Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
With the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup yet to fall under Uefa’s auspices, a side from the eastern bloc had still to win a major European trophy when the governing body made the draws for their club competitions for the coming season in July 1968. And that didn’t really seem like changing during the season ahead, either; not with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August and the repercussions it had for football.
The year began with Alexander Dubček succeeding Antonín Novotný as head of the communist party in Czechoslovakia. He set the country on a new course through a series of liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring that sought to remove the regime’s totalitarian aspects and, as Dubček put it, create “socialism with a human face”. Naturally, the Kremlin became anxious. Generously-eyebrowed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev feared just where it would end and what the possible ramifications may be, not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the eastern bloc.
On the eve of 21 August the Warsaw Pact launched a huge ground invasion. Dubček was arrested and flown to Moscow, his reforms annulled. A period of “normalisation” followed and eventually Dubček was removed from office and replaced by Soviet lackey Gustáv Husák. The military intervention, or “assistance” to fight "counterrevolutionary forces" as Moscow interpreted it, had been met with widespread condemnation around the globe but, just like Hungary 12 years earlier and East Germany in 1953, the West took little direct action.
Prague residents attempt to stop a Soviet tank during the invasion of 1968
A protest of sorts came through football. Western European clubs threatened to boycott ties against sides from behind the Iron Curtain. It was actually a Belgian initiative, despite none of their teams actually due to face communist opposition. Uefa panicked. They convened for an emergency meeting 10 days after the invasion, albeit without Sándor Barcs, Uefa’s vice-president and the chairman for the Organising Committee of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and decided to initially keep east and west apart in the opening rounds. Their competitions were hastily re-drawn along regional lines.
This enraged the communist nations. Soviet football authorities called Uefa’s decision “unsavoury”, deeming it “nothing but an attempt to drag reactionary political tendencies into international sport”. Their statement added: “the Football Federation of the USSR places all responsibility for the consequences of the disgraceful Uefa decision on those politicians and sports businessmen who replace the principles of sporting cooperation by sinister machinations.”
They followed the lead of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland – the other Warsaw Pact countries involved in the invasion – by withdrawing their clubs from Europe’s club competitions. Albania, Romania and Yugoslavia, all of whom did not send troops to Czechoslovakia, kept their sides in; Albania also left the Warsaw Pact in protest. And so it was that Dynamo Kyiv from the Soviet Union, East Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena, Ruch Chorzów of Poland, Bulgarian club Levski Sofia and Ferencvárosi of Hungary all boycotted the European Cup; in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Dinamo Moscow (USSR), Union Berlin from East Germany, Górnik Zabrze of Poland, Bulgarians Spartak Sofia and Győri (Hungary) also refused to play.
The corollary was a series of byes and, after West Bromwich Albion defeated Dinamo Bucharest 5-1 on aggregate in the second round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, only two clubs from the eastern bloc remained: both from Czechoslovakia. Spartak Trnava fell to Ajax Amsterdam in the European Cup semi-finals, but their European Cup Winners’ Cup representatives, Slovan Bratislava, went one better. Michal Vičan’s side overcame Yugoslavians FK Bor in the first round, and then beat Porto, Torino and Dunfermline Athletic on their way to the final against Barcelona in Switzerland.
What with the majority of socialist sides withdrawing, Barça started the tournament as favourites, but they fell behind after just two minutes to Ľudovít Cvetler’s goal. José Antonio Zaldúa drew Barcelona level 14 minutes later though with a strike that sparked Salvador Artigas’ team into life. Vladimír Hrivnák and Jan Čapkovič added goals for Slovan before half-time though to put them in control.
Barcelona rallied after the interval. Carlos Rexach scored direct from a corner after Slovan’s goalkeeper Alexander Vencel misjudged the flight of the ball on 55 minutes – he claimed to have been dazzled by the floodlights - and then Barça began to turn the screw. They were unable to convert their dominance into goals, however, and Slovan hung on for a famous victory.
Commanding centre-back Alexander Horváth lifted the trophy on the St. Jakob-Park pitch in Basle surrounded by jubilant fans who had been given a rare moment of elation amid the political turmoil at home. Earlier that year, student Jan Palach set himself on fire and died in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as a sign of protest against the Warsaw Pact troops’ occupation. Dubček’s replacement, Husák, towed the party line and Czechoslovakia became a repressive police state.
Husák remained in power until 1987, when it became clear that the people favoured a move towards the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR and he had no longer had a mandate to rule. Under Husák it was arguably one of the darkest periods in Czechoslovakia’s history. Communism had begun to disintegrate though as the pro-democracy movement grew, and by 1991 the “Velvet Revolution” was completed when Václav Havel, a jailed dissident playwright, became president; Dubček returned to the political fold as chairman of the Federal Assembly. Two years later a "velvet divorce" saw the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
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