By Alastair Watt and Dougie Watt –
As the Soviet Union fell in the East, a new football project arose in the West which would transform English football from 1992 onwards – the Premiership, later to be re-branded as the Premier League. Today, the league’s appeal reaches well beyond the iron curtain with fan clubs of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and others likely to fill the bars from Tbilisi to Tashkent on a matchday.
Most regions of the world boast some sort of impact on the Premier League’s history, including the post-Soviet space from which seven countries (of 15) have produced at least one Premier League player, with Liverpool’s failure to sign Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the summer of 2013 denying the SKY-driven extravaganza an eighth.
Still awaiting its first manager from the post-Soviet space (but with over a decade of experience of a stability-adverse oligarch owner), the unenviable mission to select a Post-Soviet Premier League XI of dribblers, dilettantes and dependables from the region was delegated to Futbolgrad’s Alastair and Dougie Watt…
Mart Poom (Goalkeeper)
The Tallinn tower is best remembered in England for his time with Jim Smith’s Derby County, for whom he signed in 1997. Poom had spent most of the three years before that with hometown side Flora Tallinn at the A. Le Coq Arena, named not after the club’s recruitment policy but rather its sponsors, a local beer company.
In seven years at Pride Park, Poom became extremely popular, and was pivotal in sustaining Derby’s stay in the Premier League, winning the club’s player of the year award in 1999/2000. Upon leaving the Rams, he joined Sunderland, scoring an injury time equaliser against Derby where a commentator described it as “the best goal ever scored by a goalkeeper in the 90th minute on his first match against his former club”. Forgettable spells of bench-warming at Arsenal and Watford brought a tepid end to the Estonian’s otherwise memorable time in England.
At national level, Poom is an icon with 120 caps to his name, and in 2003 was named the country’s greatest player of the last 50 years by the Estonian FA.
Oleg Luzhny (Defender)
The Lviv-born defender signed for Arsenal in 1999 after impressing Arsene Wenger as part of the Dynamo Kyiv side which reached the Champions League semi-final in 1998/99. In four years in North London, Luzhny lingered on the fringes, failing to dislodge the George Graham-built defensive furniture at Highbury. The Ukrainian ended his Arsenal spell on a relatively high note however by helping the Gunners to FA Cup glory in 2003 against Southampton, keeping an in-form and in-shape James Beattie quiet. A brief spell at relegation regulars Wolves brought a scarcely notable England experience to an end.
On the international stage, Luzhny represented both the Soviet Union and Ukraine, making more of an impact with the latter, collecting 52 caps of which a record-breaking 39 were as captain. Beyond retirement, Luzhny stayed active in football, spending six years as Dynamo Kiev assistant manager from 2006, filling in twice as interim head coach.
Most recently Luzhny pleaded to CNN during an interview for international intervention in the Russia-Ukraine conflict over Crimea, a region in which he had held the managerial position at Tavriya Simferopol.
Kaspars Gorkss (Defender)
Acclimatisation was easy for the Latvian, arriving in England from Ventspils to join Championship side Blackpool in 2007, swapping one grisly seaside resort for another. Gorkss was lured by another Latvian, club chairman Valeri Belokon (read Futbolgrad’s article Latvian Oligarch Valeri Belokon Linked with Son of Deposed Kyrgyz Dictator) whose financial role in steering the club to the Premier League earned him more popularity in the town than unhealthy eating and abrasive shop-front design. Similarly, Gorkss shone among the town’s illuminations, and soon the brighter lights of London drew him to QPR in a murky, drawn-out £250,000 transfer that strained relations between Shepherd’s Bush and Lancashire.
First-team action, like an affordable pint, was rarely encountered in West London by the Riga-born defender, and he was salvaged in 2011 by Reading where he would earn a first taste of the Premier League. Gorkss became only the second ever Latvian to score in the Premier League, an acrobatic volley against his former club QPR in November 2012 in a 1-1 draw at Loftus Road.
Despite being without a club at the time of writing, Gorkss remains the Latvian national team captain, a role which he has used to speak out against national players speaking Russian as opposed to Latvian (read Futbolgrad’s article Russian Language in Latvian Football – An Uneasy Reality).
Yuri Zhirkov (Defender)
Versatile left-sided Zhirkov hails from Tambov, the home town of famous pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. It was somewhat fitting then that a marvellous solo effort brought Zhirkov international attention, when his goal for CSKA Moscow against Hamburg in the Champions League group stages was voted the best of the 2006-07 campaign by official UEFA magazine “Goal”.
Zhirkov was also an integral part of the impressive Russian national side at Euro 2008, where the Russians recorded a shock win over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Allegedly, team celebrations were excessive and their hangovers kicked in during a semi-final dismantling at the hands of Spain.
Nevertheless, Zhirkov’s talents encouraged his fellow countryman and yachting enthusiast Roman Abramovich to part with £19 million in 2009 to add to his expensively-assembled fleet at Chelsea, making him the most expensive Russian player of all time. In his first season, Zhirkov won a league and cup double with Chelsea but struggled to displace one-time author Ashley Cole at left back.
A thunderous Champions League volley against old club CSKA couldn’t prolong his stay in London and Zhirkov returned to Russia to sign for the then free-spending Dagestani club Anzhi Makhachkala. With relations between Moscow and its North Caucasus republics seldom amicable, this was a move grossly unpopular with Russian national supporters who mercilessly booed Zhirkov during a friendly against Serbia in August 2011. The left-sided Russian now plays with Dynamo Moscow after he was one of many high earners who fled Dagestan after an outburst of austerity at Anzhi in summer 2013.
Andrei Kanchelskis (Midfielder)
Kanchelskis was born in the Ukrainian city Kirovograd, once well known for its trade and theatre but more recently consumed by the more endemic and less attractive national trait of electoral fraud. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kanchelskis represented the CIS at Euro 92 and then Russia at Euro 96. In between those tournaments, a player revolt, which Kanchelskis fronted, against head coach Pavel Sadyrin meant he missed out on a place at USA 94.
The Ukraine-born Russian was signed by Alex Ferguson and given the very surmountable task of replacing Neil Webb as a quicker alternative on right midfield. Kanchelskis’s direct and dynamic style, his jinking and shuffling technique, was a crucial ingredient in Manchester United’s emergence as English football’s dominant force of the 1990s.
However, Kanchelskis was controversially sold to Everton in 1995 to make way for a teenage David Beckham. Sources implied that a large chunk of the fee paid by Everton would be mostly used to aid the Russian’s mounting gambling debts. Furthermore, noises were sounded about possible mafia involvement over the same deal, endangering the lives of significant board members at Old Trafford. An impressive spell for the Toffees included scoring a winning double at Anfield against city rivals Liverpool, and becoming Everton’s top league scorer in his first season with 16 goals, from midfield.
Kanchelskis’s post-playing career has been spent in his adopted Russia rather than his native Ukraine, where he is currently assistant coach at Russian second-tier outfit Volga Nizhny Novogrod.
Alexander Hleb (Midfielder)
The Belarusian attacking midfielder arrived on the European football scene initially with Bundesliga side Vfb Stuttgart where Hleb’s ambidexterity and languid style fitted nicely into Felix Magath’s impressive team of the early 2000s. Composed and creative on the ball, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger had grown fond of Hleb’s elegant demeanour, as well as his unwillingness to shoot in obvious positions, and would make the Belarusian a Gunner in 2005.
During an assists-laden three-year stay at the Emirates, Hleb made history by becoming the first ever Belarusian to play in a Champions League final in 2006. Arsenal’s opponents that night Barcelona would prise Hleb to the Nou Camp two years later, a move the Minsk-born playmaker later regretted.
Hleb’s time at Barcelona was less memorable and broken up by various loan spells including at Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City. Now in what has been a long twilight of his career, the Belarusian plays for Turkish side Konyaspor but it has been a couple of years since he made a mark on the big stage, contributing to BATE Borisov’s 3-1 triumph over eventual Champions League winners Bayern Munich during the 2012-13 season.
Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (Midfielder)
Moscow-born Bilyaletdinov was named Russian Young Player of the Year for the 2004-05 campaign, where he starred for champions Lokomotiv. Soon a regular in the Russian national side, playing in every match during Russia’s impressive Euro 2008 run to the semi-finals, he earned the admiration of Everton boss David Moyes who waited a year, presumably twisting the arm of non-oligarch owner Bill Kenwright, before signing him in August 2009.
“Bily”, as he was affectionately known by syllable-efficient Evertonians, became the first Russian to play for the Toffees and scoring the club’s goal of the season against Manchester United, a thumping left foot rocket from 25 yards, was the highlight of a reasonable debut campaign.
The arrival of Steven Pienaar would then diminish Bilyaletdinov’s subsequent impact. The Russian also revealed that he had found it challenging to play as a foreigner in the English Premier League, “It is not so easy to be a foreign player in England. They must meet certain requirements. What is forgiven locals is not for foreigners.”
His marriage to former CSKA Moscow basketball cheerleader Masha Podznyakova no doubt lifts the Russian when pondering a career that has nosedived to the point that he now plays for Moscow’s fifth biggest club Torpedo, mired in relegation trouble.
Giorgi Kinkladze (Midfielder)
Georgian wizard Kinkladze was brought up in Didube, a tough, minibus-laden part of Tbilisi whose father Robinzon was insistent on Giorgi becoming a footballer, even making him walk on his knees around the family home to strengthen his legs. A more graceful explanation was provided by Kinkladze’s mother Khatuna, who would take her son to ‘mituluri’ (traditional Georgian ballet) lessons as a child. This diverse home-schooling paid off for Kinkladze, particularly on the international scene for Georgia. A master class performance in a 5-0 romp at home to Wales in a European Championship qualifier, and then scoring an astute 20 yard chip in the return leg in Cardiff, were Kinkladze’s first imprints on the British Isles and wouldn’t be his last.
Kinkladze had played three matches on loan at Boca Juniors before he joined Manchester City from Dinamo Tbilisi for £2 million in 1995, with the final destination of the majority of that money subject to all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theory in Georgia. Although Kinkladze struggled with homesickness at the beginning of his City career, he was regarded a legend to the Manchester City faithful with one fanzine proclaiming that Giorgi was “a mercurial genius who lit up Maine Road in the dark days of the mid-nineties”.
The pinnacle of his City career came at home to Southampton where “Kinky” left five Saints players for dust before chipping the ball over the surrendering, mullet-sporting Dave Beasant. City fans sang that “all the runs that Kinky makes are blinding” to the tune of the Oasis hit Wonderwall, but like the Manchester indie act, he peaked in the mid-90s, before fading into mediocrity and ultimately retirement.
Much like City at that time, he was more style than substance and his mazy runs could not lead them away from relegation. Despite Kinkladze winning consecutive Manchester City player of the year awards in 1996 and 1997, former City boss Joe Royle didn’t share the fans’ admiration for the Georgian stating “to the supporters he was the only positive in all that time. To me, he was a big negative.” Royle clearly felt that Kinkladze’s genius was a luxury to City in the industrial reaches of English football’s second tier, and would pick more trustworthy, tackle-happy alternatives instead of the Georgian who left Moss Side for a blighted spell at Ajax. The Georgian did return to the England with Derby County but by then was a shadow of the player that had seduced English crowds in the mid-90s.
Kinkladze was last spotted on a football pitch at Kakha Kaladze’s testimonial/party political cringefest in 2013, where any traces of athleticism appeared to have vanished.
Andrei Arshavin (Forward)
The Russian technician first came to the world’s attention whilst playing for Zenit St Petersburg during the 2007-08 UEFA Cup in a memorable campaign knocking out tournament favourites Bayern Munich before defeating Rangers in the final where Arshavin was named man-of-the-match.
The same summer, despite missing the first two matches of the tournament through suspension, Arshavin proved a sensation in Russia’s impressive Euro 2008 run which was halted by eventual winners Spain at the semi-final stage. By that time several notable European clubs were keen to acquire Arshavin, but it wasn’t until January 2009 that a move to Arsenal materialised. The Daily Telegraph reported that Arshavin’s transfer to the Emirates stalled over “paperwork concerning agents involved in the deal”, which consisted of “more than 40 separate documents.” Shortly after this lucrative deal was finalised, Arshavin raised concerns about high UK tax rates that would chip away at his £80k a week wage and, feeling persecuted, he quickly demanded a pay rise.
The Russian’s most notable hour for the North London side undoubtedly came against title contenders Liverpool at Anfield. The match ended 4-4 with Arshavin scoring all four of Arsenal’s goals in an incredible display. Constantly berated by fans and media for his perceived sluggish workrate, Arshavin would never scale such heights again for Arsenal.
Arshavin has since returned to Zenit where the long winters perhaps give him time to revisit an old hobby. Arshavin holds a degree in fashion design obtained from hometown St Petersburg and a number of his early pieces still sit proudly in the institute’s museum at the State University of Technology and Design.
Roman Pavlyuchenko (Striker)
Roman was born into a family of ethnic Ukrainians, which explains the ‘-chenko’ suffix, from the region of Krasnodar. Despite the unwelcome pressure of replacing club legend Vladimir Beschastnykh after transferring from Rotor Volgograd, Pavlyuchenko won over the Spartak Moscow faithful, scoring 69 goals in 141 games for the ‘People’s Team’.
After being named in the Euro 2008 team of the tournament, and contributing 3 goals to Russia’s admirable campaign, the striker signed for Tottenham in September 2008 for a fee of around £13 million. Only three months after joining Spurs Juande Ramos, who signed Pavlyuchenko, was sacked and replaced by crafty cockney and taxman-adversary Harry Redknapp whose insatiable appetite for new signings made Pavlyuchenko’s place insecure. Storming down the tunnel after being substituted against Manchester City in May 2009 was ill-advised and Redknapp publicly criticised Payluchenko for showing a lack of respect for the fans and his team mates. Finding yourself on Redknapp’s wrong side was costly, just ask David Bentley who went from England hopeful to Russian Premier League obscurity in the blink of an ice bucket.
The Russian marksman was a consistent performer when chances did come along, especially in cup competitions perhaps most notably a vital away goal versus Young Boys in a Champions League qualifier which would help Tottenham qualify for Europe’s premier tournament for the very first time in 2010. Despite scoring against both FC Twente and Inter Milan during the group stages, Pavlyuchenko’s concerns grew over the lack of first team football as Euro 2012 approached, and stated his wish to leave White Hart Lane.
This prompted a move back to Russia in January 2012 and Pavlyuchenko signed for Lokomotiv Moscow, a move that proved to be tough on Roman’s daughter who had settled in a London school, made several friends and could speak English well, in stark contrast to her homesick father. Away from football, Pavlyuchenko has since become involved in Russian politics and was elected as a deputy for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in his home town of Stavropol. Pavlyuchenko’s commitment to politics, however, has been questioned by one football commentator, who stated: “the only reason Pavlyuchenko might be interested in politics is if the international financial crisis affected his wages”.
Marian Pahars (Forward)
Pahars’ real first name is actually Marians, but the shorthand enthused Western media have always referred to the Latvian as Marian. Born in Chornobai in Ukraine, Pahars grew up supporting Russian side Spartak Moscow.
Pahars was recommended to Southampton by the Latvian national team coach Gary Johnson, and during his trial period the Latvian dynamo scored a perfect hat-trick (header/left foot/right foot) against Oxford Utd in a 7-1 win. Unsurprisingly the Saints were prepared to give up the spare £800k necessary to sign Pahars from Skonto Riga, making him the first ever Latvian to play in the Premier League.
Marian’s diminutive and quick style saw him forge a formidable strike partnership with James Beattie, returning the second best strike rate in the league in 2001-02. One special moment during his Southampton days was his goal at Old Trafford against Man Utd in a 3-3 draw, performing a nutmeg on Jaap Stam before slotting the ball home in front of a stunned Stretford End.
At international level, Pahars was often a shining light in a lacklustre Latvian side that would struggle to impact on most World Cup or European Championship qualifying campaigns. Pahars was named Latvian Footballer of the Year on three successive occasions from 1999 and he did help Latvia qualify unexpectedly for Euro 2004 in Portugal. However, stricken with injury leading up to the Championships, Pahars was little more than a spectator during Latvia’s three games and could only contribute a handful of minutes as a substitute.
Following retirement, Marian has taken on the role of head coach of the Latvian national side, a difficult task as he has a well-publicised language conflict, a lack of national interest in the sport and a dearth of talent with which to wrestle Latvia away from their current status as pot 5 also-rans.
Alastair Watt is a published sports journalist whose interest in the east was spawned at the age of 7, watching his native Scotland wallop the CIS at Euro 92. Fifteen years later he had his first taste of football beyond the old iron curtain, in a visit to Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) to see his beloved Aberdeen smash and grab an away goals triumph in the UEFA Cup. Whether it was the Stalinist architecture, the plentiful Pelmeni, or the vodka, further venturing to the post-Soviet Space soon became obsessively frequent before moving to Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2010 where he remains. You can follow Alastair on Twitter @Tbilisidon
Dougie Watt is an International Relations graduate from the University of Aberdeen. Dougie has travelled extensively throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe and is based in Edinburgh. As a teenager, Dougie did work experience at Four Four Two magazine and keeps the writing juices flowing on rare moments away from the golf course. You can follow Dougie on Twitter @ShoogWatt