English clubs caught unawares by a taste of Eastern promise

The butcher might harbour murderous feelings towards the blacksmith but it's still a global village we live in
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The Independent Football

Have you heard the one about the Dane, the Welshman, the Swede, the Turk, the Dutchman, the Colombian, the Frenchman, the two Englishmen and the two Moroccans? Last Thursday, under the collective name of Aston Villa FC, they played a Uefa Cup tie at home against NK Varteks of Croatia. The Varteks side, incidentally, comprised 10 Croats and an Albanian. And Varteks won, 3-2.

Have you heard the one about the Dane, the Welshman, the Swede, the Turk, the Dutchman, the Colombian, the Frenchman, the two Englishmen and the two Moroccans? Last Thursday, under the collective name of Aston Villa FC, they played a Uefa Cup tie at home against NK Varteks of Croatia. The Varteks side, incidentally, comprised 10 Croats and an Albanian. And Varteks won, 3-2.

Now, normally I rather pride myself on my partisan feelings for British clubs in Europe. I am not one of those Evertonians who wishes Liverpool ill in the Champions League, nor one of those Merseysiders desperate to see Manchester United come a cropper on some foreign field. And yet I found myself oddly cheered by Vartek's win. It seemed to me a victory for what football used to be, over what football has become.

At Stamford Bridge on the same night, however, what football has become stuffed what football used to be, as Chelsea's multi-national line-up of De Goey, Melchiot, Terry, Gallas, Le Saux, Zenden, Jokanovic, Petit, Lampard, Zola and Gudjohnsen (with Bosnich, Ferrer, Di Cesare, Dalla Bona and Aleksidze on the bench) stuck three past the Levski Sofia players Petkov, Topuzakov, Stoilov, Markov, Stankov, Ivanov, Golovskoy, Genchev, Stoyanov, Botelho and Chikov. That, of course, is the usual scheme of things. But Chelsea fans ought perhaps to feel a little envious of the Bulgarian following Levski Sofia. At least he knows that his heroes speak his language.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a xenophobic rant, indeed no one is more delighted than I that Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry, and before them Eric Cantona and Gianluca Vialli, and before them Arnold Muehren and Ossie Ardiles, chose to ply their trade in this country. There is no doubt that Juninho, Ginola, Zola and Vieira have raised the standards and expectations of English football. So please don't think that I yearn for a bygone era when Bovril tasted of Bovril and the most exotic name on Match of the Day was Paddington-born Imre Varadi – however much I capitalised on his uncommon surname by telling people that his wife was called Olive.

Moreover, there is simply no point reminding ourselves that Liverpool won the European Cup in 1977 with 11 players from the British Isles, against a Borussia Moenchengladbach team comprising 10 Germans and Allan Simonsen, a Dane. Those days are gone. We live in a global village now. The butcher might harbour murderous feelings towards the blacksmith, but it's still a global village. And yet these clubs from the old Eastern Bloc countries, with nothing like the resources of their Western counterparts, keep confounding the new conventions. Torpedo Moscow – albeit a relatively cosmopolitan team by Eastern European standards, with six Russians, an Armenian, a Georgian, a Belarussian, a Ukrainian and a Yugoslav – came within six minutes last Thursday of ruining Ipswich Town's unbeaten home record in Europe. This week, Torpedo look like favourites to bundle Ipswich out of the Uefa Cup altogether. Which will be quite a turn-up for the books. Because while it is true that Ipswich themselves are hardly the wealthiest or most sophisticated club around – indeed they pride themselves on their yokelism – they are a sight wealthier and more sophisticated than Torpedo.

In fact, the great Barry Davies, who commentated on the game for BBC television, informs me that just as Lokomotiv Moscow were formed years ago by Muscovite railway workers, so the Torpedo club were formed by workers in the Zil car factory. The Tractor Boys against the Zil lads, it might yet produce sparks.

Juventus, of course, are the ultimate European example of a football club having grown out of an affiliation with local industry, in Juve's case the Agnelli-owned Fiat empire. The Agnelli plan was simple: with the fortunes we make out of our cars, we will create a football team, which our workers will support and thus return to us a sizeable proportion of the wages we pay them. Like a clapped-out Fiat Uno, however, the plan backfired. The one way in which assembly-line workers could rebel against the monolith that loomed over almost every area of their lives was to support the city's other club, Torino. Which is why, to this day, the working-classes of Turin follow humble Torino, not mighty Juventus.

Speaking of Italian football, it is notable that, for all their imports, most clubs in Serie A still field overwhelmingly Italian teams. Hell, some of them have even more Italians on the payroll than Chelsea. Again, let me emphasise that I am not beating some jingoistic drum. Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier, for example, have done great things for English football, not to mention Sven-Goran Eriksson. But all the same, I can't help hoping that if 10 Croats and an Albanian finish the job against Aston Villa on Thursday evening, English football might sit up and take notice.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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