by Dominic Norris
The Commonwealth of Independent States came into existence as a direct result of the break up of the Soviet Union and the consequent state of confusion that such a grand occasion caused. When the newly appointed leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus convened to discuss where the newly sovereign nations of eastern Europe should turn next, the idea of an alliance between them began to take shape.
The CIS ultimately provided a platform through which the former Soviet states could organise their economic and foreign policies while maintaining the land borders, independence and sovereignty of the recently liberated nations. However, while the association – of 13 of the 15 states who were previously under Soviet rule – was primarily developed as a means of political strengthening, the CIS also unwittingly had an important role to play in the footballing development of the rapidly changing face of eastern Europe.
The Euro ’92 qualifying round pitted the Soviet Union against the likes of Italy and Norway in a group that could have been particularly hazardous for the eastern giant. However, an undefeated run throughout the course of qualification – including two 0-0 draws against Italy and impressive away wins in both Norway and Hungary – saw the USSR qualify for Euro ’92 with relative ease. A three point gap separated them from the Italians who were left to rue their laboured performances against the Norwegians in both the home and away fixtures.
Despite the Soviet’s impressive qualifying campaign, the tides of political change began to sweep across eastern Europe and the last Euro ’92 qualifying match in Cyprus proved to be the final swansong for the USSR in the footballing world. Merely 4,000 people lined the seats of the Tsirion Stadium in Limassol to see Andrei Kanchelskis complete the scoring in a 0-3 rout for the visitors. It is perhaps poignant that the Soviet Union’s final football match should occur amidst the backwaters of European football in a manner that stopped short of recognising the true impact of such a fascinating nation.
The break up of the Soviet Union on Boxing Day 1991 shook Europe in a manner that it could be argued had not been experienced since the Second World War. However, while the political and social landscape began to dramatically change, questions began to be asked as to just how the transformations will effect the general outlook of European football, as well as who would fill the now vacant spot at Euro ’92.
The collapse of the Football Federation of the USSR ultimately led to the newly formulated Commonwealth of Independent States creating their own federation which was swiftly recognised by FIFA and UEFA as being the successor to the previous Soviet association. It was originally debated that the nations within the CIS should continue to pool their footballing talent within a single league structure that had previously been witnessed through the Soviet Top League’s existence. However, the desire for such a tournament fell upon deaf ears as each member state gradually formed their own national league system.
The recognition granted upon the CIS Federation by both FIFA and UEFA as the Soviet Union’s successor meant that the newly-formed association would fill the void left by the USSR’s demise. As such, the preparations for the European Championships grew in earnest as the desire to express the sense of Soviet pride within the new CIS guise grew with increasing intensity as the tournament drew ever nearer.
Anatoliy Byshovets – the man who was previously in charge of the Soviet Union team – maintained his position as the head coach of the CIS as the team embarked upon a brief tour of North America during the late January and early Febuary of 1992. On January 25th the CIS took to the field in Miami in front of some 30,000 spectators who witnessed the CIS’ first international match as defender Akhrik Tsveiba scored the only goal of the game with a 16-yard deflected drive. It was a new dawn for eastern Europe as post-Soviet football began to take shape.
Further friendlies against El Salvador and the USA were followed by a return to Europe to face the likes of Israel, Spain and Denmark as the preparations for the European Championships began to to hit full swing. Despite a somewhat patchy run heading into the tournament – which mainly consisted of drab and dull low score draws – a sense of hope followed the CIS squad into Euro ’92 as eastern European pride remained firmly on the line.
The Euro ’92 tournament ultimately proved to be one of disappointment for the CIS side who found themselves lumbered in the same group as Germany, Holland and Scotland. The opening fixture against Germany merely served to perpetuate the frustrating nature of the tournament as CIS took the lead thanks to an Igor Dobrovolski penalty just past the hour mark (that after Andrei Kanchelskis was hauled down by Stefan Reuter), only to find their lead stripped from them well into stoppage time as Thomas Häßler destroyed the fairy tale opening to the tournament.
Yet another point against Holland – this time in a 0-0 draw – meant that CIS needed a victory against Scotland if they were to progress to the semi-final stage. However, the Scots proved to be too strong as goals from Paul McStay, Brian McClair and Gary McAllister saw the CIS fall to a hugely disappointing defeat that left them bottom of the group.
The match against Scotland proved to be the final hurrah for the CIS side, as well as the final time the group of former Soviet nations would take to the field as one side. While the results of Euro ’92 were perhaps not ideal, the tournament as a whole was the perfect setting for the transformation of eastern Europe to be completed. It was a competition that drew various respective nations together and maintained the sense of pride that had underlined previous Soviet sides. Football may not have quenched the thirst of the former Soviet states since the nation’s collapse, but the CIS gave the region one final chance to say goodbye to the past.