Highlights of the 1969 USSR Cup final between FC Karpaty Lviv and SKA Rostov-on-Don feature all three goals, accordion-backed singing among Karpaty supporters and stress-reducing smokes on the touchline. Fans of assistant referees will appreciate sight of Tofik Bakhramov, who awarded the controversial winning goal at the 1966 World Cup final, at the 2:45 mark. (9:37)
Some 30,000 interlopers from the western extremity of the Soviet Union descended on Moscow on 17 Aug 1969 and, in a spontaneous assertion of nationalism, sang Ukrainian folk songs in the heart of the Soviet empire. Following a 20-hour train journey, supporters of FC Karpaty celebrated the temerity of a regional second-division club in making Soviet soccer history. The team known as the Carpathians, from L’viv, defeated SKA Rostov-on-Don, a top-flight Russian side, to become the only Soviet Cup winners from outside the first division.
More important, for a city and region that fiercely resented Soviet rule and that has spent nearly two decades of independence purging itself of imperial influence, the 1969 victory in a Soviet competition is still celebrated as testament to the “unbendable will” of the Ukrainian nation.
I grew up in L’viv before immigrating to the United States, and the 1969 victory forms part of my family history.
My father, then a young soldier finishing his Soviet Army service, joined 100,000 watching the match at the central Lenin stadium in Moscow, now Luzhniki Stadium, the venue for the 2008 Champions League final. Fans from L’viv sat in the stadium’s western sector. My father, who could not get a ticket with his compatriots, ended up in the east section with the opposition. His Soviet military uniform was the only thing shielding him and three comrades from a mauling by Rostov fans as the game went on.
Down 0–1, Karpaty underwent a remarkable transformation after halftime. Buoyed by traveling supporters that incessantly sang Ukrainian songs, Karpaty won 2–1. My father recounts the joyful mayhem that ensued once the Cup was won: fans poured onto the pitch to embrace their heroes, while the team completed several victory laps.
Celebrations in Moscow paled to those that followed in L’viv itself. Fans carried players on their shoulders from the airport tarmac to the team bus; the revelry lasted into the early hours. L’viv would not experience similar joy until 1991, when Ukraine regained its independence.
A still from a documentary of unknown provenance (excerpt above) shows Karpaty backers on Cup final day, 17 Aug 1969. They hold banners of support, including a rendering of the club mascot, Zeleni Levy (Green Lions), confidently grasping the cup at its base.
According to sportswriters and Karpaty players, nationalist sentiment played a hefty role in propelling the 1969 team forward—support they later said should have been impossible under Soviet restrictions on displays of ethnic pride. Says 1969 team captain Igor Kulchitskiy:
I had tears in my eyes and almost felt an extra jolt of energy in my legs. If [fans] played these songs and showed such strong support, we had to give our all against the opposing team.
The song most often credited as the inspiration for Kulchitskiy and his comrades in Moscow is “Cheremshyna” (The Bird Cherry Tree), a traditional folk song in Ukraine. The popular song, whose refrain goes “yet again, the bird cherry tree will blossom,” does not in itself contain any political connotations. Yet since one can hardly imagine the fans performing more politically charged tunes in Brezhnev’s Russia in 1969, “Cheremshyna” took on a new meaning for players at the final. Journalist Alexander Tikhovod writes in Vremya Karpat (Time of the Carpathians):
It was an important psychological nuance: the influx of patriotism, borne out by a song many considered the national anthem in Ukraine, helped the Karpaty players in those tense moments when they became the focus of national attention—in full view of the millions of viewers around the country glued to their television sets.
In historical interpretations of the match, the importance of where the opposition came from and the significance of a Cup trophy also became clearer. As the official Karpaty website now tells it:
As the leading team in western Ukraine, Karpaty’s win in the Soviet Cup was not only a soccer victory—it was a broad recognition of Ukraine. The reaffirmation of the political meaning of that triumph was the 30,000-strong column of fans that marched down the main streets of the capital of the USSR, singing Ukrainian songs.
The symbolism of achieving victory, albeit in sport, in Moscow—and then proceeding triumphantly down main streets in the colonial aggressor’s capital city—was not lost on most western Ukrainians. Three decades before, in the fall of 1939, the Red Army had marched across western Ukraine and into Poland, heralding the beginning of World War II. For the first time in its history, the Galician region became part of the Russian-dominated Soviet empire.
Unlike most Soviet republics, resistance to Soviet rule in western Ukraine persisted well into the 1950s, arguably until 1959, when the KGB arranged the murder of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in Munich.
Defeating one’s ethnic rival on its own soil qualified as poetic justice.
Karpaty’s founding and history are often presented in L’viv as one long struggle against the all-too-visible hand of Moscow.
Nearly 70 years after L’viv hosted the first official match in Ukraine, on 14 Jul 1894, organizers broached the idea of forming a larger regional club. Soviet authorities were suspicious of it serving as a platform for “misguided” nationalist sentiment. When it came to naming the side, “Galicia” was rejected out of hand. As the head of the local party committee sarcastically remarked, “Perhaps we should add SS to the team name?” referring to SS Galicia, a division of Nazi sympathizers formed in western Ukraine in 1943 to repel the Red Army.
Organizers ultimately settled on the fail-safe option, Karpaty, meaning Carpathians. The new stadium was called Druzhba (Friendship), intended to reflect the brotherly bonds that united all Soviet ethnic groups. As documented in the club history, Karpaty’s first head coach came from Donetsk’ in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.
Moscow’s perniciousness allegedly impeded Karpaty’s progress through the lower ranks of Soviet football. In 1968, the club had a chance to advance to the first division but was foiled by—as Karpaty faithful and players would describe it—one-sided refereeing in its last match against Russian club Uralmash. For Karpaty defender Petro Danyl’chuk, the reasons were relatively simple: “Of course, during that time, Moscow wanted to see a Russian club in the top league, not a team from western Ukraine.”
Years later, the Estonian referee of that match, Eugen Hyarms, admitted that party higher-ups offered him a promotion in exchange for favoring the Russian club. He called the game “the most shameful” of his career.
But in 1969 poetic justice again intervened on Karpaty’s behalf. As fate would have it, Hyarms was assigned to the Karpaty–Rostov Cup final. In the late stages, he denied—“appropriately,” according to Karpaty lore—a potential Rostov equalizer.
As recounted by Kulchitskiy, Karpaty’s captain, the referee approached him after the game to offer his mea culpa for past transgressions. Thus, the Estonian and Ukrainian nations, having suffered the same fate under Soviet oppression, presumably made peace.
As in many tales of ethnic redemption, the Karpaty story does have its share of inconvenient facts. Throughout the club’s existence, western Ukrainians have prided themselves that Karpaty used only local Ukrainian talent and was the only top Ukrainian club at which players primarily spoke Ukrainian, not Russian, further stoking Moscow’s hatred for the club.
Yet the tying goal in the 1969 final was scored by winger Gennadiy Likhachev, who was born in Saratov, Russia. The coach at the time was Ernest Just, an ethnic Hungarian born in Czechoslovakia.
The 1969 Karpaty team, which finished outside the promotion zone in the Soviet second division, was nonetheless granted promotion by the much-maligned Moscow authorities.
Karpaty faithful overlook such details.
Even before my family arrived in the United States in the 1990s, L’viv and western Ukraine were striving to erase remnants of the Soviet past. When I entered my classroom in the fall of 1991, our history books had magically transformed from Leninist-Marxist tracts to paeans praising the glory of Ukraine. Every statue of Lenin was gone; most streets were renamed to reflect growing nationalism.
Changes often bordered on the absurd. For instance, my street was renamed from Pecs, honoring Lviv’s sister city in Hungary, to Hetman Ivan Mazepa, honoring a Cossack leader who in 1709 had joined the Swedish Army of Charles XII to fight the Russian empire. While honoring a Cossack warrior makes sense, I struggle to understand why Hungarian neighbors, who also suffered behind the Iron Curtain, fell afoul of city authorities.
L’viv has changed, and so has Karpaty. As documented by Franklin Foer in How Soccer Explains the World, the globalization of football reached the Carpathian range long ago. The current Karpaty squad features players from Brazil, Serbia, Georgia, Estonia—and has apparently just added a Bolivian. The team is headed by a Russian-speaking coach from Belarus. Although Karpaty remains widely supported throughout western Ukraine, the team’s cultural influence has waned—in part due to mediocre play and the emergence of regional competition, but also due to the slow erosion of local roots that once gave the team iconic status for ethnic Ukrainians.
The memorial at Ukrayina Stadium, home of FC Karpaty in L’viv, includes coach Just and club director Karol Miklos, the two figures at left.
But the 1969 Cup victory still resounds, as loudly as ever. A large bronze monument near the entrance to the Karpaty stadium, renamed Ukrayina, enshrines the memory of the starting XI. Even fans too young to remember the USSR speak about the 1969 heroes.
Nostalgia for the summer of 1969 also exists for more pragmatic reasons. Since that day Karpaty has never reached such a lofty height in any competition, Soviet or otherwise. The team’s record in the Ukrainian championship is decent but unremarkable, consisting of one third-place finish and two Ukrainian Cup finals. Karpaty lost both finals to Dynamo Kyiv [Ed.: See 18 Jun 09 for more about Dynamo Kyiv].
But it is unlikely that a lack of victories explains the emotional quality of the 40-year-old triumph. For the anniversary, the Soviet Cup trophy of 1969 will be flown to L’viv and displayed as part of commemoration ceremonies.
In a region steeped in memory and dedicated to overcoming a complicated past, one trophy has come to represent more than an ornate crystal vase.