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.
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.
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.