Reffing in Russia: Remembering History, 25 Years Later

By Randy Vogt

For a long time, I looked positively at the Soviet military cap and Moscow police cap I had received as gifts. Now, I’m not so sure.

Through soccer, I was an eyewitness to history, the 1991 August 19 Soviet military coup in Moscow that briefly unseated Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. I had been invited to ref a top youth tournament called Liberty Cup Moscow and had a whole year to prepare. So I learned some basic Russian that came in very handy and I’ve been able to retain the little I know by practicing with the many immigrants from the USSR living in the United States who are now proud American citizens.

The two U.S. 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 D.C. United coach, and Jon Busch, longtime MLS goalkeeper, now playing for Indy Eleven, the NASL Spring Champions.

Len Bilous was the coach of that Eastern Pennsylvania ODP team and he 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.”

The Eastern Pennsylvania ODP team with their relatives who made the trip to Moscow. Both Jon Busch and Ben Olsen are in the front row. Jon is second from left and Ben is in the orange cap, third from the right. Coach Len Bilous is standing on the far right.

In a bit of foreshadowing before the tournament kickoff, I traded a Mickey Mouse T-shirt to a Russian teenage girl who gave me a Soviet military cap. On August 19, 1991, Liberty Cup Moscow started without a hitch -- at least on the soccer fields. I refereed two Boys-U-13 games contested by Russian teams in the rural town of Mjacova outside Moscow.

That day, President 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 boys U-15 match between two Russian teams at the Alzakar Stadium in Moscow, I thought about how I was 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 had watched a VCR 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 USA received a nice round of applause from the couple of hundred people in attendance.

On August 21, 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, which most of the military did not support, ended very early the next morning.

Randy Vogt purposely wearing the ironic color of red in front of the Russian Parliament Building, right after the coup was over. Notice the barricades in the background, protecting Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The tournament was played pretty much as originally scheduled as Liberty Cup Moscow truly earned its name. The Eastern New York team was playing up a year in the boys 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. What had become lost in translation is that goal difference decided ties between teams in the standings. Eastern Penn and CSKA defeated all their other opponents in the group and wound up tying one another. Unaware how important goal difference was, Eastern Penn did not run up the score against outclassed opponents, and CSKA did so they advanced to the final.

I had made friends with many Russians during those two weeks and started corresponding with them. Easy to get their letters translated as there were several Russian restaurants within walking distance of the Manhattan ad agency I was working at. Two Moscow families invited me to return so I did during the winter of 1994-95 and stayed in their apartments. When they “exchanged” me, they did so in front of a nondescript movie theatre and I felt like a Cold War spy.

The patriarch of one of the families was a policeman in Moscow, who gave me the police hat. After I arrived, he was very intent on arm-wrestling me. We were equal in strength but after a couple of minutes, I let him win, pointing out in English, “You have the home field advantage.”

Although I understand and can speak some Russian, understanding 100% was obviously an issue. One of the families told me that we were going to tserkov. So I thought of a word that sounded close, cirque, French for circus, as in the Cirque du Soleil, and put on a sweatshirt with a huge caricature of Donald Duck on it. The family must have thought that Americans dress weird when we wound up in a Russian Orthodox Church near the Kremlin as tserkov means church.

Every August, I think about being an eyewitness to history, but the past several years I’ve been sad about how the freedoms won that week, which we Americans take for granted, have slowly been taken away in Russia. This is a reason why I’m no longer as positive about the Russian caps I received as gifts.

It’s an odd juxtaposition that the 25th anniversary of the Moscow Coup is taking place during the Summer Olympics. My two trips to Russia and helping youth soccer teams from the former Soviet Union come to New York to play in tournaments, as I facilitated during the 1990s, helped the Olympic ideal of world peace, albeit in my own small way. So when the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics were looking for “community heroes” to carry the Olympic torch, I really wanted to do it and marketed my unique experience in Russia into carrying the Olympic torch for a kilometer down Main Street in New Rochelle, New York.

My unforgettable experiences of being an eyewitness to positive history and “my 15 minutes of flame” became two of the biggest highlights of my life so far. And it was all through soccer.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 9,000 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

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