Eastern European football was inextricably linked with politics and nationality in the 1990s. Reflecting the chaos unfurling in their post-socialist nations once the Iron Curtain had fallen, the rookie national sides of the Baltics, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan found the going tough after gaining membership to UEFA, the European footballing body, early in the decade.
It would take over a decade until Latvia became the first ex-Soviet nation to qualify for a major tournament, when they made it to Euro 2004, while Ukraine reached the knock-out stages of the World Cup two years later. Despite the financial, ethnic and historical challenges however, competing as standalone nations, under their own flags, brought these countries into the global consciousness, more so than any other channel. In the pre-internet age, Western audiences were given a first glimpse of these mysterious and faraway lands through the grainy TV coverage of qualification games that were held in crumbling, Soviet-era stadiums, narrated by commentators speaking down a phone line.
As Russia gets ready to host the World Cup this summer, it isn’t a bad time to remember that things weren’t always so glitzy. Here we present three fascinating stories from the former Soviet republics in the ’90s.
The Baltic nations in World Cup ’94 qualification
When the draw for the 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers was made in December 1991, the USSR was still clinging to life post-Berlin Wall, and its football team entered the hat to compete for the right to make it to the finals in America. Following the dissolution of the federation a few weeks later however, a decision was required as to how to proceed with the newly-independent nations. Having declared their formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, the three Baltic nations were already in the draw as singular entities. While a representative team known as the CIS (Confederation of Independent States) would represent the dissolved nations at Euro ’92, a proposition led by Ukraine to arrange a separate tournament for the former members of the Soviet Union following the European Championships was supported by Georgia and Armenia, but blocked by Russia. Much to the fury of the ex-USSR nations, FIFA decreed that Russia would take the place of the Soviets, while they would have to wait another 2 years before competing in a qualification campaign.
Estonians and the ‘kolo-nists’
In spite of the financial difficulties, poor state of their national stadium and inexperience of the team, the Estonian Football Association decided to enter the 1994 qualifiers, and the national side was drawn in a daunting maiden group, which included Italy, Portugal and Switzerland. In his acclaimed book, Football Against the Enemy, journalist Simon Kuper travelled to Tallinn in August 1992 to watch Estonia’s first Group 1 match against Switzerland. Observing their 6-0 defeat in the leafy Kadrioru stadium, Kuper couldn’t help but surmise that the Estonians were a “soft lot”, whose similarities to the Soviet sides of the past went no further than their “lack of any will to win.”
The Estonian squad sheet for the game raised many questions – no more so than why, despite being the fourth best team in the Estonian league, did Flora Tallinn provide all but two of the players? The answer lay in the ethnic makeup of the fledgling nation: Flora was regarded as the ‘all-Estonian’ team and the national team selection was based upon excluding the Russian ‘kolo-nists’ in Estonia, who made up about 32% of the population at the time. The national team reflected a division in the Estonian population post-independence: in 1992, ethnic Estonians were given citizenship to the new state, but the ethnic Russians in the country, finding themselves on the wrong side of the border, were left in a political grey zone, and were provided with grey ‘alien passports’ and a decision to take either Russian or Estonian citizenship. Valery Karpin, who would spend over a decade playing in Spain’s La Liga, was one example of an Estonian-born ethnic Russian, deciding to declare for Russia in the early ’90s.
The Estonian players shot down manager Uno Piir’s insistence that he should pick the best players available, demanding instead that there be no more than three Russians in the squad, and that they must be fluent in Estonian. This led the Russian newspaper Footbolny Kurier to conclude that Estonia was “not a national team, but an ethnic team.” Further poor results seemed to help change the Estonians’ minds however – when Kuper checked the Estonian line-up a year later, it was replete with Russian names.
30 pence to see Latvia play Lithuania
A few days prior to arriving in Tallinn, Kuper attended the first competitive game to take place in Latvia, when the hosts took on Baltic neighbours Lithuania in Riga, in World Cup qualification Group 3. Ethnic tension was also apparent in the Daugava Stadium, which, despite the momentous occasion, was only a quarter full. Latvia had a larger proportion of Russians than Estonia and so, with a national team comprising mostly ethnic Russians, the Latvians had no desire to watch Russians play, while the Russians would not support a team called Latvia.
In the press room following a 2-1 victory for Lithuania, one local journalist stood up and, yelling in Russian, raged against the cost of entry to the game – “with ticket prices like that, how could they expect people to come to the stadium!?” According to Kuper, a match ticket cost 30 pence.
Emergency kit for the Lithuanians
Poverty was also a major factor for each of the Baltic nations early on. Lithuania were undoubtedly the strongest of the three nations and had a number of players playing abroad, but the Lithuanian FA was unable to cover the costs of their insurance, so the squad had to do without them on trips to Ireland, Denmark and Spain.
When the Lithuanian squad arrived in Dublin in September 1993 without 8 of their foreign-based players, they also mistakenly brought along one set of green jerseys; the one colour which would clash with the home team. Desperate attempts were made to get an alternative kit for the cash-strapped Lithuanians, with a Cork clothing firm stepping in to provide a basic uniform of white shirts and black socks, minutes before the 3pm Wednesday kick-off. Relieved that they didn’t have to play in their underwear, Lithuania would lose the game 2-0 but acquitted themselves well against Jack Charlton’s men. Despite their financial difficulties throughout the 12-game campaign, Lithuania finished up on a more than respectable 7 points; 2 ahead of their neighbours Latvia.
Regardless of the results on the field, what mattered most for the Lithuanian people – indeed for all three Baltic nations – was that by competing in qualification for the 1994 World Cup, their small nation was making significant strides towards integrating with the wider global community.
Wales in Moldova and Georgia, 1994
Little over 12 months after agonisingly missing out on qualification for USA ’94, Wales kicked off their Euro ’96 campaign with a straightforward 2-0 win at home to Albania. Hopes were high of making it to the finals – conveniently, over the border in England – despite being placed in a group with European giants Germany and World Cup semi-finalists Bulgaria. Making up the group were two newcomers to UEFA: newly-independent Moldova and Georgia – who Wales would visit in their second and third games.
The first foreigners to arrive in Moldova for a football match
Journalist John Ley, who covered the trip to Moldova in October 1994 for the Daily Telegraph, recalls having his initial hopes of arriving in a hidden paradise swiftly dashed: “I can remember flying in and thinking what a beautiful place it looked with all its vineyards. On the ground it was a different matter. Everything seemed as though it was black and white, like a 1950’s Ealing Comedy.”
The British press who travelled with the Welsh squad to the recently-independent republic quickly sensed a grim and threatening atmosphere on the streets of Chisinau. Phil McNulty, chief football writer for the BBC, remembers being shocked by the poverty he encountered when he visited a local market: “One lady’s ‘stall’ was a single ripped up cotton dress. It was a desperate scene and I felt so sorry for her and others who were trying to sell any items just to scrape some money together.”
Finding themselves in a country that hitherto had very little experience with foreign visitors, the Welsh squad were shacked up in the cockroach-infested Cosmos hotel in Chisinau, where the gas was rationed and they were forced to fit their training sessions around the 11am to 1pm slot when the hotel had hot water. “And when we did turn on the showers the water that came out was brown,” said striker Nathan Blake. Wales had the likes of Mark Hughes and Ian Rush in their squad at the time – big stars in the Premier League, – but, finding themselves in the second best hotel in the city, they were forced to sleep in their tracksuits on the moldy, damp mattresses.
The Welsh fans had it just as bad. A group who flew to Bucharest and took the train from there to Chisinau were hauled off and held at the Moldovan border for over 16 hours by Kalashnikov-touting guards, believing that, because they were foreigners, they couldn’t possibly want to visit Moldova – nobody did. After much begging and bribery, they became the first away football fans in the country.
In the lead up to the match, the Welsh players found themselves being taken aback by the conditions in Moldova. “We hadn’t eaten properly, we hadn’t slept and we were thinking about the things going on instead of the game,” recalls defender (and future Wales manager) Chris Coleman. Considering the fact that the host team were also a complete unknown – the Welsh only had a video of them training to analyze – all signs pointed towards a possible upset at the.
On a hard and bumpy pitch, and backed by a partisan crowd, the Moldovans came from behind to win 3-2, recording a momentous victory in their first ever competitive home match. For Wales, it was widely considered the worst result in their history; humbled by a tiny, impoverished nation that nobody back home had ever heard of a week previous. In the words of one Welsh fan who was at the game, “This had the hard-pressed locals whipped up into an orgy of nationalistic fervour and disbelieving delight that the world had produced a team actually worse than them.”
Once the surprise factor had dissipated, Moldova’s limitations were quickly found out and they fell into the category of ‘footballing minnows’. Notably, following a 4-0 defeat to England at Wembley, British comedian Tony Hawks bet a friend that he could beat the Moldovan football team at tennis, and wrote a book about his exploits. Happily, it was met with good humour by the Moldovans. For the Welsh, it would get a lot worse a month later in Georgia.
When in Tbilisi, check your gun in at reception
When his squad made the trip to the Caucasus in November 1994, Wales manager Mike Smith already had a notion of how serious the situation was ‘on the ground’. While on a scouting mission to Tbilisi to watch Georgia play Malta earlier in the year, Smith was asked to check his gun in at reception. With a civil war raging since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia was classified by the UN as a war zone, and the Welsh players were warned not to risk walking the streets of Tbilisi after dark. “Apparently the place is full of armed bandits,” midfielder Barry Horne told reporters.
Scare stories quickly spread throughout the British media, including one unconfirmed report in which the manager of the Metechi Palace hotel, where the Welsh squad were staying, being shot and killed in the foyer a few weeks previously. Georgia in the early ’90s was a violent tinderbox, where men in black leather jackets walked the streets and the sound of gunfire filled the air. A total of 11 Welsh fans – down significantly from the 78 who made the trip to Chisinau – decided to brave the arduous journey and high risk of kidnapping to support the team.
As he did in Chisinau the previous month, writer John Ley painted a bleak picture of a former Soviet city in dire straits: “Everything was so grey. I walked along the Kura and I’ve never seen a river with that colour, while along the banks there were men selling two-stroke petrol out of the back of the van. There were huge queues for bread and I remember passing an emaciated dog collapsing in front of me and a woman crying her eyes out in the street.” The game would be held at 2pm as the lighting at the stadium was minimal.
The famous Boris Paichadze Stadium in Tbilisi was packed with 50,000 Georgians grateful that, for the afternoon at least, they could “forget about hunger, the frozen walls at home, and the 7-hour queues for bread.” Wales were on the ropes from the start: “Within minutes we didn’t know what had hit us and it was too late. Never mind 5-0, it could have been 10-0”, says striker Dean Saunders. With an attacking line of Ketsbaia, Kinkladze and Shota Arveladze – unknown players that would eventually star in the top European leagues – Georgia ripped the Welsh to shreds, scoring five without reply before the hour mark and inflicting Wales’ heaviest defeat in 41 years.
As the Welsh returned home to scorn, the Georgians were labelled ‘the Brazil of Eastern Europe’ by Western media, while the majority of their players earned lucrative moves abroad. The national team didn’t kick on however and, plagued, by inconsistencies and off-field distractions, finished a distant third behind Bulgaria and Germany. Unfortunately, that is still the closest they’ve got to a major international tournament.
Russia v Ukraine, 1999
When former Russian manager Oleg Romantsev was reminded in a 2014 TV interview of his side’s final Euro 2000 qualification encounter with Ukraine in Moscow, he shuddered, saying: “None of us wanted to live after that game against Ukraine. We felt like it would be have been better to shoot ourselves or at least to quit football forever.”
Considering the game would decide which of the two countries would qualify or make it to the play-offs for the European Championships in Holland and Belgium, enough importance was riding on it – but the animosity that had built up over the previous decade raised the pre-match tension to fever pitch.
Ukrainian bitterness was deep when Russia was given the reins of the dissolved Soviet team by FIFA. Their grievances were valid, particularly given the dominance of Dynamo Kyiv throughout the 70s and 80s, and the fact that seven of the USSR team that reached the Euro 88 final were Ukrainians. To add insult to injury, when FIFA allowed former Soviet nationals to declare for the country of their choice, viewing it as the best way to further their careers abroad, Ukrainian-born players such as Viktor Onopko, Andrey Kanchelskis and Sergey Yuran decided to play for Russia. Minus this considerable talent, the emergent Ukrainian national team struggled throughout the early to mid-90s, while consecutive Russian squads became embroiled in internal disagreements, to the detriment of their performances on the pitch.
By the time the Euro 2000 campaign rolled around, Ukraine finally had a reason to be optimistic. They had Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov – two young attackers with Dynamo Kyiv who were scoring for fun at home and helping the club reach the Champions League semi-finals in 1999. In their first game of the group in September 1998, Ukraine beat a Russian team, managed by Ukrainian-born Anatoliy Byshovets, 3-2 in Kyiv in front of 82,000 ecstatic fans. In the dressing room afterwards, the Ukrainian players received a gift of US$100,000 from Shakhtar Donetsk president (and Paul Manafort’s buddy) Rinat Akhmetov.
‘Kill the Ukrainians and save Russia’
When Russia were beaten 1-0 by lowly Iceland in Reykjavik, Byshovets was sacked as Russian manager and replaced by Romantsev, who would also continue his day job as coach of Spartak Moscow. Russia’s fortunes immediately changed, starting with a shock 3-2 win over world champions France in Paris, which was followed up with a remarkable five victories on the bounce. Going into the meeting in Moscow, there was everything to play for, with Ukraine top on 19 points, and Russia and France on 18. On the morning of the game, Sovetsky Sport stoked the flames of ethnic hatred by brandishing a headline which translated as “Kill the Ukrainians and save Russia” – a statement based on an anti-Semitic slogan.
With nationalist fervour reaching boiling point, the vast Luzhniki stadium was full to capacity with expectant home fans, including Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Valeriy Pustovoytenko. After 75 minutes of unbearable tension, Russia took the lead through Karpin, sending Putin and the majority of the delirious 68,000 crowd to their feet. With 15 minutes to go they were on their way to the European Championships, while Ukraine were sliding out.
Among the many tales that came out of this historic encounter, probably one of the most bizarre was disclosed a number of years later. Watching the game at home on TV due to his failing health, Boris Yeltsin demanded that his press secretary call First Channel general director Konstantin Ernst and request that the commentator, Viktor Gusev, congratulate the Russian team on winning and qualifying for the European Championship. With a quarter of an hour remaining, Ernst understandably retorted, “But the game hasn’t ended yet. We might bring bad luck.” “That doesn’t matter,” the press secretary replied.
Just after the call was made, Shevchenko’s curling free kick was fumbled into the net by the young Russian goalkeeper Aleksandr Filimonov. A disconsolate Gusev couldn’t help but mumble “Ohhhh my God” into his mic. Shocked at conceding a late equaliser, the hosts couldn’t find the winner they desperately craved, but neither could Ukraine – who dropped to second place in the group after France beat Iceland 3-2. At the final whistle, the Russia players sunk to their knees, devastated. “This is tragedy. I simply don’t want to discuss this game. We should have won,” Karpin said afterwards.
Ukraine would ultimately fall short in the play-offs, losing to Slovenia, but after reaching it at their neighbours’ expense, the Ukrainian media were in the mood to rub it in: “Justice was finally done … we have waited for this day for eight long years, while the Russians exclusively enjoyed the legacy of Soviet Union which we built together,” exclaimed Den’. For their part, the Russian media bit back: “This is our second present to Ukraine,” wrote Moskovsky Komsomolets, following up with an ominous line given the events of 15 years later: “The first was Crimea.”