Eastern European Number Tens]
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The Eastern European number 10: a byword for vision, icy composure, and
technical excellence. Have a glance at some of the best of the last 25
years (and Andrei Arshavin).
back at the Bulgarian team of the 1994 World Cup. You might find
yourself captivated by the balding grace of Letchkov, cowering at the
otherworldliness of Trifon Ivanov's violent visage, or sniggering at
the Bobby Mihaylov barnet. Certainly, you’ll shiver at the thought of
leaving a testicle in the way of a Stoichkov bullet-shot - or tackle,
for that matter. Furthermore, you might feel that you've witnessed how
the esoterica of this generation combined, for those two months in 1994
at least, to form a wonderfully enigmatic, memorable, and above all
Now, ask yourself: who or what made all this
possible? The answer is simple: the little chap with the
bubble-mullet-perm wearing the, er, number 20 jersey. Despite the fact
that he didn't wear the famous number at this tournament, Balakov was
the man who made things happen on the pitch for the Bulgarians. A
prompting, buzzing presence, he was at the source of so much of that
team's endeavour in the US, flying around the pitch and providing
service for the rapiers that were Stoichkov and Kostadinov.
would go on to wear the 10 at Euro 96 and France 98 for his country,
though neither he nor his team managed to replicate their earlier
successes. He did, however, have an excellent club career, shining
brightly in both Germany and Portugal. For me, though, the best
memories of Krassimir will always be his exploits in the Home of the
Brave, when he so thrillingly lit the touchpaper that erupted into one
of the most-loved and most-fondly remembered teams of the modern era.
yes, it's Boban. Very little remains to be written or documented in
relation to the man Zvonimir; a national hero, adored by half of Milan,
extravagantly gifted, and possessed of looks that would make the
aforementioned Trifon weep with envy. Life must be tough for the
Boban's position in the Croatian footballing
pantheon is one of prominence. His political savvy and the timing of
certain of his "actions" have made him the darling of most of his
nation's fans. Yet, beyond the words and the statements can be found a
footballer bestowed with a vision, technique, and determination that
made him one of the outstanding midfielders of his generation.
who saw the wonderful Milan side of the early-mid 1990s will likely
never forget or underestimate the role that Boban played in that team.
Surrounded by some of the most polished talents the game has seen,
Boban was at first something of a curiosity. As time went by, his
consistently immaculate performances and drive to control the game
helped improve a squad that many felt was as close to perfect as could
be. He became a legend at the San Siro, notching up over 250 league
appearances in a long, successful spell that resulted in 4 scudetti, a
Champions League, and a European Super Cup.
international side of things, Boban was a figure so talismanic and
pivotal that he came to almost single-handedly represent a superb,
gifted Croatian generation. This was the era of Prosinečki, Šuker,
Bokšić, and Bilić, but it was captain Zvonimir who was most often the
centrepiece. And rightly so.
more can be said of wee Gheorghe, one of the most well-known,
widely-respected, and celebrated footballers ever to have come out of
Eastern Europe - or, more specifically, the Balkans? In his country,
Romania, he was and still is a figure of such immense stature that he
was named as that nation's "Golden Player" in 2003. He also managed to
bag the "gong" for Player of the Year in Romania on a rather splendid
Hagi boasted several nicknames, including the
wildly overused "Carpathian Maradona," a designation which was, unlike
in the majority of similar cases, reasonably fitting. As evidenced
elsewhere, I'm often partial to the usage of the word "jinky" when
describing short, agile attacking midfielders, a description that seems
entirely appropriate in relation to our man Hagi. Old Gheorghe loved
nothing more than to sit behind a frontman, take the ball in and push
through-balls between gaps in defences that were often rendered "leaky"
by the little Romanian's trickery. His first touch and technique were,
as one would expect from a Balkan number 10, immaculate.
had that most elusive and highly-valued of qualities - the ability to
control almost every ball that came his way, no matter the speed or
trajectory. Allied to his [occasionally overbearing] mental fortitude,
this became a powerful weapon for Hagi, something that was recognised
by the great and powerful of the footballing world during stellar
spells with Steaua and Galatasaray. Unfortunately for Hagi, he endured
less than exceptional periods at Barcelona and Réal Madrid, which is in
some ways standard procedure for many of the talented Eastern Europeans
who have pitched up in the Catalan and Spanish capitals over the years.
A hugely influential figure in Romanian football, Hagi has
frequently clashed with that most mild-mannered of individuals, Gigi
Becali, who often felt threatened by the status that Hagi enjoyed
amongst Romania's fans, players, and media. However, when it comes to
his post-retirement activities, Gheorghe has not found success as easy
to come by as he did during his playing days. A ten-year managerial
career has yielded just one trophy, a Turkish Cup victory with
Galatasaray in 2005.
one of the lesser-known players on this list, Mostovoi was a Russian
playmaker of the highest order. Occasionally seeming to belong to a
different era in terms of his playing style, it wouldn't be overly
unfair to say of Aleksandr that he fell short of reaching his true
potential on both the club and international stage.
was, in a manner of speaking, part of a dying breed in the 1990s, the
period in which he made his name as a footballer. He was an attacking
midfielder tending towards the fantasista, very much from the template
of previous Eastern European playmakers. In an epoch when football
moved more and more towards efficiency, organisation, and systematic
stoicism, Mostovoi stood out as a creative, erratic, and capricious
presence on the pitches of Russia, Portugal, France, and Spain. I
desperately wish to avoid using the term "throwback," but I find myself
unable to do so in this case. Mostovoi was a throwback. That's what made him such a joy to watch.
a successful period playing for Spartak Moscow in the time of
Gorbachev, Mostovoi jetted off to Portugal to make his name in Western
Europe. Following a truly disastrous spell with Benfica, Alex moved on
to try his hand at Caen in France, but fell short of expectations. At
Strasbourg, however, he began to show glimpses of his ability, which
was enough for him to earn a transfer to Celta Vigo in Spain. In
Galícia, he excelled. The fans grew to love the floppy-haired man they
knew as El Zar, and Mostovoi rewarded them with some glorious
performances over a long period of time with the club. He was helped
along by his compatriot, the equally floppy-haired, but more blond,
Valery Karpin, who came to the club a year after Mostovoi. Together,
they formed an aesthetically-pleasing and efficient Slavic central
midfield on the shores of the Atlantic, even going so far as to drive
Celta to an Inter-Toto victory in the year 2000. (No sniggering at the
back there, please).
Mostovoi's international career was an
interesting one. Effectively, he represented three different countries:
the USSR, the CIS, and Russia. This, however, was a career marked by
controversy and fallings-out. Having played at USA '94 and Euro '96,
Mostovoi was sent home from the European Championships in 2004 after
just one game. Thus, he was "robbed" of one last chance to make a major
impact on the international stage.
was, perhaps, at Crvena Zvezda that Dejan came-of-age as a footballing
playmaker. To call him a free-kick expert is to undersell him; he was a
dead-ball master, a gifted technician whose ability to strike a ball
with precision, combined with his visual perception, made him one of
the most threatening set-piece specialists of his generation. Over the
years, it was this skill that earned him his sporting celebrity; vital
free-kick goals at vital times for clubs – especially in Brazil – won
him the hearts of fans.
Aside from that, he was a nippy, jinky
dribbler. When at his feet, the ball seemed attached to his boot – an
old cliché, sure, but watch him in action and see what I mean. Dejan
would roll the ball around as he ran, like a puck at the stick of an
ice-hockey player, using the inside of his foot. A flailing leg here,
the ball dragged there, and he was past the defender. In tight
situations, he would emerge from a crowd of players with the ball glued
to his feet – often, his ability to keep the ball so close to his feet
whilst dribbling is reminiscent of players like Nigeria’s Kanu, who
also possessed that rolling, shuffling style, albeit with a far less
His passing was accurate, concise, and
clean, perhaps lacking the vision of some of his contemporary number
10s, but it was his dribbling that made him the player he was. It is
for that he will be remembered. Perhaps, Dejan’s style is best
described by one of his former coaches, Nenad Cvetković, who said of
him: “When dribbling, he chose the precise moment when to change the
direction, the tempo. It was an impulsive move that changed from a
sleepy, quiet stance, into an explosive cat-like series of moves, which
made him uncatchable. He was extremely fast.”
an unsuccessful spell at Real Madrid, ended up plying his trade in
Brazil, most notably with Flamengo, Vasco, and Fluminense. There, his
career hit the heights. He became a legend. This story has been written
about in detail elsewhere, so if you're interested in reading more
about Dejan's incredible journey from [Beogradski] Marakana to
Maracana, click here.
What do you mean, "Who?"
was only one of the Soviet Union's most important players of the 1980s,
the era most beloved of cold-war freaks everywhere. If you read books
by Robert Ludlum or Len Deighton and also happen to have a penchant for
elegantly effective Soviet forward players, then Protasov is surely a
comrade well-known to you. If not, read on. If so, read on anyway.
Ukrainian, he was the main man for Dnipro in the 80s, lashing in the
goals in the Soviet League on a regular basis. He was tall, smart, and
a clinical finisher. Again, you'll be shocked to know that he was also
technically-proficient and, like Señor Mostovoi, had an icy calm on the
ball. Feel free to insert your own Slavic Ice-man paragraph here.
good was Protasov that he was acknowledged as the Soviet Footballer of
the Year in 1987 and, on top of this, ended his domestic career
as one of the all-time top scorers in the league (8th). Upon the
collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc, Protasov would go on to
shine elsewhere, after leaving Dynamo Kyiv - although he never reached
the level that he did at home. At Olympiakos, he played under Oleh
Blokhin, a former Dynamo and USSR great. Protasov also took part
in three international championships for the Soviet Union; World Cup
1986, Euro 1988, and World Cup 1990. What's more, only that man Blokhin
managed more goals for the USSR than Oleh's 29. Clearly, this is a man
Admittedly, Protasov is not quite in the same
league - in terms of repute and continental success - as many of the
others included in this list. However, Oleh's status as the focal point
of USSR's attack in the evocative, fascinating 1980s era of Soviet
football certainly merits a "nod" to the man from Dnipropetrovsk.
You know his nickname, right?
it's a moniker that sums up pretty accurately everything there is to
know about Tomas. He is indeed little, and his play does indeed
resemble the flitting, intricate compositional style synonymous with
the former Austrian international and Red Bull Salzburg playmaker Wolf
Rosicky began his career at Sparta Prague, where he
proved himself to be an outstanding young talent. Soon, his talent
outgrew the Czech league and, at the age of 21, he was off to the
tropical paradise of Dortmund to play for Borussia. At Dortmund,
Rosicky developed into one of the continent's most distinguished
attacking midfielders. He became an integral part of the BVB team; he
was their heartbeat, an agile, vibrant presence who beautifully and
efficiently linked the midfield and the attack.
In 2006, with
Dortmund struggling financially, Rosicky made the move to London with
the Arsenal. Despite the evidence of his talent, Rosicky has been
something of a frustrating figure for fans of the club. His time
in London has been beset by injuries, meaning that he never really
managed to find the consistency necessary to excel in the Premier
League. Often, he has been a peripheral figure, reduced to appearances
off the bench, particularly in recent times. The truth is, time is
running out for Tomas. Despite his massive talent, he has been,
perhaps, an underwhelming presence at Arsenal. Nevertheless, he remains
one of the most exciting and accomplished attacking midfielders of the
last ten years, and for that he merits [Rio Ferdinand voice] maximum
On the international scene, Rosicky is a legend in his
native Czech Republic. Currently, he is the captain of his country, and
still one of their most important players - if not the most important.
For the last thirteen years, Tomas has been a shining light in what was
often an excellent and dangerous Czech side. In this domain, his class
has never been questioned. Interestingly, he also has a decent strike
rate at international level, with 20 goals in 90 games.
Tomas play can be a joyful experience. He has a composure and a
perception of the game that is rarely seen. Allied to his physical
attributes, this makes him a threatening presence in any team. He is
one of those diminutive, scurrying technicians that many football fans
find so pleasing on the eye - myself included. In many ways, Tomas
epitomises the modern playmaker; composed, hard-working, concise, and
Piksi, or Pixie, whichever you prefer.
an era when the former Yugoslavia was churning out quality attacking
midfielders by the job-lot - Boban, Prosinečki, Petković, Savićević,
Jugović, Zahovič - Stojković was often the one who stood out. He was a
magnificent player, a man who never ceased to amaze when it came to his
ability. There was very little that he was not capable of doing in the
attacking third; he could pass, he could dribble, he could shoot;
whatever else you can think of, he could do.
part of Crvena Zvezda's golden generation of the late 1980s and early
1990s. However, in an astonishingly unlucky turn of events, Piksi left
Zvezda in the middle of 1990 to sign for Bernard Tapie's Olympique
Marseille. Less than a year later, his former club emerged victorious
in the European Cup final against none other than l'OM, Basile Boli
and, of course, Stojković himself. Famously, Dragan refused to take a
penalty in the ensuing shootout.
His time at Marseille was not
a success. Injuries made him a spectator for much of the four
seasons he spent in France's second city, which included a loan to
Verona. That his Marseille career was concurrent with the onset of the
Yugoslav Wars was surely a contributing factor. In 1994, Dragan
departed the European continent and pitched up in Japan with Grampus
Eight of Nagoya. Whilst there, he would link up with an exceptionally
gifted individual now the beloved of many in the United Kingdom, the
professor Arsène Wenger.
Oh, and some chap called Gary Lineker as well.
was the respect and adoration afforded to Stojković in Belgrade, he was
named as the Fifth "Star of Red Star" in 1989, aged just 24. This is an
honour given out very rarely; since 1991, not a single player has been
awarded this honour, despite many excellent players passing through the
club - including the great Nemanja Vidić.
performances for his national team won him many plaudits worldwide. He
was particularly excellent during the 1990 World Cup, the tournament
which announced his presence to the wider footballing community. Having
spent much of the latter stages of his club career at Grampus Eight,
Piksi's final match was, fittingly, against the Japanese national team
He has already been briefly mentioned in this article, but how much do you know about Zlatko Zahovič?
you're Portuguese, or from the former Yugoslav nations, it's likely you
know all about this talented, yet volatile, Slovenian number ten.
Despite spending most of his career playing outside his homeland,
Zlatko became as much of an icon as a footballer can be in Slovenia. A
much publicised falling out with national team coach Katanec tainted
his reputation somewhat, but he is still widely considered to be his
nation's greatest ever footballing product.
Having started out
at Belgrade's FK Partizan, Zahovič moved off to Portugal, first with
Vitória Guimaraes and,subsequently, with Oporto's biggest club from
1996 to 1999. Over the years at Porto, he would link up with greats
such as Joao Pinto, Vítor Baía, Jorge Costa, Sergio Conceicao, Deco,
and Mario Jardel. In that mid-to-late 1990s period, Zlatko was part of
one of the most lethal attacks the Portuguese league has seen,
alongside the aforementioned Jardel and Conceicao, as well as
Zahovič's former compatriot Ljubinko Drulović. The beneficiary of the
frantic prompting of the other three, Jardel managed to net a stunning
130 goals in 125 appearances for Porto.
Without Zahovič doing
his thing further back, it's unlikely that Jardel would have scored so
many goals. It's also worth pointing out that, at Porto, Zlatko knocked
in a more-than-reasonable 27 goals himself. Not bad for a player who
was most definitely more a creator than a finisher. Furthermore, every
single season that the man from Maribor played at the club, the Dragoes
won the Portuguese league title. Not bad, I hear you say.
also a relatively prolific goalscorer for his country, which he
represented at Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002. As the star turn in the
Slovenia team, most hopes rested on his shoulders in these tournaments.
However, despite leading 3-0 against Yugoslavia in the group stages at
Euro 2000, Slovenia never managed to win a finals match with Zahovič in
the team. In total, he notched up 35 in 80 for Slovenia. This,
interestingly, makes him both the most capped player and the top scorer
for the team occasionally known as the fantje.
And finally… Andrei Arshavin
Forget about the Paddy Power ads.
Forget about the Emirates bench-warming.
Forget about the pale shade, the spectre who mopes about London as if lost in some kind of expatriate vacuum.
is a player of supreme class. It's saddening that the abiding memories
of this gifted and imaginative technician may end up being negative,
even comical in nature.
Remember the good Arshavin; the glorious, magical Arshavin who lead Zenit to victory in the 2008 UEFA Cup.
That's the real Arshavin.
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