bloated oligarchy that had ruled Spain prior to the establishment of the Second Republic.

In the inaugural European final Real overcame a prodigiously talented Stade Reims of France by four goals to three. Inevitably Di Stefano was on the scoresheet cancelling out Leblond’s early goal for the French side, but Hector Rial would be the hero scoring the decisive goal eleven minutes from time.

Though Real Madrid emerged as the first ever European Cup winner it wasn’t without suffering defeats, 3-0 away in Belgrade defending a lead of four and a 2-1 defeat in Milan again emerging by a single goal on aggregate. Indeed in the final of the competition they trailed 2-0 to Stade Reims to eventually emerge victorious 4-3 in a thrilling final.

The following year the Madrid club would appear again in the final, with an even stronger starting eleven, having snapped up one of the best players from the previous year’s final opposition Raymond Kopa. Kopa (real name Kopaszewski) was one of a number of Polish migrant coalworkers in France (a legacy of the inter-war years). He went on to be integral to a great French side in the 50s and was a winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1958.

Madrid retained comfortably against Fiorentina the year after in front of 124,000 Madridistas at the Bernabéu. Franco himself was in attendance to hand the trophy down to captain Miguel Muñoz, sealing a huge propaganda victory for the regime. The presence of foreign players was glossed over, as nationalism won the day.

Following the winning policy, they once again looked to the New World to reinforce their squad in the summer. Nacional of Uruguay (a pre-eminent club at the time) were raided again, with tough defender Jose Santamaria (nicknamed La Pared – the wall) bolstering the Madrid back-line. He would be a mainstay for the best part of a decade. By this time they even had an Argentine coach, Luis Carniglia, a great clue to the tempo and style of the football they played.

Amazingly they retained once again, though only after a great scare from Milan who took the all-whites to Extra-time. A Spaniard, Francisco Gento, fired the winner on this occasion and Madrid’s third successive triumph was secured. Gento, incidentally, would go on to be the only Real player to win 6 European Cups, after taking part in the 1965/66 triumph against Partizan Belgrade, in a side managed by ex-captain Miguel Muñoz.

In 1958, far from resting on their laurels, they realised that to retain the trophy they would have to continue to evolve. The Real leadership then took an inspired gamble, recruiting then 31 year old Ferenc Puskás, star of the Mighty Magyar team that so comprehensively brought England to their knees at Wembley in 1953. Puskás had starred in Hungary’s run to the 1954 World Cup final, where they collapsed against West Germany in spectacular fashion.

The plundering of South America continued, with Racing Club’s Rogelio Dominguez and America Football Club’s (of Rio de Janeiro) Canario was brought in. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it as the cliché goes. The all-whites once again defeated Stade Reims, notably, on this occasion, with four South Americans amongst their ranks.

Di Stefano scored in each of the first five European Cup Finals, culminating spectacularly in a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the eulogised 7-3 victory at Hampden Park in 1960. This would have been a record, but for the fact that Puskás too, had completed his hat-trick a few minutes earlier. The Hungarian even added another for good measure to complete a record that still stands today.

Alex Ferguson suggested, after his side were systemically dismantled by Barcelona in the 2011 Final, that great sides go in cycles. As Barcelona have discovered on the continental stage, all great cycles must come to an end however. By 1960 Di Stefano was 34 and Puskás 33. It was time for another side to step up, and that is just what Benfica did.

The greatest myth surrounding the Real Madrid team of the fifties is that of their connection to General Franco. A great majority of the evidence, from both Spanish Historians and Franco’s biographer Paul Preston suggest that his interest in football was minimal. That however does not mean that he was not prepared to use the success of Madrid for propaganda purposes. The fame of the Madrid team was exploited to the full by Franco, as was the Spanish national team’s victory in the European Championship, symbolically against the communist USSR in 1960.

The mythology and pressure that accompanies Real Madrid in Europe can largely be attributed to the club’s domination in the early years. The team that finally loosened their grip on the trophy, arch-rivals Barcelona, knocked the seemingly invincible Madrid side off their perch in the first round proper of the 1960/61 tournament with a decisive goal by Brazilian Evaristo de Macedo in front of an estimated 120,000 at Camp Nou.

The Catalans had also looked abroad to gain an early stranglehold on European competition. To compliment the great Galician Luis Suarez they had strengthened their side with two players who never returned to their then-Communist homeland after the great Honved tour of the 1950s. Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, two of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ that shook the football world by humbling England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest’s Nepstadion in 1954, joined the Azulgrana to form a formidable front line.

If the early Spanish successes can be, in part, explained by their astuteness in bringing in the best talent from abroad (predominantly South America), what of Benfica?