Former Soviet states bring new intrigue to England's campaign
Sunday 07 September 2008
In the hills above Yerevan stands Tsakhadzor, the old Soviet Olympic training complex. Five years ago it was an eerie place, the crumbling accommodation blocks and moss-covered swimming pools standing like a ruined Inca city, abandoned in haste after some long-forgotten catastrophe.
On the walls of a gymnasium the motto "Citius, altius, fortius" rusted in ironic rebuke, while the thickets of rosebay willow-herb that had engulfed the football pitch stood as a potent symbol of the sport's decline in the former USSR. Roll forward to the present, and Tsakhadzor is thriving as a winter sports resort. The east is rising again.
On his way into the press conference after last season's Uefa Cup final, Dick Advocaat took a call on his mobile. It was Vladimir Putin, congratulating him on "the new chapter" his Zenit St Petersburg side had just written in "this golden age of Russian sport".
Zenit were the second Russian side in four years to win the competition, and the country's football took another leap forwards with the national side's showing at Euro 2008. Suddenly the great underachievers of European football are threatening to achieve.
It would be easy to put Zenit's success down to the wealth of their owners, Gazprom. It has helped, certainly, and it was telling that they have not only broken the Russian transfer record to bring in the Portuguese midfielder Danny for €30 million (£24.3m) but were also confident enough not to be browbeaten into selling Andriy Arshavin cheaply. As Advocaat has pointed out, though, their net spend over the past three years is only around £50m.
It is not as though Zenit are a wealthy juggernaut crushing all before them domestically. They trail the league leaders, Rubin Kazan, by 14 points and may have to win the Champions' League to qualify for it next season. That is probably beyond them, but given the way they saw off Marseille, Villarreal, Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Rangers on their way to lifting the Uefa Cup, Real Madrid and Juventus will be well aware that they are not assured of their progress through a group that also features BATE Borisov.
BATE are the first Belarusian side to reach the last 32, and that is in itself telling. Refounded in 1996, they have become the country's leading club because of their focus on youth development: Barcelona's Alexander Hleb, Parma's Vitali Kutuzov and the FK Moskvagoalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov came through the academy.
BATE's rise is reflected in the development of the national team. They remain inconsistent, but draws this year against Turkey, Germany and Argentina suggest England could find it tough when they travel to Minsk for a World Cup qualifier next month.
Belarus is a unique case in that the political system remains totalitarian, but what it shares with other post-Soviet republics is a renewed emphasis on youth coaching. That has been a stated policy of the Football Federation of Ukraine since Hrihoriy Surkis was elected as president in 2000.
"Before Mr Surkis was elected as president," his spokesman said, "Ukraine got into the play-offs for major championships twice, and everybody thought that everything was good in Ukrainian football.
"Behind the successes, everybody had forgotten they were based on the old generation brought up in the traditions of the Soviet school. In the Nineties, everything was forgotten about child football. When Surkis was elected he stressed that it would be his priority. He knew there would be no government support because the Ukrainian economy was in the early stages of development."
State funding had produced the generation of Andriy Shevchenko, Sergiy Rebrov and the rest of the Dynamo Kiev side who reached the semi-finals of the Champions' League in 1999. There was then a dip as those schools fell into disrepair, but now private funding looks to be producing a new stream of talent.
Ukraine's appearance in the 2006 World Cup was perhaps a touch freakish, but at youth level they are looking menacing again. Striker Oleksandr Hladkyi and defender Dmytro Chyhrynskyi, both 21 and both Champions' League regulars for Shakhtar Donetsk, are a sign of what is to come.
Some republics have more pressing concerns, most obviously Georgia, whose Under-21s lost to Russia 4-0 on Friday night in a game that was moved from Moscow to Minsk. But elsewhere, where there is money to invest in academies, the trend is upwards. Even Kazakhstan, flushwith oil revenues, haverisen 25 places in the world rankings in four years.
England may not relish games against Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in this set of World Cup qualifiers, but they will be far harder opponents come the preliminaries for 2014.
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