Life has been tough for the independent countries that grew out of the olf Soviet Union. Kevin O'Flynn  tracks the progress of the smaller republics in the latest qualifiers

In 1988, the soviet union’s football team was more or less at its peak, reaching the final of the European Championships. Unfortunately for them, it was more or less the only part of the country that still functioned as well. When the Union broke up ten years ago no one realised how badly afffected the new republics would be. The lack of decent competition – think what would happen if the Premiership were split into 15 regional leagues – was bad enough, but the economic collapse of most of the republics meant that most decent foot­ballers could not earn a proper wage.

Governments stopped all funding and the best players fled abroad, while the rest needed another job to survive. Even Russia, with the best league and long­est traditions, suffered badly and the knock on effect on the national team means they haven’t qualified for an international competition since 1996.

The smaller republics have shown alarming swings of fortune. Apart from Russia and Ukraine, Lithuania and Georgia, with their strong club sides, Zhalgiris Vilnius and Dynamo Tbilisi,might have been expected to survive better than others. The stronger economies of the Baltic countries have given them a head start, although ethnic conflicts in Latvia and Estonia – where Russian players, as with much of the Russian population, were discriminated against – hardly helped.

Latvia, now led by former Watford coach Gary Johnson, won 3-1 in Norway in Euro 2000 qualifying and might have pipped Slovenia for a play-off spot but for their habit of conceding late goals, but in the World Cup they have already lost their first two home games – unluckily 1-0 to Scotland then catastrophically 4-0 to a weakened Belgium. And this after impressive friendly victories over Finland and Stockport County.

The big surprise of the Baltic sides this time, though, is the miserable display of Lithuania. Basketball is the Lithuanians’ most popular sport but they nearly made it to the play-offs for France 98 (a point behind Ireland) and had been the most consistent performers otuside the big two among all the former Soviet republics. Three games into the World Cup qualifying campaign, however, and they have no points and a goal difference of minus ten.

Critics have blamed the constant change of coaches – the latest incumbent was rashly sacked a day before the 6-1 trouncing by Hungary – lack of finances and hints of corruption. Team morale can’t be too good after the death of midfielder Irmantas Stum­brys, recently found shot in his car, an al­leged sui­cide. The other Bal­tic side, Estonia, have six points court­esy of San Marino but, Mart Poom notwithstanding, can’t expect to get many more in a tough group, hav­ing al­ready lost to Ire­land and Por­tugal.

The southern republics of Geor­gia and, to a lesser extent, Armenia, played a big role in Soviet football. The USSR’s only major triumph – the 1960 European Championship – was based on two Georgian wingers and Dynamo Tblisi were one of the Soviet league’s most consistent performers in the European club competitions. But the civil war of the early Nineties and a disastrous economic situation have played havoc with the domestic game and make it a continual surprise that they have a team at all.

The strong displays of Georgian players abroad have encouraged a new generation of young players in Tbilisi, but their Euro 2000 performance was a nightmare, as they took only two points from the last nine games and finishing bottom of a weak group, below Albania. Things are rosier now under coach Rezo Dzod­zuashvili, back home after a spell in charge of Latvia. They whipped Lithuania away 4-0 with Georgi Kinkladze on good form and then were unlucky to lose 2-0 to Italy. The only cloud on the horizon is a rumour that Dzodzuashvili may be lured away to Fiorentina.

Armenia also suffered huge dislocation during the war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, and their football has been beset by corruption and match-fixing allegations – all a far cry from the mid-Seventies, when Ararat Yerevan won the Soviet title and jous­ted with the likes of West Ham in Europe. The dom­estic season again end­ed in farce, with several clubs boycotting matches over claims of biased refereeing.

The national team is again bottom of their group with only one point after three games, despite some improved performances. They only lost 3-2 at home to Ukraine and chiselled out a 0-0 draw in Norway with another fine performance by keeper Roman Ber­ezovsky. He was set to join St Etienne last summer but turned them down after describing their offer as “pea­nuts.” He now wants to go to England and, if anyone is listening, has plenty of caps for the work permit.

Belarus, in the same group, are another side whose form has fluctuated wildly, but now seem to be im­proving. Wins over Wales and Armenia mean they have already doubled their points total in the Euro 2000 campaign, al though admittedly two of those came from draws with Italy and Denmark.

In charge is Eduard Malofeev, a famous former player and coach of Dynamo Minsk, whom he took to their only Soviet championship in 1982 – the last time a club from outside Russia or Ukraine won the league. The backbone of the Belarus team comes from the Russian league – Malofeev him­self still lives in Moscow. Arsenal fans may remember Vasily Baranov on the left for Spartak during their recent 4-1 defeat in Moscow. More important are the two Dy­namo Kiev strikers Alexander Khatskevich and Val­entin Belkevich, who provided the goals in their thor­oughly deserved 2-1 win over Wales in Minsk.

They don’t expect to qualify – a 3-1 loss to Poland came in between the wins – but they can make opponents uncomfortable. Certainly, few teams can be eager to go to Belarus, which is pretty much like the old Soviet Union only with less sausage and lots of pictures of the autocratic president and Bobby Charlton lookalike, Alexander Lukashenko.

The other two republics, Azerbaijan and Moldova, have the worst prospects. Azerbaijan are bottom of their group with no points, Mol­dova just ahead, courtesy of a 0-0 draw with Mac­edonia. The Azeri FA say they have some grounds for optimism. The squad is full of young, up and coming players, and although half the football pitches in Baku (that is, five) have disappeared over the past decade, UEFA are now helping them rebuild a stadium. It’s been a long and bitter road since 1988.

From WSC 167 January 2001. What was happening this month

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