It is only when one takes a step back and analyzes the caliber of footballers that came out of the former-Eastern bloc countries in the early 90s, compared to the modern era’s standards, that the lamentable gap in quality is apparent.
The world-class players that migrated from the east following the fall of the Iron Curtain were, despite the freedoms now at their disposal, still products of the old communist mechanism – they were sons of that socialist mindset. For decades the governments of the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia viewed football as a national priority, and the nation’s players were provided with top class conditions to flourish.
The football players that emerged during the tail-end of the communist regime were among the region’s finest, their talent allowing them to escape the political and social turmoil that swept across the Eastern bloc post-communism for fame and fortune in the West. Here are five of the best from east of Berlin:
Andrei Kanchelskis (Russia)
Regarded by many as being the last great player to emerge from the Soviet Union, Andrei Kanchelskis was capped 23 times for the USSR and holds the distinction of scoring the country’s final goal in international football before its dissolution, when he found the target against Cyprus in a Euro 92 qualifier in 1991.
Born in Kirovograd, Ukraine, to Lithuanian parents, Kanchelskis ultimately opted to represent Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a decision which led to him being branded a traitor in the land of his birth.
After two years with Dynamo Kiev and one with Shakhtar Donetsk, Kanchelskis’ big break came in March 1991, when, just shy of his 22nd birthday, he signed for Manchester United, for a fee of £650,000. The atmosphere in Britain at the time was still a largely distrustful attitude towards overseas players, and in the aftermath of the Cold War a special icy reservation was kept for those from the former Soviet Union.
It didn’t take long for the right-sided winger to shatter those preconceptions and win over the United fans, both with his performances on the pitch and demeanour off it. After three successful seasons at Old Trafford, which saw Manchester United win two Premiership titles and the FA Cup, Ferguson awarded Kanchelskis with a new contract; elevating him to among the top earners at the club, with a salary almost a thousand times more than what he had been earning in Ukraine.
Although Kanchelskis finished the 1994-95 season as United’s top scorer, a falling out with manager Alex Ferguson led to a £5 million transfer to Everton. A successful spell on Merseyside precipitated an £8 million move to Italian club Fiorentina, where he never quite recaptured the form that had made him one of the most feared wingers in the world in the first half of the decade. Glasgow Rangers brought him back to British shores after 18 months in Florence, where he became the only player to ever score in the Manchester, Merseyside and Glasgow derbies, but his star was waning to the extent that he was nearly allowed to leave Scotland after a few months.
Although it may have petered out in the footballer’s retirement home that is Saudi Arabia, Andrei Kanchelskis’ career was one of a pioneer, displaying a flair and individuality that had been hitherto unseen. His move to Manchester United in 1991 began the process of bridging Soviet and Russian football, bringing the first piece of mystery from behind the Iron Curtain to the modern Western football conscience, and all on the most illustrious of stages.
Trifon Ivanov (Bulgaria)
In spite of the fact that he never played for any of the glamorous clubs of the European game, 90s football lovers would easily recognize Trifon Ivanov, in part thanks to his remarkable performances for Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Imperious as the defensive heart of an unfancied side that reached the semi finals, it was hard not to notice him, given his rather unique appearance. Stockily built, and sporting an unkempt mullet and a scraggly beard, he was nicknamed “The Wolf”. Needless to say, his presence on the pitch was intimidating in the extreme.
Ahead of the quarter final clash with Germany in New Jersey in ’94, Ivanov reassured manager Dimitar Penev of any pre-match nerves: “Just relax. With my bloodthirsty look, they will be scared to death. Rudi Voller will fall to the ground when he feels my breath.”
He had a superb game in a 2-1 win, best remembered for Yordan Lechkov’s flying header. Ivanov’s key moment coming when, in typical selfless and brave style, he threw himself in front of a fierce shot from Lothar Matthaus.
Throughout his 10 year career with the national team, Ivanov scored six goals in 76 appearances, two of which stand out.
The first was the phenomenal volley against Wales in Cardiff that opened the score en route to their 3-0 win in the Euro 96 qualification. Trifon received the ball on the edge of the penalty area and smacked a stunning valley into the top corner. It was a strike of pure class by any player, let alone a no-nonsense defender.
The second was a superb header against Russia during the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, which made sure the Bulgarians finished top of the group ahead of their rivals and qualified for France ’98.
Not as illustrious as his international career, Ivanov’s club career took him from CSKA Sofia in 1990 to Real Betis in Spain where, after 3 years in Andalusia, he moved on to Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland and then Rapid Vienna in Austria, drawing admirers and fans wherever he ended up. After retiring from football in 2001, Ivanov chose to retire to a quiet life, close to his home town of Veliko Tarnovo, where he sadly passed away in February 2016, aged just 50.
Zvonimir Boban (Croatia)
A gifted and classy playmaker, Croatian Zvonimir Boban enjoyed nine seasons in Italy with AC Milan, where he lifted the 1994 European Cup following a 4-0 win over Barcelona, and helped the Rossoneri claim 4 Serie A titles. The Imotski-born midfielder also enjoyed a hugely successful international career with the newly-independent Croatia, becoming an integral part of the side that reached the quarter finals of Euro 96 and went one further two years later, making it to the last 4 of the 1998 World Cup in France. Before civil war broke out in the early 90s, Boban was also a member of the famed Yugoslavian national team that won the Under-20 World Cup in Chile in 1987, alongside other future stars of the game, such as Predrag Mijatovič, Robert Prosinečki and Davor Šuker.
As well as being a legend in his own right on the football field, the 22-year old Boban was bestowed the title of ‘national hero’ by his compatriots for his actions after an infamous match between his Dinamo Zagreb side and the Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade in May, 1990. It was during this encounter in Zagreb that Boban risked his own career to defend a young Dinamo supporter from the Yugoslav authorities, who were viewed as being on the side of a greater Serbia.
With Croatian and Serb nationalism on the rise at the time, the famous ‘kick heard all around the Balkans’ was adopted by Croatians as a symbol of protest against the struggle for independence from Yugoslavia. Many still believe that this event was the first ‘domino’ to fall on the road to the Croatian war of independence.
Georgi Kinkladze (Georgia)
When the diminutive and absurdly talented Georgi Kinkladze joined Manchester City in the summer of 1995, few could have envisaged that he would end up as a cult hero in English football. ‘Gio’, as he was affectionately known by the City faithful, arrived in Manchester from Dinamo Tbilisi, following a brief and unsuccessful loan spell in Argentina with Boca Juniors. City chairman Francis Lee had been left sufficiently impressed by the VHS recordings he had of him running rings around Wales in a 5-0 pounding in Tbilisi, and a exquisite chip over Neville Southall in the return game in Cardiff.
Despite arriving as a total unknown, from a war-torn country on the other side of Europe, the 22-year-old Kinkladze was an instant hit with the City fans. His ability to ghost past players was regularly City’s most potent attacking weapon at a time when the team lacked quality and were perennial Premier League strugglers. This rare ability to glide past the opposition was typified in his sublime goal against Southampton, when he beat 5 Saints defenders, before delicately chipping the ball over the grounded Dave Beasant. Thanks to his small stature, his nimbleness meant that it was near impossible for defenders to dispossess him.
City’s most famous fan, Oasis musician Noel Gallagher, described Kinkladze at the time as “either the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen or the best thing I’ve ever seen”, predicting that he would either lead City to the European Cup, or take them down to the fourth division. He was nearly right: after three seasons at City, which also saw him win two club Player of the Year awards, Kinkladze was eventually sold to Ajax for £5 million in 1998 – a price tag which would be the equivalent of £40 million in today’s market – but City had just been relegated to the third tier of English football.
Kinkladze would struggle to hit the heights of his City heyday, flittering from an unhappy spell in Holland back to England with Derby County, and then on to Russia and Cyprus, but even though he burned briefly, at least it was brightly.
Lubomir Moravcik (Slovakia)
Slovak Lubo Moravcik is a player of which there is little awareness outside of the leagues he played in, but for those who did see him play, his immense talent is remembered with great fondness.
Despite playing for a number of European clubs throughout his career, the two that Moravcik is strongest associated with were French side Saint-Etienne and Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic. Lubo arrived in France from Czechoslovak First League team FC Nitra in 1990 and, deployed as an advanced playmaker, the Saint-Etienne support quickly grew to adore him. Signings such as Laurent Blanc and Roland Wohlfarth were used to strengthen the team around Moravcik’s talents but it wasn’t enough to save the once-great club from relegation to Ligue 2 in 1996, hastened by financial difficulties and internal board conflicts. Recalling his time in France with Bordeaux, Zinedine Zidane famously called Moravcik one of the best players he had played against in Ligue 1.
Two years later, following brief spells in Corsica with FC Bastia and with German side Duisburg, Moravcik was brought to Scotland by former Czechoslavkian coach Jozef Venglos. The Scottish media viewed the signing of an unknown 33 year old Slovakian for a mere £300,000 as a sign of desperation from Celtic. Venglos would have the last laugh, however, as Moravcik left an indelible mark on the Celtic fans and the Scottish game. Two weeks after his debut, Moravcik announced himself to the Celtic support in the most perfect manner, scoring two goals in a 5-1 victory over fierce rivals Rangers.
Moravcik arrived at Celtic during a time when Rangers were throwing money at world-class players and the Bhoys struggled to keep up with their neighbours. Although Venglos and, after him, John Barnes, ultimately turned out to be unsuccessful managerial appointments, Moravcik remained one of the few consistent bright spots in this dark spell for the club. The arrival of Martin O’Neill in the summer of 2000 however, saw the Slovakian playmaker, in the twilight of his career, perform in the Champions League for the first time, and claim 5 trophies in the space of two years.
One of Moravcik’s most memorable performances in the green and white hoops came against Juventus at Celtic Park in the Champions League in 2001, when he famously nutmegged Czech legend Pavel Nedved – something which Nedved recently recalled:
“I was lucky to play at Celtic Park at the same time as Lubo – but I wasn’t fortunate with the way he played against us that night.”
Lubomir Moravcik was a special player, one whose technical ability was exceeded only by his intelligence. A rare breed that possessed the natural ability to play at as high a level as he had ever played up until his mid-thirties. Equally lethal with his left foot as he was with his right, he would often alternated when taking set pieces. Moravcik was most of all an entertainer: he lit it up the pitch, brought showmanship wherever he went and gave the fans golden moments to remember.