Tonight’s match in Kiev is a throwback to a forgotten age for England when foreign teams were regarded as “crack continentals” full of mystery men. It may seem unimaginable to the satellite TV generation but there was a time when little was known about foreign clubs and countries outside of World Cups. Magazines such as Scorcher and Score would run comic-strip stories about Everpool and Blackport taking on teams of cliched swarthy east Europeans or shady Mediterranean types straight from central casting.
Now, with the major foreign leagues beamed into British homes and the English game itself stuffed with overseas players, the only time England go into the unknown is when they play one of the minor nations whose players are deemed so average even English clubs do not want them, such as Moldova on Friday.
Except, that is, for tonight. Ukraine are a good side, but their players do not travel overseas so we know little about them. This is partly because there is an inevitable insularity about a country on the fringes of Europe, partly because buyers are put off by the poor performances of players who have left – with the obvious exception of Andrei Shevchenko. But it is primarily because they do not need to leave as there is plenty of money in the domestic game.
All but one of the squad that England will face tonight play in the Ukrainian Premier League – the exception is Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Zenit St Petersburg. Having also spent four years at Bayern Munich, the midfielder is a veritable Jules Verne by Ukrainian standards. Everyone else in the 32 players called up by coach Mykhailo Fomenko this year is in the domestic game, mostly with the four leading clubs Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo Kiev, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Metalist Kharkiv.
This may sound familiar for there are two other insular-minded countries with rich domestic leagues whose players rarely travel outside their borders. One is Russia, the other is England. Roy Hodgson has called up 40 players this calendar year, all but two play in England. Since Steven Caulker’s Cardiff City are in the Premier League, only Celtic’s Fraser Foster can be regarded as any kind of adventurer and his globetrotting has not taken the goalkeeper far from his native North-east.
The obvious drawback to this situation is that players do not experience the benefits of playing overseas, both as footballers and as people. Travel does not just broaden the mind, it creates better footballers. Spanish players are as good as any around, but there is recognition that being put into the more physical environment of the English game improved the likes of Xabi Alonso. Similarly, going into a more technical league than the Premier League would raise the game of English players.
Neither England nor Ukraine are as self-contained as they once were because both have a high number of foreign imports. The leading Ukrainian clubs are roughly 50-50, with perennial champions Shakhtar Donetsk including 10 Brazilians in their squad. Being outside the European Union, Ukraine has been able to bring in restrictions on the number of foreign players a team can field, but the fact that the limit was initially set at seven shows how many there are. Kiev have 11 foreigners, from Congo to Croatia; Dnipro, who refused to sign foreigners before being forced to when their rivals signed all the best domestic players, now have a Spanish coach in former Tottenham manager Juande Ramos, and 16 foreign players.
The same commodity attracts foreigners, and retains locals, in Ukraine as in England: money. The major clubs are controlled by extremely wealthy businessmen. Shakhtar Donetsk are owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the country with an estimated net worth of $15bn (£9.5bn) according to Forbes magazine. His wealth enabled Shakhtar to become Ukraine's dominant club succeeding Dynamo Kiev, though they remain a major player. The president is Igor Surkis, a businessman and politician, worth $3bn (£1.9bn), who replaced his brother Hryhoriy, when the latter moved on to become president of the Ukrainian Federation, and subsequently a Uefa vice-president.
Donetsk, however, is not London. It is an industrial mining town that can get very cold in winter. Since other clubs, in nicer places, also have money Akhmetov had to provide added value to attract and keep players. Thus the training ground is not just a very good one, it has features like an aviary, a fishing lake and a basketball court – and plenty of home comforts for the footballers who like to stay at home.
Home comforts: Ukraine v England
Current clubs of players called up to Ukraine squad in 2013
Ukraine-based (32): Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (8), Dynamo Kiev (7), Shakhtar Donetsk (6), Metalist Kharkiv (4), Illichivets Mariupol (2), Metalurh Donetsk (2), Sevastopol (1), Zorya Luhansk (1), Vorskla Poltava (1), Arsenal Kiev (1).
Russia-based (1): Zenit St Petersburg (1).
Current clubs of players called up to England squad in 2013
England-based (38): Manchester United (8), Everton (4), Liverpool (4), Manchester City (4), Tottenham Hotspur (4), Arsenal (3), Chelsea (3), Fulham (1), Newcastle United (1), Norwich City (1), Reading (1), Southampton (1), Stoke City (1), West Bromwich Albion (1), West Ham United (1).
Wales-based (1): Cardiff City (1).
Scotland-based (1): Celtic (1).
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