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Over 7,000 miles from North to South, 10,000 miles East to West, across 11 time zones, 2 continents and 5 climate zones, covering one-sixth of the world’s surface, the Soviet Union was utterly massive. Even bigger is the perpetual impact that the union has had on the world that we live in today. It contained million people, all citizens of a centralised state, centred in Moscow that had been in place for the best part of a Century. It was the greatest social experiment the world had ever seen and on 26th December 1991 it was over. The Union had collapsed, dissolving powers for each soviet republic to become independent sovereign states that we know today (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan etc.)

The Soviet Union, and it’s 72 year existence, has always been a fascination of mine. It was before my time, chronologically speaking, but something that’s always managed to peak my interest, enabling me to bore the arse off every friend, colleague, family member or innocent bystander that I’ve come across over the years. At university it found its way into my dissertation, a 10,000 word discourse on Lenin’s political thought. Thrilling stuff. It’s now found its way into my football writing.

What better way to merge my two fascinations of football and eastern bloc communism than to produce a Libero Former Soviet Union series?

Where available, over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be looking to produce articles on the clubs, players, coaches, leagues and national sides of the FSU. Hopefully this article goes some way to setting the scene.

The 1927 Soviet Union Football Team

Former Soviet states often exist amidst an identity crisis. For the best part of a century, unique national identity has been largely quashed at the expense of Soviet internationalism and a strict adherence to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine that gripped the Union. These states are torn – economically, politically, culturally and geographically – between East and West, Russia and Europe, diplomacy and dictatorship. The pursuit of economic independence, involvement in Western European markets and ‘opening up’ politically can often be at odds with the desires of the new ruling classes, economic powers and the ever-present reality of a border with Russia. Foreign policy for these states often results in juggling the economic and security requirements of the European Union with those of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Look at a map of Europe. The Russian President has effectively created a geographical buffer zone between Russia’s own Western border and the effective Eastern border of the EU. Russian involvement in East Ukraine, the Crimea and ongoing ties with Belarus typify this.

It’s also worth noting that when we talk about the FSU we are considering very young independent nation states, often formed by the Soviets, drawing lines to distinguish between SSRs or oblasts. Consider Belarus. The country was only a recognised independent entity courtesy of the Soviet Union founding the Byelorussian SSR in 1921. Prior to that, the territory that constitutes modern day-Belarus had often been grouped with Lithuania (or Litvonia), Poland and the Russian Empire. Belarus has only been an independent sovereign state since 1991. It’s people have never been truly politically free. Further East, Kazakhstan, as a geographical entity, fundamentally didn’t exist prior to Imperial Russian involvement in the region. It’s national identity has largely been conjured and crafted by the Russians and then by the Soviets.

Visit the nations that comprise the former Soviet Union. Brutalist, oblong concrete structures jolt upwards and extend alongside the wide roads of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. These are the homes of the Union’s worker bees. Hives for the proletariat.

Structures of Soviet brutalism often harness some form of national identity, specific to the respective SSR. Wrought in and moulded with the concrete, often sit figures or symbols of Uzbek, Tajik, Belarusian or Armenian folklore, with a statue of Lenin often in close proximity. For the bystander this naturally engenders a somewhat confusing amalgamated national identity and has effectively legitimised Soviet rule over the years.

As with all other countries, the Soviet Union and it’s football teams exhibited a particular brand of football on the pitch. Naturally, notions of socialism and Marxist-Leninist idealism transferred into the psyche of the Union’s football coaches and onto it’s football pitches, often courtesy of the malevolent involvement of Communist party officials or bureaucrats. A structured, dictated and centralised society transferred to the pitch and often continues to do so. Domestic players, from inside the FSU, often lack the courage to play dynamically, think outside the box or play a pass that isn’t sideways. Often fearing the wrath of dictatorial coaches who emphasised structure and socialism in football (forgoing any shows of individual brilliance), players in the USSR were often happy to play a simple, structured game within the limited remit of their position. The word in Russian is zaorganizovannost, literally ‘over-organisation’. While a large number of players in the domestic game have been born post-1991, it’s fallout persists, particularly in Russia. The Russian Premier League employs a 6+5 rule, whereby no more than six non-Russian/non-Belarusian players can be on the pitch at one time. This has ensured a greater transfer fee premium has been attached to Russia’s better footballers, with teams desperate to keep a hold of homegrown talent to remain competitive. As such demand from Western Europe is rather thin.

An influx of foreign managers such as Guus Hiddink (left) taking the Russian National team job ahead of the 2008 Euros, Dick Advocaat at Zenit St. Petersburg and both Mircea Lucescu and Paulo Fonseca at Shakhtar Donetsk, have succeeded in wrangling with this zaorganizovannost presence amongst their players.

An influx of foreign players to Eastern Europe aided this transition. South Americans have found particular prominence in successful Eastern European teams of late. Often complementing the Soviet-esque structure with more expansive notions of play.

Shakhtar Donetsk’s 2008 UEFA Cup winning side is the perfect example. With Ukrainian Pyatov between the sticks, a back four of Croatian Srna, Ukrainians Chyrgrynskyi and Kucher and Romanian Rat, you have structure. Albeit with attacking fullbacks. Ahead of them was Polish holding midfielder Lewandowski and a Brazilian quintet of Fernandinho, Jadson, Ilsinho, Willian and Luiz Adriano providing an abundance of attacking flair, where previously it had been somewhat lacking.

The CSKA Moscow 2005 UEFA Cup winning starting eleven contained 6 Russians, all positional weighted towards their own goal. Igor Akinfeev took his place in goal behind Sergei Ignashevic, flanked either side by the Berezutskiy twins. Ahead of them were Evgeni Aldonin in holding midfielder, alongside Bosnian Elvir Rahimic, with future Chelsea signing Yury Zhirkov at left wing back. On the opposite flank was Nigerian Chidi Odiah and further forward goal scorer Vágner Love (Brazil), man of the match Daniel Carvalho (again Brazil) and Croat Ivica Olic.

The correlation makes for stark reading.

Zenit bucked the trend somewhat in 2008 when they beat Rangers in the UEFA cup final, with Russians present from front to back, though their creative outlet, Andrey Arshavin (right), was something of a special case. An enigmatic footballer.

Football clubs in the FSU remain aligned to sections of the economy or factories within their respective city rather than specific districts of the city, as is the norm elsewhere in Europe (i.e. Schalke 04, Everton, Getafe). This remains a telltale sign of Marxist-Leninist doctrine permeating all elements of Soviet society in the 20th Century.

Choose one of the following: Lokomotiv, Dynamo, Torpedo, Spartak, CSKA, Shakhtar, Add a city name: Moscow, Minsk, Tbilisi, Leningrad, Kyiv, Donetsk.

You now have an Eastern European football team.

Teams with the prefix FC tend to have been formed post-independence and occasionally have state-backing as if to bolster their legitimacy against the institutions of old. See FC Astana, the now defunct FC Moscow, FC Lviv, FC Minsk and FC Krasnodar as archetypal examples.

Historically, CSKA sides represented the Red Army, Dynamo the police or specifically the KGB. You then had Torpedo for the car manufacturers, Spartak for the trade unionists (hence Spartak Moscow often being referred to as the people’s team), Shakhtar for miners, and Lokomotiv teams, surprise surprise, for the railway workers. These are of course pan-FSU prefixes and the more uncommon prefixes of Shinnik, BATE, Ararat, Krylja Sovetov, Rotor, Rubin, Amkar and Kairat among countless others, have their own unique, more localised meaning, though following a similar theme.

In countries where centralised authority and state prevail, with democracy diminished, you will generally see little competitiveness between the leagues participants. Often the league can become a microcosm of the regime’s domestic policies, manipulated for propaganda purposes or even the playground for regime elites to pit against each other. In this regard, the Soviet Union was no different. Compare the Soviet Top League with the English First Division for example. Between 1936 – 1991 only 11 different teams won the Soviet Top League and only 8 times out of a potential 54 titles. 4 of these 11 teams claimed the title only once and the trophy left Russia and Ukraine just 4 times in 7 decades, with a Moscow-Kiev bias prevalent throughout. Meanwhile, in the same period of time, England had 18 champions, Italy’s Serie A had 16, France’s Ligue Un 20 and a combined German Bundesliga had yielded 12, in spite of the Top League’s 28 year head start. Conversely, Spain’s La Liga had 9, though Franco’s influence and renowned affinity for Real Madrid is well-documented. Equally, the noted disparity in wealth between La Liga’s bigger clubs and those towards the bottom end of the table has also proved a contributing factor.

Regardless, for all the horrors the Soviet Union brought, you can’t help but be fascinated by it. The same applies to its footballing structure. After all, this structure gave the world Dynamo Moscow’s tour of Britain in 1945, providing a fittingly entertaining distraction in post-war Europe. It gave us Valery Lobanovsky’s tactical revolution at Dynamo Kyiv. It gave us, Blokhin, Yashin, Bezsonov, Dasayev, Chivadze, Belanov and Streltsov. It gave us the Dinamo Tbilisi side that shocked Liverpool in the 1979 European Cup, knocking the Cup Holders out of the tournament courtesy of a 3-0 victory in Tbilisi, in front of a rumoured 110,000 at the city’s Vladimir Lenin Stadium. Later they shocked West Ham on their way to winning the 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup Final.

Even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, FSU players Shevchenko (right), Kaladze, Rebrov, Alenichev, Mostovoi and numerous others moved westwards and earned admirers across Europe. Lobanovskyi’s Kiev side continued to earn continental renown and later, Russia’s run in Euro 2008 and CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk all winning the UEFA Cup in the 2000’s captured the imagination of the footballing world.

These are nations, clubs and leagues with limited exposure that are worth covering. Throughout this series, we hope to cover each former SSR, including Russia, and provide a look back at the inner workings of Soviet-era football as well as examining the subsequent fall-out from the era, analysing proceedings in modern day Eastern Europe and Central Asia. First up is a look at the Belarusian Premier League.. Until then, Всего наилучшего!

Luke Connelly

Image Credits:

All Wikimedia Commons.

Author Unknown, Soviet Union Football Team 1927

Vitaly Volkov, Dom Sovetov, Kaliningrad, 2002.

Alexandr Mysiakin, Dmitry Sychev and Guus Hiddink, 2008

Vladimir Maiorov, Andrey Arshavin - Russia vs Andorra, 2011

Claudio Villa, Andriy Shevchenko vs Lazio, 1999

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