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The Collapse Of Soviet Soccer

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Many new national football teams have emerged in Central Asia and Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many older fans regret the decline in quality since the break-up, but a new generation of younger fans appreciate being able to support a football team that is closer to home.


The collapse of the USSR brought tremendous changes to all aspects of life in its 15 republics. The end of the empire also brought the powerful Soviet football championship to an end. The All-Soviet football federation ceased to exist. The quality of football went down and youth academies - once producing world class talents - fell into neglect. Instead FIFA executives were suddenly staring at 15 brand new football associations, each of them having its own national team to offer.


With the death of the Soviet Union all its former republics lost in football terms. The FIFA rankings show that only Russia, having kept the old USSR rating, make it into the top 30 teams as of November 2002. Next come Ukraine in 46th place and Estonia in 62nd. The successes football fans were used to in the USSR have clearly not been replicated by the new national teams.


The Ukraine national side, for instance, is yet to achieve anything significant and has failed to qualify for any major tournaments. This is in stark contrast to the successes of Ukrainian football during Soviet times when, under the management of the late Valery Lobanovsky, the Soviet team was full of Dynamo Kiev players.


This has provoked a degree of nostalgia for the old Soviet teams among some fans. Temur Varki, a journalist from the Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, fondly recalls the main local team "Pamir" who were, in Soviet terms, a "solid mid-tabler", and almost never lost a home game. "Many of my compatriots are missing the Soviet times, and the football as well. Soviet football successes made all Tajiks happy; they made them proud of being Soviet, a part of a powerful state."


But over a decade later, it seems that only elderly fans really remember the glorious years of Soviet football. Younger fans who have been living in independent countries longer than in Soviet republics, prefer to support their new sides because they have their own, unique players, and because they reflect the national identity of the people.


Ukrainian journalist Evgeny Kanevsky believes that Soviet football is something from the past. "Nowadays, fans‘'expectations are with the new blue-yellow Ukraine flag and its new heroes - Andrei Schevchenko and Sergey Rebrov".


Teams now reflect the countries they represent. This is in contrast to the Soviet era when players from traditionally 'non-football' regions, like the Baltic region and Central Asia, were heavily under-represented in the Soviet team. Players could not compete with their Russian counterparts and had virtually no chance of winning a single cap. Uzbek players were never regulars in the Soviet squad. Because of this many Uzbek fans, including Dmitry Alyaev, believe that the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet team had no impact on Uzbek football.


Similarly, Georgian fans never thought that the USSR team belonged to them. "That's why the new team has its fair share of popularity" says Tenghiz Ablotia, who lives in Tbilisi.


Oleg Kharlamov, an Estonian living in Tallinn, regrets that there has been a lack of quality since the end of the Soviet football championship but, "at the same time one has to remember that the collapse of the USSR gave a powerful incentive to national football in all 15 republics. Football in Estonia in the past was not a popular sport. But now fans can support their own team. Suddenly we see a lot of interesting players."


Kharlamov says that during Soviet times footballers from the Baltic republics didn't have a chance of getting into the national squad. "Now there are 11 Estonians in the starting eleven, so the stadiums are always packed when the national side is playing".

It seems that many fans are prepared to sacrifice success on the pitch to get a football team that is closer to home, with players whose nationality they can identify with.


Dmitry Shishkin, December 2002  


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