In the late 1980s and early 90s, a wave of gifted but largely underappreciated footballers swept into Western Europe from the East. They came from a state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was in the process of ceasing to exist.
The country’s constituent republics had rediscovered nationalism and, after a series of political upheavals, began to disengage from the colossal central power that bound them together, plunging the Union and its institutions into flux. A minor consequence of this major systemic malfunction was the disintegration of what was once a formidable, if arcane, footballing establishment. But the USSR’s loss was to be the gain of the West’s most powerful football nations.
A quiet but substantial talent-drain had been underway throughout all spheres of Soviet society since the mid-to-late 1980s, when perestroika began to loosen the grip held on the state by the Communist Party. Football proved to be far from immune, and the transfer of Torpedo Moscow midfielder Sergey Shavlo to Rapid Vienna in June 1987 served as the first real indicator of what was to come.
Less than a year later, an even more significant piece of business was to take place: in March 1988, Oleh Blokhin, one of the golden boys of Soviet sport over the previous two decades, departed Dynamo Kyiv for Vorwärts Steyr, a provincial outfit newly promoted to the Austrian top tier. The Ukrainian forward was 35 at the time, a mere shadow of his former self, so the move was no great loss to the Soviet league in terms of playing quality, but was notable more for its symbolism. After Lev Yashin, Blokhin was arguably the greatest footballer in the USSR’s history; the voluntary expatriation of such a figure simply would not have been permitted in a previous era.
A few months down the line, another high-profile Dynamo prodigy made the move west. Aleksandr Zavarov, Soviet Footballer of the Year (hereafter SFOTY) in 1986, signed for Juventus just weeks after impressing at the 1988 European Championships, where the USSR had finished as runners-up.
If Blokhin’s transfer could have been dismissed as merely a final fling for a fading great, the same could not be said of Zavarov’s exit; the Soviet league had lost a star very much in his prime. Then, in November of the same year, Rinat Dasaev, Spartak Moscow’s stalwart goalkeeper – and the national team’s first-choice – pitched up in Andalusia with Sevilla, meaning that by the end of 1988, the Soviet Union had lost three of its best-known players.
Floodgates were creaking open. Until that point, the country had, with very few exceptions, kept its footballers firmly within its borders by registering them as nominal “employees” of the state institutions which controlled the clubs. This approach ensured Soviet players remained in the Soviet Union, but also greatly limited their earning potential. With privatisation creeping in as a result of glasnost during the late-80s – Dynamo had been pioneers in that regard – footballers saw a chance to slip the financial chokehold. More big departures followed in 1989, most notably those of 1986 Ballon d’Or winner Igor Belanov, Sergey Aleinikov and Aleksandr Borodyuk.
But the exodus would begin in earnest during the death throes of the Union – and its football league – in 1990 and 1991. Against the background of fierce political unrest in Soviet republics like Lithuania, Moldova and Georgia, domestic football was gradually decimated by the withdrawals of teams from these regions. Dinamo Tbilisi, 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup champions, left the league in 1989 and were later followed by sides such as Žalgiris Vilnius and Guria Lanchkhuti.
The 1991 campaign was to be the final season contested under the Soviet banner. In light of the official dissolution of the USSR that year, a further 12 teams withdrew from the top tier of the competition, which subsequently morphed into an all-Russian affair.
Western clubs, observing these proceedings with interest and recognising the opportunity to exploit a previously untapped market, had acted swiftly. They waved hefty pay packets under the noses of footballers facing serious career uncertainty, for whom the temptation of being paid considerable amounts of Deutsche Marks, Lira or Pesetas rather than meagre amounts of Rubles was too much to resist. In conversation with Jonathan Wilson in 2005, the former Dnipro manager Yevhen Kucherevskyi noted that in the USSR, “footballers earned less than a cleaner did in England.” It was hardly surprising that many leapt at the chance to make some money elsewhere.
Dynamo, the predominant Soviet side of the 1980s under Valeriy Lobanovskyi, were particularly badly hit by this Occidental drift. The Ukrainian outfit had provided 11 players for the national team’s Euro 88 squad, but within three years of the tournament every last one of them had left the Soviet Union. One of Europe’s finest teams had been effectively dismantled by a flurry of transfer activity; from 1988 to 1991, they lost 17 players to western clubs.
But Dynamo were far from the only ones to suffer. Other major organisations like Spartak, CSKA and Zenit were helpless to resist as large numbers of their playing staff sought and sealed moves abroad. Spartak, who had themselves stumbled upon something of a golden generation, winning the league in 1987 and 1989, could only watch as that crop became part of a growing diaspora of Soviet footballers, with the likes of Vagiz Khidiyatullin, Sergey Rodionov and Igor Shalimov departing. In 1990, 32 of the league’s 77 outbound transfers were to foreign clubs; by 1991, it was 39 of 94.
The erosion of playing resources on the country’s domestic scene was soon reflected in the makeup of its national team. At Euro 88, exactly zero players registered to clubs outside the USSR were selected; by the time Italia 90 came around, seven of the World Cup 22 – including Dasaev, Aleinikov, Borodyuk and Zavarov – were foreign-based. Post-dissolution, at Euro 92 – by which time the Commonwealth of Independent States had briefly assumed the mantle of the ex-USSR – the number of squad members playing abroad had risen to 11 of 20.
For observers of the competitions into which this multitude of players had flooded, the new arrivals initially seemed like athletes from another world; one that was still considered mysterious, exotic, remote. Soviet footballers of the era possessed a certain mystique, an otherness that gave them an aura of quiet, scientific competence. Many faced high expectations based on their achievements at home, but couldn’t always live up to them when dropped into – often multinational – western sides.
Some big names fell by the wayside. Winger Igor Dobrovolski joined Castellón in 1990 – the year he was named SFOTY – but managed only three goals in his one season in Spain before spending some time flitting between a number of modest European outfits in largely unspectacular fashion. Alexei Mikhailichenko (SFOTY in 1988) netted the same amount in 24 games for Sampdoria in 1990/91 and was soon packed off to Rangers, where he rapidly became known for what Walter Smith termed his “economy of movement”.
Jonathan Wilson, in Behind the Curtain, called Zavarov “a flop” at Juve and dismissed Sergey Yuran as “a byword for the flabby foreign star”. Ian Farrell, writing for When Saturday Comes, described Belanov as being “unprepared for life in the west” and labelled the Odessite’s spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach “a disaster”. Other grandees like Fyodor Cherenkov and Anatoliy Demyanenko – both former SFOTYs – were probably just too old by the time their turns in the west came around.
A common theme in retrospective commentary on these players seems to centre around their perceived inability to adjust to the excesses of the Western world. An obvious counterpoint to these vaguely patronising notions of wealth-induced lassitude is Andrei Kanchelskis, who departed Shakhtar Donetsk in 1991 for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and left a lasting positive impression of Soviet players.
Kanchelskis, a Ukraine-born Russia international of Lithuanian descent, quickly became a fan favourite in England, where his brand of flamboyant, direct and technically immaculate play made him stand out in a league mainly comprised of rather more artisanal footballers.
Most of those who were part of this first wave of Soviet exports, however, simply landed somewhere between success and failure. Aleksandr Mostovoi, an imperious if unpredictable playmaker, took some time to settle into things in the west after leaving Spartak for Benfica in January 1992. But having endured a difficult spell in Portugal he became one of the Spanish league’s most revered creators at Celta, bamboozling opponents in tandem with his hard-running compatriot Valeri Karpin. Over in Italy, Igors Kolyvanov and Shalimov proved to be integral parts of the Zemanlandia years at Foggia, and both subsequently earned on merit transfers to bigger clubs.
Meanwhile, the likes of Dasaev, Aleinikov, Borodyuk and Oleh Protasov – yet another SFOTY who flew the coop – hardly wrote themselves into Western European footballing folklore, but couldn’t exactly be described as washouts. Much the same review could be applied to the majority of those who were part of the great exodus, but it would be churlish to deny that, for a while at least, the arrival of the Soviets excited and intrigued onlookers in countries where they were previously seen only as precocious adversaries.
Nowadays, it is rare for an elite player from the former Soviet Union to remain in the region – with Russia being the one exception. For the most part, the best end up, like Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Yevhen Konoplyanka (both born in the USSR), at major foreign clubs. Their gifts are identified early by scouts representing wealthier, more powerful sides and, when the offers come, there is nothing to stop them leaving and little incentive for them to stay at home.
The full breadth of genius in the countries of the former USSR is now readily accessible to foreign sides, meaning that the player drain that began during the fall of the Union has never really ended. But, with the 25th anniversary of dissolution having come and gone on Boxing Day 2016, it’s worth remembering that the proliferation of post-Soviet talent within the west’s biggest competitions is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one whose pioneers ought not to be forgotten.
By Luke Ginnell @HeavyFirstTouch