World Cup 2010: New Powers Rise In the East

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World Cup 2010: New Powers Rise In the East
(Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

For most fans, the world of football in the former Soviet republics is mostly an unknown. Most clubs don't attract much international attention. Most of the West finds a grayish haze shielding any land east of German borders.

But in the dawn of a new day, the powers of the East are only just awakening.

And next summer in South Africa, several of these new powers could very well break down the doors of international respect. Russia and its former republics have experienced revolutions in the past, and they are in the midst of a new one now.

Fans in Spain, England, and Italy have already seen part of it first-hand. Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko delivered a major opening statement as he ran unchallenged through Serie A, scoring 127 times in seven seasons. He now stands in second place all-time in scoring for AC Milan, behind the great Gunnar Nordahl.

Then came Belarusian Alexander Hleb and Russian Andrei Arshavin, both moving to Arsenal—Hleb in 2005, Arshavin in early 2009. Scoring four times on a debut at Anfield is probably not something that a lot of players can say they have done.

But Arshavin can.

The move of Yuri Zhirkov to Chelsea has gone incredibly under the radar so far. Many casual Chelsea supporters would probably say they hadn't even heard of Zhirkov before he went to Stamford Bridge.

But a handful of talented players moving west isn't enough to start a revolution now is it?

First Revolution: Quality of Club Football

Club football in the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, even the Baltic nations and oil pipeline countries, has reached many new highs over the past several years.

For starters, no former Soviet republic had ever won the UEFA Cup since its creation in 1972. That is, until 2005.

In the last five years, the Cup has been won three times by an Eastern European club. In 2005, it was CSKA Moscow hammering Sporting CP in Portugal by a final tally of 3-1. It was the first time that the Cup made its way to the Russian capital city.

Next, Zenit St. Petersburg bulldozed to the Cup in 2008, eradicating Bayern Munich 4-0 in the semifinals before shutting out Rangers 2-0 in Manchester's final. Zenit also took down English Premier League giants Manchester United to win the UEFA Super Cup that same year.

And most recently, Ukrainian power Shakhtar Donetsk won the 2009 Cup in extra time over Bundesliga side Werder Bremen.

But many doubters will point to the lack of Champions' League success.

Oh, just wait.

Apart from European success, the face of club football in Eastern Europe has also been changed for the better. Of course, there will always be a truck load of Russians playing for CSKA Moscow and a bushel of Ukrainians playing for Dynamo Kiev.

The difference now is the internationals in leagues. Brazilians. Argentines. Nigerians. Koreans. Players from all continents are coming East, and not as a retirement home either.

Like many top clubs in England, Spain, or Italy, the starting 11 are comprised almost entirely of international stars in their respective countries.

And the money is just beginning to stream in.

 

Second Revolution: Young Talent

It's become almost common for local children to have access to football training. Many top clubs across the land run camps for young players to develop their skills. Thanks to these opportunities, many highly-touted teenagers are leaping from the ground.

Let's highlight a couple.

First, there is Alan Dzagoev, a 19-year-old Russian attacking midfielder for CSKA Moscow. He was the Russian Premier League's Best Young Player of 2008, his first full season with the Moscow giants.

He was so impressive for CSKA that he earned a call-up to the national team in October 2008, and became the youngest outfield player in history for Russia when he came on as a second-half substitute against Germany.

His passion for the game is second to none. His former manager said "Dzagoev plays football not for fame and money, but because football is his life."

Next is another attacking midfielder, 20-year-old Kazakh Zhambyl Kukeyev. Kukeyev plays for Lokomotiv Astana, and if you aren't from England or Kazakhstan, you probably have never heard of this young star.

His current claim to fame is scoring at Wembley Stadium against England after snatching up an errant Ashley Cole pass and running through the defense before beating David James to the far post. At the time, the goal cut the English lead to 2-1.

Ukraine has their centerback of the future in towering Shakhtar Donetsk defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. The 22-year-old has already accomplished more than his weight in gold on the field.

Chygrynskiy has established himself as a dominant back line presence for any team he plays for, and became a full-time starter for Ukraine before his 21st birthday. According to Kiev newspapers, he rejected a move to Barcelona in order to stay with Shakhtar.

Finally, there is no way to leave Igor Akinfeev off the list. Russia's starting netminder has quickly emerged as the best keeper nobody knows much about. And he's only 23.

Akinfeev was a major reason for Russia's unexpected run to the semifinals of Euro 2008 and a pivotal piece to the team now sitting in 6th place of FIFA's July rankings. He is currently on a streak of not allowing a goal in over 430 minutes of international competition en route to four consecutive shutouts.

As scary as it may sound too, he still improves with every match he starts.

 

Third Revolution: New Facilities

It's true that many stadiums in former Soviet republics are small in size. It's also true that the quality of the pitch can deteriorate easily in some places too, many thanks to the weather.

But a boatload of clubs will be moving to new, state-of-the-art homes in a couple of years. Zenit St. Petersburg, CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow, FC Astana, and Shakhtar Donetsk will all open new venues for certain, as the construction is either nearly completed or under way. 

That doesn't even include the 80,000 seat Colossus that Kiev is constructing for Euro 2012, which very well might be passed on to Dynamo Kiev after the tournament.

Many cities like Grozny, Kazan, Yekaterinburg and Borisov all plan for new arenas. Dnipropetrovsk has already opened doors to the Dnipro Stadium in 2008.

 

Fourth Revolution: National Relevance

For about a year now, national teams are beginning to gain more respect around the football world. Some could say it started 13 months ago, when Russia dominated the Netherlands in Basel, 3-1. Russia wasn't expected to win the group, or even advance for that matter.

But they did, and Guus Hiddink's men sent his home nation packing after 120 minutes of heart-racing action.

Russia now sits one point behind Group Four leaders Germany in World Cup qualifying, and are staring at a showdown in Moscow for the group in a couple months. The Sbornaja also have reached their highest FIFA ranking in the past 14 years, as they came in 6th in the most recent national standings.

Captained by Andrei Arshavin, the squad also features Zhirkov, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Konstantin Zyryanov and keeper Akinfeev.

The Ukraine isn't a side to stick your nose up at either. Sitting at 19th in the world, the Ukrainians have found a way to consistently get into the top 20 over the past several years. Despite missing out on Euro 2008, they are right back in the mix for the World Cup.

Shevchenko is their unquestioned leader, but the team also fields plenty of other skilled players. Anatoliy Tymoschuk, Andriy Voronin, Serhiy Nazarenko, Chygrynskiy and Andriy Vorobei have all shown brilliance on the international stage.

The team is currently tied with Croatia for second place in Group Six, behind undefeated England. Although the Ukrainians have already drawn twice with Croatia, two of their remaining matches are against Andorra and they face England in Kiev.

And if the battle waged at Wembley Stadium is any indication to how the October match will go, the Ukrainians may even be a slight favorite at home.

Belarus is miraculously still alive. With five games left to play, three at home, the hard-working Belarusians could find themselves going to South Africa too. Kazakhstan has all but been eliminated from the World Cup, but their showing against England will stick with many for a long time.

A match that finished 5-1 in favor of England, the score would indicate a total domination from the home side, which it was anything but. Kazakhstan played very well and will only improve as football grows in the country.

The Revolution is under way. And it isn't close to complete.     

 

 

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