This feature is part of The Tsars of Football series
Andrei Kanchelskis has never been afraid to take on a challenge in his career in football, and he has had a fair few of those. Before the mass modern exodus of experienced European and Latin Americans to the Middle East began, Kanchelskis made the move to the Saudi capital on a lucrative contract, unashamed at chasing a bumper salary in the twilight of his career. And who could blame him?
An entertainer of the most electrifying kind on the pitch, he combined the confidence of a man born for the stage with majestic skill and balance – literally; who else would stand on a ball mid-match and salute his adoring faithful as he did at Rangers? He was a mysterious rock star with a killer grin who enraptured thousands every week with his balletic poise and lightning speed; it was simple supply and demand – he supplied the theatre, and demanded the rewards.
The theatre he provided was more Hollywood blockbuster than Broadway, if truth be told. Mystery, bribery, glory, death threats, adoration and feuding; all played out with the dizzying, hectic and unpredictable backdrop of perestroika. His early sporting life straddled the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of a new nation, a fitting historical scene for a man determined to live his life breaking boundaries. Not all the mayhem was caused by the man himself, but his life has been inextricably interwoven with intrigue in all its guises.
His tongue-in-cheek comparison of capital cities aside, his spell in Saudi Arabia was a huge let down on the pitch as he failed to replicate the blistering form that had endeared him to Manchester United, Everton and Fiorentina followers in particular. Far from sulking until a bigger offer came along, he returned home to play for another three seasons in the Russian Premier League before turning his hand to management.
The very concept of home for Kanchelskis is fluid on the face of it. Born to Lithuanian parents in Kirovograd, Ukraine, he represented the USSR – for whom he scored their last ever goal against Cyprus in 1991 – the CIS and Russia at international level, and was even technically eligible to apply for British citizenship after living more than a decade in the UK.
In the early 1990s, many former Soviet players began filtering out towards the infinitely more stable and wealthier leagues in Western Europe – Alexander Mostovoi, Shota Arveladze and Valeriy Karpin all spent over a decade outside the USSR – but Kanchelskis was one of the first to move after the formal disintegration of the Union.
It was a chaotic time for footballers, as they were allowed to choose which new Republic they wished to represent as rigid structures of leagues that had seen next to no movement of players in or out were suddenly opened up to an open market. Careers that had previously been restricted to if not one club, then at least one league, were exposed to the tantalising possibility of escaping the repressive limits placed upon them.
Kanchelskis had grown up through the Dinamo Kyiv youth set up under the steely-eyed watch of the legendary disciplinarian Valeriy Lobanovskyi – who handed the young winger his international debut – before moving to Shakhtar Donetsk in 1990 as a 21-year-old. Back when there was precious little coverage of the major leagues in Western Europe, yet alone in the East, players who wished to make the leap to England, Italy or Spain needed help just to get spotted.
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Read | The methodical, scientific genius of Valeriy Lobanovskyi
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Kanchelskis’ big break would come sooner than most; he had been on the radar of a former young Norwegian youth development coach for a while when Sir Alex Ferguson revealed he was in desperate need of a right-winger.
Rune Hauge would later become embroiled in a string of allegations involving bung payments, most famously to George Graham to secure the transfers of John Jensen and Pål Lydersen, which resulted in Graham being sacked, but before his reputation had burgeoned he was merely a hopeful agent. Ferguson was instantly enraptured by the tape Hauge sent him of Kanchelskis playing against Italy, and watched him in person play against the newly-unified Germany.
At the time there were only 11 non-British players in the English top flight, and other than Dinamo Moscow’s famous post-war tours, Eastern Europeans were a completely unknown quantity. Even Eric Cantona was dismissed as a “flashy foreigner” by Emlyn Hughes the same year Kanchelskis arrived in Manchester, despite only being born across the English Channel. The atmosphere at the time was still a largely distrustful attitude towards overseas players, and in the aftermath of the Cold War a special icy reservation was kept for Soviet citizens.
It didn’t take long for Kanchelskis to shatter preconceptions and win over the Mancunian crowds with his performances on the pitch and demeanour off it. After three successful seasons, which saw Manchester United win two Premiership titles and the FA Cup, Ferguson awarded his winger with a new contract to elevate him to among the top earners at the club with a salary almost a thousand times more lucrative than what he had earned in Ukraine. Leaving Dinamo Kyiv and the tutelage of Lobanovskiy had been bold, but to leave the entire Soviet sport system was on another level, and now he had justified his ambition.
The reasons players had for seeking riches in the West were obvious, and not just financially. When the Soviet Union collapsed many of the all-powerful state-funded sports societies were either broken up or left to fend for themselves as private investment became a possibility. In the mad rush for a slice of the pie, some New Russians clamoured to control sport teams that in many cases were used as vehicles for money laundering, which in turn left the futures of players decidedly uncertain. The obvious choice for many was to pledge allegiance to Moscow, for the simple reason that it had already been the centre of their nation before, but also because there was more stability and economic strength in the new Russia.
Legally at least, players were well within their rights to declare themselves as any nationality they liked, so when Kanchelskis chose to represent Russia, it was hardly a shock. The reaction in his land of birth was less than grateful, however, as he was effectively branded a traitor for abandoning Ukraine.
Other players received different levels of animosity for the same practice. Karpin, for example, was already plying his trade in Moscow during the transition from the USSR to the Russian Federation, and had for a long time been snubbed by his native Estonians for being Russian, so when he decided to join Kanchelskis in representing his country of residence, it drew a less seismic reaction.
It is wrong to go further with his story without describing the world that Kanchelskis left more deeply. For Western football followers, the scale of control over Soviet sportsmen and women by the state or the societies to which they belong is hard to conceive, and is a huge part of the reason why players such as Kanchelskis were genuinely revolutionary in the modern history of Russian football.
James Riordan was well placed to offer a first-hand insight into the environment of Soviet sport after studying at the Communist Higher Party School in Moscow in 1963, and later becoming one of Britain’s foremost voices on Russian and Soviet culture. He even wrote a book in which he claimed to be the first British player to represent a Russian club, Spartak Moscow, although the veracity of his tale has been doubted since its publication.
While Professor Emeritus at the University of Surrey a few years before his death in 2012, he wrote an academic paper focused on the topic of Soviet control of sport in which he describes the turmoil of the sporting landscape in the 20th century: “During the 1980s, radical changes had begun to appear in Soviet sport, breaking the mould of its functionalised and bureaucratic structure,” he wrote. “Until then, not only had the state-controlled, utilitarian system hampered a true appraisal of realities that lay beneath the ‘universal’ statistics and ‘idealised’ veneer, it had prevented concessions to particular groups in the population – the ‘we know what’s best for you’ syndrome.”
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Kanchelskis in action for Manchester United
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Moscow had been at the centre of the global sporting conscience when it hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics amid a boycott from the USA, but closer to home it had been a nuanced success.
The Soviet Union had totally dominated the medals table and should have been a glorious vindication of the Communist Party’s endorsement of the nation’s sporting prowess, but there was underlying event resentment at the bombastic trumpeting of the Games and the legacy they would leave. Falsified figures of participation in sport were later revealed, while for many Soviet citizens a global parade of international sportsmen was an unwelcome distraction from the economic hardships they faced.
“For a population that had been waiting years for decent housing, phones and cars, that saw the Russian economy collapsing, and that felt that sporting victories were being pained for political values they did not share … the vast sums being lavished on ensuring a grand Olympic show represented the straw that broke the camel’s back,” continued Riordan.
“Once the curtain came down on communism, the international sporting challenge was diluted for lack of state support. The free trade union sports societies, as well as the ubiquitous Dinamo and armed forces clubs, mostly gave way to private sports and recreation clubs.”
The impending advent of capitalism in sport paved the way for a frantic race from the wave of New Russians to acquire the simplest vehicles to promote their image and launder money: football clubs. The inevitable carnage that ensued was always likely to lead to disastrous consequences – Spartak Moscow’s General Director Larisa Nechayeva was shot to death by gunmen in 1997, while Chornemorets Odessa’s President and Shakhtar Donetsk’s owner were also murdered in 1992 and 1995 respectively.
In hindsight, Kanchelskis’ decision to leave was smart, even if he had not foreseen the extent to which the post-Soviet game would descend. The obsessive fetishism of sport that overlooked the actual treatment of the sportsmen themselves was manageable so long as it was contained – footballers had long been banned from joining non-Soviet clubs – and although in theory players were now legally permitted to pursue their own avenues, it was easier said than done to extract oneself from the vicious cycle.
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With the finest generation of youngsters to come through the club’s system on the cusp of the first team, a league and cup double won and his flying Russian signed to an extended contract, Sir Alex Ferguson had reason to be content in the summer of 1994. The only frontier left to conquer was Europe, but time was evidently on his side – Alan Hansen’s famous quote about kids was still a year away.
There was, however, an unsettling episode involving Kanchelskis’ agent, Grigoriy Essaoulenko, that should have served as a warning of what was to come. After the winger’s volley earned United a draw away to Nottingham Forest in front of the Sky Sports cameras, the team bus arrived back at the Cliff training ground at 1am, content with their night’s work but eager to get home. As Ferguson was leaving the car park, Essaoulenko knocked on his window and explained he had an urgent gift to give him. Despite the manager’s protestations, the agent insisted, and after meeting a few minutes later at the Excelsior hotel at Manchester Airport, a package was handed over. “This is a gift for you and your wife,” he said. “I hope you like it.”
As Cathy and Sir Alex discovered when they opened the gift at home that night, it was £40,000 in cash. In the morning he deposited it in the club’s safe and documented it with Maurice Watkins, the club’s legal advisor, but didn’t see the agent again for almost a year. In the coming months it would become clear that it had been intended as a sweetener to ensure cooperation with Essaoulenko’s demands in negotiations, but at the time it rattled Ferguson. Kanchelskis began complaining of a stomach problem that the club could not diagnose, and as a result was left out of the first team more than the previous campaign.
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Read | How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain
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When he launched an attack on his manager in the tabloid press, matters came into sharp focus and the relationship deteriorated rapidly, as Ferguson explained in his autobiography Managing My Life. “The reports of the injury coincided with a dramatic change in the player’s attitude,” he wrote, leaving little doubt as to his suspicions for the causes. “Where was that lovely smile and graciousness and gratitude he had brought to Old Trafford? This was not the boy we had lifted out of Ukraine, where, I understand, his weekly wage was £6. This was a scowling, discontented young man.”
It later transpired that, unbeknownst to Ferguson, a clause had been inserted into the contract guaranteeing Kanchelskis himself a third of any future transfer fee, and the following summer he eventually signed for Everton for almost 10 times the £600,000 United had paid for him.
Kanchelskis saw the episode differently. He had wanted to move to Middlesborough to play for his former team-mate Bryan Robson, but claimed that Ferguson blocked the move because Everton were offering more. In public Ferguson has always maintained a resolute moral standpoint when it comes to money and is well-known for his distrust of the vast majority of agents, but Kanchelskis felt he was only interested in lining his pockets.
A successful spell on Merseyside precipitated a big money move to Fiorentina, where he never quite recaptured the form that had made him one of the most feared wingers in the world a few years earlier. Rangers brought him back to British shores after 18 months, where he became the only player to ever score in the Manchester, Liverpool and Old Firm derbies, but his star was waning to the extent that he was nearly allowed to leave Scotland after a few months. An Eintracht Frankfurt offer of £500,000 – some way short of the £8 million Everton had received for him just two years earlier – was accepted, but his representatives demanded the same amount for themselves and the deal fell through.
Almost a decade later, when Kanchelskis was General Manager of Nosta Novotroitsk in Russia’s second tier, he was approached by a referee soliciting cash in return for ensuring the result, but he refused to pay. It was his first appointment after retiring as a player in 2007, and while the project of taking the tiny club from the Kazakh border to the Premier League appealed to him, he had already grown disillusioned by the financial murkiness that plagued football in his native land.
It was a bold move after hanging up his boots. While Nosta are still running as an entity, they almost became another club on the long list of cautionary tales in Russia after sinking back to the third tier after a brief dalliance at the level above. A big name signing is a classic tactic to boost the initial surge of interest after smaller clubs are taken over by benefactors with big plans – Karpin himself took over Torpedo Armarvir in the second tier at the start of this season, but went on a spectacularly awful run of seven games without even scoring and has ended up overseeing relegation.
Alan Moore is a former sports manager who has worked with numerous clubs in Russia and Kanchelskis himself, and describes the club: “They had a tiny stadium [when Kanchelskis was General manager] but it was filled with band waggoners and freeloaders. The club had thrown big money at the team to go up to the Premier [League]; from memory it was a steel company from the Urals who were backing them and in fairness their team were good. But the club was chaotic … [Volga Ulyanovsk] lost 2-1 there and were robbed by a ref who wouldn’t be worrying about finances for a while.”
After overseeing a relegation back to the third tier, Kanchelskis moved on to Torpedo-ZIL Moscow whom he guided to second place in the central league of the second tier, parallel to where his former employers now resided. When Saturn Moscow dropped out of the Premier League due to financial trouble, FC Krasnodar were invited to take their place, leaving a place in the second-tier FNL; Torpedo applied, but were turned down. A few months later, Torpedo owner Alexander Mamut disbanded the club and once again Kanchelskis was on the move.
Newly-formed Ufa were a hugely ambitious club from the Republic of Bashkiria with instant demands, and despite being edged into second place in the same league of the Second Division as his first managerial employers Nosta, who were relegated to the amateur levels, Kanchelskis failed to remain in the same job for the third season in a row. Relegation with Latvian outfit FC Jūrmala followed a stint at Volga Nizhniy Novgorod before he took charge of Solyaris Moscow – only formed in 2014 – at the start of this year. In true fashion he has already parted ways, this time dismissed for failing to secure promotion.
So what now? It would take a talented clairvoyant to map out the precise path Kanchelskis will tread, save to say that it will not be conventional. Moore believes we may not have seen the last of the enigmatic Kanchelskis on British shores. “I’d back him as an assistant in the Premier League in England or Scotland, and I’d even be encouraged to give him a head coaching job in Ireland or the Championship. He needs careful handling though, same as with most maestros, but he is a quality coach, a good tactician and just needs hard-working tough players.”
His pioneering playing career showed a flair and individuality that bucked the trend and began the process of bridging Soviet and Russian football, bringing the first piece of mystery from behind the Iron Curtain to the modern Western football conscience on such a grand stage. To borrow from a banner hung by fans at the scene of his introduction to English football proclaims, Kanchelskis may be hated or adored, but never ignored.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint
This feature has been published in association with Russian Football News, the premier English-language Russian football website online. View more of their work here.