Manuel Veth –
The winter break has engulfed most of the leagues of the former Soviet Union. A three-month-long break to escape the harsh winters of Eastern Europe. Nowadays for many of the bigger clubs of the post-Soviet space, the winter break means long training camps in Southern Europe and the occasional tournament in places like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Israel. That was, however, not always the case. Until 2011 the most prominent clubs of the post-Soviet space used the winter break to compete in the CIS Cup.
The Commonwealth of Independent States Cup was competed from 1993 onwards by the members of the CIS and the Baltic States as well as clubs from Finland and Serbia the tournament was turned into a youth tournament for national teams after 2012 and then disbanded in 2016. Founded as a symbol of ongoing cooperation between the different nation states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union the CIS Cup, as an institution, was designed to keep up cooperation between the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Formed in December 1991 following the signing of the Belavezha Accords, the CIS formerly replaced the USSR. A few days later the Alma-Ata Protocols declared the Russian Federation the legal successor state of the Soviet Union. The CIS, in turn, became a loose trade alliance between the former Soviet Republics that allowed among other things visa-free travel between its members. Among the members were all post-Soviet states excluding the Baltic States, although they would participate in the CIS Cup, Ukraine and Turkmenistan – the latter two are associated states as their respective parliaments never ratified the agreement.
Regarding football, the CIS briefly became the successor of the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States national team participating in the 1992 European Championships. But what to do about the Soviet Vysshaya Liga, which at the time was one of the highest ranked first divisions in Europe? After all Georgian and Baltic clubs had started to withdraw from the competition as early as 1989. When the Soviet Union did finally collapse seemed inevitable that the league would go with it and that independent national associations would be formed.
The Soviet Vysshaya Liga vs CIS Cup
Behind closed doors, however, things were not that clear. Back in 2013 Russian and Ukrainian clubs toyed with the creation of a new post-Soviet Super League. Ultimately, those plans were shelved as the still ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine made such a competition impossible. But the idea of an international league in the realms of the post-Soviet space was not new. Already following the immediate collapse of the Soviet Union high ranking officials like the head of the Soviet Football Federation Vyacheslav Koloskov were looking to keep the Soviet Vysshaya Liga, the highest division in the former Soviet Union together in one form or another.
On January 14, 1992, Viacheslav Koloskov took action and announced the transformation of the old Football Federation of the USSR into a new body that represented the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Koloskov then stated via Sovetskii Sport that there was tentative hope that the Soviet Vysshaia Liga could be continued under the leadership of the Football Association of the CIS. He hoped for a new championship that would include teams from Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan as well as Abkhazia and Transnistria. The football federations of Moldova and Armenia had joined Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia in declaring they would initiate independent championships.
According to Koloskov, the new championship would be played in two groups with eleven teams in each group. The best five in each group would advance to the next round to determine the medal places. The inclusion of Abkhazia (Dinamo Sukhumi) and Transnistria (Tiligul Tiraspol) was especially surprising since these were not countries but territories of the newly independent states of Georgia and Moldova respectively. This was a politically provocative move, especially since neither club had ever participated at the highest level of Soviet football.
The idea of continuing the Soviet Vysshaya Liga under the umbrella of the CIS, however, was torpedoed on February 4, 1992, by the five big Moscow clubs, CSKA, Torpedo, Lokomotiv, Dinamo and Spartak. The clubs argued that the introduction of a free market economy within the CIS had resulted in a manifold increase in transportation tariffs, price spikes in food and hotel services, as well as the introduction of new currencies in the now sovereign Republics of the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, the clubs were worried about the political situation in many of the now sovereign republics.
Therefore the CIS championship, they argued, would constitute a real threat to the budget of their clubs, as participation would cost each team between 25 and 30 million roubles a year. The Moscow clubs also pointed out that many of the new states had already registered their membership with FIFA and that it was therefore quite likely that a new CIS championship could not be completed because clubs would leave as soon as their national federations had achieved independence
That memorandum, however, did not spell an end to the possibility of a post-Soviet tournament. With the opening of the post-Soviet economy, the sky seemed the limit and football, in particular, became the target of businessmen trying to make money as a result of the collapse of communism in the post-Soviet space.
CIS Cup – In the name of post-Soviet cooperation
Hence, by 1993 a new tournament was set up. Called the CIS Cup the competition was held for the first time in 1993. This tournament, which would take place annually, was envisioned as a sort of Champions League, which was founded in 1992, for the countries of the former Soviet Union. Koloskov’s Football Union arranged the organisation and finances of the tournament, and the main sponsor was Markos Shiapanis, a Greek businessman and the owner of the lottery company Lotto Million. Lotto Million along with the National Sport Fund sponsored the tournament and paid for the prize money, which was set at $50,000, a small sum – especially when compared to today’s standards – but a figure that clubs could not pass up within the financial insecurity of the post-Soviet collapse.
Shiapanis, a Greek émigré, became a rather prominent business magnate in the early 1990s. According to an article published in the Kommersant in 1993, he was involved in a deal which saw the Soviet Olympic Committee purchase lottery licences. This venture became known as Lotto Million, and by 1993 kiosks operated in all major Russian cities; the new tournament was part of his investment strategy to grow his brand name even further in the post-Soviet space.
All countries from the former Soviet Union (as well as the Baltic States, even though they were not part of the Commonwealth of Independent States) were willing to send their champions—except for Ukraine, which boycotted the event. The newspaper Krasnaia Zvezda wrote that everything had been done to get the Ukrainian team to play in Russia and that Ukraine’s champion Tavriya actually had wanted to participate. The club had to withdraw, however, when the president of the Ukrainian Football Union threatened to fine the club if it were to take part.
Even high-level talks between the advisor to the Russian President Shamil Tarpishchev and the Ukrainian Football Federation brought no results. The Ukrainian FF stated that they did not want Tavriya Simferopol, which had upset the apple-cart by winning the first ever Ukrainian championship ahead of powerhouse Dynamo Kyiv, to participate because the tournament was played indoors and on synthetic grass.
The real reason, however, was that Ukrainian officials feared that participation at the CIS Cup could result in Ukrainian Football Federation losing independence, as Russia was still hoping to create a Eurasian Football Union. Teams from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were also unable to attend as the economic situation in their countries made it impossible for these clubs to pay their travel expenses.
Spartak won the tournament by beating Belarus Minsk, which fitting to the nationalistic Zeitgeist of the time had been renamed from Dinamo Minsk, 8-0, but as Pravda wrote in its post-tournament report, the full potential of the tournament was not reached due to the absence of the Ukrainian champion. 14 club teams and the Russian U-19 national team competed in the first ever CIS Cup. Alongside Spartak and Belarus Minsk, Ekranas Panevezys (Lithuania), Skonto Riga (Latvia), Norma Tallinn (Estonia), Zimbru Chisinau (Moldova), Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia), Neftchi Baku (Azerbaijan), Homenetmen Yerevan (Armenia) Kairat Almaty (Kazakhstan), Pakhtakor Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Regar Tursunzoda (Tajikistan), Alga Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Köpetdag Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) competed in the inaugural tournament.
It was an odd assortment of teams. Only Spartak, Belarus, Dinamo Tbilisi, Neftchi, Kairat and Pakhtakor had played top-flight football during the time of the Soviet Union. Many of the Central Asian Republics, in particular, were white spots on the Soviet football map. The same in some ways could be said about the clubs from the Baltic States where football often played second fiddle to basketball.
As a result, the big boys with professional experience dominated the tournament, which meant many lopsided results like Spartak beating Skonto 7-0 in the group stage. What also became apparent was the gulf that had developed in just two years between Russian clubs and teams from the other post-Soviet states. Spartak not only beat Minsk 8-0 in the final but also demolished the former Soviet Vysshaya Liga side Neftchi 8-0.
It was a phenomenon that could easily be explained. With the fall of communism, Russian and Ukrainian clubs were the only teams in the region able to pay the wages for professional footballers. As a result, the best clubs in Russia and Ukraine soon started to vacuum up the best talent of the region with an eye to sell some of them to the West in order to make a profit. Hence, even when Ukrainian clubs joined the competition in 1995 results would remain lopsided between the big clubs in Russia and Ukraine and smaller teams from the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
In 1994, for example, Spartak Moscow beat Neftchi Fergana from Uzbekistan 7-0 in the final. The following year Dinamo Tbilisi were dispatched 5-1 in the final and in 1998 Spartak demolished the Tajik side Vakhsh Qurghonteppa 19-0. Hence, as the years passed the tournament was increasingly demoted to a pre-season affair played in the long Russian winter break. By the early 2000s, the big clubs from Russia and Ukraine only sent their reserve teams to compete.
CIS Cup vs Champions League and the end of post-Soviet cooperation
The big clubs from Russia and Ukraine now focused on the financially more attractive UEFA Champions League. It is no coincidence that the inauguration of a more lucrative pan-European championship in 1992 came right after the fall of the Soviet Union. Until the early 1990s UEFA was a relatively small operation within FIFA, but with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, it expanded fast, absorbing the new successor states of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and all the former Soviet Republics west of the Caucasus (Kazakhstan was also accepted in 2002). This not only gave UEFA enormous voting power within FIFA but also bolstered UEFA’s capacity to fight off private investors who wanted to create a European Super League.
Instead, UEFA turned the old European Cup into a new enterprise known as the UEFA Champions League. The competition was completely rebranded and adopted the FIFA World Cup model of centralized television and exclusive sponsorship. The competition was a huge success: in 2006 the financial pot that went to the 32 starters of the Champions League was around €400 million, and clubs received €10 million just for qualifying. It was, therefore, no surprise that by the early 2000s the CIS Cup was no longer seen as a viable tournament by Russian and Ukrainian clubs.
By 2002 the tournament that was played indoors in places like the Moscow located indoor stadiums Dynamo Manage, the Olimpiysky, the LFC CSKA or in St. Petersburg’s SSC Petersburgsky was mostly ignored by the best clubs in Russia and Ukraine. Although they still participated, they would usually send their second strings to play at the tournament – players that needed playing time to gain match fitness. That, in turn, opened up the door for some of the smaller countries to win the tournament and to earn some international silverware.
From 1993 to 2002 only Spartak (six titles) and Dynamo Kyiv (four titles) had won the competition. After 2002 the winners were Sheriff Tiraspol (2003 and 2009), Dinamo Tbilisi (2004), Neftchi Baku (2006), Pakhtakor (2007), Khazar Lenkoran (2008), Rubin Kazan (2010) and Inter Baku (2011). At that point, however, the Channel One Cup, sponsored by Russia’s state television station Pervogo Kanal and the oligarch Roman Abramovich, played in Israel had already taken most of the attention from the winter tournament. Millions in Russia watched as the big teams from Russia and Ukraine competed against one another at the Channel One Cup and later the Unified Tournament in what sparked a brief wave of Soviet football nostalgia and ultimately the short-lived dream of creating a post-Soviet Super League.
Like the Commonwealth of Independent States, the CIS Cup was slowly withering away. Conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine and the complicated situation in Moldova have meant that countries like Georgia (in 2008) and Ukraine (2018) decided to leave the CIS. Furthermore, the growing importance of international competition like the Champions League, Europa League and the AFC Champions League in Asia meant that club teams were no longer interested in keeping up with post-Soviet cooperation. Hence, by 2012 the CIS Cup was turned into a youth football tournament for national teams and then disbanded in 2016.
What remains then of a tournament that is no longer? There is the nostalgia for seeing rivals of the Soviet Vysshaya Liga competing against one another on a regular basis. But also the stars that played in the tournament. Spartak’s Vladimir Beschastnykh, who leads the competition in all-time scoring with 20 goals, the magnificent playmaker Yegor Titov, perhaps Spartak’s biggest star following the Soviet collapse, Shota Arveladze, who managed five goals in the 1993 tournament for Dinamo Tbilisi and then managed an international career with stints at Ajax as well as Rangers and, of course, Andrey Shevchenko the biggest star ever to emerge from the post-Soviet space.
All of the above make the CIS Cup a competition worth remembering. At the same time, the CIS Cup is also a stark reminder that an organisation that was set up for cooperation among the states of the former Soviet Union has now become an empty promise in a geographical area that is facing ever more political problems among its member states.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.