Salutations comrades, it’s time for another long-winded post about how football may or may not look if the giant red star of socialism still reigned over eastern Europe. This time we’re looking at the big daddy of Communism, the Soviet Union (or the USSR). Don’t lie, you can hear the anthem going off as you read this.
As per usual, here’s a brief rundown on what the Soviet Union once was. The former nation has too rich and complicated a history to fully sum up in one paragraph, but essentially it was the nation state in which the red rule reigned over the East. After its dissolution in 1991, the nation was divided into, in alphabetical order; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. I know what you’re thinking, that’s a lot of –stans. You’re probably also thinking that the vast majorities of these countries have any pedigree to them, but that isn’t true at all; Latvia reached the final tournament stage of Euro 2004, Azerbaijan won the 2011 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, and Georgia gave us the birth of Joseph Stalin. Interpret that last point however you want.
However, in terms of current footballing ability, it is true that Russia and Ukraine boast the best output of talent. Ukraine have given us the Andriy Shevchenko, their current manager, and co-hosted the 2012 European Championships, while everyone reading this will still remember that glorious Russian World Cup in 2018 when the host nation made a stunning run to the quarter-finals in the same year football was this close to coming home. One day, guys, one day. There’s far too many other nations to mention their footballing successes, especially since none of them really have any to speak of, but Latvian Marians Pahars was a cult favourite when he played for Southampton, and Estonian Mart Poom was certainly also a footballer.
As a unified nation, the Soviets did have some remarkable footballing success stories, winning the inaugural European Championships in 1960, subsequently finishing as runners-up in 1964, 1972 and 1988, with a fourth place finish in 1968. Their best result at a World Cup finals was also in fourth place in 1966, though they still managed to reach the quarter-finals in 1958, 1962 and 1970. You can probably tell that the late 1950s-early 1970s was probably the team’s golden era, although the team’s all-time appearance-maker and goalscorer, Oleg Blokhin, was actually active in the period immediately after the team’s great successes. Poor Oleg. Of course, Soviet football in the 1960s is defined by the indomitable Lev Yashin, arguably the greatest goalkeeper to ever play the beautiful game, but we can’t forget figures such as Valentin Ivanov, Eduard Streltsov and Albert Shesternyov either.
The two strongest former Soviet football teams of today, Russia and Ukraine, sadly can’t hold a candle up to the quality the former USSR produced, much like a lot of the former socialist states of Europe mentioned in this series. This is what happens when you ban doping, people. In all seriousness, there is still some talent to be found in the old red zone, and today’s mission is to see if we can build a squad capable of competing with the best at a new-fangled Euro 2020. Is the squad good enough for us to see the iconic ‘CCCP’ adorned on their red jerseys on the international stage?
Well kids, it’s time to grab your hammers and sickles and solve this little pickle.
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev, Andriy Pyatov & Andriy Lunin
As is becoming a common theme in this series, the goalkeeper spots are probably the easiest ones to pick. Yes, we might be using the overturning of international retirement to our advantage a bit much, but it’s a small price to pay for the Soviet Union to have a slightly better option between the sticks.
Our number one choice is, of course, Igor Akinfeev. It can’t not be. He may have hung up his international gloves after the 2018 World Cup, but he would bring this team a wealth of experience and is a shoe-in to wear the captain’s armband from the net. 111 caps for Russia, over 600 appearances for CSKA Moscow, 19 pieces of domestic silverware and one UEFA Cup say it all. He has sometimes made mistakes, and he might not be Lev Yashin, but no one is ever likely to emulate the great man, and Akinfeev is a worthy first-choice shot-stopper.
Since Akinfeev’s international retirement in the harsh light of the real world, number one duties for Russia have been given to Guilherme, a naturalised Russian from Brazil. You’re going to see a lot of them come up here. He is by no means an unworthy contender for a place in the squad, as are fellow Russians Yuri Lodygin and Anton Shunin. Nor is Ukrainian goalkeeper Denys Boyko of Dynamo Kiev. For second and third spot, however, I’m sticking with long-term Ukraine number one Andriy Pyatov, and his understudy Andriy Lunin. Pyatov has been virtually undroppable from the starting XIs for both Shakhtar Donetsk and Ukraine since 2007, and has made over 400 appearances for the current Ukrainian champions, earned 92 caps for his country, winning 24 pieces of domestic silverware on top of the UEFA Cup in 2009. In all honesty it’s pretty tight between him and Akinfeev for the number one jersey, but I personally think Akinfeev has more pedigree on a higher stage. Also, there was that game I went to in 2010 where Pyatov dropped a cross straight onto Alex Song for him to score before letting another 4 goals in. My opinion of him hasn’t been the same since.
Finally, we have one of Europe’s brightest young goalkeepers in third spot, with Andriy Lunin. Although criminally underused at club level, Lunin is being slowly eased into the Ukraine setup to replace the aging Pyatov, and in a couple of years he could easily be the number one for both Ukraine and Real Madrid, whose books he is currently on. I mean they can’t stick with Thibaut Courtois for too long given the way he’s going, surely? And at only 20 years old, Lunin appears to have a bright future ahead of him. Also, if you swap the ‘u’ in his surname with an ‘e’, his name becomes Lenin. If that’s not destiny, then I don’t know what is.
Full-Backs: Mário Fernandes, Yuri Zhirkov, Oleksandr Karavayev & Oleksandr Zinchenko
I will quickly point out that the further up the pitch we go with this team the less familiar I am with names and ability. So to be honest this may turn into a slight guessing game, and it’s true there are probably some hidden gems lurking in the depths of Kyrgyzstan but I have neither the time nor the patience to go scoping them out, so we’re just going to have fun with what we’ve got. Fortunately, we don’t seem to need to worry too much about the full-back area, since nowhere seems to have much on offer, and the four good options are players I’ve actually heard of.
Our starting right-back is the not-Russian-at-all Mário Fernandes, another Brazilian converted into a red through the prospect of seizing the means of production. Having spent his career playing for CSKA Moscow since 2012, Fernandes has been a regular for the Russian national team since 2017, even scoring in a World Cup quarter-final against Croatia in 2018. He is comfortably first choice, but Ukrainian counterpart Oleksandr Karavayev is still a competent and dependable back-up. Normally a midfielder but deployed by the national team as a right-back, Karavayev plays for Dynamo Kiev and has 22 Ukraine caps to date. Solid.
On the left we have one of the most experienced full-backs around in Yuri Zhirkov. He may now be aged 36, but with 92 caps for Russia, 15 pieces of domestic silverware, the 2005 UEFA Cup and a spot in the Euro 2008 Team of the Tournament (yes, he really has been around that long), say it all about what he can bring to the team. Chelsea fans may not have the best memories of him, but he’s still my pick for the left-back slot here. If he gets tired, however (which, let’s face it, is pretty likely), Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko is ready to step in. Although Zinchenko is also a left-back in the loosest sense of the term, he has been so regularly deployed there by Pep Guardiola that he may as well admit that’s where he plays now. His ability to play all over the pitch is also a big help in case anyone further up the pitch finds themselves injured. A key squad player who will play a big impact from the bench.
If I were to do this in couple a years’ time from now, I’m pretty sure Dynamo Kiev left-back Vitalii Mykolenko would be pushing Zinchenko hard for a place in the starting XI after the inevitable retirement of Zhirkov. But this isn’t about the future, this is about today, and he just about misses out.
Centre-Backs: Georgiy Dzhikiya, Sergiy Kryvtsov, Ragnar Klavan & Alexandru Epureanu
I’ll be completely honest with you all here, now that Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins have retired, I’m struggling a bit to find a decent centre-back pairing. I might be stretching a bit here, or maybe I’m just being completely ignorant in my research, but this is the best I’ve come up with so you’ll have to stick with me on this.
My two starting centre-backs are going to be Russia’s Georgiy Dzhikiya, who currently plays for Spartak Moscow, and Ukrainian Sergiy Kryvtsov of Shakhtar Donetsk. Again, I don’t exactly know a lot about these people, but they seem like decent blokes so they’re who I’m picking. It’s like the Czechoslovak team all over again. To be fair, if Dzhikiya wasn’t injured for the World Cup I’d probably be waxing lyrical about his ability and his commanding presence, which I’m sure he has (he is six foot two after all), and I’m picking him regardless. It would’ve been helpful if I’d had the chance to see him play last summer. It would have been even more helpful if Ukraine had actually qualified for the World Cup so I could actually have the slightest of hints as to how good Kryvtsov is, but he appears to play for Ukraine on a regular basis, the people of Ukraine seem to trust him, and that’s good enough for me.
As for our two back-ups waiting in the wings, for the sake of having players who aren’t just Russian or Ukrainian, I’ve decided to branch out into the wilderness of Estonia and Moldova. Our first centre-back, from the blistering wilderness of the Baltic Sea, is Liverpool legend Ragnar Klavan. Ok, so maybe Klavan was never a model centre-back during his time on Merseyside, but in his homeland he is a bona fide hero. He has 127 international caps and has won Estonian Footballer of the Year on six (yes, SIX) separate occasions. At 34, his experience and (relative) defensive solidarity will make him a key figure on the red bench. Alongside our Baltic brute, we have Moldovan marvel Alexandru Epureanu. A big, burly defender who has spent the past five years as a regular fixture of Istanbul Basaksehir’s first XI, gaining experience in both the Champions and Europa League, as well as tallying up 91 caps for his country. A goal-scoring threat as well, we have two mightily experienced centre-backs to aid our younger starting pair.
Central Midfielders: Viktor Kovalenko, Taras Stepanenko & Ruslan Malinovskyi
Sticking with my tradition of not telling you lovely readers what formation this team is playing, it’s at this point in the article that I tell you we’re going with a 4-3-3 formation, so we have two starting central midfielders and one back-up. And this area has a distinctly Ukrainian feel about it.
Pairing up in our starting XI are Shakhtar Donetsk duo Viktor Kovalenko and Taras Stepanenko. Whether or not they can be described as ‘dynamic’ remains a mystery to me. What I do know, however, is that Kovalenko already has 22 caps for Ukraine at the age of just 23, has made over 170 appearances for Shakhtar and has won 10 major domestic trophies. He was even the top goalscorer at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup. From midfield. So he’s probably like Frank Lampard, which is all the more reason to put him in here. Next to him is his club vice-captain Stepanenko. Stepanenko adds more defensive steel and experience next to Kovalenko, providing a nice mix of creativity and aggression in the middle of the park. You might say he’s the hammer to Kovalenko’s sickle. Stepanenko has won 20 trophies with Shakhtar, whom he has been at since 2010, has played on Europe’s biggest stage, and has earned 54 caps for Ukraine. He slots comfortably into the midfield.
There is a decent amount of talent to pick from for our back-up midfielder. My choice may be Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi, but the position could easily have gone to any one of Vitaliy Buyalskyi, Artur Ionita, or Alan Dzagoev. In the end, we have a trio of Ukrainians, and Malinovskyi is here to make up the numbers. Earning a move to Champions League side Atalanta after a couple of stellar seasons with Genk, Manchester City fans might remember Malinovskyi’s goal-scoring exploits against them in Europe’s elite competition earlier this season. He seems a decent enough player, and his Champions League experience is certainly a nice addition to his CV.
Attacking Midfielders: Aleksandr Golovin, Aleksei Miranchuk & Valeri Qazaishvili
In the role of our creative output between the midfield and forwards, we have the shining gem in our team. Much like the star on top of the Kremlin, Aleksandr Golovin represents the beacon of prosperity the party promised us.
Arguably Russia’s brightest young talent, Golovin might be stuck in a struggling Monaco side right now, but his creativity and energy has made him a target for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. At only 23, he is bound to add extensively to his collection of 33 Russia caps, and hopefully to his one domestic title. He also has the versatility to drop back into the centre of midfield if necessary. It might be a bit of a weight to put on the young man’s shoulders, but he is certainly the talisman of this team.
Behind him in the pecking order, we have Lokomotiv Moscow star Aleksei Miranchuk (but not his twin brother Anton, spam those F buttons, my dudes) and San Jose Earthquakes playmaker Valeri Qazaishvili, because we need some Georgian blood in the squad. It’s what Stalin would have wanted. Could I have picked Estonian hero Konstantin Vassilijev instead? I could, but we already have Klavan in the squad and I think we all agree we could do with another nation being represented. Yes, Qazaishvili isn’t playing at the highest level in the MLS, but his numbers are consistently good. 8 goals and 5 assists last season, with 10 goals from 44 international caps, he may not be a star name but is a versatile squad player regardless. Miranchuk, on the other hand, has been the driving force going forward for Lokomotiv Moscow for the past few years, scoring and assisting consistently and proving to be a handful for any defence. A slight formation tweak could even see him in the starting XI, but for now he’ll have to make do with a place on the bench.
Wingers: Viktor Tsyhankov, Denis Cheryshev, Marlos & Andriy Yarmolenko
If there’s one area of the Soviet squad that is pretty stacked with talent, it’s out wide. It’s actually pretty incredible the quality of the players we have to work with here is, especially when you consider that Yehven Konoplyanka, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aliaksandr Hleb all miss out here. As an Arsenal fan who has been trying his best to include as many nations outside of Russia and Ukraine in this squad, it truly pains me having to leave the last two out, especially when a good case could be made for both of them being their respective country’s greatest ever player.
But here we are, instead starting for us on the right wing we have Viktor Tsyhankov. I may have already spoken pretty highly of Aleksandr Golovin being the Iron Curtain’s next big thing, but we have another rather big thing here in the form of Tsyhankov. At the time of writing, Tsyhankov has scored 49 goals for Dynamo Kiev, set up 3 goals from 5 Europa League group stage games this season, and has 3 goals in 15 appearances for Ukraine. He slots straight into the starting line-up, and I would predict him to have a breakout tournament at Euro 2020 this coming summer, even though he’ll be coming up against the likes of van Dijk and de Ligt at the tournament. His standby is another Shakhtar Donetsk star in Marlos. Another one who isn’t Ukrainian at all, but converted from being Brazilian after listening to the Soviet anthem on repeat every night before he went to bed, Marlos has been a star man for the all-conquering Shakhtar for half a decade now, hitting 22 goals in 2018-19 alone, an impressive tally for a winger. He may not have fully carried over his club form to the international stage just yet, and at 31 he’s running out of time to, but he remains a solid staple in this glorious brotherhood of a team.
On the opposite flank, we have Russia’s 2018 World Cup star Denis Cheryshev. Often underused at club level, Cheryshev has always had potential (he was on Real Madrid’s books for as long as he was for good reason), and exploded onto the scene out of nowhere during the tournament, scoring 4 goals (his first for his country), and he hasn’t looked back since, adding another 7 since the end of the tournament and becoming almost undroppable from the Russian team. If you needed any more proof of his credentials, he was named in the McDonald’s Fantasy XI for the 2018 World Cup, so there you go, onto the pitch he goes. If you don’t think being named in the McDonald’s Fantasy XI is a good enough reason to warrant a place in this XI, then you could always put Andriy Yarmolenko in instead. Whilst I personally do, you have to feel bad for Yarmolenko’s recent run of luck. He’s a box of tricks who used to score for fun for Dynamo Kiev, and has a further 37 goals for Ukraine, but for West Ham he’s been blighted by injuries, and they always seem to happen just as he’s hitting his stride. If he stays fit, he has a guaranteed place in this team. If he doesn’t, well, I guess we can just call Konoplyanka instead.
Strikers: Artem Dzyuba & Júnior Moraes
As we draw towards the end of our squad of working class heroes, it’s time to take a look at the two strikers we’re relying on to bang in the goals to appease glorious leader Joseph. Yes, that’s only two strikers I’ve selected, but with the range of available goalscoring talent on offer it’s honestly the best I can do. However, if anyone reading this is an avid fan of either Fedor Chalov, Fyodor Smolov or Roman Yaremchuk, or all of the above for that matter, then I’ll give them a shout out just for you. This section would be so much easier if Roman Pavlyuchenko and Aleksandr Kerzhakov were still playing, which really says something about the mediocrity we’re dealing with here.
Leading the forward line and marching us to victory, it has to be Russia captain Artem Dzyuba. A prolific goalscorer for his country, with 24 from 42 games, Dzyuba is equally prolific for Zenit St. Petersburg, with 13 goals and 10 assists so far this season as Zenit top the Russian Premier League. With clinical finishing, creative output and aerial threat, Dzyuba is unquestionably the main man up top. Although Ukraine’s Júnior Moraes does push him close. Another Ukrainian who isn’t actually at all Ukrainian but is actually Brazilian but they aren’t good enough for Brazil so they left for Ukraine instead, Moraes is yet to score for his newly-adopted country since switching allegiances, but with 42 goals in one-and-a-half seasons with Shakhtar Donetsk, he’s more than worthy of the 23rd and final spot in this squad.
And so, comrades, our quest to put together a current Soviet football squad is at an end. I think we can all agree it was a bit of a rollercoaster, and that Ragnar Klavan’s cameo was a particular highlight. My apologies to everyone who isn’t from either Russia or Ukraine for not branching out of those two countries that much, but the sad state of affairs is that they are significantly better than any of the other post-Soviet countries. As usual, to satisfy those of you wanting some extra details, the team would most likely play their home games at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, and seeing as Stanislav Cherchesov led the Russian team to a World cup quarter-final, and has eased them into the finals of Euro 2020 since his appointment, I think he’s probably top dog to manage the team here. I should mention that Andriy Shevchenko is doing a bang-up job in charge of Ukraine’s national side right now, and if he ever goes into management one day, I would love to see my boi Andriy Arshavin in charge.
How well would this team do at a major tournament? Sadly, much like the other teams that have been looked at here, I wouldn’t get too excited about the prospect of Soviet victory. On the football field, at least. Sure, the team has some star quality and should easily be able to navigate qualification, but to go on a deep run through the tournament? I have my doubts, but who knows, they have the potential to pull off an upset or two – remember the 2018 World Cup, after all.
With the conclusion of this article, we’re now three quarters of the way through this little series, and I think it’s safe to say that, for now, we have truly been rummaging in a cesspool of mediocrity. But at least East Germany was an entertaining cesspool. You don’t need to believe me when I say I’ve saved the best until last, but I assure you that in this instance that is undoubtedly the case. We round out this series with a look at a modern-day Yugoslavia squad, and if you, like me, have been disappointed at the lack of star names that have come up so far, just wait until you see what Tito’s got cooking.
Thanks for reading! Good night, and good ebening.