Ramaz Shengelia – Dinamo Tbilisi & Russia

Ramaz Shengelia - Dinamo Tbilisi & Russia

Dinamo Tbilisi & Soviet football legend Ramaz Shengelia seen here in action v East Germany in May 1982.



Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” This is often misquoted and referred to glibly, but the game of football really can mean death for some. The numerous football tragedies involving spectators have been well-documented, but what of those killed for winning or losing a game?

Columbian defender Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga was shot dead in 1994 in Medellín in a pre-meditated ‘hit’ by Humberto Castro Muñoz, bodyguard to members of the Medellín drugs cartel, and two other men. ‘Thanks for the own goal,’ one said to Escobar, according to witnesses.

It’s a widely held belief that Escobar was targeted because of his own goal in the 1994 World Cup against the United States, which reportedly led to massive gambling losses by several powerful Columbian drug lords who had bet that Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers) would beat the USA in a game that they should have won easily on paper, but the stakes were high for both a Columbia and USA win. Big money, both American and Colombian, had been placed on a US win at long odds, but the Medellín police said that a lot of Colombian money, including cocaine funds, was riding on a Coffee Growers win.

Stretching to cut out a pass from American midfielder John Harkes, Escobar deflected the ball into his own net. USA went on to win the game 2–1. There was intense speculation that mobsters from either the United States or Colombia had tried to fix the US-Colombia match, with the Colombian coach, Francisco Maturana, stating that several players were said to have received death threats before the game. Columbian midfielder Gabriel Gomez refused to play. The Colombian team as a unit played well below their collective abilities throughout the match, with stars such as Carlos ‘the Kid’ Valderrama unable to pass straight and Faustino Asprilla, once of Newcastle United, “wasn’t even trying” according to the man who marked him in the match, USA defender Fernando Clavijo.

Escobar was not solely to blame for Columbia losing, but he seems to have been made the ultimate scapegoat for the defeat. However, given the pre-match intimidation of the Columbia players, who can say how many other deaths would have occured if Los Cafeteros had actually played to their best abilities and won?

The following is an extract from John O’Sullivan’s excellent piece for issue 2 of The Football Pink, “Death, Despots and Dinamo: Beria and The Beautiful Game” (http://footballpink.net/2013/11/03/excerpt-from-the-football-pink-issue-2/), which highlights Lavrenty Beria (the former chief of the NKVD, a forerunner to the KGB), his passion for football and the extraordinary lengths he would go to fix matches in favour of his side, Dinamo Moscow:

“The final whistle blew at last; exhausted the victorious players of Spartak Moscow fell to their knees. They had triumphed against all the odds; they had beaten Dinamo Tbilisi, 3-2, in the semi final of the Russian Cup. In the stands Nikolai Starostin – one of Spartaks founding members – received the accolades of the people around him; but amid the handshakes and the backslapping a solitary figure caught Starostin’s eye, the toadish, bespectacled little man in the expensive overcoat regarded him with a look of pure hatred before turning away. Starostin’s stomach jumped into his throat, the man was Lavrenty Beria chief of the NKVD, Nikolai knew that his fate was sealed; he would be going on a long trip.”

Staying behind the Iron Curtain, Romania’s Steaua Bucharest went 119 domestic matches without defeat between June 1986 and September 1989, under the alleged patronage of Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu supported the club and enabled the enforced transfer of players, including Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu, to the club without either the player’s or original club’s agreement. Play or face arrest, torture and potential death for you and your family seem to have been the contractual terms.

This is from the Cult Football article, “Dictators and Soccer: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Genius of the Carpathians” (http://cultfootball.com/2012/11/dictators-and-soccer-nicolae-ceausescu-genius-of-the-carpathians/):

“Romania had a fixed soccer duopoly in Dinamo Bucharest and Steaua Bucharest, supported and financed by the secret police and army, respectively. They had an “arrangement” between them known as the cooperativa. Whenever one needed a win or a specific scoreline in a head to head, the other complied. This arrangement itself transpired against a backdrop of deeply entrenched match fixing elsewhere in the league. Money needn’t exchange hands. If you played one of the top dogs, you obediently lost, or faced the consequences. Needless to say, neither came close to relegation during the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s. Several sources speak of a phenomenon in which teams playing either of the Bucharest teams would concede goal after goal until the manager stepped from the dugout and raised his hand, signaling that the opposition could actually start going for goal.

Threats, intimidation and payoffs ensured that Steaua and Dinamo stayed top. But since the country as a whole was strapped for cash, intimidation of other club owners, managers, players and referees usually did the trick, and at an undeniably cut rate.”

Defender Dan Coe was one of several Romanian internationals who tried to escape from the communist regime, defecting in the early 1970s. He spent two years in the Jupiler League with Royal Antwerp in Belgium, then agreed to return to Romania if his safety there was guaranteed. Still only 31, the defender wanted to rejoin his former club Rapid Bucharest but was rejected for being “too old”. That was the official line he was given. Unofficially, an olive branch and decent professional football opportunities were never going to be handed out to an individual who had gone against the regime. In 1980 Coe had requested and was granted a short-term travel permit to Belgium under the pretext of visiting his old Antwerp colleagues. This was simply a ruse to escape again and upon arrival in Belgium he travelled on to West Germany to settle in Cologne as a political refugee. Coe was last seen and heard of giving an interview on Radio Free Europe that criticised Ceausescu and the Romanian state. He was subsequently found dead in his apartment in Cologne on 19 October 1981 by his wife and daughter. He was discovered  hanging with his legs and hands cuffed. With no reason to commit suicide, and being restrained execution-style, it was obvious that Coe did not take his own life. The circumstances and cause of death pointed to him having been murdered by agents of the Romanian Securitate, who were operating unchecked in western Europe at the time eliminating enemies of the state.

Another extract from the peerless Cult Football (as far as coverage of dictators and football goes), and Rob Kirby again in “Dictators and Soccer: Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits)”:

“[North Korea qualified for the] 2010 World Cup, for which Kim Jong-il banned any live broadcast of the country’s matches. For its group stage, North Korea [got] the worst draw possible: they faced Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast in the proverbial Group of Death. Portugal had reached the semi-finals in both the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 Euros, Brazil had won the tournament a record five times, and the power-packed Ivory Coast squad represented the foremost hope of an African team winning on African soil. The North Korean dictator didn’t want to open himself up to embarrassment, and with good reason.

“However, after a respectable 2-1 loss to Brazil in the opening match, in a moment of glorious optimism, Kim relaxed the restrictions and allowed broadcast of the next match against Portugal, the first sports event ever broadcast live in the country. Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. slaughtered the team 7-0. The state recoiled from the blow by reflexive ceasing of all further broadcasts to stanch the blood flow, although the damage had been done. North Koreans merely missed seeing the subsequent 3-0 loss to the Ivory Coast.

“In addition to the scoreline, North Koreans may have puzzled at the North Korean rent-a-fans pictured in the stands at the 2010 World Cup. The “North Koreans” were Chinese actors paid to attend the North Korea games in South Africa. FIFA had granted North Korea 17,000 tickets for the matches, but actual North Koreans posed far too obvious a defection flight risk, so Kim hired Chinese extras to represent by proxy with their best North Korean impressions. The roles of their careers, right there on the world stage. Too bad they sucked at acting, and as a result the news spread like tabloid wildfire. In addition to all the goals scored by Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast, North Korea scored another great big own goal on itself.

“All together, North Korea conceded the most goals of the tournament, though their total of 12 failed to equal the conceded goal tally of Zaire’s 1974 squad (14). Like the 1974 Zaire squad, however, there was hell to pay upon reentry home. Summoned to Pyongyang and placed on a stage of shame at the People’s Palace of Culture, the squad got pummeled by a torrent of glares, disappointment and betrayed looks, pilloried by 400 students, government lackeys and others for six hours, charged with “betraying the trust of Kim Jong-un.” (Kim Jong-il, heartbreakingly paternal, taught by example and perfectly demonstrated the art of passing the buck to his heir.) A wounded look from Jong-Il hurt more than 1000 deaths, went the rationale. After phase one of the public scolding, each of the players was ordered to reprimand the coach individually in turn. The state then reportedly sentenced Kim Jong-hun to hard labour for the team’s failings. It’s not certain that any nonverbal torture transpired after the theatrically staged rebuke and the inconsolable disappointment of the Kims, but neither can anyone entirely rule it out.”

The third and final extract from Cult Football, and Rob Kirby’s “Dictators and Soccer: Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre” (http://cultfootball.com/2012/10/dictators-and-soccer-mobutu-sese-seko-of-zaire/):

“In 1974 the ex-colonial and newly named Zaïre played its first World Cup in West Germany. The country’s diminutive strongman Mobutu Sésé Seko, famous for his trademark leopard-print pillbox hat, had rechristened the Lions the Leopards. (Consistency is key in propaganda.) He had convinced himself that Zaïrean soccer could further elevate his own stature…

“… Mobutu demanded greatness in the 1974 World Cup. Zaïre had just won the 1974 African Cup of Nations, they were sub-Saharan Africa’s celebrity squad and greatness seemed within their grasp. Only it didn’t quite work out that way for the first all-black African team in the tournament.

“In the first group stage match, Zaïre lost to Scotland 2-0. No catastrophe there. The 9-0 mauling from Yugoslavia the next match smarted somewhat more. The night before its third match versus reigning champions Brazil, Mobutu sent presidential guards to threaten the players, saying if they lost 4-0, there would be hell to pay. Forget 4-0, a double-digit scoreline seemed more likely—even without Pelé, Brazil was still Brazil, and the team packed legends such as Rivelino, Jairzinho and Edu. Fortunately, Zaïre escaped with merely a 3-0 hiding. Bizarrely, as Rivelino lined up to take a Brazil free kick 30 yards from the Zaïre goal with five minutes to go, one of the Zaïreans burst from the defensive wall and hoofed it downfield. He got a yellow card. He probably preferred West German jail time with some remote possibility of defection.

“Zero goals scored, 14 conceded, [plus] one of the weirdest free kick moments ever. The players understandably did not relish their homecoming. Mobutu may have looked playfully cartoonish in his leopard print, but in his daily dictatorship duties, coldblooded cruelty defined his persona much more accurately…

“…The rumour mill says that Mobutu dressed down the players in no uncertain terms the following day, and everyone not wearing a leopard-skin hat slunk off with a sort of bad omen clinging to them that more than a few would have interpreted as of premonition of death. The country’s best players like Mwepu were forbidden to seek out pastures new in other countries, toiling away in the country’s barely remunerative home league. This included all the recently repatriated Belgian Congo-born players playing in Belgium that Mobutu hoodwinked into returning home. The country withdrew from 1978 World Cup qualification and Mobutu washed his hands of the miserable affair.”

Staying in Africa, when Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza isn’t ruling his country he likes nothing better than to play for his own team, Haleluyah FC. When I was a kid, if it was your ball everyone was playing with then it was your rules or you’d take the ball home and sulk. When it’s your country then your name is first on the team sheet, and woe betide anyone who tackles you as it could lead to a different type of ball game altogether!

Thanks to Craig M, @BeyondTLM, for the Dan Coe suggestion and source material.


Manchester City’s Yaya Toure has suggested that black players could boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia unless the country tackles the issue of racism in football.

“If we aren’t confident at the World Cup, coming to Russia, we don’t come,” the Ivorian midfielder was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

This is in the wake of Uefa investigating Toure’s complaint that he was the target of racial abuse by some sections of the CSKA fans during last Wednesday’s Champions League game in Moscow.

Kick It Out chairman Lord Ouseley  has stated that the referee who officiated at that match, Ovidiu Hategan, should not officiate again after failing to deal with racist abuse.

Ouseley told the BBC that Hategan had “failed to do his duty”.

The official, a FIFA referee since 2008, was also in charge of the match where Lazio fans were found guilty of racist behaviour towards Tottenham players in the Europa League last season.

FIFPro, the global union for professional footballers, said it was “disappointed” match officials failed to implement agreed protocol following the Toure incident.

FIFPro European president Bobby Barnes said: “The player, having done what was asked of him to notify the referee, quite rightly expected that the referee would go speak with the safety officer.

“The protocol agreed is that the safety officer should make a stadium announcement warning the fans that if the chants do not desist that the game will be stopped.”

CSKA deny the allegation that any racist chanting took place and do not acknowledge that there is a problem with their fans.

A club statement read:

“Having carefully studied the video of the game, we found no racist insults from fans of CSKA.

“[On] many occasions, especially during attacks on our goal, fans booed and whistled to put pressure on rival players, but regardless of their race.

“In particular, this happened with Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko. Why the Ivorian midfielder took it as all being directed at him is not clear.”

The statement added that CSKA had never been sanctioned for racist abuse while competing in Europe and that the club will “continue to fight” racism.

However, if the club is found guilty, Uefa could force CSKA to close part of its stadium for a future game.

There is a precedent for this in other Eastern European countries as Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, Legia Warsaw of Poland and Honved of Hungary have already had full stadium closure orders where they have had to play games behind closed doors.

Elsewhere, Italian side Lazio were originally given a full stadium closure that was reduced to a partial closure on appeal, Polish clubs Lech Poznan and Piast Gliwice, APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus and Croatian outfit HNK Rijeka have also had sections of their stands closed for matches after problems with their fans.

Piara Powar, executive director of European anti-discrimination body Football Against Racism in Europe (Fare) and a member of Fifa’s anti-discrimination taskforce, backed Toure’s stance:

“Yaya Toure is absolutely right in raising the spectre of African players or players of African heritage not going to the 2018 World Cup – and without them there will not be a World Cup in Russia.

“I wouldn’t blame them – in this era players are the most powerful force and if all the players said they are not going there wouldn’t be a World Cup, or if there was it would be meaningless.”

Powar stated that he did not envisage overt racism at the World Cup in Russia, but he did claim that the situation in the country’s domestic football is “dire” and fuelled by far-right extremists:

“In terms of the number of black players being abused, that is happening in club football in Russia and in that regard the situation is dire.”

Incidents of racism and far right extremism are being reported more and more at football matches across Europe.

Fare has identified banners supporting the Greek far-right political party Golden Dawn – which has a swastika-like symbol – being displayed in several stadiums in Eastern Europe including Russia in the last month.

FIFA need to follow Uefa’s lead and act quickly on this issue.

Uefa announced back in May that for cases of racist incidents involving spectators a partial stadium closure would be applied for the first offence and a full stadium closure for a second, coupled with a fine of 50,000 Euros (£42,800).

Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Maria Miller told BBC Sport:

“Any form of racism in sport is absolutely unacceptable and I think any allegation of this sort needs to be investigated in full and Uefa needs to take it very seriously indeed.

“When countries like Russia are going to be very shortly hosting the World Cup, it’s important we know a tough line is going to be taken.”

The World Cup 2018 organisers issued their own statement in response to Toure’s allegations:

“It is worth restating that all stakeholders in Russian Football have made it clear that there is absolutely no place for any type of racial discrimination or abuse in our game.

“What is clear is that football is uniquely positioned to educate fans in combating this global issue.

“The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, in particular, can act as a catalyst to positively change the mindsets and behaviour across all involved in Russian Football over the next four years.”

This would seem to be a tacit admission that the problem exists in the Russian game.