Vadim Furmanov –
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 awkward circumstances of no longer being a country did not prove to be an impediment to the participation of the Soviets at Euro 1992, albeit under a different name, leading to the curious but short-lived story of the national team of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
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 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.
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 Vysshaya Liga champions and, with their 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, one of only two Soviet teams 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, replaced by the Russian tricolour. 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 formalisation 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 organisation stressed, however, that all members were 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 the 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
Somewhat 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 for 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, Marcelo Balboa missed a 60th-minute penalty after Kakha Skharadze was called for a handball in the box. Seven minutes later (current ESPN commentator) Janusz Michallik gave the ball away in his 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 Georgia was not yet being a member of the organisation.
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 travelled 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.”
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’ counterpart the Soviet sports historian 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 before 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.
CIS National Team – A temporary solution
A trip to the Holy Land for a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem followed. This was, or would have been, the 400th match for the Soviet national team. But for journalist Oleh Kucherenko, there was no distinction between the CIS and USSR teams:
“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.”
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 travelled 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 the matches played by the CIS national team, the squad was multinational. Ukrainians and Georgians were always well represented. The squad that travelled 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. 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 organise 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 game 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 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.”
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 with 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 equalise 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 Marco van Basten goal controversially disallowed late in the 2nd half.
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 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, 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.
Vadim Furmanov is a first-year student at the Duke University School of Law. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 (though currently temporarily relocated to North Carolina) and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.