There was a time when teams from Eastern Europe fared well in the Champions League - or the European Cup, in its former incarnation. Steaua Bucharest lifted the trophy in 1986 following an astounding triumph, on penalties, over Barcelona, and Red Star Belgrade did the same in 1991, against Olympic Marseilles. But it was this success by small teams from second-tier countries, among other reasons, that led to the establishment of the Champions League format - just weeks after Red Star's victory.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc saw many of Eastern Europe's top players head westward, in search of the big money, and the Eastern bloc teams resumed their "natural" place, serving as second- and third-fiddle participants in the competition. Not one team from Eastern Europe has reached the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League since it was expanded to 32 teams seven years ago.
But things are changing: Today, there is big money in Russia, too, and millionaires and billionaires are also investing in teams in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. There are even players who are going to Eastern European clubs on fat contracts.
A record six teams from Eastern Europe will be competing in the Champions League that kicks off this evening - two from Moscow, two from Ukraine, one from Romania and one from Bulgaria. And all are from the "hard" East, with no representatives from the former Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, whose more westernized teams once graced the competition.
The boys from Brazil
Just look at how many Brazilians are playing in these Eastern European teams - no less than six will take the field for Ukraine champion Shakhtar Donetsk, including national team midfielder Elano; five play for Dynamo Kiev; four turn out for CSKA Moscow; and two are on the books at Spartak Moscow.
The teams' names may be Ukrainian or Russian, but one-third to one-half of the players on the field grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Cortiva, Recife and Porto Alegre. Just a year ago, Daniel Carvalho and Wagner Love led CSKA to victory in the UEFA Cup. Brazilians in the cold and snow of Moscow? It may have seemed a strange sight in the past; today, however, it is commonplace. And if CSKA was good enough to win the UEFA Cup last year, there is no reason why it should not fare well in the Champions League.
Even Bulgarian side Levski Sofia, Barcelona's guest at Camp Nou this evening, has a Brazilian. In fact, Lucio Wagner feels so at home in Sofia that he has made Bulgaria his adopted country and plays on Hristo Stoichkov's national team.
Levski has played numerous games in UEFA's European club competitions, but Bulgaria's first-ever representative in the group stage of the Champions League is well aware that the income, television contracts and prestige that comes with the tournament are something completely new for the club - and for Bulgarian soccer as a whole.
"We have written a new and glorious page in the history of Bulgarian soccer; it will takes us months to grasp just how great an achievement it is," Levski chief executive Nasko Sirakov, another legend from the national side of 1994, commented recently.
"It's a Cinderella story," Sirakov said. "Two years ago, we failed to get through the first round in the UEFA Cup; now, we are in the group stage of the Champions League. It is all down to hard work. Everyone at the club knows this - from the cleaner to the president."
Bulgarian sports journalist Daniel Dimitrov is also in awe of the achievement. "The West, for some reason, thinks that Levski wants to earn money from the broadcast rights and selling players, but that's not true," he wrote recently. "The very fact that a Bulgarian team is in the group stage is a significant achievement. Everyone in Bulgaria, except the CSKA Sofia fans of course, want the team to succeed. This is the greatest moment in Bulgarian soccer since 1994."
Levski, whose last visit to Camp Nou before today ended in a 4-0 drubbing in the UEFA Cup exactly 30 years ago, has no stars aside from Wagner, who will not be playing this evening due to a suspension. Just three of the team's squad of 35 are not Bulgarian, because Bulgaria - as opposed to Ukraine or Russia, for example - does not allow just anyone with money to purchase a team, and tries to impose some order on the rampant capitalism.
For example, Mikhail Chernoy - the Russian-Israeli oligarch whose name has often been mentioned on the wrong pages of the newspapers - purchased Levski toward the end of the 1990s and began pouring money into the club. But Chernoy was subsequently declared persona non grata in Bulgaria, and he was stripped of ownership of the club.
By the way, the man behind Bulgaria's housecleaning drive is Borislav Mikhailov, the current president of the Bulgarian Football Union. And if the name sounds familiar, it should: He was also one of the heroes of the 1994 side - the goalkeeper.
In Ukraine and Russia, it is a different story entirely. "Turning a blind eye is the correct expression," said Ukrainian journalist Yevgeny Ravkov. "It is known that the money is dirty, but it is good for almost everyone - the players, the spectators and the media, too. Besides, who dares to take on the oligarchs?"
Dynamo Kiev, for example, can afford to bring in expensive players because it is owned by Hryhoriy Surkis, the richest man in the country. He is of Jewish origin, and his name has been linked with organized crime. His brother, Igor, is president of the club.
Shakhtar Donetsk, for its part, is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, another Ukrainian oligarch who is said to be worth some $12 billion and whose name has also been linked with shady business dealings.
CSKA Moscow belongs - indirectly, of course, because UEFA does not permit cross-ownership of clubs in its competitions - to Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner whose personal fortune requires no elaboration. Spartak Moscow, which once belonged to oil oligarch Andrei Chervichenko, is now in the hands of another oil tycoon, Leonid Fedun (ranked recently by Forbes as the 168th richest man in the world, with a fortune in excess of $4 billion).
Fedun, by the way, makes every effort to go to every one of his team's games, and his players love him - and so they should. After Spartak finished as runner-up in last year's Russian championship, each player on the team received a title-winning bonus and a car, with star goalkeeper Wojciech Kowalewski getting a shiny new Hummer jeep.
All six teams from Eastern Europe have tough draws and will be up against the giants of the West. But while some of the Eastern teams may have to view this year's competition as a learning experience, their ever-improving quality, foreign stars and fanatic supporters mean that they will all have something to offer.
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