The End of History and the 1990 World Cup

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


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

Italia 90: The Last Throes of Socialist Football

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


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

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

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

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


Zvonimir Boban becomes a hero

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

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

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

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

The Luzhniki Disaster: Football’s Chernobyl

Ever since 25 people lost their lives at Ibrox stadium in Glasgow when the West Stand collapsed during a match between Scotland and England in 1902, the history of football has been plagued by all manners of stadium disasters. All around the world, from Nepal to Buenos Aires, from Johannesburg to Sheffield, fans have gone to see a game of football and did not come back. Some of the more prominent of these catastrophes are household names to even the casual fan; the Heysel disaster was the catalyst for the banishment of English clubs from European competition, while the victims of the Hillsborough disaster have only recently been vindicated and absolved of the vile allegations brought upon them by The Sun. The Luzhniki Disaster of 1982 in Moscow is not one such household name; for nearly a decade, in fact, even Soviet citizens were unaware that something dreadful had occurred at the stadium on October 20 of that year. It was not until the reforms of Gorbachev that the press began to report on the disaster and the people learned the truth, or as close to the truth as was possible so many years removed from the tragedy.  The Luzhniki disaster, its subsequent cover up, and the much delayed unmasking of the truth offer a glimpse into 1980s Soviet society, from the secrecy and tenseness of the late Brezhnev years through the relative openness and liberalism of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Its social and political significance was not lost on the football historian David Goldblatt, who has deemed it ‘football’s Chernobyl.’

The Match

October 20, 1982, was an unseasonably cold autumn day in Moscow.  The temperature was −10 °C, just two degrees warmer than the record low for that date, recorded in 1898.  It is no surprise then, that Spartak’s second round UEFA Cup tie against HFC Haarlem was sparsely attended.  Only 16,500 fans showed up, compared to the 68,500 who were at Spartak’s 3-2 defeat of Arsenal in the first round in September in much milder conditions.  Viktor Kokryshev, then the director of the Grand Sports Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, as the Luzhniki was then known, recalls:

“There was a lot of snow, and it was cold, about 10 degrees below freezing.  Before the beginning of the match we were able to clear only two stands: the East stand and the West stand.  I called my former classmate from the Institute of Physical Education, Vyacheslav Koloskov, and suggested changing the venue of the match.  ‘Not enough time, UEFA won’t agree to it,’ he replied.  There weren’t many fans, about 16.5 thousand.  The majority, about 12,000, decided to go to the East stand and filled it up about halfway.  After the recently held Olympics, when the Luzhniki was filled up to capacity, the situation did not look dangerous.”

The Luzhniki Stadium

The Luzhniki Stadium

Spartak took the lead in the 16th minute through Edgar Gess and did not relinquish their advantage.  Some fans, eager to escape the harsh conditions, began to make for the exit shortly before full time.  Sergei Shevtsov added a second goal for Spartak to make it 2-0 with seconds remaining.  But by then, the tragedy was well under way.

The Disaster 

Over 30 years on, it is extraordinarily difficult to separate the truth from the fiction and obtain an accurate picture of what transpired on that day.  The only facts are that 66 people lost their lives on that day, and 61 more were injured in a crush on their way out of the stadium.  Even these figures are subject to debate, but are generally accepted, including by the late Leonid Romanov, former head of the Spartak fan club.

Beyond the number of casualties, however, the details of the disaster remain muddled by cover up and misinformation.  In an article for The Guardian on the 25th anniversary, Jonathan Wilson writes that Shvetsov’s goal was at least somewhat responsible for the tragedy because fans who were already on their way out of the ground turned around and were met by “a wall of spectators still set on leaving.”  Shvetsov himself regrets the goal, saying “it would have been better if I had not scored it.”

While it is impossible to prove that the last minute goal had no effect on the tragedy, Aleksandr Shpeyer, the detective appointed by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office to lead the investigation, vehemently denies that it had anything to do with the disaster.  In an interview he gave to the newspaper Izvestiya in 1989, Shpeyer claimed that the goal:

“did not exacerbate the situation, but perhaps even alleviated it.  Many of the fans who were leaving from the upper tier into the passageway ran back [because of the goal] and relieved the pressure on those who were already descending the stairs.  Downstairs, among the mass of people, within the crush, it was impossible to even turn your head, or turn around, or certainly not to go in the opposite direction, as some claim.”

When asked about the cause of the tragedy, Shpeyer simply responded:

“It was, of course, a tragic accident.  It is impossible to always prevent such events.  But to do everything possible to prevent them, this is the responsibility of the heads of the sporting and cultural facilities.”

Shpeyer, in addition, contends that all the gates were open; the majority of the fans simply chose to utilize the one closest to the Metro station.  Such a simple explanation absolves the authorities of any responsibility and reduces the entire affair to a matter of chance.  A convenient one for the officials, surely, but how accurate is it?  There is another version of events that implicates some of the more rowdy fans but places most of the blame those in charge.

Though not nearly at the level of the organized hooliganism of 1980s Britain, by the time of the Luzhniki disaster crowd trouble was becoming a problem in the Soviet Union as well.  It was notoriously easy to bring alcohol into the stadium, and many fans keeping warm with liquor were in a state of inebriation on that cold October night.  During the match a small group of fans, apparently bored by events on the pitch, decided to turn their attention toward the police presence, throwing snowballs, pieces of ice, and empty bottles at the officers.  Whether these disturbances had any impact on the tragedy is, like much of the details, contestable, but Kokryshev had his own theory, which alleges that after the match the police officers were intent on punishing the disorderly contigent:

“There is a version, in my view, the one closest to the truth, that the police officers, slightly shifted the gates.  The passageway became narrower – this way it was easier to filter the crowd.  Those above did not know this and continued to push on towards those who were below.  People descended into the crowd of thousands, a situation that at any moment risked becoming critical.  The slippery steps had nothing to do with it; everything was happening in the passageway, where it was absolutely dry.”

Vladimir Alyoshin, who became the director of the stadium just months after the disaster, supports this view.  He contended in a 2007 interview with Sport-Ekspress that the policemen, in their attempt to seize the troublemakers from the crowd, created the dangerous conditions that directly led to the catastrophe. He lamented the fact that though most people now accept that the police were responsible, they have not been brought to justice.

The Haarlem players leave the pitch.  Unbeknownst to them, a tragedy is unfolding in the East Stand behind them

The Haarlem players leave the pitch. Unbeknownst to them, a tragedy is unfolding in the East Stand behind them

 According to some witnesses, the catalyst for the crush was a woman’s loose shoe.  The massive crowd of fans were descending down the stairs toward the only empty gate, allegedly made even narrower by the police to weed out the troublemakers.  When the woman’s shoe came off, several men slowed down and attempted to help her, enough to create a deadly crush.  A witness at the scene, Volodya Andreev, recalls:

“It was awful.  We couldn’t move, the crowd was pushing from above and from below.  There was no way of dealing with the distraught people.  I saw how a police officer, a major I think, jumped into the crowd to stop it.  But what could he do?  It was too late.  And he remained in the crowd.”

Before it was all over, 66 people had perished. But it would be seven years until Spartak fans and the Soviet people learned of the disaster.

The Aftermath

The disaster was hardly discussed in the Soviet press.  Both Sovetskiy Sport and Futbol-Hokey failed to even mention the tragedy in their reports of the match, choosing to focus instead on the severity of the weather and on Spartak’s heroics.  Only the local daily Vechernaya Moskva devoted a few lines that hardly do justice at the magnitude of the tragedy, and even manage to imply that the victims are at fault:

“On 20 October, after a football match at the Grand Sports Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, an accident occurred as the fans were leaving as a result of disturbances in the peoples’ movement. There were injuries.  An investigation is under way.”

In classic Soviet fashion, news of the disaster were suppressed and scapegoats were quickly identified.  The political situation was tense; Leonid Brezhnev was weeks from death, and Yuri Andorpov had not yet been declared his successor.  High level Soviet authorities clearly had bigger fish to fry that deal with the deaths of some football hooligans, but a cover up was still necessary. Four officials were implicated: the aforementioned director Viktor Kokryshev, stadium manager Yuri Panchikhin, Deputy Director K. Lyzhin and police chief Major Koryagin, who was in charge of the police at the East Stand.

The disaster occurred on a Wednesday.  On that Friday a meeting of the Moscow City Communist Party Committee took place.  An official of the Ministry of the Interior announced that the investigation was completed, the causes of the disaster were identified, and that the guilty would be punished. The Moscow prosecutor proclaimed that “the preliminary investigation has revealed that, at the fault of the stadium officials, the gates meant to be used as an exit for the supporters were closed .”  The so-called preliminary investigation took place without interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, or doing any actual investigatory work.  But  the Party had spoken.  When the Deputy Director of the Sporting Committee of the USSR attempted to defend Kokryshev, he was told by the First Secretary to not defend criminals.  Kokryshev was duly expelled from the Communist Party.

The farcical trial of Kokryshev and Panchikhin took place in February of 1983; both were presumed guilty.  They each received 3 years in prison, but as a result of the amnesty on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the formation of the USSR, Kokryshev did not serve any time and Panchikhin’s sentence was reduced to 1.5 years.  Lyzhin, a World War II veteran, did not stand trial after a heart attack, while Major Koryagin was given amnesty for injuries sustained while attempting to prevent more people from entering the crush.

As for the deceased, they were taken to several morgues around the city.  Thirteen days later they were buried at different cemeteries so as to prevent the construction of a monument and a place of pilgrimage for the victims’ families.  For that same reason, for the next several years no matches took place at the Luzhniki in late October, though the official explanation for this was the poor state of the grass.

The cover up was complete.  There was little in the way of meaningful dissent, which was simply impossible in early 80s Soviet society.  Though Detective Shpeyer’s account of the tragedy may be inadequate, his statement that the lack of coverage has less to do with the explicit actions of the authorities, but rather was a result of “the socio-political situation that existed in the country at the time” rings true.  But the socio-political situation was about to change drastically.

Glasnost: The ‘Truth’ Comes Out

The late 1980s under the new General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev same a liberalization of Soviet society.  Two new policies, Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring), paved the way for an unheard of degree of press freedom.  Pressure on the government was rising from all segments of society, especially in the aftermath of the Chernobyl Disaster, the implications of which were too great for even the Soviet authorities to cover them up.

In 1989, Soviet newspapers finally began to report on the disaster, seven years after it occurred. Just three days after 96 fans lost their lives at Hillsborough, Sovetsky Sport became the first to break the taboo with their article ‘The Black Secret of the Luzhniki.’  “In history,” the article begins, “sooner or later everything floats to the surface.”  The authors continue:

“We knew and did not know about this tragedy.  We believed it and we did not believe it.  How could you believe that at the main stadium of the country, with its vast experience in hosting massive events, scores of people could lose their lives in a matter of minutes?”

And yet, it happened, and, extraordinarily for a Soviet publication, they began to point fingers at the authorities.  The officials at Luzhniki were criticized for ushering all the fans into just one stand.  But the brunt of their criticism was directed at the police and the nightmarish narrow passageway out of the stadium which the newspaper alleged was the only available exit, an allegation denied by Shpeyer.  Shpeyer also rejected the accusations that the police had anything to do with the disaster whatsoever; in the interview in Izvestiya, which came out shortly after the Sovetsky Sport article, he claimed that the police were not even present when the crush took place, a claim he supports by the purported lack of injured officers.  Yet Major Koryagin himself was seriously hurt; something about Shpeyer’s account seems suspect.

It must be said, that everything written about the disaster so many years after the fact must be taken with a grain of salt.  Sovetsky Sport’s article proved inflammatory and sensationalist.  Their speculations regarding the number of dead being in the hundreds were unfounded, yet were seized upon by the international media to such a rabid extent that somehow the figure of 340 fatalities became accepted as accurate.  Even to this day, it is often cited; in his exhaustive football history The Ball is Round David Goldblatt’ makes reference to “over 300 killed.”  Sovetsky Sport later published an article admitting to exaggeration and sensationalism.  But the haphazard reporting should not distract from the significance of the moment.  The facts may have been distorted, but the sheer existence of such a critical voice in the media is indicative of a sociopolitical environment in the Soviet Union drastically different from that which existed seven year prior.    

We will probably never learn who was responsible for the tragedy.  Was only gate open, as Sovetsky Sport alleged, or were most of the fans just in a hurry to get home and thus rushed for the closest exit? Did police presence exacerbate the situation, or were they absent entirely?   If there is a responsible party, at this point in time they have surely escaped justice.  The only truth we know is that 66 people, many of them adolescents, went to see a football match and never returned.


The Luzhniki Disaster Memorial

The Luzhniki Disaster Memorial

After the revelations of the Glasnost era and the fall of the Soviet Union, the knowledge of the tragedy became widespread.  A monument was finally erected in 1992, the ten year anniversary, and on the 25th anniversary in 2007 a commemorative match was played between former players of Spartak and Haarlem.

The Luzhniki stadium was renovated in the mid 1990s and is now a UEFA Category 4 Stadium.  It hosted the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea, and is slated to be the venue of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Final.  One hopes that the 66 people who lost their lives on October 20, 1982, will not be forgotten during the festivities.


The press archives at Двадцатое число, the project dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Luzhniki Disaster, were an invaluable resource for this article.