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.”

kiryakov_israel

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.” 

germany_match

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.”

Aftermath

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.

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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.

prisonerschile

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.