While a team from Eastern Europe has never won the World Cup, and none of their clubs have won the Champions League since Red Star Belgrade in 1990/91, the countries that formerly sat beyond the Iron Curtain have produced some of the greatest and most fondly remembered players in the history of world football.
Usually starring for the bigger Western European clubs – colossal sides like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Milan – these players have won everything there is to win in the game, and many of them also showed their class on an international level too.
Here are five players from Eastern Europe who dominated on the world stage.
#5 Petr Cech
When it comes to the Premier League, players from Eastern Europe haven’t done quite as well as they have done elsewhere in Europe – perhaps a cultural issue, as England is very different from mainland Europe, let alone Eastern Europe. There have been a handful of hits though, and the best one is undoubtedly Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Cech first rose to prominence in France with Rennes, but really shot to fame when he was signed by Claudio Ranieri for Chelsea in February 2004 for a relatively small fee of £7m. He was one of Ranieri’s final signings, and in fact never played under the ‘Tinker Man’, as the Italian had been fired and replaced by Jose Mourinho by the time Cech arrived in July. At that point he’d starred at Euro 2004 too, helping the Czech Republic to the semi-finals and finding himself named in UEFA’s official team of the tournament.
Under Mourinho, Cech was an instant success. He helped Chelsea to win back-to-back Premier League titles in 2004/05 and 2005/06, keeping a record 21 clean sheets in his first season as his team only let in a total of 15 goals. Despite fracturing his skull in late 2006 – causing him to wear a head guard to this day – he remained probably the most consistent goalkeeper in the league for the remainder of his time at Chelsea before moving to Arsenal in the summer of 2015.
And since he’s moved to Arsenal, he’s been just as good as ever – December 2015 saw him record a Premier League record 170th clean sheet, and in 2016/17 despite missing the final itself, he helped Arsenal to win the FA Cup – the fifth time he’d claimed the trophy. At 35 he probably still has a good few years left in him at the top, and he remains one of the league’s most reliable shot-stoppers.
#4 Gheorghe Hagi
The most famous player ever produced by Romania, Hagi was nicknamed ‘The Maradona of the Carpathians’ which probably tells you a lot about his incredible talents. Over a seventeen-year international career, he was named Romanian Player of the Year on seven occasions and led his country to their best ever World Cup finish – the quarter-finals – in 1994, scoring one of the best goals of the tournament in their group stage match against Colombia.
Blessed with an incredible left foot, Hagi in his prime was one of the best-attacking midfielders on the planet. He could shoot from literally any position or angle, pick out a long-range pass to a teammate on a whim and had unbelievable dribbling skills that allowed him to ghost past his opponents. And at club level, he was one of the most high-profile players to appear for both Real Madrid and Barcelona – his time at the Nou Camp being more memorable, as he played alongside Romario and Hristo Stoichkov as part of Johan Cruyff’s famous team.
Arguably his biggest achievements came with Turkish side Galatasaray, though. Hagi signed for them in 1996/97 after leaving Barcelona and remained there until his retirement in 2001. With Hagi in the side, Galatasaray won the Turkish Super Lig four times in a row, and also captured the UEFA Cup in 2000 and then won the UEFA Super Cup in the next season – defeating Real Madrid.
While Hagi undoubtedly had a dark side – he was sent off for violent conduct on a handful of occasions, could be inconsistent, and was renowned for his arrogance and ability to fall out with his coaches and teammates – he remains one of the most talented players ever produced by Eastern Europe.
#3 Pavel Nedved
One of the best players to come out of the Czech Republic, all-action attacking midfielder Nedved – looking like Patrick Swayze’s character from Point Break thanks to his shaggy blonde mop – made his name in Italy’s Serie A, where he starred for Lazio and Juventus over thirteen seasons. During that time he won Serie A three times, won the UEFA Cup-Winners Cup and the UEFA Cup with Lazio, and even captured the Champions League with Juventus.
The Champions League win in 2002/03 was the catalyst that allowed Nedved to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 2003 – becoming the first Czech player to win the award since the breakup of the old Czechoslovakia. That season saw him score fourteen goals – a career high during his time in Italy – as he lived up to his huge £37m price tag and became the successor to the great Zinedine Zidane in the famous black-and-white of Juventus.
At international level, Nedved was also a huge success. Playing alongside the likes of Karel Poborsky and Patrik Berger, he helped the Czech Republic to the final of Euro 1996 where they were narrowly beaten by Germany, and then as captain he took them to the semi-finals of Euro 2004 and was named in the team of the tournament. The World Cup was less successful for him – he only played in World Cup 2006, returning from international retirement to do so, but the Czechs went out in the group stages.
With the ability to play anywhere in midfield, Nedved was renowned for his stamina, passing range, vision and a frighteningly hard shot. Sven-Goran Eriksson – who managed him at Lazio – described him as “the complete midfielder”, and anyone who saw him in his pomp would struggle to disagree.
#4 Hristo Stoichkov
Hristo Stoichkov was known for his powerful shot and unpredictable behaviour
Probably the best player ever produced by Bulgaria, Hristo Stoichkov was renowned as much for his foul temper as he was his incredibly powerful shot – hence his nickname of ‘El Pistolero’, basically translating to ‘The Gunslinger’. But despite this questionable reputation he was, on his day, one of the best players in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or in 1994 and was runner-up for the FIFA World Player of the Year award in both 1992 and 1994.
His greatest triumphs came as part of Johan Cruyff’s legendary Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, with whom he won La Liga four years in a row between 1990/91 and 1993/94 and the Champions League in 1991/92. During his time at the Nou Camp, he formed a terrifying strike partnership with the legendary Brazilian Romario and only scored less than 20 goals in one of his five initial seasons there. He made a return to Barcelona in 1996/97 after a season in Italy with Parma, but by that point, he was in the twilight of his career and he wasn’t as successful.
Away from Barcelona, the 1994 World Cup was arguably his career high point. Stoichkov scored five goals in qualifying to take Bulgaria to their first World Cup since 1986, and while the team went into the tournament as huge underdogs, they managed to go all the way to the semi-finals – eliminating holders Germany along the way – with Stoichkov scoring six goals to jointly win the tournament’s Golden Boot. He also scored ten goals during the qualifiers for Euro 1996 and scored three goals in three games during the tournament, although Bulgaria didn’t make it past the group stages.
A quick, unpredictable striker who was perhaps best deployed in a supporting role alongside another prolific goalscorer – as he was at Barcelona with Romario – Stoichkov was largely unplayable if he was on form. He was surprisingly quick, was able to dribble at explosive speeds, and was also a dead-ball expert. Simply put, he was one of the best European players of all time, let alone one of the best from Eastern Europe.
#1 Andriy Shevchenko
Despite largely going out with a whimper rather than a bang – he flopped hugely after a mega-money move to Chelsea and never truly recovered – Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko will still go down as one of Europe’s all-time great strikers. The stats largely speak for themselves – with 67 goals, he’s currently ranked as the fifth-top goalscorer in all European competitions, he’s the second most prolific goalscorer in AC Milan history with 175 goals, and he’s also Ukraine’s all-time leading goalscorer with 48.
Shevchenko rose to fame with his first club Dynamo Kiev in the mid to late 1990’s, and it was during his final two seasons with the club that he really began to open the eyes of the fans. He scored 33 goals in all competitions in both 1997/98 and 1998/99, and during that time he scored goals against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid as Dynamo excelled in the Champions League. His move to Milan followed in 1999/00, and he was an instant hit, becoming just the sixth foreign player to be Serie A’s top scorer in his debut season.
His goalscoring record with Milan was simply phenomenal – he scored a total of 24 goals in Serie A in 2000/01, a notoriously difficult league to score goals in, and overall he averaged around a goal every two games. He won the Champions League with them in 2002/03 – a feat that helped him to be awarded the Ballon d’Or that year – and then scored the goals – 24 in 32 games - that allowed them to win Serie A in 2003/04.
With Ukraine, he only appeared in two international tournaments. He played in the World Cup in 2006, captaining his team and leading them to the quarter-finals with two goals in the group stages, and he also appeared at Euro 2012 which was held in Ukraine. There he scored his final international goals – a brace against Sweden – but couldn’t get Ukraine out of the group stages. A natural goalscorer, he will go down as one of the best European strikers of all time, point blank.