“That week was an experience I’ll never forget. I saw Soviet tanks smash down arcades on the main square and bury several people in the rubble. I saw a tank commander start shooting wildly into the crowd. I saw and experienced many things, but what affected me most powerfully was that special phenomenon of solidarity and community which was so typical of that time. People would bring food and flowers and medicine to the radio station, regardless of whether we needed them or not.” – Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia, 1990 on the Warsaw Pact Invasion of 1968
“I wish I had a pound for every time it has been said or written that politics and sport do not mix – or should not mix. But with the emergence of sport, especially football, as an important aid to enhancing a country’s prestige in the world it is much harder to keep politics and sport apart.” – Bob Kelly, Celtic President, 1971
Prague – 21st August, 1968
Just after 11pm on 20th August 1968, over a quarter of a million troops and over 2,000 tanks poured into the Communist state of Czechoslovakia. Airports, military camps and political institutions were quickly over-run. As the Warsaw Pact forces made their way into key positions in the capital Prague that morning, they were met by resistance of an unusual kind. Citizens stood in front of tanks, formed human blockades across streets and used overturned buses to try and prevent their progress. Some remonstrated with the occupying soldiers, pleading with them to leave, and offering them flowers (it was the Sixties after all).
The resistance was largely peaceful other than the occasional Molotov cocktail thrown due to pleas from state media to ‘stay calm’ in order not to provoke the invaders. Despite this, dozens of protesters were injured as some tank crews opened fire and smashed their way through the impromptu barricades. A focal point of resistance that morning was the Prague Radio Building where the mostly Soviet troops took almost three hours to gain control to stop radio broadcasts opposed to the invasion, claiming seven lives in the process. One of the last statements made over the air waves said: “They are going to silence our voices but they cannot silence our hearts.”
Looking back now almost 50 years on, it appears curious why a Communist country such as Czechoslovakia was would be invaded by Communist troops. Europe had been divided since the end of the Second World War by what Winston Churchill had labelled an ‘Iron Curtain’ separating the western free-market economies from one-party Communist states in the east with largely totalitarian regimes. Most of the Communist nations of Europe joined in a formal military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact which was dominated by the Soviet Union although some states remained nominally independent of Soviet control and influence including Yugoslavia, Romania and Albania.
Tensions between East and West would sometimes lead to confrontations short of a full-scale war, as with the Berlin Blockade of 1948-9 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. For this reason the era became known as the Cold War. Living in the west, it was difficult to get an understanding of everyday life in the Communist countries. Sport was one of the few public arenas where there was contact. Occasionally there were signs of discontent behind the Iron Curtain: on 4th November 1956, Soviet tanks invaded Hungary after it had announced its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Over 4,000 died in the aftermath of the invasion.
Twelve years on and history was repeating itself. The Soviet Union, then led by Leonid Brehznev, had become increasingly concerned about the actions of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party and its leader Alexander Dubcek who had introduced reforms in 1968 under the banner ‘socialism with a human face’. These reforms, which included increased press freedom and the lifting of travel restrictions for citizens, heralded what the western media referred to as the ‘Prague Spring’. Moscow was wary of its influence over the Communist states of central Europe being undermined. The ‘Brehznev Doctrine’, which underlined the Soviet view of the Warsaw Pact, stated ominously that “Nobody will ever be allowed to wrest a single link from the community of socialist States.” Dubcek’s refusal to cease the reforms and the suggestion that that Czechoslovakia might abandon the Warsaw Pact prompted Brehznev to order the invasion.
Union from 1964 – 1982. Owner of two proud bushy eye-brows.
One anguished party observing the invasion and aftermath on television back in Scotland was the then Celtic Chairman, Bob Kelly. In his autobiography Kelly noted that Celtic had “a long connection with football in Czechoslovakia” referring to former player Johnny Madden, regarding as a founding father of the Czech game, and Celtic’s visits to Prague in 1904, 1911 (Kelly’s father James and brother Charlie were part of the Celtic party) and more recently, 1964 and 1967, where Kelly himself led the Celtic delegation.
In 1968, Celtic had been drawn against the Hungarian champions Ferencvaros in the opening round of the European Cup, with the first tie due to be played on 18th September. Kelly later recalled: “I was one of countless individuals from all over the world who deplored this action, one of many who remembered that Hungary had a few years before been the victims of a similar outrage and that only voices were raised in disapproval.”
Despite vehement criticism of the invasion, actual opposition to it in Western Europe and beyond quickly became bogged down in Cold War politics. A United Nations motion opposing the invasion was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Challenges from the United States and other leading Western nations were blunted by references to the ongoing Vietnam War, with the UN’s Secretary-General of the day pointing out that “if Russians were bombing and napalming the villages of Czechoslovakia” he might be more vocal in his denunciation of the invasion there. It was quickly apparent that there was no likelihood of any countries in the West taking military action against the Warsaw Pact forces now settled in Czechoslovakia.
The Celtic board shared Kelly’s dismay at events unfolding in Prague as well as his concerns about the implications of travelling behind the Iron Curtain while the position was so volatile. The club were still angered at the treatment meted out to them two years earlier when they played Dynamo Kiev. The Soviet Football Federation – who handled all contact with Celtic rather than Dynamo themselves – had initially insisted that the Celtic party travel on a Soviet plane and then that the plane had to fly via Moscow – even though the game was taking place a thousand miles away in Tblisi. Dirty tricks were suspected throughout with Celtic finally returning home from the Soviet Union thirty hours behind schedule on the Friday night – and the Scottish League decreeing that the next days’ match away to Hearts should go ahead regardless!
For Bob Kelly, who exhibited control over the Celtic Board not unlike that which Brehznev enjoyed over his Central Committee, a protest was necessary as“one way of putting on record our moral support for the Czechs.” The club immediately sent a telegram to the UEFA Secretary, Hans Bangerter, stating: “In view of the illegal and treacherous invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian, Polish and Hungarian forces and in support of the Czech nation, we, the Celtic Football Club, do not think that any Western European Football Club should be forced to fulfil any football commitment in any of these countries.”
For UEFA, ever mindful of the damaging potential of being stuck in the middle of east-west political machinations, Celtic’s telegram was as welcome as a fart in a confessional box. European football’s governing body knew that Celtic’s stance was bound to antagonise its Communist member states if it was supported. As it was, other clubs quickly followed the lead of the recent European champions, demanding that they not be required to travel to games in Eastern Europe. The Swedish Government voiced its support for the UEFA competitions to be re-drawn while Switzerland called off an international friendly due to be played against Poland in protest at that country’s part in the Czech invasion.
At home Celtic’s position was publicly supported by Rangers and Hibs. Aberdeen however went further. The Dons were scheduled to play in the Fairs Cup which was not run under UEFA’s auspices at the time and sent a similar telegram to that competition’s organisers – the only club to do so. Ultimately, the Fairs Cup Committee, led by Englishman, Stanley Rous decided against dividing participating teams along east/west lines. A major consideration for them was that the 1967-8 Final had not yet been decided – and it involved an English team. The two-leg affair between Leeds United and Ferencvaros – the team that Celtic were scheduled to play in the first round of the Champions Cup – was only at the halfway point, with Leeds having won the first leg at home by 1-0. Manager Don Revie set out the club’s position in the Yorkshire Evening Post: “We will be condemned by many people for not refusing to play the Hungarian champions in view of what has happened recently in Czechoslovakia. Much has been written and said about the ways in which the western world can show its disapproval. Sadly, soccer is being used as a weapon in the political arena.”
Revie went on to criticise the stance taken by Celtic’s board: “Celtic, who were due to meet Ferencvaros in the first round of the European Cup this season, threatened to boycott the match because of the Czech crisis. Politics? I prefer to leave this to the politicians. This does not mean I do not feel strongly about what has happened in Czechoslovakia – but I feel that political opinion should not be allowed to interfere in any way with sport.” Danish and Luxembourg teams did not agree, withdrawing from the Fairs Cup tournament after being drawn against teams from the East.
UEFA were caught between a rock and a hard place. If they took no action in regard to Celtic’s request they faced the likelihood that the biggest clubs in European football could withdraw from their competitions in protest at Celtic’s position not being supported, some under pressure from their governments. UEFA would face similar recriminations from clubs in the Warsaw Pact countries however if they decided to separate along regional lines. Ultimately, in what Celtic historians Pat Woods and Tom Campbell referred to as a “Solomon-like decision” UEFA’s compromise was that representatives from the East and West would be kept apart for the first round only in the European Cup and the Cup Winners Cup with the draw in each competition re-drawn. The view was this would give time for the political situation to cool down after which it would likely be safer for teams to travel to the East.
Celebrating victory over Dukla Prague in the European Cup semi-final
Celtic and the clubs who supported their protest were satisfied – the Communist states were not. The Polish Football Federation were the first to respond arguing that UEFA could take no such action in re-drawing the first round along regional lines as this amounted to political and racial discrimination which was expressly forbidden in the UEFA constitution. Then the Soviets made their move. Newspaper agency TASS reported that their government had made an “emphatic protest” to the European body, arguing that “such a decision by the UEFA leadership is fraught with dangerous consequences for contacts between countries in this popular sport.” The statement advised that if UEFA did not revert to the original draw, the Soviet Football Federation would ask FIFA to formally intervene.
In the face of this naked Soviet aggression, Bob Kelly marshalled his own troops. Pointing to correspondence from Celtic supporters published in the official club newspaper the ‘Celtic View’, he contended that this revealed “an overwhelming majority of our supporters agreed with me that there was no point everyone feeling sorry about the situation if nobody did anything about it and all just continued to play ball. What we as a football club could do was, of course, limited, but I personally was perfectly prepared to pull my club out of the European Cup on a matter of principle.” Over the decades that followed the same Celtic supporters would of course re-christen the Celtic View as ‘Pravda’ in honour of the infamous Soviet newspaper which stuck rigidly to the party line and allowed no dissenting voice – while the View developed a reputation for manufacturing and favouring letters for publication from fans who supported the Kevin Kelly and Michael Kelly party line. It was a family business after all – as they saw it.
Back in 1968, UEFA refused to back down. After Leeds United won the Fair Cities Cup on the 12th September the Polish FA withdrew its teams from both UEFA competitions. There was a domino effect as clubs from Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany followed suit. Then, on the eve of the first round games, the Soviet Union also withdraw describing the decision to re-draw the first round as “unsavoury” and “an attempt to drag reactionary political tendencies into international sport.” Who did they feel was to blame? No doubt Bob Kelly, who received a knighthood in 1970 (which many people felt was in part down to his role in this affair), was one of the individuals the Soviet Federation had in mind when it declared that they placed “all responsibility for the consequences of the disgraceful UEFA decision on those politicians and sports businessmen who replace the principles of sporting co-operation by sinister machinations.” It would be a while after that statement before Bob Kelly went anywhere near an ice pick.
In an ironic twist, not all the Communist countries of Eastern Europe boycotted the UEFA competitions after all: clubs from Yugoslovia, Rumania and – perhaps most surprising of all – Czechoslovakia decided to carry on. This was how Celtic ended up playing against the Yugoslav champions Red Star Belgrade in the second round, after disposing of St Etienne, before losing out to AC Milan (1-0 on aggregate) in the quarter final. Dunfermline Athletic went one better in the Cup Winners Cup, making it to the semi-final where they lost narrowly to Czechoslovakia’s representatives, Slovan Bratislava, 2-1 on aggregate. The Slovak team then met the much-fancied Barcelona in the final in Switzerland and beat them 3-2 – becoming the first ever Eastern European club to win any UEFA competition! As the match report states on UEFA.com this “provided Czechoslovakia with a ray of footballing light at a time of political darkness.”
The first Iron Curtain club to win a UEFA tournament
Twenty years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, in August 1988, mass demonstrations took place to mark the peaceful uprising of 1968 and these spiralled into ongoing protests against human rights violations. These were initially suppressed but the Soviet Union, now led by Mikhail-hail Gorbachev who had been implementing a policy of glasnost (openness), would not and could not hold the line. The Berlin Wall came down on November 9th 1989 and a week later the ‘Velvet Revolution’ was underway in Czechoslovakia as strikes and mass protests forced the abandonment of the Communist constitution. Within a few weeks former leader Alexander Dubcek was elected Chairman of the Federal Assembly and Vaclav Havel, the dissident poet and writer who had been imprisoned several times in the 1970s and 1980s, was elected President. Twenty-one years on from the 1968 invasion, victory and freedom had been secured – by peaceful means.
Vaclav Havel – former dissident on becoming President of Czechoslovakia, 1989
The actions of the Celtic board in 1968 ultimately meant little in the general scheme of things for the Czechoslovakian people. But it was one of the few meaningful acts of political solidarity in the whole episode, causing serious ructions within UEFA and a further increase in east-west tensions. Bob Kelly was unapologetic for the club’s principled stance: “Celtic will hold their heads high for what they did. If UEFA had ruled against us we would almost certainly have competed only under the strongest type of protest; we might well in the circumstances have withdrawn from the competition. There are things for Celtic more important than money.”
That’s a principle that the much-vaunted “Celtic Family” should hold dear to its heart.
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Read the first article in our Political Football series here: https://theshamrockglasgow.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/political-football-no-1-celtic-fc-and-the-campaign-for-irish-home-rule/
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