Ukrainian will, Carpathian pride and the summer of ’69

The 1969 trophy was flown to L'viv for the 40th anniversary.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.

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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].

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