Ukrainian will, Carpathian pride and the summer of ’69

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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.

FC KarpatyMore 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.

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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.

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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.

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