Manuel Veth –
Every time Daler Kuzyaev plays in the Russian Football Premier League he represents a bit of Soviet football history. Both his father and his grandfather played fulltime football during the time of the Soviet Union. Originally from Tajikistan both, his father Adyam and his grandfather Kabir played with SKA Pamir Dushanbe.
Kabir Kuzyaev was part of the Pamir Dushanbe side that was the only team from the Tajik Socialist Soviet Republic that managed to play in the top flight of the Soviet Union. In many ways, the Soviet Vysshaya Liga was a Champions League of the former Soviet Union with top sights from various republic that in many ways came to replace the respective national teams of the individual republics.
13 of the 15 Soviet Republics were represented in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga at one point or another throughout the history of the competition, which was founded in 1936 and lasted until 1991 when the tournament was disbanded due to the fall of the Soviet Union. It is perhaps the biggest tragedy of Pamir Dushanbe’s history that the club did not manage promotion to the top flight of the Soviet Union until 1988 when the Soviet Union was nearing the end of its existence.
It would be wrong to assume that Pamir Dushanbe was promoted merely because of a decline of the league. In fact, Soviet football was at its strongest towards the end of the 1980s. Ranked second in the UEFA co-efficient standing, just behind the Serie A, the Soviet Vysshaya Liga was, in fact, a top league in European football.
Promotion to the Soviet Vysshaya Liga was Like Playing in the Champions League
For a team from Dushanbe to break into the concert of the big Soviet clubs was, therefore, a significant success. The capital of Tajikistan had a population of almost 800,000, according to the Soviet census, Dushanbe was briefly known as Stalinabad between 1929 and 1961 and was one of the big cities of the Soviet holdings in Central Asia.
The relegation of the Kazakh side Kairat Almaty the previous season and the Uzbek side Pakhtakor Tashkent in 1984 meant that Pamir Dushanbe were the only club from Central Asia to be represented in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga. Like it is the case with teams from the Russia Far East today the biggest challenge for Pamir Dushanbe was therefore travel as the club had to fly long distances to visit the likes of Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine), Dinamo Minsk (Belarus), Žalgiris Vilnius (Lithuania), Ararat Erevan (Armenia) and Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia).
Playing in the periphery, however, also had its advantages. Attached to the military, officially the club was known as SKA Pamir Dushanbe, the club was able to do things a bit different than the other teams in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga. For the most part, foreign players were not allowed to play in the Soviet league pyramid, but Pamir Dushanbe being a bit outside of the spotlight was able to use its army contacts to bring in Derby Mankinka, Wisdom Chansa and Richard Mwanza from Zambia—the three players would sadly parish in an air crash. The trio only played a handful of games in the USSR and left shortly after that, but they were the first foreign players signed from abroad to play in the Soviet Vysshaia Liga.
The club used diplomatic contacts to friendly African countries as well as the ability to bring in personnel on army exchange missions. Hence, the three Zambians were officially brought in as part of an exchange and were allowed to play for the club to “improve” diplomatic contacts.
The idea was not entirely new, and it was fellow army club SKA Rostov, who became the first club to apply to the Sports Committee to bring in players from Africa. Rostov’s head coach, B. Bodarenko, had spent time coaching the Mozambique club CD Matchedje de Maputo and he wanted to bring in several players from his former club and he believed that such a transfer would be possible since Mozambique was an ally of the Soviet Union and Matchedje, like SKA, was an army team.
Bodarenko proposed that the players would officially go on a military exchange to the Soviet Union and as part of the exchange play for SKA Rostov. At that point, the Soviet Union did not allow foreign players in the Soviet league. But just two days after the Bodarenko interview, Goskomsport changed the rules regarding international players and made it possible for every club to field two non-Soviet citizens. The transfer of the Mozambican players to SKA was never confirmed in the press, and it can, therefore, be assumed that it never took place.
The contacts between African countries and the periphery of the Soviet Union were often used by the state for propaganda value. Athletes from regions such as Tajikistan were more often sent to foreign missions to demonstrate the development of peripheral areas under socialism. The three Zambians were, therefore, part of a program that was used to illustrate both the openness of Soviet reforms and the success of a club from the periphery to friendly third world countries.
Pamir Dushanbe was an Exote in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga
Pamir Dushanbe being able to sign foreigners and playing them in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga added to the already exotic status of the first ever-Tajik club to play in the Soviet top flight. Finishing 13th in their first league the club surprisingly avoided relegation to the Soviet Pervaya Liga (first division).
Times were, however, changes in the Soviet Union. Ahead of the 1990 season, Dinamo Tbilisi had withdrawn from the Soviet Vysshaya Liga to play in the newly created Georgian top flight, and within four games of the 1990 season, Žalgiris Vilnius also exited Soviet football. The season would, therefore, finish with 13 teams in which Pamir finished in the tenth spot. But it was also in that year Dushanbe had their biggest result in the top flight beating the mighty Spartak Moscow 5-1 in Dushanbe.
The following season saw the return of Pakhtakor Tashkent, which gave Pamir the chance of playing a local derby in the Soviet top division. But sadly this would be the last year of the Soviet Vysshaya Liga. By the end of the year, the leaders Belarus, Ukraine and Russia met at a dacha located in the Belarusian Belovezhskaya Pushcha in a night of heavy drinking came drew up the Belavezha Accords, which effectively ended the Soviet Union. For some time there was then plans to continue the Soviet Vysshaya Liga in one form or another, but the Moscow clubs, fearing UEFA reprisal were against an international post-Soviet league, which meant Pamir had to play in the newly formed Tajik top division.
In some ways, the results of the dissolution of the Soviet Union are reflected in football. Big countries like Ukraine and Russia were able to survive independently from one another, and for some time the football in the two countries even prospered to such an extent that it could challenge the big clubs in the West. But in smaller post-Soviet states the fall of the Union was a tragedy, and this is also reflected in the state of football in places like Tajikistan where Pamir is now an unimportant club playing in a league that is mostly forgotten even in the regional context.
The story of Pamir is, in fact, a fitting one given that the city authorities of Dushanbe are working feverishly of demolishing the Soviet past of the town. Nowadays known as CSKA Pamir Dushanbe the club remains a military club, which, however, has not translated into massive resources. Instead, the club has only won one title since independence and has been surpassed by other clubs in the country.
These days the only reminder of Pamir Dushanbe’s time in the sun is Daler Kuzyaev, who is on the verge of becoming a major star. Sadly for Pamir and Tajikistan Kuzyaev plays for a club is now a foreign country and on top of that has chosen Russia ahead of the country of his grandfather. Hence, the only thing that remains these days are memories of a time long gone.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. 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 will be available in print soon. 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.