Anything but Victory Is Unthinkable as CSKA Moscow's Three-year Wait Ends

Final Four host CSKA Moscow's season has been built with only one thing in mine - winning the Euroleague trophy.

Final Four host CSKA Moscow's season has been built with only one thing in mine - winning the Euroleague trophy. Since Moscow was named host city for this season's Final Four three years ago, the club CE0 Sergei Kuschenko and coach Dusan Ivkovic have been preparing for their moment of glory, and this season have brought the team to its peak. CSKA's $35 million roster has lost only once in all competition and now stands only 80 minutes away from its goal.

However, one thing stands in CSKA's way - Maccabi Tel Aviv. Nobody in Moscow is even entertaining the thought of going out to TAU Vitoria in the semifinal and all eyes in the Russian capital are focused on Maccabi.

Ivkovic and CSKA will be appearing in the Final Four for the third straight year, and after losing in the semifinal on both previous occasions, first to Barcelona and then to Maccabi, it has scores to settle. The score with Barcelona was settled in the top 16 with a 90-71 win in Spain. "Now," says captain Sergei Panov, "the time has come to settle our score with Maccabi."

Most of CSKA's current roster played against Maccabi in last season's Final Four and the team's desire for revenge has been a constant motif in the Russian press. CSKA believes that it deserved to beat Barcelona in 2003 and Tel Aviv last year, and that both Final Four hosts benefited from favorable officiating in front of their home fans. Maccabi has good reason to fear things will be no different this time around.

CSKA's rivalry with Maccabi goes back to the Cold War when the Russians refused to play in Israel and Maccabi beat Moscow 91-79 in Belgium en route to its first of four European titles. While the players may not have history in mind, the Moscow fans will and history and politics will also come into play because of the timing of this year's tournament. With the final taking place only a day before the celebrations marking the defeat of Nazi Germany, winning the championship has become a mission of almost national importance and Maccabi is perhaps the most inconvenient opponent CSKA could have been drawn. If CSKA loses to Maccabi in the final, Ivkovic won't be the only one thrown out in the cold; heads could roll at the former Soviet army club and further up the Russian sporting hierarchy should the unthinkable happen.

"I don't want to even imagine that on such a historic date any team other than CSKA could lift the trophy in Moscow," a senior military source close to the Kremlin said a few months ago. The nationalist pressure on CSKA will perhaps weigh on the club more than anything. Even thought Red Square will be sealed off on May 8, the sight of Maccabi's yellow hordes celebrating anywhere in Moscow would be seen as a national afront.

The Russian security forces already have a big enough headache protecting world leaders attending the 60th anniversary celebrations, and if Maccabi wins that headache will become a splitting migraine. "I don't want to think what will happen if Maccabi fans drunk with victory come face-to-face with skinheads drunk on vodka," one Moscow journalist said this week.

Intelligence reports suggest right-wing and neo-Nazi extremists could try to disrupt the celebrations and that Maccabi fans could be a target. Yesterday, police made a series of preemptive arrests.

On the sporting front, Kuschenko is expected to survive even if CSKA doesn't win the trophy, but Ivkovic's $3 million, two-year contract extension will be ripped up on the spot. "If Ivkovic doesn't bring the cup to Moscow he will be skinned alive," said a member of CSKA's board.

Winning the Euroleague is crucial to CSKA's plans to establish itself as a dominant force in European basketball. As it stands, the club will see its budget slashed from $35 million this season to $15 million next season - still large in European basketball terms - and if it fails to win, the budget could drop even more.

"CSKA has everything - a huge budget, a superb coach, outstanding players," wrote Sport Express columnist Lev Tigai last week. "Only one thing is missing to complete the picture - the European Cup."