Star mistreatment

Sergei Rebrov is off to Istanbul – and his former translator, Dan Brennan, hopes the Ukranian will be better looked after at Fenerbache than at Tottenham

And so, finally, the Sergei Rebrov saga has drawn to a close. Just as it seemed he would be playing his football in West London, he has bid the Premiership a sad farewell and opted for Istanbul. It has been two wast­­ed years for the player, and an opportunity missed for Spurs and English football.

Disentangling the web of intrigue surrounding the Ukrainian over the last few months has become, even for the most ardent Rebrov watchers, a tricky business. I should first declare my interest. I worked with Sergei during his initial season at Spurs, in a role which of­ficially embraced English teaching and interpreting. Un­officially, it involved everything from assembling Ikea furniture to providing conflict resolution services – appeasing his Chigwell neighbours whose alarm systems were constantly being triggered by his nocturnal ham radio signals – and fielding calls on Christmas day about sea­sonal opening hours. Although we parted com­pany af­ter a year, I have continued to follow his career with more than passing curiosity.

As an Arsenal supporter, it was an odd situation to be in. I had watched him grab a last-minute Champions League equaliser against us for Dinamo Kiev and thought he’d be a great player to have. Arsene Wenger even made a £7 million bid. But doing my best to put par­tisanship aside, I became very fond of Rebrov – a good thing, really, as we spent a lot of time together. I think many people – those at football clubs included – underestimate just how much support a foreign player and his family need when they first arrive in a new country. I even found myself cheering from the stands when he scored in a derby at White Hart Lane – in mitigation I should say that he’d got me the ticket for my birthday, so it would have been bad manners not to.

Soon after his goal, with ten minutes to go, having worked his socks off, Rebrov was substituted. It was clear as he trundled off that, like the crowd, he could not understand why. Arsenal equalised at the death. I think that game was typical of his pre­dicament at Spurs. It was pearls to swine. The fans clear­­ly knew a good thing when they saw it, but neither George Graham nor Glenn Hoddle seemed to. The club failed to make him feel appreciated. That they man­aged to reduce one of Europe’s biggest ta­lents to a self-doubting benchwarmer in a couple of years will go down, in my view, as one of the great feats of football mis­management; and in Hoddle’s case it leaves an even more indelible question mark ag­ainst his interpersonal skills than his inept handling of Paul Gascoigne.

Rebrov is, by nature, reticent and retiring – he is certainly not the prima donna sort who goes crying to the tabloids at the first hint of a problem. For the most part he let his agent do the talking (some would say more than enough for both of them) and when he did speak about his situation at Spurs he al­ways showed remarkable restraint and de­corum. But in his final few days, as his transfer stalled for the ump­teenth time, he made a rare outburst. Hav­ing been made to wait for over three hours at the club outside the directors’ office as his future was discussed – like a naughty schoolboy awaiting punishment from the headmaster – he told me, in a mixture of anger and disbelief: “It is one thing not to be played, but to be treated the way that Daniel Levy has treated me – like a piece of meat, not as part of the club – is just lacking in human decency. He didn’t even say hello to me, or offer me a cup of tea. This would ne­ver have happened in Kiev.”

Widely reported as the reason for the late collapse of a move to Fulham was the player’s worry that Jean Ti­gana would not be there next season: after his un­happy experience with Hoddle, the Ukrainian is un­derstandably sensitive about finding a boss who will love him and be there for him. But the Tigana factor was also probably used to hide deeper concerns over the state of Fulham’s fin­ances. With Mohamed Fayed threatening to take away his ball, the Craven Cottage revamp in tatters, and the Marlet affair casting a pall over the club’s transfer dealings and sowing seeds of mistrust within the club, it is quite possible that Rebrov and his agent, Sandor Varga, look­ed 12 months down the line and didn’t like what they saw.

However, there are strong indications that having narrowly avoided a frying pan in Fulham, the ill-starred Ukrainian may just walk into a fire at Fenerbahce.

Apart from the fact that carting all that ham radio paraphernalia across Europe will be one hell of a hassle, Fenerbahce does appear a more enticing option. He should renew his acquaintance with European football and maybe add to the 28 Champions League goals (in­cluding nine in qualifying) that make him one of the competition’s all-time top scorers. He can link up with Argentina playmaker Ariel Ortega, as near to the anti­thesis of Steffen Freund as you can get and in fact just the sort of midfielder that Spurs have lacked since, oh irony of ironies, Hoddle the Player moved on. And of course being able to chew the fat with Russian international Vladimir Beschastnykh, whose claims, touchingly, that he “speaks the same language as Sergei on and off the field”, will make a nice change from waving help­lessly for the ball and exchanging grunts with Gary Doherty in the Spurs reserves. But not so fast – headlines pronouncing “Reb­rov’s Turkish Delight” could still be premature. Fenerbahce have big problems of their own.

First, let’s deal with Beschastnykh. Although his contract with Spartak Moscow ostensibly ran out on December 31, the Russians insisted that he, or any club that signed him, must pay them $800,000. This was the mys­tery factor that scared off Bolton, after Beschastnykh impressed in a trial.

The Turks thought they could tough it out and called Spartak’s bluff. But the Russians kept knocking on their door – literally. Last month, after Beschastnykh had already signed a deal with Fenerbahce, Spar­­­tak were also in town for their winter training camp. Late one evening, two of the Russian club’s sen­ior directors, allegedly in a state of some inebriation, came to Bes­chastnykh’s hotel room and told him he should pack his bags and go back to Moscow with them as Fenerbahce hadn’t shown them the money and he was still their player.

It transpired that Spartak really were the aggrieved party. Back in August, young Vladimir, it seems, signed an extension with Spartak until 2005, then lost his copy of the agreement and “forgot” all about it.

Fenerbahce made a last-ditch attempt to sign Kanu from Arsenal instead, just before the transfer window closed, but when this failed, in order to prevent fur­-ther outrage among their supporters, found them­selves with no choice but to cough up the money for Bes­chastnykh.

Several other Fenerbahce players are claiming they have not been paid for several months. The club’s president and main source of funds is Aziz Yildirim, who is apparently more concerned about completing a couple of five-star hotel projects, for which he needs to find an extra $60 million, than investing in the team. Mean­while, one of their most popular players, the Israel mid­fielder Haim Revivo, has signed for city rivals Gal­a- tasaray. It’s altogether not a happy scene.

Rebrov’s agent Varga has done business in Turkey be­fore and he is a canny operator, so one would think they are not going into this one blind. I hope not – it’s high time Rebrov got a lucky break.

From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month