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Jonathan Wilson © 2002


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Imagine going to the World Cup and being able to choose from a squad that included Ruslan Nigmatullin, Mart Poom, Dmitri Kokhlov, Viktor Onopko, Serhiy Luzhniy, Kakha Kaladze, Olexandr Holovko, Vladyslav Vaschuk, Alexsandr Khatskevich, Yegor Titov, Valyantsyn Bialkevich, Marian Pahars, Shota Arveladze, Alexandr Mostovoi, Valeriy Karpin, Vladimir Beschastnykh, Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko.

That is what Oleg Romantsev -- or perhaps Valeriy Lobanovskyi -- would have to choose from, had the Soviet Union not collapsed. Yet, after Ukraine lost to Germany in a World Cup qualifying play-off, Russia will be the only former Soviet nation to reach next summer's World Cup finals -- and they travel more in hope than expectation.

A union that used to be able to call on the cream of fifteen republics for its talent has found that, with each republic competing in its own right, the talent is spread too thin. The changes have been dramatic and, even now, football is struggling to catch up.

Andriy Bal gained fame in the 1982 World Cup when he scored a screamer for the USSR against Brazil. A Ukrainian, he played in Lobanovskyi's great Dynamo Kyiv side of the mid-80s, before heading to Israel to finish his career.

He returned to Dynamo as a scout last year, before taking charge of Vorskla Poltava at the beginning of the Ukrainian season. "I was away from Ukraine for ten years before I accepted the job at Dynamo," he explained to

"For three seasons, I was a player in Israel, and then a coach. To become reacquainted with Ukrainian football, it was necessary for me to work as a scout. I had to learn again what Ukrainian football is all about."

In the last Soviet championship, in 1991, six teams came from Russia, six from Ukraine, and one from each of Tajikistan, Armenia, Belarus and Uzbekistan. Two years earlier, Georgia's Dinamo Tbilisi and Lithuania's Zalgiris Vilnius played in their last Soviet championship before withdrawing.

And that the top flight could be made up of teams from what were effectively eight different countries made the league unique, as Bal remembered. "Before my departure we were part of a large country, and one of the ways each republic presented its face was through its best football team.

"Every team had its own way of playing. The Caucasus states and Uzbekistan could be recognised by their technical ability, the way they kept possession of the ball and their movement just like the South Americans.
"Latvian, Lithuanian and Belarussians played like Germans. Moldova was similar to Romania. Ukrainian and Russian sides combined western features and technical ability. But now every side in the Ukrainian league plays a similar style of football."

Particularly in the smaller republics, the top club side became almost a surrogate national side, the whole of Georgia rallying behind Dinamo Tblisi, and Ararat Yerevan drawing support from across Armenia. Even in Ukraine, which boasted around half-a-dozen top flight sides at any one time, teams from Moscow were seen as the greater evil when they lined up against Dynamo, who were far from popular outside the capital.

The problem when these quasi-national teams then tried to settle into a domestic league was that they were simply too good. Dinamo Tbilisi won the first ten Georgian championships after independence, Dynamo are yet to lose their Ukrainian crown, and even in Russia, Spartak have only slipped up once -- though, in fairness, Spartak's case is slightly different in that they were never wholly dominant in Russia, and their current success is down to good financing and the work of coach Oleg Romantsev.

In Latvia, meanwhile, Skonto -- who didn't even exist until independence -- have won every title since the league was established in 1992. Funded by Guntis Indriksons, who is also president of the FA, they have outbought the other sides, generating a youth structure and a training complex to match any comparable side in the West. Recently, though, their dominance has been threatened, as Metalurgs Liepaja and Ventspils, both founded in their modern forms in 1996, have begun to catch up. FK Riga and FK Auga have similarly ambitious plans.

But even in Latvia, where fragmentation has brought wealth, the majority of clubs cannot compete. Clubs regularly go bankrupt, and at Valmiera, who have teetered on the brink of extinction longer than Rasputin, the feeling is that too much emphasis is placed on the national team, as Indriksons effectively uses Skonto as a nursery for Latvia.

Policijas Riga are another club struggling for survival. Coach Jurijs Popkovs, who played for Daugava, Latvia's best club in Soviet times, is sure that standards have declined since his playing days:

"Teams played around forty games a season against different teams from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Uzbekistan. The problem was that only a few sides had the chance to participate in European competition. We have more opportunities now, but less money. Playing ten to fifteen games a season is not enough to develop football quickly."

At the other end of the league, of course, that increased opportunity is a boon, as Latvia and Skonto defender Arturs Zakresevskis made clear. "We have the chance to play in European Cups, and the national team plays in a minimum of tens games each year.

"That means the best players have the chance to learn from different styles -- English, Mediterranean, Balkan, Scandinavian. For me as a footballer, life is more interesting. But for other teams and players, their opportunities are very small."

The solution, at least as far as Popkovs is concerned, is a Baltic league. "I have great expectations of that, but it remains just an idea," he says. "It is an idea that needs big money."

Estonia was never a hotbed of football in Soviet times, but there football has enjoyed a boom over the past decade. For Roman Ubakivi, who became Estonia's second national coach after fragmentation, football is an important way of expressing national identity. "When I was a little boy, I wanted to create an armed organisation which could release Estonia from Soviet power," he wrote in his book Vike Jalgpallipiibel. "But I realised that that path led to doom. So I decided that Estonia had to have their own national team to cheer.

That dream became a reality in 1992, when three and a half thousand fans turned out to watch Estonia lose 6-0 to Switzerland. The result failed to dampen the party atmosphere.

In the wake of that, Aivar Pohlak established Flora Tallinn, but it was when he appointed Icelandic coach T eitur Thordarsson in 1996 that things really took off, as he tightened up the defence and lifted Estonia almost seventy places in the world rankings.

Back in Russia, though, the game is in decline. Corruption may have lessened -- certainly there are no longer cases where games have to be replayed because the chief of secret police didn't like a result, as happened when Spartak beat Dinamo Tbilisi in a Cup semi-final in 1948 --but so too have attendances.

Lokomotiv attracted under a thousand for their Champions' League game against Arsenal, while Torpedo, playing in the vast Luznikhi Stadium averaged only around five hundred fans per league game last season "Football has got worse since the break-up of the USSR," Oleg Kucherenko, the editor of Football magazine, explained. "There were lots of unique football schools in Kyiv, Tbilisi and Yerevan. You could watch different styles of play, but now the foreigners in Russia are all second-rate players."

And he was supported by Spartak captain Yegor Titov. "In Soviet times every republic had at least five or six stars of European calibre," he said. "After the break-up it's difficult for Russia alone to bear the brunt."
Each republic is still catching up. Certainly in the Baltic states, where money is available, things are getting better, and it may be, in time, that that pattern is reproduced.

"You have to be really patient," Estonia coach Thordarsson explained. "Football is a game in which you don't get results without knowledge and hard work."




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