Yacov Zohn

Email: yzohn@wisc.edu

Advisor: David McDonald
Curriculum Vitae (pdf)

Yacov Zohn


Untangling my fragmented sense of identity gradually transformed from emotional need to intellectual pursuit. Going back three generations, every member of my direct family lineage was born in a different country, spanning present-day Austria, Belarus, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Throughout my childhood, we moved from one city to the next across France, Mexico, and the USA. At the same time, each of my parents and grandparents contrived to communicate with me in their respective native tongues, which naturally led to some confusion and frustration on my part. Throughout this upbringing, an anchoring thread was soccer. This was not only a passion, but also a gateway to new communities and to a sense of belonging.

During my undergraduate studies, I took a year off to attend a specialized soccer program in France that included the intensive study of French. Although my primary goal had been to further my soccer career, I discovered through that program my love for learning about other cultures and history through the study of both language and soccer. I came to understand how language afforded both insights into societies and also opened other ways of understanding the world by virtue of its inner mechanics. On the other hand, soccer became an entry point to complex communities that included people from all walks of life. It provided a social space in which everyone could connect despite the burdens of real-life identities. This experience in France brought me first to reconnect with my childhood languages and in due course set me on a path of language and academic study, as well as high performance athletic development that took me to extended residencies in Russia, Germany, Belgium, the USA, Switzerland, and soon Georgia.

This enthrallment with soccer meant that the sport found its way into all my academic pursuits and social engagement. I wrote about its history, economics, politics and even about its place in literary fiction. However, the realization that I could explore my own questions concerning mixed identities through soccer history came from an unexpected source: the musicological work First Nights, by Thomas Kelly. In First Nights, Kelly examines broader cultural and political life through the musical premiers of five iconic works in the Western canon. I was struck by how his well-chosen and riveting historical events opened large vistas to culture and politics. It dawned on me that soccer matches could be even more powerful windows into a wider society: the sport touches on myriad intersections of localism, nationalism, class, politics, languages, and culture. Soccer provides a powerful gateway through which to explore this phenomenon because of its ability to create quasi-tribal allegiances across hierarchical and intersectional layers of social affiliation. Consequently, I decided to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on the history of the Soviet soccer. The fractured cultural and political landscape of the sport offers a perfect opportunity to put my idea into practice and to combine my disparate skills. With the help of my languages, I can weave together my expertise in soccer, my prior education in political science, and my fascination with history to build a powerful “mental soccer team” to tackle the challenges of this project.

My doctoral dissertation is a history of the Soviet national soccer team (the Sbornaia) from its official genesis in 1952 to the end of its “golden era” in 1972. I aim to elucidate the interplay of local, national, and supranational allegiances within the Soviet team to examine the politics of representation in the Soviet Union (USSR). My command of Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, French, Spanish, and German will enable me to compare primary sources, scholarly literature, and oral accounts within a larger international context than has been represented in previous studies of Soviet sport. I am particularly interested in exploring why one of the most diverse nations in the world was first solely represented by Moscow, and later by a combination of Kyiv, Tbilisi, and (again) Moscow. I want to know why and how Moscow, endowed with all of the USSR’s most important political organizations, most powerful sport institutions, and the best clubs in the country, lost its monopoly on the national team. Over the span of several years, Tbilisi became increasingly well represented in the side while Kyiv not just matched Moscow but eventually overtook the capital as the heart of the Soviet national team. Kyiv’s players and coaches massively impacted Soviet and even global soccer, with the feat underappreciated in Russia and abroad. Through the lenses of these three cities, my dissertation will illuminate how the narrative of Soviet sports history intersects with a kaleidoscope of competing narratives from cities, nation-states, and global sport governing institutions to form a mosaic of transnational history.


M.A., Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia
B.A., Nazareth College


  • European History

Working Dissertation Title

  • “The Soviet Soccer Sbornaia: Politics, Nationalism, and Localism in the USSR”

Selected Publications

Selected Awards

  • Kennan Institute Title VIII Summer Research Scholarship, 2022
  • New York Public Library Short-Term Research Fellowship, 2022
  • Stephen F. Cohen–Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship (ASEEES), 2022
  • The North American Society for Sport History Dissertation Research Award, 2022
  • Title VIII Summer Research Laboratory Associateship (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), 2022
  • Title VIII, Ukrainian language at Indiana University, 2021
  • Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship, Poland (academic year), 2020

Professional Affiliations

  • University of Lausanne, 2023
  • Georgian Football Federation, 2023

Courses Taught as TA

  • History 101 – American History to the Civil War era
  • History 136 – Sport, Recreation, & Society in the United States