The Unquiet American
In 1990, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a US footballer signed for Lokomotiv Moscow
These days, football is a globalised game in which players move around all over the world. In practically every league in the world you can find players from all continents and the mobility is higher than ever.
However, it wasn’t always like that. Until the end of the Cold War in 1991, the leagues behind the Iron Curtain were largely closed for Westerners. But one American player got through the eye of the needle and, through football, experienced first-hand the fall of Communism.
It all began when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. With the aim of saving the Soviet economy, Gorbachev introduced the glasnost and perestroika policies, which would open Russian society and grant citizens a freedom never experienced before.
On the other side of the globe, in the US, a 21 year old was watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In this particular episode, the industrialist Armand Hammer was the guest and he mentioned that there was a new man in the Kremlin, a progressive man who seemed open to reason, and then he mentioned those two words – glasnost and perestroika. To bring the two adversaries of the Cold War together, he argued, together, they had to start with regular people first and to use arts, sports and cultural exchange programmes to build bridges.
The young man watching TV was Dale Mulholland, a football player.
“I suddenly thought, ‘a soccer player in the USSR?’” Mulholland recalls. “A cascade of thoughts followed. In fact, the next thought that dawned on me was to make the concept even greater and build it into ‘a soccer player exchange’. And the very next thought was, ‘I can be that player actually!’ Me? Yeah, you! ‘In fact, here’s what I am going to do. I am going to go play in the USSR as that player! And while I’m at it, I’ll get a Soviet player out of the USSR to play in the USA!’”
To get things rolling, Mulholland, who was in college at the time, wrote to Hammer. He needed a contact in the Soviet government, and was told to get in touch with Goskomsport, the Soviet state committee for sport. Contacting somebody on the opposite side of the globe, geographically and culturally, wasn’t as easy as today. “Since, at that time, the USA and the USSR didn’t even share a telephone exchange programme except through official channels, finding out whom to contact in Moscow was a huge challenge,” Mulholland said. “The USSR was a complete mystery shrouded behind the Iron Curtain. We knew nothing of the people and nothing of the culture.”
Hard work can pay off, though. After a word with the Soviet basketball player Arvidas Sabonis, Mulholland got in touch with the NBA team Atlanta Hawks, who had just toured the USSR on a friendship tour. This was the breakthrough. “A woman named Kim Bohuny, who managed the tour and seemed to have some expertise in Russian things finally heard my voice and was enthusiastic,” Mulholland said. “She telexed the head of Goskomsport, Vyacheslav Gavrilin, the top man at the time, who actually answered back by telex. It was probably answered simply because it was such a rare thing even to receive something from the USA.”
As enthusiastic as they all were, getting the move in order wasn’t as simple as that. “So Gavrilin, bless his heart, answered by stating that it was a good idea, but that the timing wasn’t yet quite right. ‘Yes, we are restructuring our geo-political position in the world and yes, we are encouraging a new sense of openness to the world, but an American soccer player here in Moscow is something that we have never considered before, and we need to consider this idea and the logistics involved in such an endeavour.’”
As disheartening as this could sound to some, Mulholland was pleased. “I was encouraged. This was all I needed to hear. This will happen. Not now but someday. I won’t give up. This will take place. I will see this through one day. On the other side of the ocean, Gavrilin is standing there scratching his head and wondering, ‘Do the Americans even play football?’”
For over a year, Mulholland called and wrote to congressmen, senators and many others. It didn’t go unnoticed. “Along the way, a young fresh-out-of-the-academy blonde female CIA agent showed up at our college in 1987, suddenly asking around where to find me on the campus,” Mulholland said. “Obviously, all my efforts contacting politicians had alerted the state department somehow, and they sent somebody to find out what this young Commie was up to. And then, because she was pretty good looking, somehow we ended up at lunch in a little restaurant in Portland, Oregon.”
Of course, the CIA saw some potential in recruiting a young man eager to travel to the Soviet Union, where he would without a doubt become quite the celebrity – if he made it. “But I had no plans ever to see any of them again. I was a soccer player. That was my intent with no other objective in mind. Spying was for spooks. I was not interested in any of that and I held no false loyalty to nationalist ideologies. My ideology and religion were soccer, pure and simple.”
Every four to six months after that, Mulholland called Bohuny, who’d then call Moscow, asking whether the time had come yet. It wasn’t until 1989 that the big breakthrough came. Lokomotiv Moscow, a modest team by Soviet standards, constantly shuttling between the top and second flight, and far from the big club they have become today, toured the USA playing indoor football.
“They came to the Tacoma Dome to play the Tacoma Stars in what was called the Peace Cup. Well, Tacoma is my hometown. This seems to be fate stepping in and sanctioning the idea. So, I went to the game and watched Lokomotiv go down 7-3 or something like that.” [It was 7-3].
The Muscovites clearly struggled to adapt to the American indoor game, which was quite different from the 11-a-side game they were used to. Nevertheless, some players impressed. “Regardless of the final result, there I found Aleksandr Golovnya,” Mulholland said. “He was perfect for my idea of the soccer player exchange. He was like a ballet dancer, so light on his feet with crisp little agile soft-cushioned touch and movement, excellent technique, extraordinary passing, and he knew how to strike a pose. In addition, he resembled Mikhail Baryshnikov: in other words, a perfect match for the American public’s expectation of the Soviet man.”
Mulholland had the opportunity to go to meet the Russians. “After the match finished, I went and met the head coach Yuri Semin at the hotel bar, where the after-event was being held with local and state dignitaries and so forth.”
The event itself was too busy, with many local business owners and politicians showing up to meet and greet. The next day however, Mulholland returned for a more private chat with Semin and Golovnya, and suggested the exchange to them. He even suggested a possible coach exchange for Semin, and they were both sold on the idea immediately. “So, now I had my exchange player, a possible team and a future coach, but the time still wasn’t right,” Mulholland said. “Yet, we had finally made some physical contact and filed away the plan. The actors were being given their scripts and the plot was being formed as we awaited the green light that ultimately had to come from Goskomsport. History was on our side, and patience is always a virtue.”
In autumn 1989, Mulholland finally met Gavrilin in person and he told him to stay in touch on a monthly basis. At the time, Mulholland had just signed a half-year deal with Sing Tao Tigers in Hong Kong, becoming the first American to play there, and it suited him perfectly. “I would sign a half season deal with the Chinese in Hong Kong and then be ready to depart the moment the USSR was ready for me.”
While he was in Hong Kong, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. “I remember walking to training and glancing at a local newspaper on the stand seeing a picture of Germans climbing the wall and the headline, ‘And down comes the Wall’. I immediately thought, ‘It’s almost time!’”
A month later, in mid-December, he called Gavrilin once again. “He said, ‘It’s time. When can you get back to the USA? There’s an agent in New York whom you need to meet before he returns to Moscow.’ Two days later, I was in Gavrilin’s office in Seattle, where he explained that the agent was in New York and could help me get into the USSR.”
The agent was Aleksandr Pruit, and after meeting him Mulholland was ready to begin his adventure and apply for visa to enter the Soviet Union. This was of course huge news and Mulholland suddenly became a famous man. “I had a deluge of phone calls at my family’s house from reporters and journalists from all over the world. Some journalists working the beat in NYC must have had a connection at the embassy of the USSR and were told about what was happening. I hadn’t even left the country but I had David Letterman’s programming director trying to book me on the Late Show on NBC. Every day the phone was ringing with different reporters trying to get the scoop on what was happening. I told them to wait until I had signed a contract and actually played in the USSR before I gave them a story.”
Ten days later, Mulholland arrived at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after a brief stop in Belgrade. He would stay at Pruit’s apartment. “It was dark and freezing cold outside, so I didn’t see much of the landscape until the morning,” he said. “I woke up and when I looked out the kitchen window, I had my first glimpse of the country.”
He remembers a line of babushkas, packed in warm clothes on their way to the local markets for food. “The next experience was my first life-changing insight into my own life and the Western world,” he said. “When I went to the bathroom to get washed and ready for the day, I noticed that there were many American product brands on the shelves. At first, I thought that these products must be available in the USSR, and I was surprised. Then, I grabbed one of the containers to examine it more closely, and took it off the shelf. It was empty. So, I tried another and another and still the same result. They were all empty…
“I realised that these containers with brand names represented the West, American and freedom. These colourful empty bottles were a status symbol. My eyes filled with tears and a lump formed in my throat, and I felt so bad for taking such things for granted all my life. As I teared up in that bathroom, I made a pact with myself thatI’d never take anything for granted ever again. It was the first lesson the USSR taught me.”
Moving to Moscow was only a small part of the plan. Mulholland still needed to find a club to play for. “I mentioned that Lokomotiv was a friendly club and suggested starting there. And each time I mentioned them, one of the official scoffed or made a funny face. You can bet that they were more surprised than anybody else to hear that the American wanted to join their club despite interest from a dozen other well-known clubs. I just didn’t know any other names. I just kept saying the only name that I knew – Lokomotiv. And since I had already given my word to Semin back during the tour in 1989 and to Sasha Golovnya that I would send him to my former team in the USA, then my destiny was to play for Lokomotiv. That’s how my mind worked at the time.”
In 1990, Lokomotiv were still coached by Semin and the club had just been relegated from the Soviet top flight. They were nowhere near the level of local rivals CSKA, Spartak and Dinamo, with the club’s best period having been back in the late 1950s, when it had won the Soviet Cup and finished second in the championship.
Mulholland was taken to Semin’s apartment to discuss joining the club.
“Yuri was as surprised as anybody that I somehow got myself to Moscow, but simply said with laughter in his voice: ‘Come out to training when we start again in a couple of days and prove that you can play, then we’ll go to the next step.’”
The next day, they met at the office of Soviet railways, which still owned the club and a trial was formally arranged. “Although it was snowing and conditions were freezing, the test went extremely well and it was obvious that I was more than capable of playing at that level, in the system with those players,” Mulholland said. “After the session, we all agreed that Lokomotiv would be my club and the deal was done.”
With the football all settled, Mulholland quickly adapted to life in Russia, enjoying the cultural life and sights of the city together with his bodyguard Sasha Taubin, an Afghanistan veteran. “I was dragging the poor guy all around Moscow to the theatres. I mean, here was I in the most important cultural and capital centre of the USSR, one of the most influential cultural centres in the world. I was not going to miss the chance to take in an education that very few outsiders or non-Soviets ever experienced, but that poor man was bored out of his skull, so he got an idea one day to introduce me to his friend who spoke German – Katya.”
Having spent time in Germany, Mulholland also spoke German and the two hit it off, to the frustration of others. “At the same time, Semin was trying to send me on dates with pretty Russian women, but I just wanted to go to the ballet and opera with Katya,” Mulholland said. The two would later marry (and divorce). On the pitch, things were also going well, although the supporters seemed not to take to their US player. “I would hear them chant my name and America and such,” Mulholland said. “Finally I had enough. I was tired of these people yelling at me all the time. I stomped over to Khasanbi [Bidzhiyev, a goalkeeper] and demanded to know why all of those people followed us around and were always yelling things at me and chanting my name. I was ready to flip them off and say ‘Fuck you’ from the centre of the pitch. He pulled me aside, started laughing and took pity in my ignorance.”
The fans weren’t unhappy with Mulholland. In fact, they were his biggest fans. “He told me who ‘those’ people were: ‘Those people are the reason that Semin feels obligated to put you on the field. Oh, my boy, you so much don’t understand what’s going on here, do you? ‘Those’ people you are getting ready to offend are actually your raving fans. They love you, support you and want to see you play.’ After that, I started being nice to that group of fans and waved at them during the warm-up.”
Other than being from the US, Mulholland’s playing style also made him popular with the fans.
“Valery Filatov [the Lokomotiv assistant and later president of the club] and Semin used to make fun of me and say: ‘Mulholich, you like one of them Brazilians from the 1970s.’ I didn’t care that they were joking. They were my favourite players, and I were happy to be recognised as that type of player. What I didn’t understand at the time, was the pressure that professional coaches are under to win and get points. I was only concerned about playing entertaining football, so I need to apologise. I was consumed and couldn’t break my focus. I wanted to play a certain style of football that was enjoyable to play and watch, but not always practical.”
While playing for Lokomotiv, Mulholland also went on numerous foreign tours with the club. These tours were partly a way to spread the reputation of the club and especially the Soviet Union, but it also turned out to be an excellent way for the players to make money. “The players turned into brilliant businessmen when going abroad,” Mulholland said. “All those little cans of caviar would serve as the first step of getting some cash. As soon as we got checked into the hotel, the boys would gather their cans of caviar, elect a representative and that guy would take the cans to the best restaurant in town and walk away with loads of the local currency in his pocket. Samovars, amber jewellery, matryoshka dolls, military and other Russian souvenirs were also used to trade for hard currency and I would work hard to make sure that all of my teammates had a chance to sell at least something during our tours around the various regions of the world.”
The team would even put on small shows for the customers at the hotel and they always managed to sell everything they brought with them. “My partner in the import/export business was Khasanbi, and I have to say he was the cleverest man that you would ever meet. He could turn a $10 item into $100 in an instant. We would gather all the old Soviet produced gear that nobody wanted from the old storerooms. They couldn’t believe the stuff that I would ask for – old Soviet flags, banners, pins and any propaganda that we could gather. I knew that these items that the Soviets had thrown in the garbage were exotic treasures to Western people. Everything was vintage USSR and everything was for sale. We took it with us wherever we headed outside the USSR. It was the funniest sight that you ever saw. Soviet customs officials would look at these boxes and just shake their heads in disbelief. In their minds, nobody could possibly want this junk, but to Khas and me, it was all golden.”
Once the junk had been changed into hard currency, the players would purchase goods not available in Moscow. “When we returned to Sheremetyevo airport, the players would stack all of their stuff onto my cart. I would pile everybody’s gear – TVs, stereos, radios, fax machines, copiers and all kinds of other things – and go straight to the customs official and have him take it all down on paper as my stuff. He would remind me that I had to take all this back out with me when I left Moscow, which I would agree to, of course.”
At the end of Mulholland’s first season in the Soviet Union, Lokomotiv had earned promotion back to the top flight. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of the end. Players like Yuri Gavrilov and many others had left to join foreign clubs on lucrative contracts after Gorbachev had made it possible for Soviet football players to try their luck abroad. Later, Yuri Semin became national coach of New Zealand, leaving Filatov in charge.
“It was at that point that I started thinking that it was time to get out season and get started somewhere else. Soon after a coup attempt was made against Gorbachev by some generals and the league started breaking into separate republics as well. Players were transferring out as fast as they could and everything was in disarray.”
Semin returned to Lokomotiv in 1992 and coached the first team until 2005, leading them to two championships and four Russian cups. Between 2009 and 2010, he had another short spell as head coach and in the summer of 2016 Lokomotiv once again called on Semin’s services. In May, he won a historic fifth Russian cup title with the club.
As for Golovnya, who moved to USA in exchange for Mulholland, he played in USA for four years and currently lives in California. The two men still speak.
For Mulholland, the departure from Moscow didn’t mean that his football adventures stopped.
After a year playing in the USA for Miami Freedom, he returned to Europe. With the goal of representing the USA at the 1994 World Cup on home turf, Mulholland needed playing time in a big league and he had trials at both West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa. Obtaining a work permit proved to be difficult, though, and instead he laid out a different plan together with Ljubomir ‘Ljubo’ Barin, one of the most powerful player agents in Yugoslavia.
The plan was to go to Croatia and play a single year for Dinamo Zagreb in the Yugoslav league, which would then open the door for a big-money transfer to France, where Barin had a lot of contacts.
“I agreed to that plan with an imminent sale to some club in France to make all the managers happy, but after a few weeks with the club, I had no intention of ever leaving there. We were in final preparation for the season in a secluded training camp in Poreč on the Adriatic just across from Venice. For me, this was the most ideal team in the entire world. These were the true football artists. They had the best touch and skill I had ever witnessed. Finally, I was among my brothers in the game. That was how I felt.”
At the time, Dinamo had recently sold Zvonimir Boban to AC Milan and the club was flush with both cash and ambitions. “Dinamo Zagreb was my dream club and the absolute best football that I was ever going to play. I knew that at the time. These players and coaches ate, drank and breathed football. They were exactly like me. They never got tired of discussing the game, watching it or playing it. I was in heaven.”
Unlike at Lokomotiv, where the tactical scheme was strict, there was a completely different rhythm to Dinamo’s playing style. “With these great players, you got the ball constantly, and just kept moving it around. I had never experienced such complete football in my entire life, or at any of the clubs that I had been fortunate enough to play with previously. Just by playing that type of possession game, all kinds of opportunities would boom into existence. You got a chance to take somebody on, you got a chance to whip it around, you got loads of chances to shoot or assist a chance on goal.”
Things were good for the American and the club called Barin and told him to begin the paperwork so the contract could be signed. However, just as Mulholland’s transfer was about to be finalised something changed. “Just as we were arriving back to the hotel after our second training of the day, all of these refugees started walking out of the forest,” he said. “They were holding suitcases, bags and blankets and wandering over to the hotel. We all gave up our rooms to them and four of us teamed up in a flat. Croatia had declared independence from Yugoslavia. These people were fleeing for their lives. This was just the start.”
In the beginning, though, the squad failed to recognise the severity of the situation. “We naively thought that it was just a bit of sabre rattling and would be over within days. We mistakenly thought that it would be similar to the nearly peaceful dissolution of the USSR.”
Unlike Mulholland and the rest of the players, Barin was worried and decided to get Mulholland away to safety. “Then, just as suddenly, a taxi from Austria, where Barin lived, shows up at the front of the hotel. Ljubo has sent his driver all the way from Graz to bring me back and out of harm’s way. I, of course, refuse to go. The taxi driver cannot believe it and then starts begging the coaching staff at least to call Barin to talk to me. My coaches are laughing to themselves and liking the fact that I’m determined to stay and wait it out. I’m like, ‘No! I’m staying here. This is my team. If we are under attack from Serbia, then I go down with the team. I ain’t leaving.’ So, we call Austria and get Barin on the phone. He says, ‘Don’t worry, the Blue Helmets [the UN forces] will be here in three days and the conflict will be over in a week. You will return in two weeks. Don’t worry.’ We were all so wrong.”
Croatian independence wasn’t internationally recognised until the beginning of 1992, and by then Mulholland had embarked on a new adventure. “I became the first foreign signing of Dukla Prague, and I was the second American to ever play in Czechoslovakia, after Stephen Trittschuh, and the last as the republic voted to separate while I was there. I was technically in the People’s Army of Czechoslovakia, but not officially a soldier like all of my teammates.”
At Dukla, he teamed up with a young Pavel Nedvěd. At the time however, he didn’t look like a future Ballon d’Or winner. “Pavel Nedvěd was a brainless player, who just ran all over the field like a dog and would blast shots from anywhere hoping that it would go in,” Mulholland said. ‘I was there when he stared his rise to the top and I was amazed that Sparta Prague even wanted him. I was even more amazed that he was selected for the national team that played in Euro 96 and completely amazed that he ended up getting playing time. Then, I went into shock, when Sven-Göran [Eriksson] brought him to Italy and I almost had a heart attack when Juventus bought him from Lazio. And I almost died when I heard that he won the Ballon d’Or.”
Unfortunately, the stint in Prague didn’t go according to plan. At the end of his first season, Mulholland fractured his ankle, which led Dukla to withhold the money they owed him for joining the club as they feared his career was over. Mulholland took the case to Fifa, who granted him both his freedom and the entire contractual amount stated in his three-and-a-half-year contract.
Effectively however, this also ended his career at the highest level and cost him the chance of playing at the World Cup. “While that case was going through the Fifa courts, I did have a career hiatus when I realised that I was not going to get a chance to play at the World Cup. And so, I took a year and a half to resurrect the Seattle Sounders back in 1994-1995. I did that as one of my civic duties and personal dreams just to see if it could be done. And it could be.”
The original Seattle Sounders were dissolved in 1983, but in 1994, with Mulholland’s help, they were revived.
After a career that saw Mulholland experience at first hand the dissolutions of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and thus the death of their leagues, there’s something almost poetic in the fact that he finished his career with the revival of a football club.
These days, Mulholland works at the football academy SuperSkills Soccer in Singapore.
“SuperSkills Soccer, and the sport of 1v1 soccer, are what I am heading up now, and have become my life’s work. We are getting ready to go into India and China as our strategy to gather half the world’s population under our umbrella. I have every intention of bringing this system to Russia and the former Soviet republics and we have serious plans to bring the 1v1 Soccer World Championships to Moscow and display the sport just prior to the 2018 World Cup finals.”
Clearly, Mulholland hasn’t forgotten his time in Moscow. Even though the Soviet adventure was almost 30 years ago, it remains a fond memory. “That sense of closeness that we shared is frozen back in that time. Both Khasanbi and Katya jokingly like to say that I am the only man in the world who misses the Soviet Union… Maybe I am, maybe I am.”