I blame the Watney Cup. Ever since that particular 1970s English oddity set a high benchmark for outlandishly ill-conceived competition formats, I’ve long harboured a fascination for discovering obscure tournaments from around the world that might just match its plain out-and-out silliness. So whilst recently browsing the history of Shakhtar Donetsk (as you do), my curiosity was piqued by the inclusion on the club’s honours list of a Soviet-era tournament called the Progress Cup. Were Shakhtar’s 1975 and 1977 successes in this competition something for the Ukrainian miners club to actually celebrate? Was there a physical, hoistable piece of metal with handles involved or was it merely a symbolic award? We endeavoured to find out.
Annually between the years of 1971 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Progress Cup was awarded by the Rabochaia Gazeta (Workers Gazette), a Kiev-based workers newspaper. This was not a formal, organised competition as such; rather the declared winner was the club that had recorded the highest numerical rise in Soviet Supreme League placings over the previous season. The first winners were Dynamo Kiev and the last winners were Chornomorets Odessa.
There’s strengths and weaknesses with such a format. An ideal that eschews out-and-out excellence to focus on improvement is an egalitarian one that certainly does seem a more natural fit within a Communist context. That notion of promoting equality certainly appears to be backed up by the broad spread of Progress Cup winners – a dozen of them during the competition’s 21-year existence. No single club dominated it either with three successes the most any individual club managed.
Krylia Sovetov Kuybyshev was exactly the sort of middling club the format rewarded. With little hope of ever managing the consistency to become Soviet champions, Krylia’s estimable short-term improvement during the 1976 Autumn League was sufficient to win them the Progress Cup and the sort of recognition, albeit minor, that wouldn’t otherwise have been forthcoming.
On the flip side there’s a good case to be made that the Progress Cup was a sham and little more than an award for the sake of creating an award. With a structure that favoured clubs prone to wild season-on-season fluctuations in form at the expense of those who maintained consistency, the meritocracy element was constrained by rather narrow boundaries.
And while twelve different Progress Cup winners suggests a widely disparate spread of clubs earning a dim spotlight in which to bask, this has to be set against the backdrop of a Russian game that was surprisingly competitive anyway. Eleven different clubs were crowned national champions and eleven different clubs collected the Soviet Cup during this same timeframe. Of all the Progress Cup winners, only the aforementioned Krylia Sovetov Kuybyshev failed to win either League or Cup during these years.
And then there’s the feel of the thing. With its blurring of the distinction between winners and losers, this is a format that smacks of modern-day school sports days where everyone get a medal just for taking part, even the bandy-legged boy with the limp who finished a distant last in the egg and spoon race. We wonder just how must enthusiasm Dinamo Tbilisi fans mustered for their club’s solitary Progress Cup success, based as it was on the unremarkable feat of improving from a poor sixteenth League placing in 1983 to an ordinary seventh place the following year.
Some Progress Cup stats. The most successful teams in the competition’s history were three-time winners Dynamo Kiev (1971, 1985, 1988), Dynamo Moscow (1973, 1981, 1986) and Chornomorets Odessa (1974, 1989, 1991). The purest of winners as measured by the team that recorded the highest seasonal gain in League places was CSKA Moscow in 1990 – the army club finished runners-up in the League that year as a newly promoted side, thus a de facto 15 place rise. By contrast Zorya Voroshilovgrad won the competition with just a three place rise from fourth in 1971 to champions in 1972.
I’ll leave where I came in with Shakhtar Donetsk and specifically their second Progress Cup win in 1977. Most communist era tournaments feature the occasionally inexplicable winner for reasons that are invariably arcane and usually political. This particular Progress Cup award fits that template as there seems to be no statistical justification whatsoever for it. The 1976 season was unusual in as much as it was split into two distinct Spring and Autumn Leagues. The Ukrainian miners club managed fifth placed finishes in both, then took fifth spot again in 1977. Consistent performances yes, but for all the questionable virtues that the Progress Cup was meant to promote, consistency was the least of them.