1994 World Cup: The Letter of Fourteeners Mutiny

The 1994 World Cup is famous for two things; being the first held outside of Europe and South America, and Diana Ross’ goal-exploding penalty – of which she missed by some distance – at the opening ceremony.

The tournament is without a general wonder goal such as James Rodriguez’ in Brazil, or a pivotal moment like Paul Gascoigne’s yellow card at Italia ‘90, however, highly emotional moments have burned into our retina’s today; Diego Maradona’s lung-bursting roar against Greece and subsequent failed drugs test, and the Brazilian’s, Bebeto, Mazinho and Romário’s “rocking baby” celebration against Holland in the Quarter Final. The Final of the tournament itself has been forgotten by Brazilians’ due to the “poor”, “functional” style implemented by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, and is eponymous worldwide for Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss, a prophetically cyclical moment. Despite being a genuine festival of football – disappointment surrounded the whole affair.

A refusenik is technically a person who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States, denoted as a political enemy. Contemporary press reports referred to the fourteen signatories with this politically loaded phase. The famous Letter of Fourteeners epitomises the atmosphere in Russia in general towards the 1994 World Cup and pervades memory of the competition in the nation today. This now-infamous document was a letter signed by fourteen Sbornaya players, addressed to President Boris Yeltsin directly, imploring him to remove Pavel Sadyrin as head coach and replacing him with Anatoli Byshovets, head coach of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which played at the 1992 European Championships in Sweden.

Sadyrin himself was a highly accomplished coach, leading Zenit Leningrad to the Soviet Top League title in 1984, breaking the Spartak Moscow – Dynamo Kyiv dominance that reigned supreme, and earned the job as head coach of the national side after leading CSKA Moscow to a league and cup double in 1991. Sadyrin may not have had the Soviet pool of players to pick from, but because FIFA allowed the players themselves to choose who they would play for, numerous non-Russians by heritage turned out for the Russian national side. Andrei Kanchelskis (of Ukrainian and Latvian descent), Estonian-born Valeri Karpin, and Ukrainian-born Viktor Onopko, Yuri Nikiforov, Oleg Salenko (whoe even played in Friendlies for Ukraine) and Sergei Yuran all opted to play for Russia, likely tempted by the oppurtunity to feature in the World Cup.

Sadyrin still had a core of Russian-born players in the squad for World Cup qualifying, including Igor Dobrovolski, Igor Shalimov, Igor Kolivanov, Sergei Kiriakov, Vasili Kulkov, and Andrei Ivanov. The side was installed early as qualifying group favourites, paired with Greece, Hungary, Iceland, and Luxembourg. Yugoslavia was initially drawn in the same group, but their participation was revoked due to the increasing tensions of the Yugoslavian Civil War in the wake of qualifying.

They were on course to win the group, defeating Hungary and Luxembourg twice, taking four points off Iceland and a 1-1 draw against Greece in Moscow confirmed qualification, but, crucially, did not confirm their position as group winners. However, everything came crashing down in Athens in November 1993, as Greece defeated Russia 1-0 and resigned the Russians to second in the group.

Then President of the RFU, Vyacheslav Koloskov, stormed into the dressing room after the Greece game and criticized the players for their poor performance, and the tensions reached boiling point. Questions over style of play and an inability to dominate opponents exploded a powder keg into outright rebellion in the wake of the loss. Sadyrin had long catalysed tensions founded around the numerous nationality cliques in the group by blaming the Greece loss on those based abroad; Shalimov, Kanchelskis, Yuran, and Kiriakov.

The two-juxtaposed sent the players into a frenzy, already disappointed with the events in the last minute of the match, when Gabonese referee Jean Fidele Diramba ruled out a last-minute equaliser from Dobrovolski.

Other long-term grievances arose, both contractual and individual. Numerous players held a grudge against Sadyrin for not being selected regularly during qualification, but all were incensed that the Federation had signed a contract for the World Cup with Reebok, forcing the players to wear Reebok boots and carry out media duties for the manufacturer ahead of the tournament. Many had already organised their own personal contracts, and Sadyrin was one of the orchestrators of the deal.

Shalimov has later claimed that the players made the deal in the hotel in Athens, penned the letter and even considered sending it there and then to Tamil Tarpischev, Sports Advisor to President Yeltsin. Assistant coach Yuri Semin attempted to appease the players, but by this point, they had already set upon their course of action and planned to send it to numerous national newspapers.

The next day, 18th November 1993, the letter was published and signed by; Shalimov, Dobrovolski, Kiriakov, Kanchelskis, Nikiforov, Karpin, Ivanov, Yuran, Kolivanov, Salenko, Viktor Onopko, Dmitri Khlestov, Vasili Kulkov and Alex Mostovoi

Kanchelskis, Karpin and Ivanov were not present in Greece due to suspension, injury or simply not being selected, and all agreed to add their names to the letter on the night via fax and telephone. Only Dmitri Galyamin, Dimitri Kharin, Stanislav Cherchesov, Dmitri Popov and Dmitri Radchenko did not sign the letter.

The demands were;

  1. The return of Anatoli Byshovets as Head Coach to lead the team in the World Cup.
  2. The modifications of the financial bonuses for qualification and also for the Finals.
  3. Immediate improvement in organization and logistics related to the team.

The RFU and Federation were blamed for mismanagement of logistics and disorganisation throughout the qualifying campaign. Although Sadyrin was acknowledged as an excellent club coach, the players believed this was his limit. Byshovets was directly cited as the desired replacement for his innate ability to handle all the different nationalities throughout the side as well as setting up the foundations for qualification with his skilful handling of the 1992 European Championship. The crux of the matter, however, came down to the approach of each manager. Sadyrin was known to be a confidante of Koloskov’s and repeatedly sided against the players and with the RFU, whereas Byshovets was almost considered a member of the side. Sadyrin was also not aided by the fact that he was previously CSKA manager, and a bulk of the signatories were based out of Oleg Romantsev’s dominant Spartak side.

Koloskov, the RFU and the Sports Ministry backed Sadyrin and refuted all demands. Sadyrin, in December 1993, even claimed Byshovets was the mastermind of the letter, purportedly convincing many of the players to sign the letter without explicit knowledge of just what they were agreeing to. Reports even swirled that Byshovets delayed his departure to South Korea to take up a coaching role as he felt he might be appointed in time for the World Cup.

In January 1994, Byshovets directly contacted Shalimov, widely regarded to be the orchestrator of the coup, and notified him that he would be accepting the coaching role in South Korea. As such, less than a fortnight later, Deputy President of the RFU, Nikita Simonyan, announced that none of the fourteen would take part in the 1994 World Cup, and would be banished from Sadyrin’s squad unless they revoked all demands.

Shalimov, along with Dobrovolski, Kanchelskis, Kiriakov, Ivanov, Kulkov and Yuran all held out and even made a TV appearance alongside Tarpischev and Olympic Committee President Vitali Smirnov to announce they would not budge. However, as time wore on, Salenko and Yuran both renounced and joined the squad, and after some convincing by Romantsev, the Spartak core of Karpin, Nikiforov, Onopko and Khlestov all returned to the fold. Later, Mostovoi also followed suit.

The refusenik leaders, Shalimov and Dobrovolski as well as Kanchelskis, Kiriakov, Ivanov, Kulkov and Kolivanov all refused to budge and took no part in the tournament.

As a result of missing seven key players including three international stars, the depleted Russian side struggled at the World Cup, losing their first two games against Brazil and Sweden 2-0 and 3-1 respectively. Russia, however, did come out with their heads held relatively high and they rounded off their group stage exit with a 6-1 thrashing of Cameroon, in which Oleg Salenko scored a fantastic quintet (five goals), and even finished overall top scorer with six goals in just three games. However, even this somewhat triumphant moment is best remembered for Roger Milla, Cameroon captain and talisman becoming not just the oldest ever player to feature in a World Cup, but also to score. He still holds the latter today, and is the oldest outfield player to still play – he was later taken over by Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón.

Sadyrin immediately resigned from his post, and Oleg Romantsev replaced him as head coach. Koloskov blamed the early exit on the “adaptation to new world capitalism from old world communism” and played down the whole affair (how very typical). Ironically, all seven of the rebels featured again under Romantsev, and inexplicitly, only Oleg Salenko was ostracised and considered a “traitor” – despite featuring and starring at the tournament

 1994 is a vital World Cup in the nation for being the first-time the country took part in the World Cup as Russia, not the Soviet Union, but as a whole, the tournament has been somewhat forgotten and those involved have let bygones be bygones, leaving all disputes in the past. However, Oleg Salenko stole all the headlines, finishing as top scorer despite Russia crashing out in the group stages. This is a warning to the current national side, and especially Stani Cherchesov, current head coach. He was one of the few who refused to sign the letter and started in goal during the World Cup. It is clear he is wary of calling up disruptive individuals such as Igor Denisov, Artem Dzyuba and Pavel Mamaev as a direct result of his experiences in 1994.

Looking back, the current unity and togetherness in the squad are leaps and bounds above that in 1994, even if the playing staff aren’t anywhere near as talented.


Image Credits

  1. New Russian Internationals, Viktor Onopko, Andrei Kanchelskis, Sergei Yuran and Sergei Kiriakov. Source: Onze-Mondial, 1993.
  2. Russia head coach at the 1994 WC, Pavel Sadyrin. Source: World Soccer, 1994.
  3. Brazil v Russia. Source: Onze-Mondial, 1994.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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