Inflow Of Cash Has Squeezed Out Ukraine’s Young Talent

LONDON, UK -- Life has changed a lot since Oleg Blokhin and Sergei Baltacha became the first Ukrainian footballers to be given the chance to sell their talents to the highest bidder.

Oleg Blokhin (L) and Andriy Shevchenko (R)

The two men from the golden generation of Dynamo Kiev, which doubled as the Soviet Union side, hardly had riches laid at their feet.

The pair came to the west in 1988 when they were granted their freedom after years of service to Dynamo, a favour unheard of in the Soviet state. Blokhin, the record scorer with 42 goals in that famous red shirt of the USSR and European Footballer of the Year in 1975, could do no better at the age of 34 than Vorwarts Steyr, a mediocre Austrian side, while Baltacha, at 30, joined Ipswich Town before moving to St Johnstone.

Neither man could have predicted that two decades later, one of their compatriots would be among the richest people in Britain. Andriy Shevchenko is paid £120,000 ($244,000) a week by Chelsea - over £6 million ($12 million) a season – while Andriy Voronin has seen his earnings soar since his move to Liverpool from Bayer Leverkusen.

The pair will be in Blokhin’s Ukraine side today facing Scotland at Hampden Park. Shevchenko and Voronin are very much in the minority. The bulk of Ukraine’s squad are drawn from domestic football – only five play their football abroad, and two of those are in Russia – and if that seems an anomaly in the modern football world without borders, then it pleases Blokhin.

The man who spent 15 years working abroad – 13 as a manager in Greece, where Craig Brewster played for Blokhin at Ionikos – has a deep-rooted mistrust of players who are mercenaries. He had a furious row last month with Voronin, accusing the Liverpool striker of being fat, and if the golden child, Shevchenko, is held up as a role model, Blokhin is still keen for his players not to stray too far from home.

That is no longer a problem in the new cash-rich Ukrainian league. Shakhtar Donetsk were paying Matuzalem £25,000 a week until the Brazilian defected to Real Zaragoza in Spain during the summer. Ukraine’s new emerging talent, Olexandr Gladkiy, the striker, has a more modest salary of £350,000 ($712,000) but the pay packet of the player dubbed the new Shevchenko has to be set against average monthly wages among ordinary working Ukrainians of £30 ($61).

The issue of whether Ukraine – and in particular, its two major clubs, Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev – are using their new wealth responsibly is under scrutiny. Dynamo’s squad for the current Champions League campaign is made up of 13 foreign players, including five Brazilians. Shakhtar, who have now eclipsed Dynamo thanks to the limitless money being spent by the owner, Rinat Akhemtov, have 14 foreign players in the 30-man squad including six Brazilians, as well as the Italy striker Cristiano Lucarelli – who scored against Celtic in the Champions League last month – and the Mexico forward, Nery Castillo.

Blokhin provoked international outrage in February 2006 when he made racist remarks as he analysed the changes in the Ukranian league. “The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation,” he said. “Let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some Zumba-Bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League.”

Blokhin’s appalling racism underlines that attitudes take longer to change than maps. Indeed, Scotland supporters were the victims of neo-Nazi thugs in Kiev last October. Ukraine is part of a new world, where money can now talk, unlike in Baltacha’s day.

Shakthar’s Brazilians may take great pleasure in sorting out Dynamo Kiev when Blokhin goes back there soon to manage. However, the fact that Gladkiy was able to make an impact at Shakhtar this season, underlines what a talent he is. The club spent £14 million to bring Lucarelli from Serie A (Livorono) and Castillo from Olympiakos. The fee for Gladkiy, on the other hand, was just £3.5 million to FC Karkiv. With so many Brazilians, mostly midfield players and forwards, being lured to Ukraine by huge salaries, it is hard for any home-grown striking talent to make an impact.

Dnipro, who were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Aberdeen last week, have split the Donetsk and Kiev giants in the title race by using a team built almost solely on Ukrainian players. Oleg Protasov, a teammate of Blokhim and Baltacha, feels that is the only way his more modest club can compete. However, there is little doubt that Ukraine is following Scotland’s example of the Scottish Premier League seven years ago – when Rangers paid out £12.4 million ($25.2 million) for Tore Andre Flo – when teams were top-heavy on imported players.

Barry Ferguson this week recalled being the only Scot in the Rangers side that played in the Champions League while Paul Lambert was, for a while, the only Celtic player in the Scotland side. The decline of the national team here had a direct link to the misuse of money at club level.

Gladkiy could start at Hampden after hitting 12 goals in 12 league games for Shakhtar Donetsk this season. He scored on his international debut against in a friendly with Uzbekistan in August, when he partnered Shevchenko, and has since made two brief appearances in the qualifying campaign.

“Who was I yesterday? Just a humble Kharkiv player. Now people expect me to score goals at every level,” Gladkiy said. “It would be nice to score my first competitive goal for my country tomorrow. But we will see. I have set myself a goal – to improve as a player and to play at the highest level possible. Shakhtar have given me a great chance to do so. Not so long ago I was looking at stars like Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho shine in the Champions League, now I have the opportunity to play against them.”

- The superstitious among the France team may be a little worried after fog prevented their plane from landing in the Faeroe Isles last night ahead of their crucial Euro 2008 qualifier today. The plane carrying Les Blues had to head to Bergen in Norway from where it was planning to make another attempt to land at the islands, between Scotland and Iceland in the north Atlantic.

UEFA rules stipulate that a team must arrive in the location of the match the day before it is due to be played. The France team, if their plane cannot land until today, can ask for the match to be moved to tomorrow. The Ukraine players train at Hampden Park before the meeting with Scotland.

Source: The Times