sports blog by andy shenk

Hypothetical XI #11: Soviet Union

In Russian Football on April 18, 2013 at 1:32 PM

My latest for The False Nine. In Part 11 of their series on hypothetical starting XI’s around the globe, I look at some Soviet football history and assemble a potent post-Soviet squad, one I’m convinced could compete with the best in the world. Click here or at the bottom of this excerpt for the entire article.

It’s been over 20 years since the Soviet Union splintered into 15 independent nations, but memories of the socialist state’s military might and vast expanse linger in the region’s consciousness. Links between Moscow and Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, Transdniestria and the controversial Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain strong, while anti-Russian sentiment in cities such as Lviv, Tallinn and Tbilisi may never abate.

Football, much like the other Olympic sports, the arts, science and technology, magnified the achievements and the failures of the Soviet state. From an empire struggling to rebuild following forty years of unrelenting war, famine and violent repression, the Soviet national team emerged in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as one of the most dominant squads in the world, winning that tournament as well as the 1960 European Championships, advancing to the Euro finals in 1964 and 1972, and finishing 4th at the 1966 World Cup.

During those glory years, the squad’s roster evolved, featuring an increasing number of non-Moscow, non-Russian players. If in 1956, 18 of the 21 members of the team in Melbourne hailed from the Russian heartland, including an astounding 16 from Moscow and Moscow Region, by 1966 less than half of the footballers used in Russia’s World Cup qualifying campaign and semifinal appearance in London were from Russia. In 1972 Ukrainians even outnumbered Russians on the squad.

Still, the development of football talent in Soviet republics had its specificities. From 1956 until 1974, only one player from Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s Yuri Pschennikov, was included on the Soviet national team roster for an official match. At the same time, the Transcaucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, with 1/3 the population of Central Asia, were represented by 16.

The majority of non-Russian players, of course, came from Ukraine and the Dynamo Kiev machine, arguably the Soviet league’s most successful club from 1965-1990. The Baltic nations – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – had just two representatives from 1956-1974, Riga’s Leonid Ostrovsky and Tallinn’s Georgy Ryabov. Moldova and Belarus were shut out entirely (though some may count Dinamo Minsk’s Eduard Malofeev, who played on the national team in the late 1960s, as a Belarusian, though originally from Krasnoyarsk, Russia).

Despite outliers like Georgia’s football clubs, which boasted 26 national team invitations to official matches from 1956-1974 (10% of a total 260 invitations), while representing just 2% of the total Soviet population, Soviet football belonged almost exclusively to Moscow’s big 5 – Spartak, Dinamo, CSKA, Lokomotiv and Torpedo – and in later years, Dynamo Kiev. Moscow ran the Soviet Union, receiving a disproportionate share of the nation’s resources and investment, and talented footballers from the provinces, frequently ended up playing club football in the capital.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and each of the 15 republics began to compete independently in World Cup and regional qualifying, the balance of power became quickly visible. Russia and Ukraine, with the biggest populations and most developed economies, have reached both the World Cup and European Championships. Otherwise, only Latvia has reached a Euro tournament (2004) and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – the Asian Cup. With two matches to play in AFC World Cup qualifying, Uzbekistan is on the verge of sealing a place in Brazil. If they make it, they will be the third of the post-Soviet republics to reach football’s biggest stage.

Football, in most instances, reflects the economic condition of the region. Central Asia, underdeveloped in almost every area of economic and public life during the Soviet era, has struggled to move forward independently. FIFA rankings – Uzbekistan – 66th, Tajikistan – 112th, Turkmenistan – 131st, Kyrgyzstan – 142nd, Kazakhstan – 144th – serve as additional evidence.

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan enjoyed more football success in the Soviet period. Ararat Yerevan won the Soviet league in 1972, while Dinamo Tbilisi followed in 1978. Azerbaijan’s top club, Neftchi Baku, also enjoyed a 3rd-place finish in 1966. But the violent 1990s ravaged the region’s infrastructure and football investment dried up. Recently, Georgia and Armenia have improved – Armenia nearly made it to Euro 2012 – but it may be a while before the South Caucasus makes noise internationally.

On the Eastern European front, Ukraine and Russia dominate the scene, while Latvia and Estonia have also had some success. Solid economies and political stability may well explain why those two nations, the Soviet Union’s smallest population-wise, have outperformed bigger countries such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. In 2011, Estonia lost in a playoff with Ireland to miss out on Euro 2012, while Latvia reached Euro 2004, as mentioned earlier. Belarus did nearly reach the playoff round in 2002 World Cup qualifying, but hasn’t made it close since. Lithuania, likewise, came close in 1998 World Cup qualifying, but has struggled in recent years.  Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest nations, generally plays the role of punching bag in UEFA qualifying campaigns.

So what would the hypothetical Soviet Union XI look like in 2013? Could the squad contend for honors at the World Cup and Euro, as it once did on a regular basis? It’s been 25 years since the Soviet Union reached the final of the 1988 European Championships. Since then, Ukraine’s quarterfinal appearance in the 2006 World Cup and Russia’s semifinal run at Euro 2008 are all the former Soviet Union can boast.

I’ll let you decide. Managed by Spartak legend, Oleg Romantsev, coaxed out of retirement by the prospect of World Cup glory and an under-the-table Marlboro endorsement, the Soviet XI would feature explosive Armenian and Ukrainian talent up front and the sturdy, veteran defensive spine of the Russian national team. The squad would favor an unconventional 4-1-4-1 formation, though able to quickly slide into a 4-2-3-1, if needed.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

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