Spartak influence remains the key

 

THE recent history of Russian soccer has been a tale of talent unfulfilled. Defeated finalists when competing as the USSR at Euro '88 much was expected. However, first-round exits followed in the three subsequent major tournaments. Euro '96 provides another opportunity. Ex-Spartak Moscow manager Oleg Romantsev, who took over the national team job after the '94 World Cup, may be the key to translating their talent into something more substantial.

Spartak have dominated Russian football since the break up of the Soviet Union. won the league three years running, won the Russian Cup in 1994, and in the European Cup they fielded practically team of internationals.

Defeated by Nantes In the European Cup quarter-finals last week, the club had been decimated by an exodus of players to western European clubs in the period following the Champions' League stage of the competition. Two of the squad for today's game are still with Spartak, while eight foreign-based players were signed from the club.

With a record 33 caps, nationals team captain Viktor Onopko is a key man. The best Russian player of the 1990s, he was footballer of the year three years running. Onopko's departure from Spartak to Spanish first division side Real Oviedo before Christmas left a gaping hole in the side.

He looks ungainly and unhealthy - although only 26, he is almost completely bald, a result of the Chernobyl disaster 10 years ago. But he is a superb natural athlete, and can play in defence or in midfield. Although born in Ukraine, he opted to play for Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. Onopko went to Euro '92 in Sweden as just a squad member, but played in all three games, and was one of the few players in the squad who impressed.

Speaking yesterday from the team's base in Killiney, Onopko was keen to put the disappointments of recent years behind and emphasise the changed times.

"It's hard to analyse why we failed, but maybe it was our attitude. We played very well in the qualifying games, but maybe we said that qualification was our task, and once we had done that, we had done enough.

"We have a great squad here in Dublin, with a lot of young players who are showing promise. There is a good fight for places, I think the future is bright."

Valeri Karpin, another Spartak graduate who has ended up in Spain, is another player who has a good pedigree. The midfielder was a huge success in his five seasons with Spartak. He made a big impression in European club competition and although only 26, he has played in 29 European Cup ties, scoring 10 goals.

In the 1993 Cup Winners' Cup, when Spartak beat Liverpool 6-2 on aggregate, Karpin scored two in Moscow. A central midfielder for his club, he plays on the right side of midfield for Russia, in competition with Andrei Kanchelskis.

His performances in a tournament in Malta last month may edge Karpin ahead of the Everton man. Karpin scored three in two games, taking his total for the national side to eight from 25 caps.