As the USSR was dissolving and the world was reshaping, a new union was born – one that would also give birth to a ‘temporary national team.’

*This is the translation of an article originally written by İlhan Özgen for socratesdergi.com in Turkish. It has been translated by @blogtifosi.

It was minute 82 as Manchester United’s Andrei Kanchelskis made it 3-0 by finding the net past the Cyprus’ wide keeper. It was 13 November 1991 and the USSR had qualified for EURO 1992, having been unbeaten in their group. But a month later they would face an extraordinary setback: the game against Cyprus was going to be their last match as a national team.

On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as the President of the USSR and turned the presidency over to Yeltsin. That night, the Hammer and Sickle was lowered, and the Russian tricolour was raised in its place at the Kremlin. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially dissolved. The world was reshaping.

While the cracks could easily be seen and heard in the country since the mid-80’s, sports also had their fair share of it. To illustrate it, when in 1980, the USSR played against England in Georgia, the Georgian fans cheered for the English side. Although the Union was between wind and water, legendary tactician Valeriy Lobanovskyi led the national football team to positive results. The final they reached at the 1988 European Championship showed how solid a foundation Soviet football had. But the 1990 World Cup evidenced that sport cannot be seen as an institution separate from its environment. Going to Italy as the underdog of many football experts including Michel Platini, the USSR went back home early after failing in the group.

The unsuccessfulness was caused by the uncertain climate. As a result of Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” policy (meaning “openness” or “transparency”), footballers started to play abroad and this situation gave hard times to Lobanovskyi, who cared a lot about collectivism and organisation. Between ’88 and ’90, the number of members playing outside the country rose from none to seven. People even said that the Kievan coach didn’t want to play with Rinat Dasayev between the posts just because the goalkeeper went to Sevilla.

Lobanovskyi quit after the tournament and the Federation began to seek a new trainer to sit at the driver’s seat as the car with faulty brakes was going down the bumpy hill. Anatoliy Byshovets won that lottery. In copy-paste style, he had taken charge of the national team with his gold-medal winning team which he coached in the 1988 Olympics. They passed the qualifiers for Euro ’92 unbeaten and finished the group on top, in front of Italy.

The USSR dissolved one month after that Cyprus match in November, but it didn’t take too long before they came up with a solution. On 8 December 1991, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus founded the “Commonwealth of Independent States”, which also gave birth to a national team. A national team that would compete at the European Championship in Sweden.

All the ex-Soviet countries except for Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania and Estonia took place in the commonwealth. They would use the good old red & white uniforms but they had a brand-new flag with the blue abbreviation of “CIS” written on plain white. Moreover, the last part of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, “Ode to Joy”, had been chosen as the national anthem of the CIS. Known as the anthem of the European Council, the composition would later be identified with the European Union. So, it was all set for the new face of international football.

The Commonwealth of Independent States didn’t wait long for their first game. On 25 January 1992, they played against their “former enemy” USA and won with a single goal. “It’s very difficult to make any kind of plans or prognosis.” said Tukmanov, head of the CIS delegation, to New York Times. “Our people are facing many difficulties. One is to alleviate any kind of situation where there’s going to be conflicts with nationalities. Another is how to get food and human necessities to people without the long lines.” Although Tukmanov was right, there was a championship which they were to play in a few months’ time. The Commonwealth of Independent States went to Sweden –the host country– after friendlies against El Salvador, Mexico, Israel and England. While the team retained some of its pieces from the Euro 88 final such as Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko, Oleg Kuznetsov and Sergei Aleynikov; they also added four new players from Byshovets’ USSR gold-winning side in Seoul: keeper Dmitry Kharin, Igor Dobrovolski and Volodymyr Lyuty.

In the review he wrote for The Guardian, Paul Walters talked about the observations he made on the CIS. “The CIS may just about exist in political terms. In sporting terms, it is merely a transitional device. Its one and only – and suicidal – purpose is to bridge the chaos between the disappearance of the old Soviet sporting structure on the midnight of December 31 and the independent emergence of the various republics of the old Soviet empire.”
However, the time for their first game against Germany was coming and the squad had no choice but to focus on the pitch. Germany was another country that felt the wind of change and Euro 92 was the first time the East and West were going to play as a single team. The rivalry was just like it had been before… After an hour and a very tight game, Dobrovolski’s penalty took the CIS ahead but Häβler scored from a free kick just before the final whistle and the CIS’ first official match resulted in a draw. Their second match of the group was against the last champion. Despite the Netherlands being the dominant side throughout the two halves and having 17 attempts while the CIS had only four, this time they managed to hold on to a 0-0 draw with a helping hand from the referee Peter Mikkelsen. The USSR had many times been the victim of referees, but this time, they were lucky because Mikkelsen wrongly disallowed van Basten’s goal.
Coming to the end of the group stage, the USSR had two points and a match to play. They seemed to have the upper hand against Scotland, who were playing their first European Championship and yet to score a goal. A win would be enough to reach the semis but they lost it, 0-3! Manager Byshovets implied that the result was decided long before the kick-off, without having any reasonable evidence. Igor Dobrovolski’s claim was even more confusing: “Half of the Scots were drunk!”
Journalist Oleh Kucherenko was more realistic than the others: “I would add another reason for the setbacks in this tournament: a psychological one, a reason to which no one pays attention… we don’t have a flag or an anthem – instead, the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was performed. For everyone else: the anthem is performed, the players sing, the fans in the stands sing too. And only we are entirely indifferent. And how could it be otherwise? For whom are they playing? Who are they representing? Yes, this was a heart-breaking defeat. Unfortunately, we the people are getting used to one misfortune after another, and not just on the football pitch. And this is something we must learn to deal with.”
The dealing with didn’t last too long for Kucherenko and the people around the country. The penalty Dobrovoski scored against Germany was their last goal. One by one, states declared independence, launched their own federations and the ‘temporary National Team’ of the CIS fell apart. Once teammates, they became rivals playing for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Russia was the first to return to the international scene with the 1994 World Cup, but in football terms, they were nowhere near where the Soviets had been…
In 2008, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy returned to the stadiums for another part-time job. This time, it was Kosovo who declared its independence from Serbia.

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