Czechoslovakia 1968 – Football’s Prague Spring Aftermath

On the night of the 20th of August 1968, 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks from five Warsaw Pact countries – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany and Hungary – invaded Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring and its political liberalisation reforms. Condemnation of the aggressive Soviet-led action was universal. While football was an insignificant consideration amidst the huge geopolitical fallout, the invasion of Czechoslovakia did cause seismic ructions within UEFA and European club football at large. The clumsily handled response would set west against east and inadvertently open a new and unwelcome sporting front of the Cold War.

Players and officials of Austrian club Rapid Vienna experienced the invasion, uncomfortably, at first hand. In Prague to play an Intertoto Cup tie against Dukla when the invasion started, Rapid struggled to gain permission to leave. Their party needed a special pass to permit their bus to use the main roads which were now the exclusive domain of the invading tanks, but the Soviet forces were proving decidedly unhelpful in assisting them. Eventually the club’s officials were summoned by an attaché of the Soviet ambassador who gave them their pass, though not before delivering a lecture about their decadent, capitalist ways. Rapid Vienna complained to UEFA and Austria immediately cancelled two upcoming matches against Hungary in protest.

Rapid’s on-the-ground experience and the fraught, ongoing uncertainty of the situation was a major worry for some club chairmen and presidents in the west. The start of the European club season was imminent and three clubs in particular were more uneasy about the situation than most. The competition draws made six weeks before the invasion had thrown up the usual share of west v east encounters, but now the European Cup draws of Celtic (v Ferencváros of Hungary), Milan (v Levsky Sofia of Bulgaria) and FC Zurich (v Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany) took on a different dimension.

The Celtic chairman Bob Kelly, surprisingly, became the most vocal spokesman for the dissenting western clubs. While Celtic was a club much respected across the continent for its fine team and inspirational manager, it had a long-held reputation for inertness at boardroom level. For Kelly to take a principled stand against anything, however just, was out of character. The uncertain thinking that underpinned his stance was much more typical of the man. His opening gambit was a telegram sent to UEFA demanding no sporting contact with the nations involved in the invasion; this was, to his mind, an issue too serious to divorce sport from politics.

Bob Kelly, Celtic chairman

UEFA failed to respond and after discussions between the affected clubs, Celtic and Milan announced that they did not want to fulfil their fixtures through fears that the safety of their teams could not be guaranteed during the away legs. Their proposed alternative was a segregated redraw that would keep apart clubs from western and eastern Europe, or at least the eastern Europe represented by the five countries involved in the invasion. Further backing for the plan came from Sweden and Luxembourg. Kelly stated: “matches in eastern Europe would be difficult and dangerous.” Jock Stein, a lot less sure-footed on matters not strictly football related, commented: “I would be happy to meet Ferencváros at a later date.”

This muddled thinking from Stein summed up the inherent lack of clarity in the new proposal. Celtic couldn’t play Ferencváros later as adoption of the proposal would void those teams ever having been drawn together in the first place. Equally, segregated draws can only stay segregated for so long. What would happen in the next round, or the round after that? Would the political situation be stable enough by October or November for normal relations to resume? If political movers and shakers didn’t know the answer to that question, how could a Scottish football club chairman?

Jock Stein

Both Manchester clubs were happy with their respective draws against Irish and Turkish opponents and stayed out of the row, while the UK government through its Sports Minister, Dennis Howell, adopted no official position on the affair. The FA thought nothing of arranging a forthcoming international friendly at Wembley against Bulgaria. With the silence from the rest of Britain deafening, Celtic and Bob Kelly became the de facto conscience of the nation on the matter. Howell would later comment with some prescience: “Once political considerations are allowed to creep into the organisation of international competitions, the result will be chaos.”

Quite aside from the viability of the new proposal being bandied around, such a redrawing essentially contradicted the most basic of European competition rules. Article 2, Paragraph 3 of the UEFA constitution stated that ‘no political discrimination could be exercised against any member country.’ There had been several instances before when clubs had refused to play opponents for political reasons, most notably when poor relations between Greece and Turkey led to Olympiakos withdrawing from a 1958 European Cup tie against Besiktas. The substantial difference in this case was that the team unwilling to play withdrew – they didn’t demand a redraw or the exclusion of their opponents.

It was not really the ethical, nor legal right of Celtic and their allies to impose a moral position on the competition and then pass it back to UEFA to solve. Had clubs with less clout made this stance then perhaps it might have been a non-issue, but Celtic and Milan were European Cup heavyweights and important to the commercial wellbeing of the competition. Certainly more important than the eastern clubs: UEFA had consistently refused to even allow a major Final to be hosted behind the Iron Curtain because they would be unable to bank gate receipts in any sort of negotiable currency.

UEFA’s Emergency Committee convened and quickly agreed to the demands of the western clubs, meaning the First Round of the European Cup and Cup Winners Cup were duly redrawn on a segregated basis. The representatives of the Soviet Union, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany and Poland were now drawn to play each other, or teams from ‘neutral’ eastern countries like Rumania or Yugoslavia. As to what would happen after the opening round, well, it was a case of UEFA crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. No specific alternative arrangements were put in place, their statement expressing little more than hope that the situation might have quietened down by the start of Round 2 on October 3rd.

The Hungarian FA appealed for a general meeting to discuss the issue, but there the original decision was rubber stamped anyway. Hungarian UEFA Vice-President, Sándor Barcs, was openly critical of the solution and believed it was purely commercially driven. It certainly seemed to be a lose-lose for UEFA: they likely believed it was impossible to avoid alienating one of the blocks, so they chose to side with the one which brought the revenue and the television viewers. Probably not even the most optimistic UEFA committee member believed that this decision would result in the tournaments now proceeding free of further turmoil.

Sandor Barcs

French champions Saint-Etienne were first to protest bitterly about the new draw. Their complaint might have been dressed up as a stance against the politicisation of Europe’s premier club tournament, whereas the reality was that it was based purely on self-interest. An initial draw they would have expected to win against the Polish champions Ruch Chorzow had become a much more daunting draw they would expect to lose, and did, against the 1967 winners, Celtic.

A different governing body not willing to play ball with UEFA on the issue was the Fairs-Cup Committee, headed by Stanley Rous. It too discussed potential change but by a seven to two majority voted to keep its original draw, a difference in approach that threw up a ludicrous inconsistency. The second leg of the previous season’s Fairs Cup Final hadn’t yet been played and Leeds United would travel to Hungary to play it against Ferencváros on the 11th of September. This of course was the same Ferencváros team, in the same city, that had been deemed too unsafe for Celtic to visit a week earlier in the European Cup. When questioned about the issue, Leeds manager Don Revie said there was never any concern about safety and never any prospect of his club not playing in the second game. UEFA’s position was starting to look rather exposed.

Leeds v Ferencvaros, Elland Road, August 1968

After several days of consultation, the Poles, the Hungarians and the Bulgarians all announced their teams’ withdrawal from the European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup in protest against ‘discriminating action by UEFA.’ Several days later East Germany followed suit and finally the Russians themselves, their withdrawal coming with a stinging rebuke to UEFA:

‘In view of the repeated flagrant violation of Article 2 of the constitution of the European Football Union (UEFA) and the International Federation of Football Federations (FIFA) and the unsavoury decision on a redraw of the European football contests, which is nothing but an attempt to drag reactionary political tendencies into international sport, the Football Federation of the USSR and the sporting public of the Soviet Union express their emphatic protest and declare that the Soviet football clubs, Moscow Dynamo and Kiev Dynamo, refuse to take part in the two tournaments. The Football Federation of the USSR places all responsibility for the consequences of the disgraceful UEFA decision on those politicians and sports businessmen who replace the principles of sporting cooperation by sinister machinations.’

The European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup continued without them but were badly structurally affected by the loss of nearly one sixth of the original entrants. It meant that for the only time in European competitions history, UEFA needed to improvise and hand out Second Round byes to recalibrate the numbers of remaining teams. Meanwhile the Fairs Cup proceeded more or less as normal, lacking just US Luxembourg and Danish side KB, both of whom chose to withdraw rather than play opposition from one of the eastern European five.

The situation had descended into one of high farce, however well-intentioned and principled the original stance might have been. It was ridiculous that Ferencváros could not play Celtic in one competition, yet could face Leeds in a different one a week later. Why would Celtic not travel to play in Hungary and yet their fellow Scots from Aberdeen had no issue with travelling to play in Sofia? At least no long-term harm was done and the five missing eastern European countries were back in the fold the following season, without further boycotts or significant recriminations.

The whole affair raised the thorny issue of the extent, if any, that politics should interfere with sport. If a case can be made for such interference, then it needs to be specific, targeted and consistent – not random, ad-hoc and arbitrary as we saw from UEFA in 1968. The five eastern European nations involved might have been perfectly entitled to point to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, or Hitler’s Germany annexing Austria, or even the British and the French when they seized the Suez Canal during conflict with Egypt in the 1950s. No sporting sanctions were proposed then as a punishment for infringing upon another country’s sovereign territory, so the obvious question remained as to why this instance should have been any different.

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