Former Soviet sides enjoying UEFA Cup boom

KIEV - The UEFA Cup, considered a low priority by some European clubs, is fast becoming a must-have piece of silverware for former Soviet teams.

A Ukrainian side is guaranteed to play in this year's final in Istanbul while last year's champions were Zenit St Petersburg and in 2005 it was their fellow Russians CSKA Moscow.

Heavy spending by generous owners to bring in foreign players and coaches has revamped the region's top clubs, among them Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk who meet on Thursday in a semi-final second leg after a 1-1 draw in the first game.

"Ukraine is now experiencing a real football boom," Serhiy Storozhenko, first vice-president of the Ukrainian soccer federation, told Reuters.

"The success of our clubs in the UEFA Cup has raised the interest in matches in the domestic league.

"It has increased the attendance at stadiums and the number of television broadcasts. It has also attracted more sponsors."

Many uninitiated fans across the continent associate the eastern Europe leagues with corruption and unpronounceable names rather than quality football.

Those who follow them closely, however, say success has been on the cards for a while.

"It is not that surprising. These are big teams with great tradition," Marc Bennetts, author of the book Football Dynamo which examines Russian soccer in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, told Reuters.

"It helps when you are backed by one of the richest men in Europe."

Shakhtar are owned by Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who has spent an average $80 million a year since 1996 on importing promising Brazilians, Africans and central Europeans and creating a team to compete with traditional powerhouse Dynamo.

Success on the European stage, coupled with the very attractive wages on offer, could tempt a few more players who would otherwise sit on the bench at top English and Spanish clubs to move east.

"(UEFA Cup success) is good for the country and the league, it will help attract more foreign players and raise the profile of the teams," Bennetts said.

RESERVE PLAYERS

While some English sides have fielded reserve players for UEFA Cup games, preferring to focus on the Premier League, full-strength Ukrainian teams have beaten the likes of Valencia, Tottenham Hotspur and Sampdoria this season.

Dynamo, whose budget is about two-thirds the size of Shakhtar's, are no strangers to European success, having won the Super Cup and Cup Winners' Cup in 1975 as well as the latter again 11 years later.

They won nine domestic championships in a row from 1993 before Shakhtar emerged as serious rivals and the pair have fought intriguing battles for the title recently.

Whoever makes it through to the May 20 final will have the support of a country which has been making more soccer headlines for being criticised over its slow progress in preparing to co-host Euro 2012 with Poland, than for its clubs' prowess on the pitch.

"The success in the UEFA Cup has prompted many people in Ukraine to get interested in football ... which is extremely important in terms of Euro 2012," Shakhtar executive director Serhiy Palkin told Reuters.

Evidence of how much standards have improved at domestic clubs has been the success of Russia and Ukraine on the international stage.

Ukraine's run to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2006 and the dazzling performances that took Russia to the Euro 2008 semi-finals were achieved by a group of players who mostly ply their trade at clubs in their homelands.

The only black cloud on an otherwise bright horizon for Russian and Ukrainian clubs is the global financial crisis which is eating holes into the fortunes of the businessmen who bankroll them.

Shakhtar have said they are cutting their annual spending to $55 million. Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow said they had trimmed their budget by at least 20 percent this year and Spartak Moscow have delayed construction of their new stadium.

Whoever wins the all-Ukrainian semi-final will face a German team in the UEFA Cup final, either Werder Bremen or Hamburg SV.


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