Forget Anzhi and Shakhtar - meet Eastern Europe's first hoarders of Brazilians

The first foreign player in post-Soviet Russian football was Assaf al-Khalifa, a 26-year-old Syrian forward who joined Zhemchuzhina Sochi ahead of the 1994 season.

Before him there were, of course, those from the other former Soviet republics – or the “near abroad” – but Al-Khalifa is considered to be the championship’s first real overseas import. His arrival caused a minor stir at the time; he was even voted “rookie of the year” by authoritative newspaper Sport-Express.

These days, foreign players, or “legionnaires” to use Russian football parlance, are the norm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brazil provides the most, with Willian set the 27th having moved from Shakhtar Donetsk to Anzhi Makhachkala during the January transfer window. There are also another three in the second tier. When Al-Khalifa made his debut he was just one of 36 non-Russians – the others were mainly Ukrainian and Belarusian – but gradually the numbers, and nationalities, have risen.

The first Brazilians arrived a year after Al-Khalifa, when Lokomotiv Nizhny Novgorod signed midfielder Andre Luis da Silva and Mario dos Santos Júnior, a striker, at the beginning of 1995. Interest in Valeri Ovchinnikov’s side soared.

Da Silva had the distinction of scoring the first goal by a Brazilian on his debut, but neither player was able to establish himself at Lokomotiv and the pair each made just six further appearances before leaving Russia.

In those early seasons foreign players tended to be little more than novelties; having a Brazilian was mainly about prestige. One of the first Brazilians who really made an impression was Edi Carlos Dias Marçal, an attacker Arsenal Tula signed from Santos with the nickname “Andradina” on account of his home town in São Paulo state.

Now a grizzled veteran still knocking about the Polish championship at 38, Andradina’s arrival in 1998 was a corollary of the ambitious plans mapped out by the Gunners’ owners, Centrgaz, whose general director Viktor Sokolov aspired to create a strong team. Back then, Arsenal were languishing in Russia’s regionalised third tier.

But a concerted effort was made to have a competitive club in Tula, a city of 500,000 some 120 miles south of Moscow perhaps best known for being the site of Peter the Great’s arms factor during the 18th century, or for its gingerbread and samovars.

Certainly Tula wasn't synonymous with football. Centrgaz upgraded Arsenal’s training base though and brought their 20,000-capacity stadium up to Uefa standards – the Russian national team would later play a friendly against Belarus there – plus the highly-respected Ukrainian coach Yevhen Kucherevskyi, who won the Soviet championship with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the 80s, was appointed manager for the 1997 season.

The playing staff received something of an overhaul too, and it was in Brazil that the club’s hierarchy looked for reinforcements. Half a dozen players arrived on trial, but Kucherevskyi signed just three: Anderson, Junior and Nene.

The latter two made little lasting impression, appearing 11 and five times respectively. Anderson, a striker, did however and netted 17 times as they won the Western Zone title by 15 points. No team scored more than Arsenal that season (a club record 91 goals) nor conceded fewer (27). What’s more, they also reached the last 16 of the cup.

But it was the league that Arsenal’s board were more concerned with and, despite having never played in Russia’s second tier since the fragmentation of the USSR, they set Kucherevskyi the target of back-to-back promotions.

Once again the club sought reinforcements in South America. They sent Kucherevskyi off to Brazil on a three-week tour with a budget for five players where he took in games at various levels, watched several clubs train and even chewed the fat with Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Deals were agreed with a quintet of new signings. However, by time Kucherevskyi got home the board had not only bought his five players, but also an additional four of their own. More sensible arrivals like the Spartak Moscow defender Ramiz Mamedov (who later became the first Arsenal player to be called up by the Russian national team) and Dmitri Kuznetsov from CSKA underlined the club’s searing ambition.

And so it was that Anderson was joined by Andradina – who once rejected an offer from CSKA, having just signed a new contract with Santos – and eight of his fellow countrymen to play for a second-tier club in a provincial Russian town: Carlos Alberto da Rocha (previously with Torpedo Moscow), Daniel Conceição Silva (he never played in Brazil’s top flight but arrived via Japan and became indispensible for Arsenal), Eleal Dos Santos Enrique (played alongside Rai, Leonardo and Cafu, and won the league in 1991), Jorginho Jorge Claudio Conceição Rodrigues (Corinthians), Leonidas Ferreira de Paulo Junior (a midfielder previously at CSKA and Torpedo), Paulinho Faustino Paulo Henrique (signed from Palmeiras), Peniche Everton Romuald (another Corinthians player who once had trials with Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruña) and Tonja Antonio Goncalves da Costa (the most famous of the Brazilians who spent five years at Palmeiras).

Arsenal became the talk of Russian football. Both home and away crowds flocked to catch a glimpse of their exotic imports, hoping to maybe see the next Pelé, and Arsenal’s average attendance that year exceeded 10,000, the highest in the division. Initially results were good and the football entertaining. Arsenal didn’t lose any of their first five matches and, although Lokomotiv St Petersburg ended a 53-game unbeaten home record, at the season’s halfway point they found themselves in fourth.

Andradina was a key figure. A five-match ban for striking an opponent during a fixture against Kristill Smolensk blotted his copybook somewhat, but he scored 27 goals to finish as the league’s leading marksman.

Injuries certainly hampered Arsenal, while the Brazilians were predictably a mixed bunch. Anderson failed to replicate his form of the previous year and was farmed out to Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor Tashkent on loan, Eleal made only nine appearances, Leonidas was injury-prone and Paulinho managed just one goal in 12 games.

The season ended with Arsenal fifth and reaching the quarterfinals of the cup – it was their best-ever campaign – but they were also 12 points off the promotion places.

Five of their Brazilians left, just one arrived: Leandro Samaroni, a defender previously with CSKA, Spartak and Torpedo, who learned the language and would later go on to represent another three Russian sides. Once again, Arsenal were among the favourites for the title and they made a strong start, but failed to really beat any of their rivals.

More importantly, a crisis was brewing. As the year rumbled on, the club began experiencing financial problems. At one stage it seemed as though Arsenal wouldn't even finish the season and Kucherevskyi saw his resignation rejected three times before finally leaving the club, having worked unpaid towards the end of his tenure.

The whole affair had a profound effect on him. One of the best Ukrainian coaches of his generation, Kucherevskyi grew tired of working with foreign players and came to distrust them. When he later returned to Dnipro he built his side around Ukrainians, or at least those from the Soviet bloc. Tragically, Kucherevskyi was killed in a car crash on his way to a reserve team game in the summer of 2006.

Another Ukrainian coach, Leonid Buryak, replaced him at Arsenal in 1999, but was unable to bring about a change in fortunes and his stay was brief. By that time the first team had been depleted to just 13 players as Arsenal slumped to ninth. The squad underwent something of a revamp the following year – just three from the previous campaign remained – as promotion hopes were forgotten and they finished in midtable once again. A year later Arsenal were relegated.

They returned to the second tier, albeit briefly, before suffering financial problems once again and eventually ceased to exist. These days there are no Brazilians, or indeed any other foreign players at the current Arsenal – just a pair of Andradina’s old boots in the museum – but there is hope. The team are led by Dmitri Alenichev, a former Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow midfielder who played in Italy and was part of José Mourinho’s Porto squad that won the Uefa Cup and Champions League.

When the third tier returns from its winter hibernation, Arsenal will begin the second half of the season sitting five points clear atop the Central Zone and on an 18-match unbeaten run, having not lost since the opening day.