Author Archives: Domm

Consequences of funding a modern day Russian Revolution

FC Anzhi Makhachkala are currently one side that are never too far away from the gaze of the European media. With it’s well known funding it has managed to raise the profile of Russian football and dispel nonsense myths, especially in Western Europe, that the standard of football in Russia is sub-standard. The side in recent years have lured the likes of highly respected manager Guus Hiddink and Roberto Carlos as a player before he took up the role of Sporting Director at the club. Samuel Eto’o, Christopher Samba, Yuri Zhirkov and Brazilian centre back Ewerton are just some of the names Anzhi fans have the pleasure of watching. And now, there may be much, much more on the way.

Not content with capturing another stellar name Lassana Diarra on loan from Real Madrid, Anzhi have swooped down ambitiously on a shell-shocked Benfica with a big bag of money- €90 million’s worth to be precise according to numerous media outlets. Axel Witsel, Rodrigo and Nicolas Gaitan are reportedly the three players targeted by the raid. Perhaps the move is a well planned one by the club who are possibly answering Hiddink’s claims that his side are “lacking depth”.

This splurge of spending begs the question: what will the consequences be for Russian football at large?

On the positive side Anzhi have managed to qualify for their first ever Europa League group after finishing 5th last season in the Russian Premier League and negotiating a number of tricky qualifying ties. Such is the rise of the Russian club that the fans, players and board members will all be looking to push on and make a statement against the more established sides Liverpool, Udinese and the tricky Swiss outfit Young Boys. Anzhi are defiantly a highly talented side capable of emulating former winners CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Such competitiveness reflects very well on the league as a whole and might persuade a few more household names across Europe and beyond to take the plunge into what is very much an underrated and difficult league.

Everybody knows money doesn’t guarantee immediate success. Certainly Anzhi’s 5th place finish last season is testament to this claim. Samuel Eto’o has been critical of the side asking the question why his fellow team-mates aren’t targeting top spot in the league despite Anzhi being “recently a modest club”. Anzhi in the years ahead will no doubt be pushing the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg and the big Moscow club’s for a league title. This will only serve to make compulsive viewing and give the league an air of unpredictability that is so obviously lacking from the two biggest European football leagues. A football fan need look no further than the thrilling manner in which another super rich side Manchester City returned their investment last season.

There are those that allay their fears that such grotesque spending will result in Anzhi walking to the league title season after season. I for one do not subscribe to this view. In Ligue 1 last season a modest Montpellier side with a modest budget secured the league title over Goliath proportion spending PSG.

Money is not in short supply in the Russian Premier League either it has to be remembered. A total of six clubs qualify for European competitions, ensuring an even distribution of money. In fact Anzhi might worry the big Russian clubs enough to spend their money and lure more talented footballers to the league which certainly benefits the average fan. This rise in talent will then be brought onto the European stage, just as Anzhi will be hoping to do in the Europa League this season. Financial fair play might hope to put a stop to such spending but it’s potential effectiveness is completely unknown at this moment in time.

With two Russian representatives in the UEFA Champions League group stages this season in the shape of Zenit and Spartak Moscow, Anzhi will certainly have a difficult task on their hands to usurp these much bigger clubs with a more established structure and history in domestic terms. This is a far cry from those fears that Anzhi will buy out the league each season. The league should embrace the challenge to fend off a potential super-power in the making. Sometimes a new challenger to the crown is much needed as it can freshen up the field and raise the bar for everyone to follow.

If nothing else the money will allow a previously small club to enjoy the high life of challenging for silverware and give those Anzhi fans European ties and memories they will always cherish.
Suleyman Kerimov will certainly be looking to drag the club up to new heights and by doing so he just might be unwittingly dragging the rest of the league alongside him.


Hulk and Witsel propel Zenit to European contenders

The transfer window may have closed for much of Western Europe, however the tremors that have been felt across the continent over the past day or so have stemmed firmly from the East, as Russian football became placed firmly in the eye of the storm. However, alluding to Zenit St Petersburg’s latest forays in the transfer market as having the devastating power of an earthquake is perhaps a disservice, as they have placed themselves at the fore of European football at such a pivotal moment.

This was the flexing of monetary muscle, on a scale that Eastern European football has never before seen. People can rightfully point to the spending of Anzhi Makhachkala in conveying a lack of surprise that Russian football has brought forth the transfer story of the summer. However this is on an entirely different scale altogether.

Samuel Eto’o’s transfer to the North Caucasus, via Moscow, was a deal that brought a player in the tail end of his career to a club looking for wider recognition, while scouring the continent for one final bumper pay cheque. In the case of Zenit’s new signings, Brazilian forward Hulk and former Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel, the Russian game is welcoming two players in the peak of their careers. It’s proof that Russian football is not merely a stomping ground for aging stars on overly inflated wages – it is now a viable alternative for the world’s best players.

It seems as though many individuals have taken to social media websites and forums lambasting the ambition of both Hulk and Witsel. The general consensus seems to revolve around the perception that the move hindered solely upon the vastly improved wages that both players would acquire. To proclaim such sentiments are, however, expressions of pure ignorance. The Russian Premier League may not yet garner the same level of prestige as the competition’s counterparts in Spain, England or Germany however it is undoubtedly one of the most competitive top flights in Europe.

The likes of CSKA, Spartak, Lokomotiv and Dinamo – all, of course, heralding from Moscow – are joined by Rubin Kazan and Anzhi in holding genuine hopes of competing for a Champions League berth. This does not even include the nouveau riche clubs in the mould of FK Krasnodar and Terek Grozny who harbour ambitions of eventually gate crashing the European places. It is true that toward the rear of the table sit the weak and the poor of Russian football however such a situation is the norm in many top divisions across the wider reaches of Europe.

It is worth noting that had it been Anzhi Makhachkala who were involved in these monumental moves in the transfer market, then there would perhaps be valid grounds for arguing that financial reasons – as opposed to sporting ones – were key to the transfer. However this is Zenit St Petersburg whom we are discussing. Zenit have become perennial league title contenders, they have established themselves as a strong outfit in Europe and already possess outstanding footballing talent. Let’s not forget that the club are guided by one of European football’s finest coaches, in Luciano Spalletti. This is not merely a club who have sprouted from the depths of nowhere. Zenit have, in recent years, won the UEFA Cup, Super Cup, Russian Cup and Premier League and thus the prospect of moving to Zenit St Petersburg is potentially an enticing one for any individual who plies their trade away from the established elite.

One of the defining, and most interesting, aspects of the transfer of Hulk and Witsel to Zenit lies in the role of the club’s key benefactor, Gazprom. This has been a summer whereby the major oil company have attempted to impact themselves upon the wider reaches of European football. Gazprom are already seen on the strips of Schalke and Red Star Belgrade, however their deals with Chelsea and UEFA have served to further promote the Gazprom brand to regions where exposure would have previously been limited.

Gazprom’s sponsorship of UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League tournaments has seen the company ‘cement their involvement with Europe’s most prestigious club football competition through exclusive services and products’. Such a deal has seen the company aligned with UEFA’s fellow exclusive partners – including the likes of Heineken, Ford and Mastercard – in a deal that brings forth a new realm of possibilities for Gazprom.

There can be little denying the potential exposure that partnering with the Champions League, in particular, can gain and as such you would imagine that such a level of prominence will only serve to aid Gazprom’s desire to become a key player in European business and football. Meanwhile, many will have recently noticed Chelsea’s advertising hoardings prominently carrying the name ‘Gazprom’ during the club’s early league fixtures at Stamford Bridge. Such is the nature of the sponsorship between the European champions and Gazprom that this will likely be the case for the duration of the 3 year deal.

It was widely thought that Gazprom had previously been attempting to ensure that Zenit could become a somewhat more self sufficient football club over the past 18 months or so. Luciano Spalletti had cut a frustrated figure for much of the summer as the club seemingly refused to be tempted into the transfer market, despite possessing a squad somewhat lacking in numbers. However the purchase of Hulk and Witsel will undoubtedly appease a hugely popular coach who has been persistently linked with a return to Italy since arriving in Russia.

Both Hulk and Witsel will provide further power and ability to a team already brimming with talent. The prospect of seeing a midfield of Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov and Axel Witsel is practically mouth watering, while the attacking partnership of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Danny and Hulk is hugely intimidating. There are few sides in European football who can now match the attacking capabilities of the Russian champions, and you would expect that the club’s potential to impact upon this year’s Champions League has significantly risen.

This summer’s transfer window, in Russia, had long been considered to be a major disappointment however Zenit’s forays have served to provide a fresh perspective on proceedings. There can be little doubt that Zenit’s ambition stems from the desire of Gazprom to achieve sporting prominence, however the transfer of Hulk and Witsel also serves to benefit Russia’s top flight on the whole. The Premier League can now rightfully be considered as a respectable home for exciting football talent, and not merely over rated mercenaries looking for a sizable pay cheque.

Slovakia on World Cup trail

It is nearly 11 months since Slovakia played their last meaningful game, a 1-0 defeat at home to Russia which ensured they would take no part in Euro 2012. They return to competitive action this week, with Friday’s trip to Vilnius to face Lithuania in World Cup qualifying. Four days after that, they meet Lichtenstein in Bratislava.

Some things have changed in the Slovakia set-up since that Russia match, but much remains familiar too. The biggest change is the replacement of Vladimír Weiss as coach (he left ‘by mutual consent’ in January) by the two-man team of Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp. The appointment of this duo followed the single-minded, but ham-fisted and ultimately unsuccessful, three-month pursuit of Viktoria Plzeň coach Pavel Vrba. Hipp, formerly Weiss’s assistant, had strengthened his case for remaining in the set-up by guiding the side to a 2-1 friendly win in Turkey in February, while Griga, much-respected for his work with various Slovak and Czech clubs, was always a fine candidate.

The new coaches can hardly be accused of allowing their players to get too comfortable. Slovakia have played three more friendlies since their appointment, all of them against sides who appeared in the Euro 2012 finals (Poland, Holland and Denmark). They also appear to be in the process of discarding some of Weiss’s perennial selections, such as centre-back Ján Ďurica and forwards Filip Hološko and Erik Jendrišek.

There have not, however, been any great tactical changes. Weiss nearly always preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation for competitive games, though he did sometimes experiment with twin-strikers or 4-3-3 in friendlies. On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, Griga and Hipp look certain to favour 4-2-3-1 for the foreseeable future. Some of the personnel will also be familiar from the Weiss era. Ján Mucha is still the first-choice goalkeeper, especially now that he’s seen recent first-team action with Everton. Martin Škrtel is also a constant in central-defence, where he forms a solid partnership with Tomáš Hubočan. Further forward, Miroslav Stoch, Marek Hamšík and Vladimír Weiss Junior are a talented attacking trio who played a lot of games together under the former regime.

But Slovakia may have an unfamiliar look about them in the deeper midfield positions and up-front. Trabzonspor’s Marek Sapara returned to the side for the Denmark game after a long absence and made a highly favourable impression with his passing game. He was joined for the second-half by one of two Slovak league players in the squad, Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský. A predominantly defensive player, Pečovský appeared to strike up an immediate understanding with Sapara as their team turned round a 1-0 deficit to win 3-1. These two must now have a good chance of starting the Lithuania game together, but that would probably mean leaving out Genoa’s Juraj Kucka, a highly-rated player but one who hasn’t always looked at home in international football.

There are only two out-and-out strikers in the squad, Martin Jakubko of Amkar Perm and Plzeň’s Marek Bakoš. Neither would have been likely to appear had Weiss still been in charge. The former coach stood by as Jakubko retired in something of a huff after the 2010 World Cup (Hipp is credited with talking him into a return) and was always oddly dismissive of Bakoš’s claims. Yet both have some of the essential qualities of the lone striker, being good in the air and comfortable with their backs to goal. Jakubko has the more intimidating physical presence, and scored with his first touch after coming on against the Danes, factors which may well be in his favour when Griga and Hipp choose Friday’s starting XI. After all, the coaches know very well that the main reason Slovakia disappointed in Euro 2012 qualifying was their failure to score goals. Seven in ten games is a damning statistic, especially considering that the group contained Andorra.

With Greece as its top seed, Group G is one of those in the coming campaign which doesn’t contain a single outstanding team. But perhaps because of that, everyone else, with the exception of Lichtenstein, will feel they have a chance of qualifying. If Slovakia can gain six points from the first two fixtures, home games against Latvia and Greece in October will then give them a chance of establishing a very good platform.

Dukla Praha: A story between war, politics and the Ballon d’Or

In order to tell the story of Dukla Prague, it is not necessary to start too far away. We aren’t, as with the foundation of many football teams, in a bar or on a bench – like Juventus – but in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Slovenské Narodne povstanie – or more simply SNP – was the Slovak National Uprising which began on August 29th 1944 in Banská Bystrica. It was here that the Slovaks rebelled suddenly and decisively against the Germans. The city soon became the centre of the anti-Nazi resistance movement; a political and military uprising.

At the same time the Red Army, which was pooled from 16,000 Czechoslovak soldiers, were approaching simultaneously from the north and east. Radio Moscow, through the legendary voice of the announcer Yuri Levitan – who began his broadcasts with: “Attention! Moscow is speaking” – informed the people of a Soviet army advancement. The Czechoslovak government, which at the time was in London, headed by President Beneš was aware of preparations for the insurrection and fully approved of them. The prerequisite for the success was to ensure that the Red Army could unite with the insurgents, to do so it was necessary for the Russian army to ake possession of the Dukla Pass, a strategic spot on the border between Poland and Slovakia.

The attack was met with a tough Nazi resistance and the Dukla-Prešov operation proved to be one of the bloodiest on the Eastern Front – in the two-month battle, 21,000 Soviet’s were killed along with nearly 2,000 Czech. It took more than fifty days to drive out the men of the Third Reich from Slovakia.

Emerging from this epic chapter in the history of European liberation is the name of a Czech football team that was formerly sponsored by the army – even today their name exists as a glorious reminder of the past; that name is Dukla Prague.

Dukla Prague were initially known as ATK – Armádní Tělocvičný Klub -, the abbreviation of Czech Army Gymnastics Club. To speed up, or rather, encourage, an ascent to the pinnacle of Czech football a special rule was introduced where every player who had performed military service would be automatically entered into the ranks of Dukla, even if he was under contract with another club. The entrance to the club in the top division was anything but orthodox and the club had the green light to pick the best players in the nation. As described by Radovan Jelínek, author of several books including The First World Atlas of Football:

“Normally, each team would have to qualify to play in first division. It was not the case of Dukla Prague. In the late ’40s, the best Czechs clubs were ‘instructed’ to give the club at least one of their players. Today [this] would be something unacceptable. This was the beginning of the history of Dukla. Once it had all the best players from other clubs, for example, seven players coming from Slavia or five from Bohemians, [the team] dominated Czechoslovakian football. ”

If we speak about Dukla, the thought runs fast to Josef Masopust, the world-beater who led the yellow and red for thirteen long years, from 1953 to 1966. A son of a miner from Most, the young Josef had, in 1949, signed a professional contract with Vodotechna Teplice when he was just eighteen. He resembled Jozsef Bozsik; key player of Honvéd and the great Hungarian side. Masopust was a midfielder with a great deal of pace to his play. Arguably his best quality was his ability to use both feet beautifully to orchestrate perfect passes for his teammates and produce assists for the forwards. In his honour the term “Masopust-slalom” was coined to indicate a series of rapid dribbles in short spaces that baffled and bewildered opponents. With technique, strength and an exceptional vision for the game, Josef was a real indefatigable presence in the centre of the field.

The midfielder won the Ballon d‘Or in 1962, the same year he reached, and scored in, the final of the World Cup in Chile for Czechoslovakia. ‘Pepik‘, as fans affectionately called him, won the prestigious trophy defeating Eusébio and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger into second and third place respectively. “Masopust was a midfielder with such a technique to give the impression of been born in Brazil, not in Europe. A player such as Platini, Beckenbauer, comparable today to Xavi. Especially a man of great intelligence off the court”. Signed Edson Arantes do Nascimento, of course, is more famously known as Pelé. Masopust and the great Brazilian met in the final of 1962.

But back to the team. The first major success was in 1952 when the club won the Czechoslovakian Cup. In early 1953 the team was renamed UDA – Ústřední Dům Armády, Home Army-, and immediately won the first of many national titles – at the end the total will be eleven national championships – with only one defeat in their thirteen games. In 1956 they assumed their current name, in honour of the Slovak village which saw the first outbreak of revolt against Nazi brutality.

The change to Dukla came two years of perceived failure: in 58/59 Inter Bratislava were crowned champions while Dukla finished second and the following year Hradec Kralove won their first and only league title after an exciting struggle, which saw the black and whites win by two points from Inter Bratislava and Dukla Prague. Two years without a league win was too many for the team’s hierarchy. Thankfully, as a response, Dukla swept away their rivals led by the forward quintet of Brumovský-Vacenovský-Borovička-Kučera-Jelínek, guided of course by Masopust.

In the 60/61 season the difference between goals scored and conceded was a phenomenal: +43. In this year they also dominated the Czechoslovakian Cup. The next season proved to be even greater – 88 goals for, and 30 conceded in just 25 matches. Dukla was the absolute master of Czechoslovakia. Following on from the two dominating seasons the league became more balanced, but the eleven managed by Jaroslav Vejvoda still looked from above down on their opposition.

The title victory of 1960 coincides with the inauguration of the stadium Na Julisce on July 10. For the occasion there was a friendly organized against Wiener Sport-Club, an Austrian team based in Wien. For the record, Dukla won 2-1. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo in ’64, Dukla provided three players to the national team: Brumovský, Geleta and Knesl. The three returned home with the silver medal around their necks.

When in 1965 the goalkeeper Pavel Kouba moved to Sparta Prague, his place was taken by Ivo Viktor who became the foundation of Dukla’s defence. In 15 seasons he played 316 games and was nominated five times, a record still unbeaten to this day, for Czechoslovakian player of the year as well as Goalkeeper of the Year in 1969 and 1976. His achievements in goal gave him a ranking of 24th in the goalkeeper of the century list compiled by the International Institute of Football History and Statistics. He also represented the National team, making his debut in 1966 against Brazil in a football pantheon, the Maracana stadium. The only person in Dukla’s Hall of Fame who achieved more was the untouchable Masopust.
Taking up the thread of the national wins, the other victories came in 65/66 – with their second Czechoslovak Cup -, in 76/77, 78/79 and finally in the 1981-82 season, ending with another doblete and fifth Československý pohár. During this period Dukla’s dominance in the Czech half of Czechoslovakia was unquestionable. At this time the final was competed by one Czech side and one Slovak, Dukla reached ten finals, becoming the most frequent finalist in the nation’s history. Also on the playing field, Masopust’s career was ending and the transformation began into a player/coach and then finally into management fulltime. In 1969 he led Crossing Molenbeek to promotion into the Belgian first division, but even if his name was Masopust and he was the most known athlete in the country, his relationship with the regime was particularly tense. He was only allowed to play abroad at the end of his career and at 37, he formally became a professional. Understandably, the regime was anxious not to create a dangerous precedent with Masopust and potentially lose other players in the future who could have been tempted to move abroad, lured by more substantial salaries.

At the European level, Dukla debuted in 57/58, directly qualifying for the knockout stages of the European Cup. The continental experience was a short one and the team was eliminated by the Busby Babes of Manchester United. Unfortunately, the edition of that year’s tournament is remembered for the crash of Munich where eight players of Manchester United players died. The second attempt at the top European competition came in 1966-67 edition where Dukla reached the semi-finals, beating teams such as Anderlecht and Ajax, only to be defeated by the eventual winners, Celtic lead by the legendary coach Jock Stein.

Perhaps their greatest trip in Europe came about in the UEFA Cup tournament of 78/79. Dukla began by eliminating Lanerossi Vicenza – who were missing Paolo Rossi -, before going on to defeat Everton in the second round. The apotheosis came in the third round against Stuttgart. Losing the first-leg 4-1, the return game at Dukla’s Na Julisce will be forever marked as one of the best international games for the club: The match ends 4-0 and progression to the quarter-finals was unlikely assured. (I wonder if the newspapers of the time praised the achievements of those eleven heroes, perhaps alluding to the Dukla Pass battle against the Germans!). But the road to Europe that year ended in front of another Germanic outfit, Hertha Berlin.

In the 1985-86 season the club reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, yielding only to those who went on to win the title; the Ukrainians of Dynamo Kiev who were under the guidance Oleh Blokhin, the “Ukraine Arrow”, Oleksandr Zavarov and managed by Soviet guru Valery Lobanovs’kyj.

Returning back within national borders, the last three titles are linked to the figure of Zdeněk Nehoda. Nehoda, a forward who scored 124 goals in 290 games with Dukla, also won Euro 1976 with Czechoslovakia, as well as Czech player of the year for two successive years in the late 1970’s. The final piece of silverware in Dukla’s trophy cabinet came in the midst of the Velvet Revolution led by the politician-playwright Vaclav Havel. Within the next three years the Communist regime had ended and Czechoslovakia dissolved into two separate states.

Then the sunset. Sudden, but not unexpected. The image of Dukla as the club of the Communist Army did not allow the club to raise the necessary funds and the side eventually became a shadow of their former selves and slipped down to the third tier of Czech football. Only two years on from their demotion to the CFL – Cesky fotbol liga – an entrepreneur, Bohumil Ďuričko, decided to intervene and restore the ancient, famous club to greatness: after purchasing Příbram FC – based eighty miles southwest of Prague -, he merged the two teams and so FC Dukla Příbram was born.

Separately, an amateur team called Dukla Dejvice continued to play at Na Julisce in the regional Prague championships, taking the old colours of Dukla. In 2001, Dukla Dejvice joined forces with the youth teams of Dukla Prague who then broke away from Příbram in 2006 and joined the second division, acquiring the relevant license from Jakubčovice. Returning to professional football in the Czech Republic for the first time in almost a decade, Dukla Prague were reborn

After five years in the second division the side claimed promotion to the Czech top flight as champions. Their return to the Gambrinus Liga took place last season where they finished a surprising, and deserved, sixth place.

The roots of Dukla Prague as an army club have made them very unpopular in the minds of the average fan. Despite their numerous accolades their average attendance was continuously very low. For example: during the triumphant 1965/1966 season, the stands saw an average of 9,000 people per game while Sparta and Slavia had about 12-13,000 visitors. Even during the season of 81/82 only 1,500 spectators thronged the vast terraces of the Prague 6 stadium confirming little sympathy and affiliation for a team representing the sporting heart of the regime. Even today they are still considered the fourth team in the capital after Slavia, Sparta and Bohemians 1905. Some even place Viktoria Žižkov above Dukla when it comes to ranking popularity in the modern day. Dukla is a club that is by and large, generally ignored by the inhabitants of the Czech capital.

The fame of Dukla however has expanded past the boundaries of the rectangular football field. The name of Dukla appears on the cover of a book, Dukla mezi mrakodrapy – Dukla between skyscrapers – by author Ota Pavel who recounted the summer games of 1961 to 1964 in New York, part of the International Soccer League. The competition gathered some of the best European teams at the time – Red Star, Rapid Wien, AS Monaco, Espanyol et al – and during Dukla’s glory years it is no surprise they were invited. From literature and to music the song “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit” by the English band Half Man Half Biscuit climbed the charts and remains a cult classic. The Times has also named the jersey of Dukla amongst the top fifty most beautiful shirts in the history of football.

But let’s not forget that Dukla can boast about having seen the only two Czech Ballon d’Or winners, and arguably the two greatest Czech players ever, turn out in their famous colours.
Besides Masopust, back in 1991 a boy with blonde hair graced midfield. Pavel Nedvěd was sold after just one year later to Sparta and was to be destined to become the ‘Czech Fury’ under the shadow of the Mole Antonelliana.

In the historical overview of Czechoslovakian football, Dukla looks like a shooting star that burnt for a short time, yet dazzled the football scene in the country. And yet, like every falling star, Dukla has also left behind an illuminating legacy that is visible to all. A trail that brings back memories of good and bad: the glory of the triumphs tainted with the history of the Communist regime. As such, there is a stain on a beautiful shirt, one that is very difficult to wash.

But the overriding image of the club, in a playing sense, is the statue in honour of Josef Masopust recently unveiled for his eightieth birthday in the park near Na Julisce. Sculpted with an elegant pose, the ball slightly in front of the left foot and left-leg arched ready to produce a glorious pass to split the opposition defence in two, head held high and proud.

Vyachelsav Malafeev, His Wife, His Children and Quitting the National Team

Football, as all encompassing at it may sometimes appear, is just a game. The wider national, cultural and social contexts that many excellent commentators and books have put the game in can often detach us from the fact that it is, essentially, 22 men kicking a ball around a field. There are, though, always instances that offer us biting reminders. In England last season we had the Fabrice Muamba incident, in Spain there was the less happy ending of Antonio Puerta and in Russia, slightly differently, we had the case of Vyacheslav Malafeev’s wife.

Malafeev, Zenit’s goalkeeper for the past twelve years and a one-club man, suffered terrible personal tragedy on the 17th of March 2011 as his wife died in a car crash in the city they call home, St Petersburg. Marina Malafeev, who was head of the family’s business, Malafeev Productions, had two children with Vyacheslav, daughter Xenia (born in 2003) and son Max (born in 2006). It is here that the story brings us to today’s (27th of August’s) news that Malafeev has chosen to ‘temporarily suspend’ his involvement with the Russian national team.

Making his debut in the 1-0 victory over Wales in 2003, Malafeev has gone on to make twenty-nine appearances for the national side, gaining a bronze medal as Igor Akinfeev’s understudy at Euro 2008 and starting all three games at Euro 2012 in Akinfeev’s absence. This is why, with Malafeev still dominating the Zenit number one shirt, the decision came as quite a surprise on Monday the 27th with the Leningrader posting on his personal website, ‘my decision not to play for Russia was a hard one both humanly and professionally. But currently I think it’s best for my family’. The thinking, therefore, is clear: Malafeev wants to spend more time with Xenia and Max in the absence of Maria, something even the most disappointed of Russia fans will no doubt accept.

Malafeev’s last appearance for Russia was as a substitute in Fabio Capello’s first match in charge of the national team, against the Ivory Coast, and was included in the Italians first named squad for 2014 World Cup qualifying rounds. However, despite the terminology of ‘temporarily suspend’ used, questions have been raised as to whether the 33-year-old will actually ever represent Russia again. This point has been raised by former Russia ‘keeper Ruslan Nigmatullin who commented, ‘I am disappointed that, most likely, we will not see him in the team [again]. At quite a mature age, ‘temporarily’ should be taken with a grain of salt’, he said.

Alas, it would appear, that the three time Russian Premier League winner’s goalkeeping exploits shall now be confined to the light blue of Zenit, unless, that is, he should make a comeback if and when Russia qualify for the 2014 World Cup, with the laborious qualifying stages freshly out of the way. There is some sadness, though, with Anzor Kavazashvili suggesting that ‘the Russian national team will be twice as weak without Malafeev’, and Sergei Ovchinnikov admitting that losing Malafeev ‘will affect the team’.

The always acrobatic and assured Zenit goalkeeper, however, will be focussing on taking Xenia and Max to the park, with the game of football put to the back of his mind on those international weekends.

Dmitri Sychev: The forgotten hero

The career of a footballer can morph from so many differing points and perspectives that it can often be difficult to contrast and compare the development of individual players. Some burst on to the scene at the youngest of ages, while others spend a little longer honing their skills before becoming an integral part of their respective team. You could say that either method is to be respected as long as one reaches the potential that they possess. However despite a footballer’s career being perilously short there remains a notion that breaking through into the public consciousness is a marathon, as opposed to a sprint.

It is often the case that young, pacey and fearless centre forwards burst onto the scene in their late teens, striking fear into the heart of defences through pure athleticism and spontaneity. However as reality takes hold, and opponents begin to wise up, times can often become a little tougher for those players who previously looked impervious to floundering performances. This may well sound like the opening to an article around the demise of a certain Michael Owen, however today the focus is firmly upon Lokomotiv Moscow’s Dmitri Sychev.

Sychev was once Russian football’s greatest hope. As a young midfielder showcasing his skills for Spartak Tambov in Russia’s second tier he quickly established himself as a teenage prodigy of the highest order – a youngster whom was placing clubs across Europe on red alert. At Tambov, Sychev had forged a prominent reputation in a side predominantly made up of local players, with only a couple coming from outside the Tambov region – including Sychev who grew up to the east in Omsk. The process of acclimatisation was one that was aided by Sychev’s ability on the pitch, and his relaxed manner off it. The teenager’s persona quickly became a prized possession and as such his transfer to Spartak Moscow in the winter of 2002 came as little surprise.

It was with the capital club that Sychev’s rapid ascent to the fore of Russian football was complete as his conversion into a centre forward saw him rack up the goals for his new club at a rate of knots. Such performances ultimately saw the 18 year old selected for the 2002 World Cup – a tournament at which his stock rose further thanks to his exploits off the bench in all 3 of Russia’s games, including a goal against Belgium in an exciting 3-2 defeat. The tournament may well have ultimately ended in disappointment for Russia, as the nation failed to progress past the group stage, however for Sychev the tournament served to open further doors, particularly on the continent.

The youngster’s contentious departure from Spartak Moscow, in favour of French side Marseille, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the red and white portion of the capital thanks to his refusal to feature for the club – although the move served to provide the prospect of success on an even grander scale. However, despite the move coming during a golden age of Russian footballers succeeding in Western Europe – the transfer ultimately saw Sychev’s development stunted by cameo appearances off the bench in unfamiliar positions.

Sychev’s return to Russian soil became inevitable and following 3 years of frustration with Marseille, the forward quickly became an integral part of Lokomotiv Moscow’s pursuit of domestic success – culminating in a league title in his debut season of 2004. However, since arriving back in Moscow, Sychev has gradually seen his influence within the club dwindle as a merry go round of coaches and foreign talent have left Lokomotiv surrounded by a tumultuous atmosphere. This season the club have attempted to lay down firm foundations in the appointment of former Croatia coach, Slaven Bilic, however the planting of such firm roots could well lead to the further demise of Dmitri Sychev.

Over the past 18 months Lokomotiv have seen a gradual change in the personnel of their strike force, with the likes of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Felipe Caicedo, Victor Obinna and more recently Dame N’Doye arriving at the club to much fanfare. The increased level of competition within the club’s attacking positions has ultimately seen Sychev demoted to the role of bench warmer, making the briefest of cameos redundant of whether the game is either won or lost. There would once have been a time where having Sychev sitting on the bench would be a joker in the pack that would leave a tiring defence living in fear. At present, however, Sychev cuts a forlorn figure, shorn of confidence and lacking in interest.

It is a sorry state of affairs for a player who was once the figurehead of Russian football’s grand pursuit of excellence on the continent. Sychev is no longer the player he once was, his electric pace and acceleration has diminished somewhat and his eye for goal is tarnished thanks to periods of misuse in positions on the flank, where he can struggle to involve himself. However this is a player with significant levels of experience at the very highest level, and a footballer who could still provide a threat if used appropriately and safe in the knowledge that he is likely to feature prominently.

At a time where a number of Russia’s premier sides are looking to invest in a centre forward, it is a shame that there remains such little interest in the former Russian player of the year. Perhaps the time for Sychev to compete within a top side on a regular basis has passed, however for an ambitious club – and there are a great deal of those in Russia – who are looking to work their way through to the higher echelons of the domestic game, the signing of Sychev could prove to be a solid investment.

It remains intriguing that both Sychev and – the player with whom he was so often compared – Michael Owen have suffered from such similar fates over recent months, when the world was at both their feet merely a decade ago. There is a case for arguing that neither player has managed to consistently work at their highest level for a period of time that could constitute being held in the highest regard – however both players will continue to earn respect thanks to the exploits of their youth.

Marek Citko: The confession of an idol

Marek Citko was 22 when he scored against England at Wembley and raised many eyebrows of football fans when playing for Widzew. He could have played for Milan, Inter or Liverpool, but lost everything due to a disastrous injury.

The story begins on an autumn evening in 1996. I was sitting in front of the TV with my whole family. The stadium in Lodz, just like a couch in our small living room, was packed out. Widzew were playing against Atletico Madrid.

When I heard the Champions League anthem, shivers went down my back.

I had been waiting so long for this evening. My favourite player played in the Widzew team, some colleagues admired Ronaldo, while others loved Shearer or Del Piero. My first great idol however was Marek Citko.

It was raining heavily in Lodz that night. Actually, the downpour was so large, that it seemed as though a giant had poured out the water from a huge basin.

It was a fierce battle on the pitch, however Atletico were the better team from the very beginning. The Spaniards scored twice within half an hour, but the key moment was yet to come.

Widzew goalkeeper Maciej Szczesny threw the ball to Marek Citko. With a single turn of balance Citko beat two Atletico players and started a charge toward Madrid’s goal. In the centre circle he raised his head and shot from 50 yards. The ball landed in the back of the net.

It is the most beautiful goal I have ever seen.

That evening, nothing mattered. Neither the fact that Widzew ultimately lost 1-4, nor the fact that the next morning it was a normal school day. For a long time I laid in bed remembering how great Marek shot was. In my mind I heard the voice of the overjoyed commentator: “It was a technical masterpiece!”

Before I closed my eyes, I told myself that one day I have to talk to my idol.

Sixteen years later the dream came true. We are talking. Both rich from an experience which changed us. In the past sixteen years I have managed to grow up. Marek though went through a path that he certainly didn’t expect. From a man who was once Polish football’s superstar, to a quiet former footballer with the “wasted talent” label.

You feel like an accomplished soccer player?

I think not. Although I still think that I have achieved a lot. Scoring goals in the Champions League or at Wembley Stadium was incredible. This is a memento for life

He is very humble and quiet. It is evident at first glance, you can simply hear it in his voice. It seems that he can’t find himself in the center of attention very well.

Talking to him, you don’t feel the barrier that some footballers create. Marek is very friendly and has no problem answering any question. Even if it’s very difficult.

I remember watching Widzew games in the Champions League when I was a ten-year-old boy. It was great to see you play and score so many nice goals. Few years later I could not accept that my idol couldn’t overcome the injury. How did you got through with it?

It was not easy, although at first I had no idea that the injury would shatter everything. I remember that I tore a tendon while falling to the pitch, I immediately thought, “That’s nothing, it happens. Fast recovery and I will be back in play”. I told it to myself every day, but when rehabilitation got longer and longer, I began to understand that it was much more serious. That my return to form was not simple.

Today I know that some cardinal errors were committed during the treatment. If we hadn’t realized that the doctor who took care of me was not the best, today I probably couldn’t even walk. But you know, at the time I didn’t think that way. I thought I will get fit quickly and everything will be just like before.

I know you’re a very religious person. Did religion help you through that difficult period?

Without faith, I would not make it through, that’s for sure. I read the Bible often, and my favorite book is The Book of Job. He took so many blows, lost everything he had, but even for a moment he didn’t stop to praise God. In difficult moments, I told myself that everything bad that happened to me during the career, is nothing from the perspective of eternity. I could not break down.

Several years ago, the magazine “Bravo Sport” was extremely popular among the kids – I don’t even know if it is still issued today. Anyway, the truth is that “Bravo Sport” was the first newspaper to introduce me to the world of football.
I read about the stars of the game, stars who always seemed very distant and totally inaccessible. I was convinced that the best players had kind of superhuman powers. It was clear, that the stars of the game ran faster, shot harder, and were generally unique.

“Bravo Sport” used to publish weekly rankings of the top athletes. There were people practicing various disciplines. Tennis players, boxers, basketball players … I didn’t even know who half of them were. In 1996, the first place, however, was reserved for a football player. Do you think for Ronaldo? Not at all! The most popular sports star among the Polish fans was Marek Citko.

Each and every person in Poland loved him at the time. It was often said that Citkomania prevailed. Every journalist wanted an interview with Marek, every kid dreamed of his autograph. Every girl wanted to get a kiss from him.

Indeed, it was a crazy time. So much was happening in my life. The phone would break, because everyone wanted to do an interview with me, get an autograph or drag me to a party. I’ll tell you that I was not prepared for it and I think that I was not aware of the scale of it all. Today, only in retrospect, I realize how popular I was.

It was faith and everyday routine that kept me on the ground. Because every now and then there was some training, a game or a camp, I managed to cut off from all the hype. It was also a period of my first major decision. I decided to propose to my fiancee, who helped me somehow survive that crazy time.

I remember that when we once went to the cinema someone recognized us. We immediately hid around the corner. We had to wait until the movie started, the lights went out, so we could go unnoticed and not cause a sensation.

From the time when Citko was at his best, Poland hasn’t seen a more talented player. He was more gifted than all of the today’s stars. He was technically better than Lewandowski and Blaszczykowski, and was able to decide the fate of matches with one touch. He anticipated everything two steps ahead. There is no doubt he could have played in any of the biggest European clubs.

After a few great matches in the Champions League a big move seemed to be just a matter of time.

The most attractive offer that I got came from Blackburn Rovers. They offered a salary of over one million pounds per year. At that time this was an unimaginable amount of money. However, money never meant a lot to me. I thought I was not ready to play abroad and decided to stay in Poland for a few more months.

Which teams, apart from Blackburn, wanted to transfer you from Widzew?

In the newspapers you could read that all of the best in Europe, but of course this was an exaggeration. I knew for sure that there were offers from Liverpool, Arsenal, AC Milan and Inter. But Blackburn gave the most money for Widzew, so I only negotiated with them.

Then came the disastrous injury that eventually ruined your career. You had no claims to the fate that struck such a blow to you?

I have a personal motto: “Let the will of heaven write your destiny”. I think it may serve as an answer. 

– Many people can’t cope when they lose everything in one day. Have you tried to retreat somehow by for example hitting a bottle?

Oh no. It was not my style, you know. Since I was little, I was taught that in difficult times you don’t look to the glass but at the cross. Faith has helped me overcome various temptations in my life. And I can tell you there were a lot of those.

Are you an unfulfilled talent?

As a footballer – I think so. But luckily as a man I feel satisfied. And this is much more important. I have a nice family and that’s what really matters. Being a footballer lasts for a few years, but being a father, a husband – that is something that lasts for life.

Today Citko is a football manager. As he says, he wants to help young players make the right decisions. He often watches lower-league matches and tries to bring talented players to the Ekstraklasa.

At first glance, the modest and withdrawn Citko does not fit into the milieu of managers, who have a very negative reputation. Most people believe football agents are the incarnations of evil, bloodsuckers feeding on footballers and squeezing them to the bone. However, according to Marek such an opinion is unfair, because in any job there is a group of people whose bad practices affect the perception of the whole.

Look at the doctors or lawyers. There are some black sheep among them, which spoil the opinion of all. So it is with managers and players. Not everyone does his job properly, but I focus on my work. I try to do my best and, until today, nobody accused me of anything – he says.

Citko points out that providing the best medical aid for the players in case of injury is what’s most important to him.
Some time ago, one of his players – Lukasz Gikiewicz from Slask Wroclaw – broke an ankle. Citko rapidly launched his contacts and the player got fit in just a few weeks.

That’s what I see as my greatest achievement in the work of an agent. And so I understand my function. You have to be with your player no matter if he is up or down. It’s so easy to pat one’s back when everything goes well. But to support someone in a difficult moment is much more valuable – Marek says with conviction.

In a low voice he says that he regrets that no one gave him a helping hand, in the first months after he was injured. Maybe then everything would be different? Maybe there would be more nights like that one in September, when Europe wondered how a young boy from Widzew ridiculed the famous Jose Molina?

Sixteen years have passed since that September evening. Almost everything had changed. It turned out that the world is not so remarkable as that seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. It turned out that even the greatest talent may lose his best years.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. I’ve never seen a goal more beautiful than the one scored by Marek Citko on that rainy autumn evening.