Ten Eastern European Number 10s

by Luke Ginnell

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).

Krassimir Balakov

Look back at the Bulgarian team of the 1994 World Cup. It’s probable that you will 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 have played witness to how the esoterica of this generation combined, for those two months in 1994 at least, to form a wonderfully enigmatic, memorable, and above all effective team.

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.

Balakov 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.

Zvonimir Boban

Ah 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 Dalmatian dynamo.

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.

Those 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.

On the 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.

Gheorghe Hagi

What 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 seven occasions.

Hagi was also the holder of 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.

Hagi 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 attributes, 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 with both 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.

Aleksandr Mostovoi

Perhaps 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.

Mostovoi 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.

After 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.

Dejan Petković

It 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 lithe physicality.

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.

Dejan, after 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.

Oleh Protasov

What do you mean, “Who?”

He 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.

A 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.

So 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 of pedigree.

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.

Tomáš Rosický

You know his nickname, right?

Well, 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 Mozart.

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 respect.

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.

Watching Tomas play is a joy. He has a composure and a perception 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 multi-faceted. Disagree if you will, but when I see Luka Modrić scampering around the pitch, I can’t help but be reminded of Tomas – although the latter tends to play a more advanced attacking role.

Dragan Stojković

Dragan Stojković. Piksi, or Pixie, whichever you prefer.

In 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.

Stojković was 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.

Such 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.

Exceptional 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 in 2001.

Zlatko Zahovič

He has already been briefly mentioned in this article, but how much do you know about Zlatko Zahovič?

If 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.

He was 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.

This is a player of supreme class. It is 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 is the real Arshavin.

Author Info

Luke Ginnell

Luke Ginnell

A freelance writer formerly based in Belgrade, now in Dublin. I write mainly about football and cricket, and have featured in/on FourFourTwo, IBWM, World Soccer, The Nightwatchman, Pickles Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Roads & Kingdoms, The Gooner, Late Tackle Magazine, Cricket World, Alternative Cricket, and of course Back Page Football.

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4 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    Really enjoyed that, great work. Nice to find another Arshavin fan, too. He’s a genius, one of my favourite players. I wrote about him for my blog here, if you’re interested:

    http://barndoorbanjos.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/andrey-arshavin-genius-of-leningrad/

  2. Iain Swan Iain Swan says:

    Excellent article , Luke. , My memory is fading as the years roll by, but Protasov was a centre forward rather than a number ten , was he not ? and no Sasha Zavarov nor Ivan Hasek ?

  3. Luke Ginnell Luke Ginnell says:

    Hi Iain,

    yes, he was certainly more of a forward than a ‘playmaker’, but he wore the #10 for the USSR and for his club. Definitely more van Basten than Zidane though. As you can see from the title of the article, numbering on the shirt is the main criterion, so it was not strictly a piece on playmakers, or attacking midfielders :)

    As far as I’m aware, Hasek never wore #10, and Zavarov was well known for being a #9. Great players though.

    All the best,

    Luke

  4. Giacomo Fracassi says:

    I recall Savicevic had number ten shirt in Milan, but I may be wrong. Anyway, I just wanted to mention him. He was amazing and he may fit well in the list.
    Very good article, many of these players were truly amazing.

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