By Randy Vogt
In the thousands of games I have officiated, none were more memorable than a series of games exactly 20 years ago in Moscow during August 1991 in the closing days of the Soviet Union. I was invited to referee a top youth tournament called Liberty Cup Moscow the summer before and had a whole year to prepare. So I learned some basic Russian that came in handy during a week that changed the world forever.
The two American teams playing were the Eastern New York Boys U-14 ODP team and the Eastern Pennsylvania Boys U-15 ODP team. On the Eastern Penn team was Ben Olsen, now the coach of D.C. United, and Jon Busch, currently the San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper.
Len Bilous was the coach of that Eastern Pennsylvania ODP team and he certainly remembers both players.
“Ben Olsen had very quick feet and was definitely one of the top midfielders that I ever worked with at the youth level,” commented Coach Bilous. “I used him in center midfield and he was so quick and could get by people. He was very intense and had a decent shot.”
“Jon Busch was very good at getting to shots. He was very competitive, quite intense. Athletic and despite his shorter stature, he was able to get to high balls. It’s great to see Jon still playing in MLS!”
On August 19, 1991, Liberty Cup Moscow started without a hitch -- at least on the soccer field. I refereed two boys U-13 games contested by Russian teams in the rural town of Mjacova outside Moscow. The first game, the keeper of one team was wearing a blue shirt very similar in color to the opponent’s jersey so I signaled for him to change it. Which he did, but the other shirt in his case, also blue, was still similar in color to the opponents. Welcome to Russia, where boys have just one or two keeper jerseys unlike some American keepers in our much more affluent society.
That day, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted in a military coup while he was on vacation in the Crimea. The next morning was pretty surreal. As I was about to start a U-15 match between two Russian teams at the Alzakar Stadium in Moscow, I thought how I am standing in the middle of a field surrounded by two Russian teams, two Russian assistant referees, a huge mural glorifying Soviet sport behind one goal and tanks rumbling in the distance supporting a military coup. The week before, I was watching a tape of “Rocky IV” at home in New York and now I was living it. I felt better after the friendly PA announcer, who looked like Joe DiMaggio, announced in Russian something like, “We have a special treat as our referee comes from the United States of America, Randy Vogt.” And the U.S. received a nice round of applause from the couple of hundred people in attendance.
On Aug. 21, 1991, I was back in Mjacova as an assistant referee for a game between Eastern Pennsylvania and a Russian team, Izhevsk. The American side won 3-0 in a game that was played in a very heavy downpour. I still remember that Busch yelled from the goal that he felt like Dorothy during the storm at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz.” As the game was ending, the rain stopped and for only the second time in my life, I saw a beautiful double rainbow. I thought it was a sign from God that Gorbachev plus Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leading the resistance of the coup, would return to power. I was right as the coup ended early the next morning.
Seemingly all of Moscow attended the funeral of the three men killed during the coup -- Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov -- a few days later. They had been killed right outside the gates of the American Embassy.
Back on the soccer fields, the tournament was played pretty much as originally scheduled. The Eastern New York team was playing up a year in the U-15 age group while Eastern Penn, competing against players of the same age from the Soviet Union and Italy, did very well. They finished in third place and did not lose a game.
Liberty Cup Moscow truly earned its name during a memorable week that changed the world.
(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to six-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In his book, Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at http://www.preventiveofficiating.com/.)