Ukrainian will, Carpathian pride and the summer of ’69

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.

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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.

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