The Russian-led Kontinental Hockey League includes teams from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, …and even the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
I recently posted an article about Dynamo Kyiv, a club that won two European Cup Winners Cups under their legendary coach, Valeriy Lobanovskiy. Since those days, the USSR has broken up. Whereas Dynamo once played in a (political machinations aside) hugely competitive Soviet league, now they battle it out with Shakhtar Donetsk each season for the Ukrainian title. Even the usual presence of a creditable Metalist Kharkiv side in third place can’t disguise the fact that Dynamo they now play in a weaker league than before, one also hindered by being in the shadow of the rich and ever-strengthening Russian league. Comparisons with the Scottish Premier League are hard to avoid. Not an ideal situation for a country with ten times the population of Scotland.
Dynamo and Shakhtar haven’t been the sides worst affected by the break-up of the USSR though. Spare a thought for Dinamo Tbilisi and Dynamo Minsk. In the 70s and early 80s, the Georgian club boasted one of the best sides in Europe. The 70s saw two Soviet Cups and a Soviet league title brought home to Tbilisi…while European competition brought victories over Atletico Madrid, Benfica, and Liverpool. In 1981, the club’s trophy winning finally extended to the European stage, with the Cup Winners Cup being secured.
The club’s last appearance in the group stages of European competition came in 2004-05 though…and saw four defeats from four group matches. A club with a glorious history has been unable to hold on to top Georgian players or attract quality foreign replacements due to the competitive, and hence financial, weakness of the league in which they play.
Dynamo Minsk? A club that spent 39 years in the Soviet top division, winning it in 1982… now play in a ground with a capacity of just 4,500. To put that into perspective, that ground wouldn’t meet the requirements for entry into the SPL.
Is there an argument for a league structure encompassing the countries of the former USSR? There is some sporting precedence for it, though not in football. The Russian-led Kontinental Hockey League includes teams from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, …and even the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It’s Europe’s strongest Ice Hockey league and is reckoned to be the 2nd best in the world after the NHL.
Some may say “Yes, but that’s Ice Hockey, not football. Clubs and fans may be able to put nationalist ideals aside for Ice Hockey…but not for football.” Those saying that don’t appreciate the size and popularity of the sport of Ice Hockey in most of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. If the Czechs and Slovaks can put aside memories of the Prague Spring to have teams in the KHL, then a pan-Slavic football league can’t be ruled out for reasons of nationalist sentiment alone.
What could and probably would rule it out would be UEFA, FIFA, and the self-interest of the football federations of each individual state.
There is one former Communist region where sentiment and nationalism probably sadly would rule out a unified league. The former Yugoslavia. The atrocities of the Civil War and the ongoing war crimes trials mean that the wounds are still too raw. On a footballing level, the break-up of the Yugoslavian league is a crying shame. The thought of Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), Partizan Belgrade, Hajduk Split, Dinamo Zagreb, Velez Mostar and more, all competing in the one league is a mouthwatering one.
Of course, so far my argument is based on the idea that clubs who enjoyed a historic grandeur and culture of success would be reinvigorated by playing in a stronger and more competitive league structure. The problem with this argument? Germany. The only country to be unified by the fall of Communism, rather than divided by it. The DDR’s two most successful clubs? Dynamo Berlin and Dynamo Dresden.
Dynamo Dresden finished 9th in the German 2nd Division last season. Dynamo Berlin, now rebranded as BFC Dynamo, finished 13th. In the fifth tier of German football. Though someone desperately looking for a positive for East German football clubs of old could point to the current incarnation of Hansa Rostock winning the same division.
So, unified football leagues? Yes or no? I’d be intrigued to know whether any others share my romantic notion of seeing the clubs I’ve mentioned given the chance of restoration to their former grandeur. Especially fans of them. Could it work? Does football conquer nationalism? Would you want it to? It’s easy for a Scottish guy on the couch with his laptop to become misty-eyed. Feel free to let me know the reality.