It had to be him. After a phenomenal year, Celta Vigo were a win away from the Champions League. Beat Real Sociedad at home and they would reach the promised land after years of failures and near-misses.
In their hour of need, they turned to a player whose performances had already dragged the club so far. In a marvellous seven-year stay, Aleksandr Mostovoi had transformed Los Celestes from an obscure provincial side into a team on the cusp of European greatness. On 15 June 2003, his two goals confirmed a win that made Galician footballing history.
Aleksandr Vladmirovich Mostovoi was born in Leningrad on 22 August 1968. A precocious child, he demonstrated talent in music and ice hockey, before deciding to focus on football as a teenager. A leggy midfielder with a devastating dribble, he was signed by second division side Krasnaya Presnya, who were then managed by Spartak Moscow legend Oleg Romantsev.
His performances soon began to attract a much bigger Moscow club, with Spartak wasting no time in signing the prodigy aged just 18. During his time with the Red-Whites, Mostovoi fell under the guise of the iron-fisted Konstantin Beskov, before being reunited with Romantsev in 1989.
Under the chairmanship of the returning legend Nikolai Starostin, Romantsev led a side containing the likes of Valeri Karpin and Igor Shalimov to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1990, beating Diego Maradona’s Napoli and Real Madrid before losing to Bernard Tapie’s Marseille. The next year, Mostovoi established himself at the centre of the team, becoming the club’s joint top scorer alongside Igor Radchenko and turning in a number of majestic performances. Aged just 22, he appeared to have the footballing world at his feet.
On 26 December 1991, Resolution Number 142-H announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As the investors and speculators poured into Russia, much of the country’s footballing talent poured out, lured by the prospect of better wages and lifestyles in Western Europe. Mostovoi was not immune to such temptation, joining Benfica in January 1992. The year before, Vasily Kulkov and Sergey Yuran had made the journey towards the Atlantic ocean, and the Encarnados seemed a natural destination for Mostovoi to continue feathering his burgeoning reputation.
It would prove a fruitless marriage. A tumultuous season saw Mostovoi make only nine appearances for the Portuguese giants and, after a year spent kicking his heels on the bench, he signed a one-year loan deal with French minnows Stade Malherbe de Caen.
Managed by the ambitious former Swiss international Daniel Jeandupeux, Caen were a small team with big ideas, and it would be in Normandy where Mostovoi rediscovered his languid brilliance, lighting up the French league with some virtuoso performances. Unfortunately for fans at the Stade Michel de L’ornano, however, Caen couldn’t afford a permanent transfer, and Mostovoi returned to Benfica prepared for another season in the shadows.
He would gain a quick reprieve from his footballing purgatory soon enough. Backed by the Francs of local magnate Roland Weller, Racing Strasbourg were building a solid team in Alsace-Lorraine. Daniel Jeandepeux was Mostovoi’s saviour yet again, signing the Russian in 1994 shortly before he was replaced by Jacky Duguépéroux.
Alongside Hibernian legend Franck Sauzée and Xavier Gravelaine, Mostovoi and Racing seemed intent on upsetting the Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain orthodoxy. Despite an appearance in the Coupe de France final, however, they performed erratically in the league, a couple of mid-table finishes belying the talent at their disposal.
In 1996, the Bosman ruling came into force, and Strasbourg swiftly began to lose some of their best players. Martin Djetou and Frank Leboeuf sealed high-profile moves to Monaco and Chelsea respectively, but it was the loss of the Russian midfielder that would rob the Alsatians of their bite. Aged 28, Mostovoi had done much to reinvigorate his flailing reputation in France.
Lazio and Roma both held a fleeting interest, but it was a little-known provincial club in Spain that would eventually seal his signature. Celta Vigo paid just over 300m pesetas (€1.8m) for a transfer that both club and player would have thought impossible at the start of his career, but Mostovoi finally saw a chance to play in one of Europe’s top leagues. Life in Galicia would, however, prove more difficult than he imagined.
Mostovoi struggled to adapt to the football in Pontevedra, stymied by a perceived lack of professionalism and winning mentality amongst his teammates. This, coupled with the lacklustre facilities and management, left him desperately seeking a transfer.
A difficult start was compounded five games into the season, as Celta travelled to El Molinón to face Sporting Gijón. Drawing 1-1, the visitors had used all three substitutes in an attempt to get back into the game, but after Sporting scored their second goal, Mostovoi’s frustrations boiled over.
He asked to be taken off, claiming he had suffered an injury. As he hobbled towards the sidelines, he was surrounded by incredulous teammates, who were disturbed at his lack of loyalty. As he tried to amble off the pitch, he was physically restrained by captain Patxi Salinas on the sidelines and pushed back onto the pitch. It was the nadir of a desperate year and, after a horrible season, Celta finished just above the relegation places. In the prime of his career, Mostovoi again found himself at a club which seemed unbefitting of his talents.
The incident demonstrated an egotism that plagued Mostovoi throughout his career. In Vigo, he could often be seen barking reprimands to his teammates when they misplaced a pass or missed an opportunity. To his detractors, it was a sign of entitlement – a spoilt child ready to take his ball home when things weren’t going his way. To his defenders, however, Mostovoi was a misunderstood loner – a fierce competitor whose desire to win found him at odds with some of his less talented colleagues.
His career with the national team was a case in point. After losing 1-0 to Spain during the group stage of Euro 2004, Mostovoi criticised coach Georgi Yartsev for the way the team had prepared for the tournament, citing exhaustion amongst the players. Yartsev, incensed by his “unethical” comments, barred him from the squad immediately. It would prove to be his last international appearance.
Back in Vigo, Mostovoi’s hellish first year would be assuaged, as chairman Horacio Gómez appointed the Basque tactician Irureta as coach in 1997. The club invested heavily in the squad, signing the likes of Michel Salgado and Goran Djorović to solidify a creaking back line. It was in midfield, however, where the club made perhaps their most important signing.
Valeri Karpin had played alongside Mostovoi for Romantsev’s buccaneering Spartak side, and both had played in Vigo together before, sparking a mass brawl with Celta players in a friendly in the city in 1990. Karpin had embarked on his own European odyssey, but the charismatic winger had struggled to adapt to life in Spain after unsuccessful stints and Real Sociedad and Valencia.
Like his counterpart, he would find a home in Galicia, making the right touchline of the Balaidos his personal dominion for the next five years. It was a personal boon for Mostovoi, who knew Karpin’s winning temperament and understood his compatriot’s game. Theirs was a relationship built not on love but on understanding and efficiency, and together they would form the engine of a side that went on to finish in the UEFA Cup places that season.
The club strengthened further the following summer, signing Claude Makélélé and Luboslav Penev to strengthen an already formidable squad boasting Mazinho, Vladimir Gudelj and Haim Revivo. It would be on the bench, however, where they made the most significant change.
Victor Fernández had just been relieved of his duties at Tenerife, but the bright young coach was the perfect antidote to Irureta’s dour tactical rigidity. Fernández began laying the foundations for a cavalier style of play that would see Celta start on the path towards European qualification. For Mostovoi personally, it was the liberation he needed.
Led by their Russian wizard, Celta looked unbeatable throughout the season, the diligence of Eduardo Berizzo and Makélélé proving the perfect platform for Mostovoi and his team of artists further up the pitch. Celta finished fifth, narrowly missing out on the Champions League places, with a memorable away victory against Liverpool being the highlight of a UEFA Cup run that saw Marseille ruin Mostovoi’s European hopes yet again. It would be in the league, however, where Celta proved their most potent. After beating Real Madrid at the Bernabéu early in the season, they faced Los Merengues in the return fixture on 11 April 1999.
Mostovoi controlled the game, scoring one and having a hand in another four as his team trounced the Madridistas 5-1. Operating mainly from the left wing, the Russian was unplayable, with every searching pass creating an opportunity on goal. Were it not for the acrobatics of Bodo Illgner between Real’s posts, Mostovoi could easily have had a hat-trick.
The next year saw Gudelj depart the Balaidos, with Mostovoi the undisputed heir to the Bosnian legend’s number 10 shirt. The close season saw the capture of the Argentine winger Gustávo López, who himself would go on to forge a loving legacy with the Celta fans. Victor Fernández’s formidable 4-2-3-1, backed by a devastating triumvirate of Karpin, López and Mostovoi, looked like tearing most teams asunder.
The 1999/2000 season would prove to be a disappointment, however, with bitter rivals Deportivo capturing the league title. The two had met in a fiery match earlier that year, Mostovoi clashing angrily with Djalminha after a dodgy tackle by the Russian. Unsavoury though it was, it was a highlight of the season for many Celta fans, who for so long had lived in Depor’s shadow. Mostovoi’s aggression signalled a new era in Galicia, where Celta would no longer be happy being the David to A Coruña’s Goliath.
Until Christmas, it seemed that Celta would challenge for the title itself, only for their form to capitulate in the New Year. They fared better in the UEFA Cup, Mostovoi avenging his painful time in Lisbon by scoring the seventh goal of a 7-0 rout against Benfica. In the round of 16, the famed goal-getter Makélélé even bagged two against Juventus in scintillating 4-0 victory at the Balaídos. Only a rugged Lens side halted the Galicians’ progress, Pascal Nouma laying waste to their European dreams.
The following year saw Celta secure their first ever European trophy. The Intertoto Cup, however, was a pithy return for a team that many commentators though able for a sustained assault on the league. Five straight wins in March and April were a prelude to a ravishing three weeks in Vigo, where Celta wrought seven points from a possible nine against Deportivo, Real Madrid and Barcelona. A sixth-place finish seemed faintly ludicrous for such a talented squad, but the Copa del Rey offered a chance to right some wrongs.
Zaragoza had struggled all season, surviving relegation by just one point, but an unlikely victory over Atlético Madrid had seen them line out for the final in Seville’s Estadio de La Cartuja. Celta had endured a more arduous route to the showpiece, beating Barcelona in the semi-finals on the way to becoming the favourites for the cup. Yet again Mostovoi set the tone, evading four Zaragoza challenges before sliding the ball into the bottom corner after four minutes.
Unfortunately for the Russian and his team, complacency began to set in. Xavier Aguado’s leveller was followed quickly by a Paulo Jamelli penalty. The humiliation was complete when, in the 94th minute, Zaragoza substitute Yordi popped up to score a painful third. The game offered a perfect synopsis of Celta’s struggles; despite offering so much, they couldn’t shake their tendency to capitulate when the going got tough. For Mostovoi, it would remain one of the most bitter disappointments of his career.
The 2001/02 season again proved frustrating, a fifth-place finish offering little consolation for early exits in the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup. Celta, after promising so much for so long, began to look like a busted flush. Victor Fernández, who had done so much to put Vigo on the map, left the club after being unable to secure a new contract. He was quickly followed by Valeri Karpin, who couldn’t resist the overtures of Raynald Denoueix’s Real Sociedad. Mostovoi was now in his mid-30s, and the chance for European glory was beginning to fade. Unbeknownst to the Russian, he was about to embark on his and Celta’s greatest ever season.
To many Celta fans, Miguel Ángel Lotina seemed an uninspiring appointment. A lacklustre playing career had been followed by a managerial CV spent mainly in the lower leagues of Spain, but the Meñaka native had quietly established Osasuna in LaLiga and was ready for a greater challenge.
The season began in underwhelming fashion, the Brazilian left-back Sylvinho and future Spurs flop Mido the only notable additions to the squad. Three wins from their first three games saw the Vigueses climb the table, with Mostovoi inspiring a 3-0 victory against Recreativo with two well-taken strikes. Again, however, their form looked like tailing off in the new year. Three defeats in a row, including a 3-0 pasting by Deportivo, looked to have put paid once again to their hopes for success.
Unlike previous years, Celta managed to turn things around, with a 2-0 home victory against Barcelona kicking off a decent run of form that saw them win 24 points from a possible 41. Villarreal eventually ended the party on 18 May 2003, smashing five goals into the Celta net. A quick look at the fixture list had most Vigo fans believing their Champions League hopes were over. Deportivo, Real Madrid, Barcelona and surprise package Real Sociedad were the four remaining teams standing between Mostovoi’s charges and the promise of football at Europe’s top table. Experience and history had taught most Celta supporters to be pessimistic.
They shouldn’t have been. Deportivo were blown apart 3-0 in the Galician derby, courtesy of goals from Jesuli and Édu. At the Bernabéu, Mostovoi cancelled out an early Raúl goal to dent Real’s title hopes, before the biggest game in the history of both Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo took place on 15 June 2003. For La Real, a win could mean a historic league triumph. For the home side, victory meant qualification for the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Mostovoi had made a habit of scoring against Barcelona and Real Madrid, but it was his performance against Sociedad that cemented his place in the hearts of many Celta fans as a big-game player. The veteran seemed intent on dragging his teammates over the line personally, with two goals either side of half-time sending the Balaídos into ecstasy. Despite a late comeback from the visitors, Mido tapped in a late winner to secure the club’s finest triumph in memory.
The game and the season belonged to the 34-year-old captain, who had inspired his peers with a best-ever record of ten goals in 30 LaLiga games. After a career of near-misses and what-ifs, Celta and Mostovoi had finally hit the big time.
Sadly, the Champions League proved far from the Nirvana that the Vigueses had hoped for. ‘EuroCelta’, as they were dubbed by the Spanish media, began their campaign in fantastic style, with a 2-1 victory over AC Milan at the San Siro securing qualification from a group that also boasted a Zlatan Ibrahimović-inspired Ajax.
After Thierry Henry eliminated them in the second round, however, Celta could no longer ignore their horrendous league form, which had seen them win only three of their first 17 games. Things wouldn’t get better with the new year; after losing eight of their last 14 games, they suffered a humiliating relegation to the Segunda. It was the worst season of Mostovoi’s career – injury had seen the captain make only 24 appearances in the league, and he could only watch as the kingdom he had built fell to ashes in the space of 12 months.
Things would continue to get worse, as the club began to jettison several big earners from the wage bill. Mostovoi was the first to go, a deplorable decision by a board whose own mismanagement had contributed greatly to the club’s downfall.
After almost a year out of the game, Mostovoi signed a short-term deal with Alavés in March 2005. By now, he was a shadow of the player who had lit up LaLiga, with persistent back problems and a loss of fitness limiting him to just five appearances and one goal. He retired from the game in May 2005, a player of enormous talent withdrawing from the stage alone without ceremony. It was a sad end to a career that had already had its fair share of disappointment.
Fourteen years on from his retirement, time has done little to dim the joyous memories that Mostovoi brought to Celta and to Vigo. Fans can still be seen wearing Mostovoi shirts in the stands of the Balaidos, singing songs about the ‘Tsar of the Balaídos’ who put them on the map. Two local journalists even released a book in his honour, Ten Years Without the Ten, which Rafa Valero and Víctor López wrote to celebrate the unquantifiable impact the Russian had on the city and it’s fans.
Mostovoi’s career may not have hit the heights that he or the football world expected, but his talent and his impact is beyond question, particularly in one small corner in the north-west of Spain. In Galicia, Aleksandr Mostovoi will always be number 10 on the field, and number one in their hearts.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45