Manuel Veth –
The international break is a good opportunity to take a look at all the post-Soviet football players, who are currently plying their trade in Europe’s top five leagues. There are currently 23 players under contract for clubs in La Liga, Bundesliga, English Premier League, Serie A, and Ligue 1.
Of the 23 players, only eleven have actually played in the first squad of their clubs. Furthermore, five of the eleven players that have featured are Ukrainians. With Yevhen Konoplyanka (FC Schalke 04), Denys Oliynyk, and Artem Fedetskiy (both Darmstadt 98), the Bundesliga is not only home to the largest contingent of Ukrainian players, but also the largest contingent of post-Soviet players, as the Latvian forward Artjoms Rudņevs (1. FC Köln) also plays in Germany.
Bundesliga – A stepping stone for post-Soviet football players
The Bundesliga contingent becomes even stronger when one includes the Armenian attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan (formerly Dortmund, now Manchester United), the Estonian defender Ragnar Klavan (Augsburg, now Liverpool), and the Ukrainian forward Artem Kravets (VfB Stuttgart, now Granada), who all played in the Bundesliga last season. When it comes to top Eastern European players, the Bundesliga has always acted as a bridge for players who want to take their first steps away from the post-Soviet space.
That said, Spain is also well represented, as the Ukrainian Roman Zozulya (Real Betis Sevilla), the Russian attacking midfielder Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal), and the above-mentioned Kravets all play for La Liga clubs. The Serie A, with the Georgian forward Levan Mchedlidze (Empoli), and the Moldovan midfielder Artur Ioniță (Cagliari), and the English Premier League, with the above-mentioned Mkhitaryan and Klavan, round out the picture.
Here are the post-Soviet football players, who are playing regularly in one of Europe’s top five football leagues:
Denys Oliynyk (SV Darmstadt 98)
The Ukrainian left-winger joined SV Darmstadt 98 during the summer transfer window from the Dutch Eredivisie side, Vitesse Arnhem and has, so far, featured in just two Bundesliga matches where he played for just 20 minutes. He did, however, secure his side an important point on matchday 4, when he scored a late tying goal against 1899 Hoffenheim. The Ukrainian has found transition from the Netherlands to Germany difficult, however, and does not really seem to feature heavily in head coach Norbert Meier’s plans for the rest of the season.
Artem Fedetskiy (SV Darmstadt 98)
Fedetskiy also joined SV Darmstadt 98 this summer, in his case from FC Dnipro, and the Ukrainian right-back has seen a bit more playing time than Oliynyk at Darmstadt, as he has played just three Bundesliga games this season. Under contract until next summer Fedetskiy left Dnipro this summer, when the Ukrainian club suffered from severe financial problems. This was the first time the 31-year-old defender had left Ukraine to play abroad but, with his national team experience, as well as his years playing in international club competitions with Dnipro, he was thought to be a more important cornerstone in Norbert Meier’s squad. But Darmstadt has experimented somewhat with several players on Fedetskiy’s preferred position, which has meant reduced playing time for the Ukrainian.
Artjoms Rudņevs (1. FC Köln)
The Latvian forward has been part of the 1.FC Köln revolution in the German Bundesliga, as the Billy Goats are one of the surprise teams in the league this season. Rudņevs has played six matches in the Bundesliga thus far this season. Rudņevs, however, has been in the shadow of Köln’s prolific scorer Anthony Modeste, who has scored eleven goals in ten matches, this season. Indeed, Rudņevs’ only goal this season came in the DFB Cup—in a 7-0 victory over the fifth division club BFC Preußen (you can read more on the Latvian right here).
Yevhen Konoplyanka (Schalke 04)
After a tough season in Spain with Sevilla, Konoplyanka decided to move on to Germany this summer, and he joined Schalke 04 on a loan to buy deal. Valued at €18 million, the left-winger is slowly but surely finding his form for the Bundesliga side, despite the fact that he has not collected a single scorers point in six league games. At the same time, however, Konoplyanka scored against Krasnodar on matchday 3 of the Europa League, and also added two goals in Schalke’s 3-2 victory over Bundesliga 2 side 1. FC Nürnberg in the second round of the DFB Cup. Schalke have suffered some key injuries up front and, as a result, Konoplyanka’s playing time should increase in the coming weeks.
Artem Kravets (Granada)
Kravets joined FC Granada on a loan deal at the end of August in an attempt to finally resurrect a once promising career. In 2014-15 the forward scored 15 goals in 24 Ukrainian Premier League season games, and was a major part of a team that won both the Ukrainian championship, the Ukrainian Cup, and also reached the quarterfinal of the UEFA Europa League. Then, in the following season, he struggled somewhat to find the net, and only scored twice in 12 UPL games, before moving to VfB Stuttgart on a loan deal in January, where he only scored once, and was part of a side that was relegated to the Bundesliga 2 at the end of the season. Things have only improved somewhat for Kravets this season, as he has scored twice in six appearances—but his club is still winless after elven matches, and at the bottom of the Spanish La Liga.
Roman Zozulya (Real Betis Sevilla)
Zozulya is another “Dnipro refugee”, as the forward left the financially struggling club this summer, after Dnipro had failed to pay outstanding wages. Zozulya had been with Dnipro for five seasons, and was part of the team that had reached the final of the 2014-15 Europa League against Real Betis’ city rival Sevilla. His free transfer to Spain was his first move abroad, and the Ukrainian has found life in La Liga tough, as he has only come off the bench three times this season, playing 69 minutes after matchday 11 of La Liga without scoring a single goal. It remains to be seen whether the 26-year-old can truly establish himself at the club.
Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal)
The 25-year-old Russian finally escaped the golden cage at Real Madrid by moving to Villarrealin the summer on a fulltime transfer worth €7 million. This is the second stint at Villarreal for Cheryshev, as he was loaned out by Real to Villarreal for the 2014-15 season in what may have been his best season as a professional player. Just days after Cheryshev’s arrival, successful head coach Marcelino Garcia left the club citing differences in opinion over the club’s transfer policy. Fran Escribá replaced Marcelino, and since matchday 11 has guided the club to a successful third place in La Liga. Cheryshev was still recovering somewhat from a major injury that saw him miss Euro 2016 and, as it is often the case for players coming back from major injuries, has struggled with muscular problems this season—which has meant that he has played just seven games in the league, and three in the Europa League.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchster United)
Mkhitaryan may have been one of the best players in the Bundesliga last season. The Armenian attacking midfielder managed an outstanding eleven goals and 20 assists last season. In the summer, however, he announced that he would not extend his contract at the club that stood by him when he struggled to establish himself in the Bundesliga, that he wanted to leave the club for Manchester United, and that he would force a move if necessary. During the transfer, there was talk that José Mourinho was not really interested in signing Mkhitaryan, but that the Armenian’s agent Mino Raiola made the deal a condition of Manchester being able to sign Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is another client of Raiola. The €42 million transfer from Dortmund to Manchester left a bitter aftertaste with BVB’s management, who feel that the move came too early for the Armenian—and feel vindicated by the fact that he featured rarely in Mourinho’s team this season, and may actually be sold in the winter.
Ragnar Klavan (Liverpool FC)
Klavan’s €5 million transfer from FC Augsburg to Liverpool FC was one of the more surprising deals of the summer. But Jürgen Klopp usually has a plan and, although Klavan has featured in just four English Premier League games this season, as well as two League Cup games, he has become an important squad player for Liverpool. Futbolgrad’s Alexey Yaroshevsky got to interview the Estonian in the summer and pointed out “the defender has one of the best statistics in his position last year in the whole of the Bundesliga—31 games, 40 tackles, 29 blocks and 181 clearances (those are, by the way, better statistics in every position than Liverpool’s best centre-back last season—Mamadou Sakho).” The defender could become an important component in Liverpool’s title challenge this season.
Artur Ioniță (Cagliari)
— Transfer Talk (@WM_Football421) July 3, 2016
There are not many professional Moldovan players who play outside the tiny country, which is situated awkwardly between Romania, and Ukraine. The current Moldovan national team counts nine players, who are making their money abroad with the vast majority of them playing in either the post-Soviet space or Romania. Then there is the captain, Alexandru Epureanu, who plays in Turkey. Midfielder, Ioniță, meanwhile, is the only Moldovan, who plays in a European top league. Currently out with a major leg injury, Ioniță, has, so far, played three matches in the Serie A this season for Cagliari. The midfielder had an impressive season last year, however, and, after his club Hellas Verona was relegated, it was expected that he would make a big money move to either Napoli or Swansea. Instead he joined Cagliari on a €4.5 million deal, as he was keen to take the next step in his development before potentially joining a top club.
Levan Mchedlidze (Empoli)
The 26-year-old Georgian has been with Empoli since 2008, without ever managing a major breakthrough in Italy’s Serie A. In fact, his best season came two years ago, when he managed four goals in 25 games during the 2014-15 campaign. This season he has played just 103 minutes in three games for Empoli. The Tbilisi native is a Dila Gori product, and the opinion in his native Georgia is that Mchedlidze should have done more with his career in Italy.
There is also a list of notable post-Soviet players who have not played for their clubs this season. Among them are the Ukrainian goalkeeper, Denys Boyko, who plays for the La Liga team Malaga, and Vladlen Yurchenko, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. There are also several post-Soviet football players, who are playing in youth teams in France, Spain, and Germany, who may be featured in future lists.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and a writer for Bundesliga.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.