By Manuel Veth - Last week CSKA Moscow played their Champions League home match against Viktoria Plzen at the Petrovskii Stadium in Saint Petersburg
By Manuel Veth –
Last week CSKA Moscow played their Champions League home match against Viktoria Plzen at the Petrovskii Stadium in Saint Petersburg, 400 miles from the Russian capital, since the Luzhniki Stadium is under construction. Moscow’s two other Champions League approved stadiums – the Khimki (closed because of severe rain) and Lokomotiv (undergoing renovation) – were also ruled out. However, this was not the first time CSKA were forced into a form of Champions League exile; indeed in the competition’s inaugural season in 1992-93, the Red Army club were made to attack the group stage from the makeshift “home” of Germany.
But before this somewhat bizarre German exile came about, CSKA had a particularly high hurdle over which to pole-vault as the club drew the then reigning European champions FC Barcelona in the second round. Much like today, Barcelona were, at that time, considered the cream of the continent’s clubs. Their line-up included stars like Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup, Andoni Zubizarreta, Aitor Beguiristain and a youthful Josep Guardiola. The CSKA team, on the other hand, boasted the not so overwhelming accolade of being the last champion of the Soviet Supreme League and were captained by trousers-clad goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine.
CSKA – the Cinderella of Russian Football
While CSKA today monopolise Russian football silverware (League, Cup and Super Cup), such dominance has not been permanent. During the time of the Soviet Union CSKA were by no means considered a super power. In fact, the 1991 Soviet Supreme League title was their first championship in 21 years. The club also spent most of the 1980s playing in the Soviet First Division (the second tier of Soviet football). It was not until the early 2000s that investments by Evgenii Giner and various Russian companies (which included an investment by Abramovich-owned companies Aeroflot and Sibneft) propelled CSKA to domestic prominence.
Much of this was due to the fact that the Red Army, to which the club belonged, concentrated much of their efforts and finances on other sports such as basketball and ice hockey. But in 1991 the club’s football wing were on the march and surprised everyone in Soviet sport by winning both the league and the Soviet Cup.
When Russia’s marketplace opened up to the rest of the world, many of CSKA’s top players left the club in the off-season for previously-regarded virgin lands abroad. Dmitri Galiamin, Dmitri Kuznetsov, and Igor Korneev (the latter of whom later coincidently played for Barcelona) all signed for Espanyol in early 1992. CSKA stalwart Vladimir Tatarchuk also immigrated to Slavia Praha while the Russians’ workforce was further depleted when CSKA’s number one Mikhail Yeremin was involved in a car crash on his way home from the Soviet Cup celebration on 23 June 1991 and died shortly after in hospital.
With the core of their double-winning squad missing due to transfer or tragedy, CSKA now faced the daunting proposition of Barcelona in order to qualify for the first ever Champions League. The group phase of the Champions League then, unlike today, took place from November to April, and consisted of only two groups of four teams in each, with the first placed teams of the two groups playing out the final.
The Miracle of Barcelona
The first round had seen Barcelona begin their defence of the European Cup in underwhelming fashion, toiling to a 1-0 aggregate success over Norway’s Viking Stavanger. It was perhaps this unflattering result which gave CSKA – who had swept aside Icelandic side, and similarly seafaringly-named, Vikingur 5-2 – grounds for optimism when the second round clash came around.
The first leg was played in mid-October in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium (better known as the Luzhniki) with 40,000 in attendance, with the eventual result giving the Moscow side a faint hope of advancing to the next round. Alexandre Grichine gave CSKA the early lead in the 17th minute, after a Guardiola mistake left the Russian forward one-on-one with Zubizarreta. It sent the home crowd wild, but their joy for that night at least was tempered as Beguiristain finished off a delightful move to equalise in the second half, as the Catalans fled Moscow with a satisfactory 1-1 draw. It left the Red Army club with an improbable mission, needing a win or high-scoring draw in the Nou Camp to progress.
Russia was in need of good news. The Boris Yeltsin reforms had hit an impasse and mass inflation quickly turned to hyperinflation at the end of 1992 when the Russian government continued printing money in order to attempt to steady its massive debt. Many of the aging factories were closing and soldiers, as well as workers, were left without wages and pensions. As a result, life expectancy and living standards slumped rapidly. A Russian club in the Champions League would truly bring a much-needed euphoric distraction.
It was in that context that CSKA travelled to Barcelona. The Nou Camp, with its 121,749 seats at the time, was one of the largest stadiums in the world, and even at two-thirds full, the 80,000 Barca fans in attendance expected a safe passage to the next stage.
Everything was going to plan for the European champions as goals from Nadal and Bergiristain had given the hosts a commanding two-goal lead after just half an hour. CSKA, crestfallen and staring at what seemed certain elimination, suddenly revived their hopes a minute before half-time as Tyumen-born defender Yevgeni Bushmanov halved CSKA’s arrears with a thunderous finish via the crossbar.
One goal was all that stood between the Russians and the Champions League group stage, as a 2-2 draw would send them through on away goals. Barcelona were keeping customarily composed possession of the ball but could not add to their tally, much to the anguish of the Camp Nou natives. In the 57th minute, their frustration turned to astonishment as CSKA’s journeyman midfielder Dmitri Karsakov – in his second of four spells at the club – headed an unlikely equaliser. Shell-shocked, Barcelona’s despair deepened four minutes later as Karaskov again outwitted Zubizarreta with a clever back-heeled finish after which the crushed Catalans had no reply.
It was a sensational victory (watch highlights here) and almost 60 years after communism had failed to take a foothold in the Spanish Civil War the Red Army had conquered Catalonia. In a strange twist, however, no one in Russia could watch the game because no television station was able to afford the price tag that Barcelona had asked for the broadcasting rights. Furthermore, journalists could also not travel to the game due to the financial difficulties of many press outlets, while most fans were unable to attend due to visa regulations as well as the poor state of the Russian economy. Without a single supporter, CSKA had pulled off a miraculous result and celebrated to the sound of deafening silence. The news of the Red Army club’s victory in Barcelona was spread by whisper across the Russian capital like the news of a war-time battle victory in the Great Patriotic War.
The Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda published a full match report of the events, with journalist Aleksandr Deryabin paying a true homage to CSKA in Catalonia: “The daily reality, unfortunately does not give us cause for joy. And yet there are still moments in our lives that bring a single gust of enthusiasm, excitement, and optimism. One such experience was the meeting in the European Cup, between CSKA players and the Spanish club Barcelona.” Deryabin also described the young CSKA team as a collective, which played a footballing tango against Barcelona.
From Boom to Bust – CSKA in German Exile
But after the miracle came a massive blow – UEFA did not allow CSKA to play their home matches in Moscow. The official reason was that no stadium in Russia was deemed useable during the severe Russian winter. There was also some suspicion that UEFA did not trust the political situation in the Russian Federation. In the past CSKA might have played those matches in the Caucasus, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, a romantic excursion to Tbilisi or Yerevan was no longer an option.
In another return to a site of Russian history, CSKA Moscow were therefore forced to play their home games in the country that arguably hosted the Red Army’s greatest victory: Germany. It is indeed one of the greatest paradoxes in history that CSKA played in the country that suffered a defeat by the Red Army in 1945 but had since become a re-unified nation and was about to wave auf nimmer wiedersehen to the several hundred thousand Red Army soldiers that were still based in East Germany.
Their first home match was played against Glasgow Rangers in Bochum while the other two home games were staged at the Berlin Olympiastadium against Olympique Marseille and Club Brugge. The fact that UEFA allowed those matches to go ahead in Germany, and especially in Berlin, with its somewhat uncompromisingly cold winters, fuelled speculation that weather was indeed just an excuse not to host UEFA matches in Russia.
Berlin as a venue was chosen because of the large Red Army contingent that was still based in post-unification Germany at the time. Bochum’s Ruhrstadion, however, seemed an awkward choice. CSKA against Glasgow Rangers up until today remains the only Champions League match to have ever been played at the Ruhrstadion as VfL Bochum more often than not compete in the second division of German football, let alone in European tournaments. A deflected Ian Ferguson goal handed Rangers a 1-0 success in front of 16,000 fans.
It is no surprise therefore that CSKA struggled in the group stage and only managed two points from a 0-0 bore draw in Glasgow and a 1-1 draw against Marseille in Berlin. CSKA’s Champions League dream had fizzled out and the conquerors of Barcelona looked like the perfect metaphor for the newly created but already failing Russian State. More shame was added when Sovetskii Sport alleged that CSKA may have sold their match against Olympique Marseille, in which the Moscow side lost 6-0 at the Stade Velodrome.
Perhaps CSKA’s Champions League season of 1992-93 does indeed serve as the perfect metaphor for the state of Russia at that time. The fall of the USSR was accompanied with much enthusiasm and hope for a reformed, modern and democratic Russia. CSKA’s victory over Barcelona mirrors that hope. But all that optimism quickly vanished during Russia’s economic crisis in 1992 and later with the Constitutional Crisis in 1993, which is reflected by the Army Men’s poor showing in the group stage and with particular regard to the humbling and suspiciously heavy loss to Marseille. Many football clubs, after all, can be considered representatives of the country from which they hail.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus