Lamentably and despite bizarre and fanciful pronouncements following Zenit St Petersburg’s absurdly inflated, reckless and self-defeating recent transfer market folly, no team from Eastern Europe is likely to win the Champions’ League in the near future. For all the wealth and progress of teams from Russia and Ukraine especially, none of their clubs look set to emulate Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest in claiming the continent’s most prestigious title. The game’s grim, uneven financial realities have all but ensured that the environment which allowed the gloriously gifted Red Star generation to flourish no longer exists. Such romance is long dead, given way to a cold, austere pragmatism that dictates latter day Robert Prosineckis and Dejan Savicevics, should they exist, will leave for the riches of Spain, Italy or England when scarcely out of their teens, particularly with the independent leagues of the Balkans significantly weaker than the old Yugoslav First League. Nonetheless, it remains a depressing spectacle to see the likes of perennial Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb routinely outclassed in Europe’s elite club competition.
Fuelled by one of the game’s most productive youth academies and more recently, a league structure that allows fellow top-flight club NK Lokomotiva to act as a farm for its graduates, Dinamo have won their domestic league for the past 7 seasons. Conversely, last season they lost all 6 of their Champions’ League group stage fixtures. Further ignominy resides in a record low goal difference of -22, with harrowing defeats against Real Madrid (6-2) and Lyon (1-7) compounding their humiliation. Of course, competing against the opulent wealth/imprudent debt of Madrid was always likely to prove an impossible task but having a Lyon side someway short of the vintages that habitually occupied the tournament’s latter stages inflict such a hammering should be viewed as cause for a great inquest. Further limp surrenders to Ajax (0-2 in Zagreb and 4-0 in Amsterdam) must also be cast as disappointments. True, prestige and history informs the Dutch side’s justified favourites status, especially with a squad containing burgeoning talent of Chrsitian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen and Siem de Jong’s calibre but Dinamo too boasted players of enviable potential.
Indeed, the presence of buccaneering right-back Sime Vrsaljko, teenage trequartista Mateo Kovacic and now departed playmaker Milan Badelj meant that Dinamo could call upon talent highly sought after by the aristrocrats of the West. Kovacic especially has long since been groomed for greatness, with the 18 year-old’s status as an established first-team performer testament to his precocious ability. Still, Badelj, in joining the Bundesliga’s Hamburg last summer, became merely the latest to follow the path of his predecessor as midfield orchestrator, Luka Modric, as well as Croatian internationals Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren and naturalised Brazilian Eduardo da Silva out of the Zagreb academy and onto more prestigious climes. Such a production line has naturally led to an often casual, magisterial supremacy domestically and attracted the argument that perhaps the team struggles to lift themselves for the raised standard necessitated in continental competition.
This however neglects the fact that this season’s surprise package, BATE Borisov’s local command largely mirrors that of Dinamo’s, having taken the last 6 Belarusian championships. It is also arguable that competing in Europe represents an even greater increase in quality given the comparative weakness of Belarus’ national league and whilst they too have been supplied ably by an active academy, star graduates Sergey Krivets and Pavel Niakhaychik ply their trades with Lech Poznan and Dinamo Moscow respectively. A comparable case can be brokered around APOEL Nicosia’s improbable run to the knock-out stages last season, with their defeat of Lyon to reach the quarter-finals jarring sharply with the Croats’ listless submission.
In any case, intuitively, the fact that Dinamo entered this season’s continental campaign with an impressive unbeaten run stretching 33 games should surely provide a platform for confidence to flourish rather than for complacency to flounder. Although typically, this season’s squad has been hewn of key personnel, equally predictable has been the club’s ability to replenish with refined replacements. Badelj’s loss has been off-set by the emergence of classy teenage midfield all-rounder Marcelo Brozovic, a beneficiary of the Lokomotiva link-up, whilst the likes of Vrsaljko Kovacic, as well as Montenegrin target-man Fatos Beqiraj and playmaker, Sammir, another to have followed the Eduardo route from Brazil to the Croatian national team, continue to progress. Nevertheless, this season’s Champions’ League campaign has followed a similarly miserable narrative. Defeated by Porto in the opening round, Dinamo were then comfortably dismissed by their near-namesakes from Kyiv a fortnight later.
Cause for optimism may reside in the rise of Alen Halilovic since that trip to Ukraine, however. The 16 year-old last weekend capped his second senior cameo with a glorious chipped finish and is widely held to represent the club’s finest product to date, with his effortless, left-footed elegance drawing comparisons with Lionel Messi. Still, it is patently premature to pin such hopes on one who, for all his obvious talent, is clearly not ready to single-handedly transform their fortunes or perhaps even yet equipped to start a senior game. Instead, with a clutch of players regularly called on to represent Croatia, a national selection habitually ranked around the world’s top 10, Dinamo should have the tools to trouble the likes of Dynamo Kyiv in the return fixture in Zagreb and arrest their unprecedented 8 match losing-streak. That said, hosting Porto and ties with the nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain look set to prove more problematic.
Dinamo’s European travails may however have a more sinister undertone. Defender Domogoj Vida was recently fined for seeing fit to pass the time on a recent away trip by relaxing with a can of beer but the club’s most controversial character, by some distance, remains executive manager Zdravko Mamic. Despite having presided over a period of rich domestic success since taking his post in 2003, his tenure has been scarred by Nazi salutes, various threats and assaults and a plethora of coaches as well as semi-regular accusations of match-fixing. Perhaps tellingly, the most high-profile case of the latter came from last year’s match against Lyon, in which an admittedly 10-man Dinamo, conceded 7 goals in around 30 minutes. At home. UEFA, although initially suspicious, ultimately and bewilderingly elected against calling an official inquiry into the fixture. Of course, any subsequent investigation may indeed have found the score-line to be legitimate but the failure to establish the game’s honesty must rank as brazen dereliction from the body thought to have the game’s interests at heart.
Perceptively, there is an argument that Dinamo are simply not good enough to compete at this level. Perhaps reaching the group stage at all should be deemed an impressive achievement. For all the flowering of their homegrown talent, it is worth noting that when Partizan Belgrade, owners of the region’s other flourishing academy, reached the same phase 2 seasons ago, they too were defeated in every fixture. Nevertheless, in Kovacic, Halilovic and Dino Spehar, Dinamo have on their books the 3 youngest goalscorers in the history of Croatia’s top flight, giving grounds for greater optimism for future seasons. It would nonetheless, be wildly ambitious, even surreal to suggest that such players could form the attacking nucleus of a side that could go on to match the achievements of Red Star Belgrade 20 years ago and win the Champions’ League. As previously stated, should they continue to progress, all 3 will be lured away within 3 years, but before leaving, the hope must be that they at least can contribute towards their club winning a game in the Champions’ League group stage.