On a late summer day in 1969, Moscow’s Lenin Stadium resounded with the voices of thousands of Ukrainians singing Cheremshyna, a popular national folk song. The words to the chorus echoed across the stadium:
“Then he starts a gentle serenading
Daytime turns to dusk the light is fading
To his verse a harmony she’s singing
Spring is here, the time of new beginnings.”
These were words of love, of romance, but on this day they would become words of victory. There were 20,000 Karpaty Lvov football club supporters in the stadium on that August day. The audience these Ukrainians were singing for was very small. It consisted of their hometown football team. Rarely in Ukrainian history have so many performed for so few, with such astonishing results. As the Karpaty team took the field, they were met with the familiar sound of a song from their homeland. A homeland subsumed within the Soviet Union, but that had never died. Who could have imagined that a Ukrainian folk song would be voiced by thousands in Moscow? Who could have imagined that a football team mired in the Soviet B League would be playing in a championship game for the Soviet Cup? Such was the improbable story of the 1969 Karpaty Lvov football team and the emotions brought forth by their pursuit of the Soviet Cup.
Dynamo & the East – The Best Of Ukrainian Football
When the topic of Ukrainian football is brought up, no one is likely to mention Karpaty Lviv (the team’s present name). From a historical perspective, all talk turns to Dynamo Kiev. There is little doubt that Dynamo has been the dominant force in Ukrainian football. Beginning with the 1961 season, Dynamo won the Soviet League 13 out of the next 30 years as well the Soviet Cup nine times during those years. Most impressively, it became the only Soviet League team to win the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, which it did twice. During the 54 year existence of the Soviet League, Dynamo finished in first, second or third place 27 times. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of an independent Ukraine, Dynamo dominated the newly created domestic league. It won the Ukrainian Premier League nine times in a row from 1993 – 2001. Only in the last few years has the top slot in Ukrainian football shifted away from Dynamo. Shaktar Donetsk has won the league five of the last six years, though Dynamo did win it again in 2014 -2015.
The top echelons of football in Ukraine have been the preserve of teams in Kiev and the larger industrial cities in eastern Ukraine throughout 25 year history. This has meant a shortage of football glory for teams representing cities in western Ukraine. The best of a decidedly mediocre lot across this region has been Karpaty Lviv. Karpaty is the only team in western Ukraine to have placed in the top three of the premier league’s table since its inception, finishing second in 2006 and third in 1998. Suffice to say, the center of football power in Ukraine tilts eastward. Yet Karpaty Lviv did manage a singular feat that no club in Soviet or Ukrainian football has ever matched. During the summer of 1969, Karpaty became the only club in the history of Soviet football to win the Soviet Cup while a member of the Soviet First League (in effect the 2nd tier league). The story of that triumph in 1969 is enough to give fainthearted western Ukrainian football fans reason to believe.
An Improbable Rise – Karpaty Lvov Comes of Age
Like so many things in post-World War II western Ukraine, Karpaty Lvov (the team’s name during the Soviet era) was formed despite Soviet rule and also because of it. Lviv’s post-World War II team was known as Sportivnyi Klub Armii Lvov (SKA Lvov). The club was sponsored by the occupying Red Army with its players on active military duty. Any players that showed promise were subsequently shipped off to Moscow where they would play for the best Army affiliated clubs. The upshot of this situation was that factory workers in Lvov formed a new club, Selmash Lvov, named for the local weapons factory. The club met with immediate success, winning the regional championship. When the Soviet league underwent a re-organization prior to the 1963 season, Lviv was guaranteed a spot. The city administration did not want SKA Lvov to represent the city, since the best players were bound to leave. It was thus decided that the civilian backed Selmash would represent Lvov, albeit with a name change to the less militant Karpaty (Ukrainian word for Carpathians). The teams sponsor became the famous Elektron television factory, probably the most famous industrial enterprise in the city’s history.
Karpaty’s first several seasons were forgettable, with the team unable to advance out of the third tier group. In 1968 the club finally fielded a good team. It was just one victory away from advancing to the Soviet Top League. Fortune would not be on Karpaty’s side. In a match against Uralmash Sverdlovsk, the referee Eugen Harms, allowed a decisive goal despite the fact that it was the product of a blatant offside violation. This would not be the last time Harms would be involved with Karpaty’s fate. During the 1969 league season Karpaty was once again unable to finish high enough to advance to the Soviet Top League. The only way to salvage the season would be an improbable run in the Soviet Cup. Luck was with Karpaty as their first two opponents, FC Ararat Yerevan and FC Chornomorets Odessa were not up to their usual standards. Then in the quarterfinals, Karpaty faced FC Trud Vornonezh which had upset FC Spartak Moscow, one of the Soviet Union’s top teams. Voronezh hung tough, but Karpaty prevailed 1 -0. In the semifinals, the Karpaty defense shutout fellow Ukrainian club Mykolaiv while the offense chipped in two goals. Now only one game remained between Karpaty Lvov and glory.
“Again there will be blooming Cheremshyna” – Karpaty Lvov’s Inspiration
The final of the Soviet Cup would turn out to be Karpaty’s toughest contest. They were to face the Red Army supported team of SKA Rostov-on-Don in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium (present day Luzhniki Stadium). With the final taking place far away from Lvov, the city’s administrators provided transportation for fans. Approximately 20,000 Karpaty supporters made the 24 hour trip by rail to Moscow. Their support would turn out to be invaluable. During warm ups, Karpaty players heard the sound of an accordion which was soon accompanied by the stirring words of Cheremshyna. Nevertheless, the first half was all SKA Rostov-on-Don as they scored in the 29th minute on their way to a 1-0 lead at halftime. As the second half got underway the Karpaty fans again started singing Cheremshyna. Their side soon leveled the game with a goal. The singing only grew louder. As Karpaty’s captain and Lvov native Ihor Kulchytski recalled, “Again there will be blooming Cheremshyna…” sounded over the stadium, made out of us something incredible…”
It was not long before Karpaty surged ahead with another goal. Then in the final minutes SKA Rostov-on-Don struck back. They managed to score a late goal. But wait… there was Referee Harms giving a signal that a Rostov player was guilty of an offside violation. The goal was disallowed. Karpaty would just barely hang on to win their one and only Soviet soccer title. To this day, it is the only league cup or championship they have ever won. It was a win for the underdogs, the outsiders and all western Ukrainians. More than anything it was a triumph of inspiration. An against all odds performance that has never since been matched. Karpaty Lvov’s accomplishment will live forever in the memories of football fans in Lviv, just as the words and melodies of Cheremshyna live in the hearts of all Ukrainians.