Former Soviet states bring new intrigue to England's campaign

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent