One of sport’s most intriguing joys is that history can be made unbeknownst to those in attendance or watching.
Take Czechoslovakia’s opening game at the 1990 World Cup for example. It would take a brave guess to suggest the majority of fans in Florence packed inside the Stadio Comunale were aware that Tomáš Skuhravý had just become the first Czechoslovak footballer to score twice on his World Cup debut.
It took Skuhravý all of 78 minutes to accomplish the feat as Czechoslovakia announced their arrival on the world stage after an eight-year hiatus with a resounding 5-1 thumping of the US. With 26 minutes gone, the Sparta Prague striker opened the scoring with a calm finish at the end of a quick counter-attack, before Michal Bilek and captain Ivan Hašek added another two goals either side of halftime.
Paul Caligiuri pulled one back for the US on the hour mark, but substitute Milan Luhový added a fifth in added time, with Skuhravý’s second – a trademark header – sandwiched in between. No other Czechoslovak player had scored two goals in the same game at the World Cup since Václav Hovorka was on the scoresheet in a 6-1 mauling of Argentina in 1958 – and no player had ever done so in his tournament debut.
If Skuhravý had earned himself a footnote in football’s record books on a summer afternoon in Florence, his fellow countrymen and women had made history in the more modest, but far more important, surroundings of the polling booths two days earlier.
For the first time since the Communist Party had seized power in 1948, free elections were held in Czechoslovakia in June 1990. A voter turnout of 96.2 percent spoke volumes for the Czechs and Slovaks’ thirst to finally make their voices heard after almost half a century during which the right had been all but negated. It also proved just how stunningly popular the Civic Forum movement led by Václav Havel was.
The party and its Slovak counterpart secured a combined 46 percent of votes in both houses of parliament, putting a democratic end to almost 50 years of communist rule.
A playwright who had become a regular guest in prisons across Czechoslovakia following the Prague uprising in 1968, Havel became one of the leading figures of the Velvet Revolution and played a pivotal role in ensuring 41 years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia ended as the regime’s authoritarian grasp disintegrated in November 1989.
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Coming within two weeks of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution was far swifter and considerably less bloody than similar uprisings in Central and Eastern Europe that would eventually lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union two years later. As succinctly summed up by British historian Timothy Garton Ash: “In Poland it took ten years. in East Germany ten weeks; in Czechoslovakia ten days.”
In its own small bubble, football too had contributed to the revolution. As teachers, actors, doctors, factory workers, bus drivers and nurses went on strike across the country, so did professional footballers. Following the example set by their fellow Czechoslovaks and their neighbours in East Germany, footballers adopted a well-mannered approach to striking typical of communist countries.
While workers attended protests after work, footballers continued playing for 90 minutes on Sunday to ensure supporters would not miss out on the games. The message was delivered with sobriety, but the contents were loud and clear.
Football was also one of the early recipients of the wave of freedom that spread behind Iron Curtain as the 1980s wounded to an end, even if the seismic political and sociological impact generated by revolution in former Soviet satellite states and communist countries would take years to be properly assimilated and digested.
Up until 1989, footballers from the communist block were something of a rarity in Western Europe. Each country had its own rules over which footballers were allowed to move abroad and for how long. In, Czechoslovakia, for example, players were initially allowed to play in a Western country only after they had racked up 50 caps for the national side.
The rule was subsequently relaxed and, by the time the 1990 World Cup kicked off, eight of the 23 players in Czechoslovakia’s squad were playing in Germany, Spain, Holland, Italy and England. The bulk of the squad, however, was made up of players like Skuhravý, who represented clubs in the Czechoslovak First League. By the time the World Cup began, Skuhravý had scored 59 goals in 142 league appearances across two spells with Sparta Prague but a move abroad seemed little more than a pipe dream.
The Soviet Union itself had seven members of the squad – including captain Rinat Dasayev – representing clubs in Spain, France, Germany and Italy. Conversely, bar one exception Romania’s 23-man squad was entirely comprised of players plying their trade domestically. Seven months on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1990 World Cup provided a giant shaker in which football and politics merged into a perfect cocktail and symbolised a drastic change in dynamics as borders to the West slowly began to open.
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Fans, too, enjoyed their new-found freedom and were able to travel abroad and support their countries, facilitated in part by Italy’s relative proximity.
Skuhravý’s club teammate, Václav Němeček, was part of Czechoslovakia’s World Cup squad and remembers the feeling of change surrounding the tournament. “The atmosphere was great,” the former Sparta Prague midfielder recalled while speaking to Czech broadcaster Radio Prague on the 20th anniversary of the 1990 World Cup. “It was immediately after the revolution so for the first time in many years people were able to come and support us. I couldn’t say exactly how many were there, but it was definitely in the area of 30,000. Previously there would have been only a few hundred fans at away games […] It meant a lot to us players, because our fans created a kind of home atmosphere.”
Only seven months earlier, those very fans had joined enormous demonstrations in the squares of Prague and Bratislava, Kosice and Brno to demand democracy. Hundreds of thousands of protesters rattled their key-rings to signify that, at long last, the time had come for the communists to leave. It remains one of the most striking sights of the Velvet Revolution and one was broadcast across millions of TV sets in the West.
The fall of the Berlin Wall may have opened the borders but it also exposed fans from behind the Iron Curtain to the brutal reality of currency exchange and the thousands of Czechoslovaks who travelled to Italy soon found their Crowns would not go far in the land of the Lira. “I think that a lot of buses came from here – after the matches they turned around and drove straight back, without people spending the night in Italy,” Němeček explained. “The range of prices of hotels in Italy at the time was broad, and those who organised their own trips found their own level.”
If ingenuity was required to make ends meet off the pitch, the abundant riches at Czechoslovakia’s disposal on it caught many by surprise. Having dispatched the US in their opening fixture, they beat Austria 1-0 in their second game thanks to Bílek’s penalty. They then assumed the role of unpaid spectators as Roberto Baggio scored arguably the goal of the tournament, dancing and weaving his way through a crowd of players before beating Jan Stejskal to condemn Czechoslovakia to a 2-0 defeat.
The loss, however, proved to be inconsequential as Jozef Vengloš’ men progressed to the round of 16 along with the hosts. Four days later, the buses Němeček remembers so fondly drove deep into southern Italy, as Czechoslovakia took on Costa Rica for a place in the quarterfinals.
Los Ticos had written history of their own, reaching the knockout stages on their World Cup debut, but had no answers for Czechoslovakia and Skuhravý, who netted the only hat-trick of the tournament in a 4-1 win. The reward for the Czechoslovaks was a meeting with West Germany at the San Siro, where a Lothar Matthäus penalty midway through the first half settled a typically cagey affair. Aside from England’s win over Cameroon, the other three quarter-finals produced a combined two goals.
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As buses turned towards Czechoslovakia for the final time Skuhravý, who had finished second in the Golden Boot race to Salvatore Schillaci, stayed back. In fact, he not only stayed back but stayed up through the night as he signed for Genoa just before dawn shortly after the loss to West Germany. “I signed for Genoa at 4am,” he told an Italian newspaper years later. “I made clear I wasn’t going back to Czechoslovakia. I waited up through the night to receive a fax confirming the borders were open, but I wouldn’t have gone back anyway.”
If escaping from Czechoslovakia was a dream come true, the decision to remain in Italy came with a heavy burden of self-doubt. Skuhravý pondered whether he could cut it in the same league where Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Matthäus and Rudi Völler to name but a few strutted their stuff every week. “When I read about the stars that I was going to come across in Italy, I asked myself where I was going,” the striker admitted with remarkable candour in an interview long after retiring.
Stage freight may seem strange for a man who was only 16 when he scored shortly after coming on in his European debut to knocked out Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu, but Skuhravý needn’t have worried. From the moment he first donned the shirt, he became an instant hero for the Rossoblu fans and proved to be the perfect foil for Carlos Aguilera.
In Osvaldo Bagnoli’s 4-4-2, Skuhravý’s physical presence – the Genoa fans nicknamed him Fisico, literally “physique”, which seems apt for his six-foot-four frame – was designed to open up space for the diminutive Uruguayan, whose fleetness of foot and vision made up for the lack of inches. Complex football it was not, but it was highly effective in a league where goals remained a currency hard to come by.
In their first season together in Genoa, the duo scored 15 goals each, finishing join-third in the goalscoring charts as the Rossoblu finished fourth in the table, remaining undefeated at home for the entire campaign. Genoa beat Juventus, Inter, Milan, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina and Napoli en route to their best finish since the 1941/42 season, but their prodigious campaign was overshadowed by local rivals Sampdoria, who stormed to the Scudetto.
The magical spell for the city continued the following season, when Sampdoria reached the European Cup final only to lose at Wembley against Barcelona, while Genoa reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. Their European fairytale was almost over before it began until Skuhravý’s last-minute goal – and second of the match – secured a 3-2 aggregate win over Real Oviedo in the first round.
Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest were accounted for in the next two rounds, with Skuhravý again on the scoresheet, before Liverpool stood between Bagnoli’s men and a place in the semifinals. Buoyed by a precious 2-0 lead from the first leg, Genoa took the lead at Anfield through Aguilera, before Ian Rush equalised shortly after the restart. Liverpool under Graeme Souness may not have been the seemingly unstoppable force they have developed into under Jürgen Klopp, but Anfield remained ill-suited for visiting teams defending a slender advantage.
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Under Bagnoli, however, Genoa had often made attack their best form of defence and remained true to their principles, becoming the first Italian club to win in front of he Kop after Aguilera added a second. “That year we feared no one,” Skuhravý said.
Unfortunately for him and Genoa, neither did Louis van Gaal’s Ajax, who knocked out the Rossoblu 4-3 on aggregate in the semis, before ending Torino’s bid for a maiden European trophy winning the final on away goals.
Genoa and Skuhravý never reached such lofty heights again, but the goals kept coming, as did the Czechoslovak’s trademark somersault celebration an,d by the time he left Italy in December 1995, he was the club’s best goalscorer in Serie A with 57 goals in 155 top-flight appearances.
His spell with Sporting in Portugal was as fleeting as it was unsuccessful and Skuhravý left after just four games, before hanging up his boots for good in his homeland wearing the colours of Viktoria Žižkov.
Italy remained in Skuhravý’s heart and he returned to the Bel Paese and settled not far from Genoa following his retirement. His larger-than-life persona never left him either and saw him make the headlines for all the wrong reasons just over ten years ago, when he was among six people charged for stealing dozens of luxury cars in the Czech Republic and Germany. Sentenced to two years in prison when a similar plan was foiled by the Czech police, only the amnesty granted by Czech President Václav Klaus in 2012 spared him a sojourn in jail.
Skuhravý made the most of his reprieve, returning to football first as youth scout then as a consultant for lower league clubs and eventually as team manager of third division side Cuneo, only for the club to be wound up less than 12 months after his arrival. In November last year, the Czech Republic and Slovakia celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, while Genoa trod water in the relegation.
In less than six months, it will be 30 years since Skuhravý’s exploits at Italia 90. His memory among the Rossoblu faithful, however, is in no danger of fading. “The fans remain incredible to me and Marassi still feels like home,” he told Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio just over a year ago. “Nothing has changed since my time in Genoa.”
Football and politics may have changed beyond recognition in the last three decades, but occasionally the former can still act like a time machine.
By Dan Cancian @dan_cancian