Britain’s first Soviet footballer: When Serhiy Baltacha swapped the Eastern Bloc for East Anglia

The Soviet figure skating team had to fight though a media scrum in the arrivals hall at Heathrow Airport. But BritainâÂÂs press had not gathered for their benefit. It was January 1989, and also on the flight from Moscow that day was Serhiy Baltacha, a classy sweeper ready to take a step into unknown with Ipswich Town. No Soviet footballer had ever played for an English side before; the communist party didnâÂÂt allow them to move overseas back then. But against a backdrop of glasnost and perestroika, change was in the air, and it had been decided that a select few should have their achievements rewarded with a transfer abroad.

One such player was Baltacha. He had been the defensive lynchpin of Valeriy LobanovskiyâÂÂs Dynamo Kyiv side for a little over a decade. Hailing from Zhdanov (now Mariupil), an industrial city on the Sea of Azov in south-eastern Ukraine, Baltacha read the game superbly and never seemed to find himself out of position. From a young age he made that position his own at Dynamo â then one of EuropeâÂÂs strongest sides â and will arguably be ranked among the clubâÂÂs best ever players. He made 322 appearances for Bilo-Syni (the White-Blues) between 1977 and 1988, winning the league four times, also lifting two Soviet cups and the European Cup Winnersâ Cup in 1986. Baltacha was also capped 45 times by the USSR, the last of which came in the final of the 1988 European Championship.

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