For much of the 1980s European football was in thrall to Michel Platini’s exploits as a playmaker and deep-lying centre forward of rare pedigree for Juventus and France. On the other side of the continent, deep in the Ukrainian hinterland, there was emerging a player of similar gifts who would never gain the same accolades the celebrated French maestro did. That player was Aleksandr Zavarov and this is the story of his Soviet Union days.
Born in 1961 in a Cossack village near the Ukrainian industrial city of Voroshilovgrad, Zavarov excelled at sport from an early age and was sent to a special sporting school to develop his talent. At the age of 18 he made his Soviet Higher League debut for local club Zarya in a game in Tbilisi and his career never looked back.
Always a deep-lying centre-forward, he scored seven goals in 23 matches during his debut season and earned a national youth team call up. By this stage he had been nicknamed Maradona for his curly hair and lack of inches and he came very close to going head-to-head with the Argentinian himself at the 1979 World Youth Cup in Japan. Zavarov scored twice in the Soviets semi-final victory over Poland but picked up an injury and had to watch from the sidelines as his teammates lost the final 3-1 to a Diego-inspired Argentina.
Back home and Zarya were relegated shortly after, so Zavarov left to undertake his national service playing with SKA Rostov on Don. There he teamed up with prolific striker Sergei Andreyev and it proved a potent pairing with Zavarov creating the chances and Andreyev scoring them. It was this combination that led to the winning goal against Spartak Moscow in the 1981 Soviet Cup Final.
His first taste of European competition led to injury which cost him and SKA Rostov who were relegated. A lesser-explained incident in his career was how he fell foul of officialdom and had a life ban imposed, partially lifted a year later when he was sent back to Voroshilovgrad on probation.
Valeri Lobanovsky tried to convince him to move to Dynamo Kiev and was successful at the second time of asking in 1983. There he started as a striker but had a nightmare European Cup debut in which he missed a hatful of chances during defeat to Hamburg. His coach quietly pushed him back into midfield.
A fine team started to come together with Igor Belanov, Pavel Yakovenko and Ivan Yaremchuk among the newcomers who followed Zavarov into the first eleven. Success was not far behind with a 1985 Soviet Cup win then the title later that same year. The following year brought another Soviet title and a high-profile success in the European Cup Winners Cup. Atlético Madrid were dismantled in the final with Zavarov scoring the opener with an opportunist header and running the game, instigating everything that was so thrilling about Kiev’s lightning attacking play.
Virtually that entire Kiev team doubled up as the Soviet Union national side which travelled to Mexico for the 1986 World Cup and cruised through the group stages. The team seemed well in control of their knockout tie against Belgium, too, leading 2-1 when Lobanovski took off Zavarov and Yaremchuk to rest them for the next round. Alas, control of the midfield was surrendered and the Soviets eventually succumbed 4-3.
Scorer-in-chief for both Kiev and his national side was Igor Belanov who was rewarded by being named the 1986 European Footballer of the Year. The Soviets themselves thought differently however and Zavarov was the unanimous choice at home – a recognition of how reliant the team was on his movement, positional sense, fast and accurate passing and attacking thrust. Domestically he was thought of as a better all-rounder than Platini, seeing as along with a similar skill set he was ever-willing to work hard for his team both on and off the ball – a trait not associated with the more languid Frenchman.
Hopes that Kiev could go all the way in the 1986-87 European Cup were quashed by FC Porto in the semi-finals but Zavarov would enjoy a last hurrah in that year’s Soviet Cup Final. Kiev trailed 1-0 until Zavarov produced a piece of ball-juggling magic to create an equaliser for Vasily Rats. Minsk took a 3-1 lead but Zavarov provoked a free kick from which Kuznetsov scored, then fired an equaliser just before the final whistle. Kiev went on to win on penalties.
A thigh injury hindered him during his last months at Kiev but he recovered well to be one of the midfield stand-outs at the 1988 European Championships in West Germany. Big suitors were flocking and a career in Italy beckoned for one of the most influential if understated midfielders of the 1980s.