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The Unwanted Hero

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July 2035
Moscow, Russia

“How does it feel, Bahtiyar?”

The suited man being addressed drew his gaze back to the older gentleman, allowing his eyes one more look around the room as he did so. His eyes themselves began a smile that spread across his whole face, and only then did he answer.

“It feels exactly as I imagined it would. I’m looking forward to getting started.”

Elmaddin Ismayilov smiled gently, stepping towards the large mahogany desk that separated the two men. Bahtiyar Saparow stood as his new employer approached, and the two shared a handshake that was both firm and warm.

“Do you mind if I sit down a moment?”

“Of course Mr Chairman, please do.”

The older of the two men moved to the side of the room, placing himself down in a modern office chair which seemed almost out of place among the history of the room. On the walls all around were images of a glorious past, photographs ranging from almost a century ago to just two seasons back. Replica trophies dominated one corner of the vast manager’s office – it was a shrine to success.

“How do you feel about taking over now, Bahtiyar? We both know Ucha was hugely popular with the fans, that the supporters haven’t been particularly thrilled by my arrival on the scene, and some of the comments on your appointment have been… unsavoury to say the least.”

The younger man smiled, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose with his right hand to buy himself a bit of time.

“Mr Chairman, this is the club I have always supported. I was here as a boy, and I always dreamt of making it back. The fans may not be happy, but this club has never dealt well with change. I remember being one of the sceptics when Ucha was appointed, and there were plenty of us – nobody could have imagined the success he would bring…”

“And now he’s at Old Trafford.”

“Exactly. The thing is, Mr Chairman, I’m not looking to go to Old Trafford – not other than in the Champions League. The fans may not trust me because I’m not a Romantsev, Titov, Tikhonov or even an Alenichev, but I understand this club and I intend to build on what Ucha has done.”

“I feel like we’re in a similar position here, Bahtiyar. Outsiders longing to be on the inside, hoping for a chance to prove ourselves to the supporters. In that regard, we are very much intertwined. Whilst success will help us in that respect, you must have seen some of the less pleasant comments surrounding our backgrounds?”

Bahtiyar could only smirk. His new boss, Elmaddin Ismayilov, had bought out long-serving owner and chairman Leonid Fedun two weeks ago, taking control of Spartak Moscow in the process. It was not a move that had gone down well with the club’s vocal supporters’ groups – Ismayilov, a Moscow-born businessman of Azeri descent, had been subject to a number of online smears, the most harmful being the accusation that he had close links to Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev dynasty and had benefitted from the Caucasian state’s arms race with Armenia. None of it was true, but that didn’t matter when it came to the replacement of a man who, after his own rocky start, had become a Spartak hero.

Bahtiyar himself was paying for his ethnicity. Also born in the capital, his Russian mother had insisted on passing on a full knowledge of his Turkmen heritage, even though he had never so much as met his father. His managerial career had begun in his paternal nation, and both his name and appearance made him stand out as different in his passport nation. Now, having been appointed to the manager’s position of the club he had supported and played in the academy side of, his ethnic make-up was counting against him.

“They aren’t too keen on a Turkmen taking charge – we’re unknown as a nation, and the reputation we do have isn’t great. But I don’t remember there being too many complaints when Berdyev won the double way back when.”

Kurban Berdyev was the idol of Turkmen football, the long-retired Rubin Kazan hero who had not only taken a provincial side to back-to-back titles and beaten Barcelona in the Camp Nou, but had then moved on to bring unfancied Rostov to within a whisker of the Russian title before taking on the Spartak job and winning two league titles and a cup before deciding to bring his career to an end. His nervous temperament on the sidelines – his name brings to mind a man hunched on the sideline constantly fiddling with prayer beads – did nothing to stop his remarkable success on the field, and the Spartak fans had taken him and his defensive football to their hearts after initial scepticism.

Saparow’s predecessor, Ucha Sosiashvili, was another who had got off to a rocky start. Only in his early 30s when plucked from his native Georgia, his first home game was boycotted by one fan group in protest at such a low-profile appointment. However, two weeks before this conversation – a day after Ismayilov had completed his purchase of the club – he announced his departure to no less a club than Manchester United, having collected six league titles at Spartak in a 13-year reign and left a legend. Spartak fans were not wired to appreciate anyone from outside the club’s pantheon of heroes coming in, but like so many clubs, they could not resist success.

Now it was Bahtiyar’s turn. The similarities with Sosiashvili in terms of youth were obvious – Saparow was just 39 years old – but the difference here was that the new man in charge had a depth of experience and somewhat more decorated CV than the predecessor. Not that that counted for anything among the sceptical Spartakovstsi.

Returning to the conversation, the older man laughed.

“Bahtiyar, when Spartak are crowned as champions, your passport will be irrelevant. You’ve got the ability to prove them wrong, otherwise I wouldn’t have employed you. Make them eat their words.”

That would be easier said than done.
--

Welcome one and all to another EvilDave story - this one being played out on FM17 (still my most up-to-date version...) with leagues loaded from all the former Soviet nations. I'm anticipating that this one will be reasonably short but flicking across several years of game time - 'flashbacks' will be in italics to make it easier to follow. Other than that, sit back and enjoy the ride!

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August 2018
Balkanabat, Turkmenistan

17 years ago, Saparow had been through the same process. On that occasion, he was younger, inexperienced, significantly more naïve. Not only that, he had never managed a game of football before.

But despite all that, he found himself leading out Balkan Balkanabat, the four-time champions of Turkmenistan, in the 23rd match of their league season. Having been expected to be challenging the nation’s dominant club, Altyn Asyr, for the league title, Balkan had slipped to more than 20 points adrift. Instead of turning to an experienced head to see out the campaign, the club’s president had instead taken a gamble on Bahtiyar, a man younger than most of his squad and mentally unprepared for the challenge ahead.

As he stepped onto the turf at the Sport Toplumy stadium, the silence was deafening. Built as a multi-sport arena for a hugely ambitious 10,00 spectators, he could make out fewer than 200 fans in the plastic seats. Not only was the atmosphere non-existent, but the few supporters who had turned up for his first match in charge were clearly not in favour of his appointment.

‘Football not kindergarten’ read one of the hand-scrawled signs he was able to see. ‘Give us a real manager’ shouted a second. Turkmen football was not the biggest, but those who came to see their team week by week were clearly not impressed with their new rookie manager.

Even the club president had been apprehensive about giving him the job, but the fact of the matter was that nobody more experienced was willing to risk their reputation with a club clearly inferior to the one team they were supposed to be hunting down. With no reliable hand available to take the wheel, he was forced instead to hand control to a young man with neither experience nor qualification.

All that Saparow did have going for him, other than the absence of other candidates, was a visible drive to win, and a clearly-defined way of doing so. Axed from the Spartak Moscow academy as a child due to injury, he had studied the game informally throughout his teenage years and, at interview, had presented not only a tactical system which he believed would give Balkan the edge over the competition, but also a list of transfer targets that he would hope to move for in his first off-season. He was confident, spoke well, and his vision of success spoke to a president desperate to see his side back on top of the pile.

But even when the full-time whistle blew on Bahtiyar’s first game as a professional manager – his side earning a 1-0 win over basement dwellers Lebap thanks to a second-half penalty from a 38-year-old striker – the fans that the president depending on for his position were less than convinced. They had expected a rout of the relegation candidates rather than a nervy performance from a side struggling to get to grips with a new and unusual formation. Even the penalty itself was contentious – Saparow needed things to improve, and quickly.

“Saparow, can I have a word?”

“Of course, Mr President. What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to congratulate you on today’s victory. The first match is often the most difficult, and while you were clearly nervous it was important to win today. How do you feel it went?”

“Honestly, Mr President, I’m a little disappointed but not surprised. Confidence is low, the system is new, and our opposition also had a new manager in charge so I was expecting a disjointed match. The victory was of course important, but more important is that the players see that the system can work and begin to get used to it. It will take some time for them to fully adapt, as I explained before. Still, I am pleased to have my debut out of the way.”

“Well, I am glad to hear that you understand the importance of the result. But Saparow, you cannot help but have noticed the reaction of the fans?”

“It was not the most exciting of matches, I can understand their frustrations.”

“That’s true, but not the whole truth. The fact is, Saparow, that their expectations are perhaps higher than your own. They demand results instantly, and by playing good football. They are already upset at your inexperience – they will look for any excuse to call for your head.”

“I’ve played a single match. And won!”

“I know that very well, Saparow. I only share my experience with you. I would love this club to be one with a vision that sees beyond the next match, but the reality of the situation is that the fans demand instant success. Sadly, they do not see how the constant change they demand prevents us achieving the results they crave.”

“So Mr President, what you’re telling me is…”

“Drop the talk of projects, systems, and things taking time. Win football matches by any means necessary, but ideally with attractive play. And above all, get closer to Alyn Asyr by the time the season ends.”

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Good to see you back on familiar ground Dave, and I look forward to seeing how Bahtiyar Saparow gets on at Spartak, but also learning how his road led him to Moscow. Good luck.

Edited by neilhoskins77

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22 hours ago, neilhoskins77 said:

Good to see you back on familiar ground Dave, and I look forward to seeing how Bahtiyar Saparow gets on at Spartak, but also learning how his road led him to Moscow. Good luck.

Thanks Neil - I'm a sucker for the old Soviet states, and getting so far into the future had me itching to write something about it. Thanks for reading!

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July 2035
Moscow, Russia

 “I can’t believe we’ve let this Turkmen **** into our club, let alone given him a job. He’s been here five minutes and he sells Tony?”

“Saparow has to go – he’s ruining the club. His ****ed-up policies might work with smaller teams, but this is Spartak for heaven’s sake!”

“This is what he thinks of our history, of our tradition? Selling our legends for a pittance? Can Manchester send us Ucha back?”

“Saparow is a CSKA spy! We can’t replace Tony, and not Dani and Diego too. Hang the *******!”

“The Azeri and the Turkmen know nothing about this club. They both need to go – by force if necessary.”

The Spartak fan forums were not exactly enamoured with the new man – or indeed men – in charge of their beloved club, and this time they had something concrete to base their concerns on. Within the space of a couple of weeks, Bahtiyar Saparow, the man that none of them seemed to want at their club, had sold more than £50m of players, including one club legend and another man not far behind.

The man they knew as ‘Tony’ was a certain Antoine Kaptoum, a Cameroonian international striker who had overcome Russia’s race problem to become a hero at the Otkritie Arena. One of Sosiashvili’s first purchases 13 years ago, he had repaid his paltry transfer with 169 league goals in just over 300 games, leading the league’s scoring charts on more than one occasion and becoming Spartak’s go-to player when a goal was needed.

But that would be the case no more. Aged 33 and demanding a 25% pay rise to sign a new deal, ‘Tony’ was told by the new manager to lower his demands or leave the club. At first, Kaptoum thought his new boss was bluffing – attempting to make his mark on the side by standing up to an iconic player – but he was not. Instead of taking the reduced wage on offer, he chose to leave, opting to play out his days in Saudi Arabi with Al-Ittihad. It helped that they were prepared to pay him a huge £125,000 per week, far beyond anything earned by any Spartak player.

While the reasoning seemed sound to anyone detached from the situation, for the Spartak faithful it was another betrayal of their club, their values and their idols. Kaptoum had been a hero – a difficult thing for any African player to achieve in the red and white of Spartak – and now he had been sacrificed to make a point, given away for just £2.5m and with no replacement as yet. The replacement would come, but that would not placate their anger. And it would only be the start of it.

The £50m worth of sales came in just 10 days, and it was not just Kaptoum’s departure that sent Spartak’s corner of the web into a frothing mess. Dani Santamaria, a much-loved Spanish playmaker about to enter his seventh year in Moscow, was sold off to Bordeaux for a sum not even reaching seven figures – he was 32 after all – while centre-back stalwart Armand Louisville headed to Serie A and Napoli for £9m after being deemed surplus to requirements. Ary Lopes, a flamboyant Brazilian who most Spartak fans assumed would take Santamaria’s mantle as creator-in-chief, would not stick around either - £10m and the Celta Vigo first team saw him trade red and white for sky blue.

But by far the biggest sale was one which had the unique effect of uniting both fans and manager in frustration. Diego Ziegler was a Belgian international, and unlike the majority of those mentioned previously, was not winding down his career – far from it, in fact. Aged just 24, he had been a revelation since arriving from his homeland two years previously, and after just one full season in Moscow the club had been applauded by the footballing community for standing up to the money being offered to them by French giants Paris Saint-Germain. However, 12 months down the line, Ziegler and his agent had come to the conclusion that what the central midfielder needed was to be playing in a bigger league, and to be paid more money. It is a familiar story.

When Monaco’s offer came to Saparow’s office, it was rejected out of hand – the club had no need of the funds, and Ziegler was a key part of the plans for the year ahead. Besides which, the bid was derisory. However, an angry meeting with the player’s agent and a leaked story in the press later, the manager’s hand was forced – Ziegler was now a risk to the harmony of the dressing room, and so had to leave. To the joy of the new boss, it was not a club from the Cote D’Azur, Spanish Costas or Italian Riviera that won the bidding war, but instead Southampton of dreary old England. The agent didn’t care – he had his cut – and Spartak was suddenly a huge £28m richer.

Money does not make supporters of a club like Spartak happy, however, and on the day that Ziegler’s move was confirmed the calls for Saparow and his employer to stand down so somebody else could ‘save’ the club grew louder still. The manner of the departure was somehow pinned on the Turkmen manager, and many were quick to point out that the only players coming into the club had been a teenage goalkeeper for the youth team, and a full-back from lowly Tosno who had headed straight out on loan again. The squad looked low on numbers and drained of the star power they so craved – and there were only two men to blame.

Signings were demanded – not only because the fans were worried about the strength of the squad, but because they were eager to find another reason to boot out the man who was yet to take charge of a single match for their side. Whoever came in, the majority of people were unlikely to be happy – and when Saparow did indeed make his moves in the market, they would split the Spartak fanbase right down the middle.

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November 2018
Balkanabat, Turkmenistan

Bahtiyar Saparow sat alone in the corridor outside the president’s office of FK Balkan Balkanabat, just one of a huge number of corridors in the vast Sport Toplumy complex. The club had a separate office just a handful of streets away, but the current president enjoyed the sheer size of the 10,000-seater stadium and the proximity to the playing field he saw himself involved with. A ticking clock pierced the nothingness each passing second, the only sound interfering with the young manager’s internal monologue.

In the mind of the young Turkmen, his career as a professional manager was all but over. He had overseen 14 matches at the end of the 2018 season for Balkan, and his side had finished a comfortable second in the nation’s Yokary Liga, a full 12 points ahead of Ahal in third place. Given that the club had been just six points ahead of the side behind them when Saparow took over, it could be argued that he had been a success.

However, the Balkan fanbase – and as a result their president – was not inclined to be looking behind them. Their focus was instead on the club ahead in Altyn Asyr, the side from capital Asgabat that had lifted the previous four titles in Turkmenistan. They had done so again this season – and having started his reign 22 points adrift of them, it would have been naivety of the highest order to expect anything other – but the problem for the rookie manager was in the margin of victory.

Saparow took over Balkan with the club’s record showing 12 wins, six draws and four defeats, sitting 22 points behind the leaders as mentioned. By the end of the season, that record showed an additional eight wins, a solitary draw, and no fewer than five losses. Only one of them had come against Altyn Asyr – Balkan had actually managed to defeat them in the second league meeting of Saparow’s tenure – but defeats to university side HTTU, bottom club Lebap and lowly Sagadam (capital club and 4th-place finisher Asgabat were the others to conquer Balkan) meant not only that half of the league got the better of Saparow in his debut half-season, but that the gap at the top of the table was a mammoth 30 points by the end of the campaign.

That was a problem for the new manager, specifically because the club’s president had explicitly told him that the target for his 14-game trial was to bridge the gap, rather than seeing it become a gaping chasm. His innovative tactical system, inspired by Brazilian ‘box’ 4-4-2 formations from bygone years and tweaked for the modern area, had been a step too far for the limited squad at his disposal, and the football had not only been often unsuccessful, but also somewhat less than fluid. The small but vocal Balkan fanbase wanted Saparow out, and now the president was about to announce his decision.

“Mr Saparow,” came a female voice as the door opened slightly, “you may come in now.”

The young manager rose from his seat, nodded in appreciation to the young woman who now stepped outside the door, and walked through to greet his employer. He only hoped that employment would last beyond the next few minutes.

“Bahtiyar, sit down.”

The president was in no mood for niceties.

“I need you to explain to me, as briefly as possible, why you should manage Balkan Balkanabat next season.”

Saparow paused. His fears were well-founded – the president was not impressed with his audition, Balkan were no closer to the top of the pile, and Altyn Asyr looked dominant. The crowds, small but vocal, had not taken to the young manager, and now he had to justify his continued employment. He had precious few options.

“Mr President, I appreciate things have not gone smoothly so far. The players have…”

“With respect, Bahtiyar, you don’t need to tell me about the project again. I need you to tell me why you should walk out of this room as manager of my football club.”

“Very well Mr President. I should walk out of this room as manager of Balkan Balkanabat, because with three key signings I will win you the league next season.”

The president stared at the young man in front of him – a man who, despite seeing his side finish 30 points behind the champions, had just claimed he would overhaul them with just three new players. Surely it was a bluff?

“Three signings, Bahtiyar? Who are they?”

The younger of the two men handed his employer a piece of paper with three names written on it, each followed by the name of their current club and how much he estimated each man would cost. The president raised his eyebrows.

“They will make that much difference?”

A nod.

“And the last one is achievable? They’ll let him go?”

Another nod.

“Bahtiyar, you have until April – 11 games in, to be precise. That’s one third of the season. Whoever was in charge would have had enough money to sign these three players, and potentially a little more besides. Bring them in, and let’s see if they’re the difference-makers you claim they are. If this football club is not in first place after 11 matches, you move on.

“I have my doubts about you, Bahtiyar, but we are not an attractive proposition at the moment. Prove me wrong. Now, get out and sign those players you gave me.”

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July 2035
Moscow, Russia

The knives were out once again for Bahtiyar Saparow and his not-quite-Azerbaijani chairman. This time it was not the nationalities of the pair that were being denigrated – although their status as ‘immigrants’ did neither of them any favourites among the Spartak faithful – nor was it the identities of the players they had collectively sold. Instead, it was the men coming in.

What Saparow was accused of, in short, was of running an old boy’s club. Of the 10 senior players to walk through the doors at the Moscow club during the summer, three of them had been players sold by previous Spartak bosses, and a further three were men who had played under Saparow at his previous clubs. Not only that, but the price paid for one man in particular was tough for the supporters to take.

Vadym Fedorenko was just 19 years old, and had a single season of first-team football under his belt. It had been a hugely successful season, in which he had assumed key playmaking duties in a Shakhtar Donetsk team which had completed a clean sweep of available domestic trophies, and been singled out for special praise throughout. The side he had broken into were knocked out of the Champions League by a late Manchester City goal in the quarter-finals, having lost the previous year’s final and won the entire competition a year earlier. There was little doubt that Vadym Fedorenko was a special talent, and the hoard of scouts descending on every Shakhtar home game was further proof of his abilities.

But for the new Turkmen manager to go back to his former club, to sign a largely unproven player for a fee which had the potential to rise to club record level – around £25m once converted – was too much for many Spartak fans to deal with.

If that wasn’t sufficient to rise their ire, the arrival of Evgeni Vorobyov helped to fuel their fury. A Russian international at the age of 21, the young striker was plucked for a similarly astronomical sum from top flight rivals Armavir – a provincial club who had risen to the top on the back of heavy investment from a local ‘businessman’ – to be one of the main beneficiaries of Fedorenko’s creativity. His scoring record spoke for itself, he clearly had more potential to unlock, and there was little doubt about the man’s character. To the outsider, there were no obvious problems – Spartak had secured the signature of one of their country’s brightest prospects, and he was ready to contribute straight away.

The problem was, Spartak’s fans were not outsiders. They were very much on the inside, aware of everything that went on in their club’s present and past. It was the latter that was the problem on this occasion – for all his merits, Vorobyov had committed an unspeakable crime in his younger days. He had graduated from the academy of Zenit St Petersburg.

As one of Russia’s most successful sides, Spartak have adopted the habit of picking up a number of fierce rivalries along the way. Moscow is a city flooded with football teams, and every meeting with title holders CSKA, old enemies Dinamo, or indeed long-relegated Lokomotiv and Torpedo, is cause for disturbance. Further feuds exist with one-time upstart club Anzhi Makhachkala – a classic case of established side rejecting new money – Soviet-era stalwarts Krylya Sovetov Samara, and even one of Saparow’s former sides, Kuban Krasnodar – although nobody could quite fathom the origins of this one.

But ever since the early 2000s, Zenit had been a strong contender for Spartak’s strongest rival. The first team in over a decade to take the Russian title out of Moscow, a club suspected by many of having the backing of the state itself in the Putin years, and a club keen to get one over on the self-declared ‘people’s team.’ But the main point of contention in the Spartak-Zenit clash is simply one of geography – it is widely accepted that a Russian is either for Moscow and against ‘Peter,’ or vice versa, with little in the way of middle ground. For residents of the two cities – St Petersburg’s backers would go as far as to say ‘two capitals’ – the feeling is stronger still, and when it comes to football fans, the hatred runs deep.

And so Vorobyov was written off by many Spartak fans as an enemy plant and unworthy of his transfer fee, simply by virtue of his footballing education. Combined with the outrage at the price needed to prise Fedorenko from Shakhtar, added to the fact that by the end of Saparow’s first transfer window there was not a single player at the club born outside of the former Soviet Union, all thrown in to a frenzy begun with the sale of Kaptoum and other fan favourites, and the knives were beginning to look very sharp indeed for Bahtiyar and his Russian-Azeri chairman.

Despite all this, the latter retained absolute confidence in the former. He had little choice – his man had only been in position for a matter of weeks, and to remove him now would create far more problems for him than it would solve. That Saparow’s appointment was a gamble had been evident before he took it. Now, as the new season drew near, it was clear quite how big that gamble had been.

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August 2035
Moscow, Russia

“Now then men, I’m not disappointed with what I’ve just seen. They haven’t got near us yet, we’ve defended very well and you’re controlling the midfield fight. There are plenty of positives.

“That said, this is Ufa. This is not CSKA, Zenit, Krasnodar. This is Ufa, at home, in front of our fans. This is not a game where we take a point and are happy with it. This is a game we need to win – we need to win to get off to a good start, to hit the ground running, to show we mean business. But we also need to win, because everybody important will win this game.

“So get your head up early. Anatoli, Pavel – push onto their full-backs, make them deal with you. Sirojiddin, I want you to be looking wide and looking forward – take the risk, we can cope with the counter. If you’re in the final third, let’s make something happen, create and be sharp. We can win this, just keep going.”

Bahtiyar Saparow’s first competitive half as Spartak manager had gone reasonably well, his side comfortably controlling the game against expected midtable side FK Ufa. His side were unlucky in one sense not be in the lead, the much-maligned Vorobyov’s shot cannoning off the outside of the post midway through the half, but on the other were yet to look fluid in the new system. Even so, Saparow was not yet concerned. It was a system which had seen him lead two teams to continental crowns, and he had utter faith in his methods.

He sent his men back out onto the field after the interval, grabbing a brief word with the more creative of his two defensive midfielders, Uzbek prospect Sirojiddin Xoshimov. He had placed a significant of responsibility on the young playmaker, and wanted to make sure he understood that it wasn’t entirely on him to win the game. Switching to Xoshimov’s native tongue, his assurances were received with a smile. In the end, they were not required.

Xoshimov’s second half was a good one, but not a particularly decisive one. Instead, new boy Fedorenko began to pay back some of his not insignificant transfer fee with two very different assists. They took their time in coming, but when they did, they gave a small degree of insight into just how Saparow’s side might cause problems for the rest of the season.

The first goal, 15 minutes before the full-time whistle, was the superior of the two creations. A searching pass down the left from goalkeeper Bochkarev had found full-back Pavel Nazarov bombing on, and after drawing two men to him, he fed striker and captain Stanislav Kostenko. Seeing his path to goal blocked, Kostenko found the young Ukrainian, and a first-time flick with the outside of his boot diverted it into the path of Alex Kulaev, a summer arrival from Rubin Kazan, who slotted under the goalkeeper to make it 1-0.

Just a few moments later, the win was sealed emphatically. Vorobyov, eager to get his Spartak career off to a scoring start, lashed in a shot from 20 yards which the visiting goalkeeper managed to push round the post. Fedorenko walked over to take the resulting corner, and swung the ball perfectly onto the forehead of centre-back Evgeni Ivashin, whose header flew into the top corner despite the best efforts of a man on the line. At 2-0, the game was done, and the Saparow era at Spartak was underway in the best way possible.

The new manager did not have to say a great deal in the changing room after the match, only to shake the hand of each and every one of his players and congratulate them on a job well done. They had stuck to the plan, not got desperate in the face of Ufa’s increasingly defensive tactics, and it had been his new signings who had made the difference in the end. For the new man in charge, it was a good first day.

In the stands, there were converts. Plenty remained unconvinced by the Turkmen, but there were small numbers who had seen enough in that first outing in the Otkritie Arena to envisage a successful time under Saparow’s management, an adherence to Spartak’s heritage of attacking football and faith in young talent. All in all, the first game of the season had gone about as well as could have been hoped – and, for the first time since his appointment, Saparow did not wake up to read calls for his head on a number of fan forums.

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November 2019
Balkanabat, Turkmenistan

The referee’s whistle pierced the silence as the small crowd, lost in the vastness of the stadium, held their collective breath. The decision had been an obvious one, but the consequence of it was be huge. There was only one man who was going to take the penalty, and with the pace of all of his 37 years he strode forward.

Mammedaly Garadanow had already announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, despite the protestations of his manager. Despite his failing legs and aching muscles, he had contributed more than 20 goals in all competitions, and had been challenging the league’s top strikers before a month-long injury midway through the season pushed him out of the running.

With one goal to his name already in the day, his confidence was high. A classical run-up – seven even paces, no stuttering or trickery – and then a swing of his right boot, and the ball was in the back of the net. The visiting goalkeeper had gone the right way, but the placement was too precise for his outstretched arm. The lead was doubled, and even with 70 minutes still to play, the game was surely over.

Indeed, when the 90 minutes were up the lead had been added to, a fortuitous own goal making the scoreline 3-0 and leaving the university side perilously close to the relegation zone. While giving due respect to the players and staff of Yedigen however, very few were paying attention to that end of the table.

Instead, after a lengthy pause, the stadium announcer gave everyone in the Sport Toplumy ground the news they wanted to here. Having been behind at half time, defending champions Altyn Asyr had staged a comeback away at FK Asgabat to draw 2-2. But it wasn’t good enough. With two games remaining in the 2019 Yokary Liga season, Balkan Balkanabat were champions of Turkmenistan.

As the prolonged celebrations on the field and in the dressing room drew to a close, the manager of the newly-crowned champions was beckoned to the stadium office of the club’s president. Unlike his last season debrief, Bahtiyar Saparow walked down the corridor of power with a spring in his step.

“Come on in, Bahtiyar, and congratulations. A year makes a big difference in football – you’ve made me a very happy man. Thank you.”

“Thank you, Mr President, for your confidence in me. A year ago…”

“Forget it, Bahtiyar, I’ll have no more talk of a year ago. This is a time to celebrate, to look back with fondness on. I can’t offer you a drink, I’m afraid…”

“I’m not much of a drinker, Mr President, don’t worry.”

“Well then. Tell me, Bahtiyar, when you came in here last time you told me you needed three men and you’d give me a title. How were you so confident?”

“I knew I needed others too – you were very generous in your backing – but those three men filled the main gaps I had in the system. I could see they would bring balance that was missing, and Owekow would weaken Altyn Asyr. It might not have looked like it last season, Mr President, but my system works when the right men are in it.

“As for guaranteeing you the title, let’s just say it was a calculated gamble. It was something we both wanted, and even if I failed I’d have had 11 more matches than I thought I was about to be given.”

The older man paused, both surprised and impressed of the 23-year-old manager who sat in front of him. He had doubted his credentials on more than one occasion, and yet he had comfortably delivered his side’s first league title in seven seasons – far too long for a club of Balkan’s stature.

“Well Bahtiyar, I have to admit I’ve been surprised by you. Surprised by your boldness, surprised by your methods, surprised by your success. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to be so. I don’t mean to ask before this season is even over, but what are your plans for next season?”

Saparow smiled, knowing the question was coming. He’d been planning for it ever since Balkan hit the top of the table at the end of March. By this day in November, with two games remaining in the season, his answer was as complete as it was ever going to be.

“Mr President, I’m glad you asked. In many ways the plan is the same as this year – win the league title. That has to come first. But I’m also keen that this first title is the start of something here.

“To that end, we need to improve our performance in domestic and international cups as well, and to do that there will need to be more changes to the personnel. I would suggest the current squad is around 70% of the way to the destination I would like. It has obvious talent, but obvious problems. It needs to be younger, brighter, quicker. It needs depth, and it needs star quality too.”

“That sounds like a lot of change for a winning team, Bahtiyar. Do you have names in mind?”

“I do, and if you’re happy, I’ll bring them to you after our final game. To give you an indication of what I’m thinking though, I’ll give you the man at the top of the list. Wahyt.”

“Surely not? Would he even consider leaving? And the price…”

The young manager smiled. It was going to be a good year.

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August 2035
Moscow, Russia

“Into the final minutes here, and still nothing from Spartak.”

“No, absolutely nothing threatening. They only need one goal, but they aren’t going to get it.”

“CSKA have defended well, but Saparow’s team just haven’t created anything. His substitutions have been brave, but nothing has changed since the first minute.”

“Exactly, there hasn’t been any pace, anything special. It’s been very disappointing.”

It had indeed been disappointing for Bahtiyar Saparow and his Spartak side. His fourth match in charge, a big derby clash away at city rivals at defending champions CSKA, and his men had come up woefully short. CSKA had never looked like adding to Viktor Biryukov’s 46th minute goal, but nor had they looked like conceding at all, Roman Khibaba’s men able to stroll through the game in third gear and hold their enemies at bay.

The final whistle brought with it pyrotechnics from the disgruntled away end, riot police called upon in the immediate aftermath as frustrations boiled over into the streets around the VEB Arena, and more fury vented in the direction of the newly-appointed Spartak boss. For the first time in his tenure, he felt that on this occasion they were justified.

His team had been overawed by the occasion, outplayed comfortably by a team still enjoying the confidence boost of wrenching the league back to their side of the Russian capital, and undone by a moment of set-piece brilliance from Biryukov. The match had been flat, slow, largely uneventful – a terrible spectacle, especially for a derby clash – and Spartak had done nothing to change the situation.

What was more concerning for Saparow was the fact that CSKA’s 4-3-3 was exactly the sort of set-up that his own tactical system should have, in theory, matched up perfectly against. Spartak had the numbers in the centre of midfield, extra men in the final third, and still the presence on the flanks to pose problems. But they had utterly failed to do so, and while CSKA were champions for a reason, it raised questions for the remainder of the season which the newspapers were only too happy to ask.

Spartak – No Danger

Where Is The Spartak Attack?

Can Anybody Challenge CSKA?

Saparow – Is He Good Enough?

The last one in particular stung, even if the journalist’s conclusion was that it was far too early to be calling for the dismissal of a man who had lifted the Champions League trophy with unfancied Shakhtar just three years ago, and had barely been able to make his mark on his new charges.

It was all true, but it rankled with Saparow – precisely because he felt he should have made his mark by now. At any other club, perhaps the criticism would have been easier to take, easier to hold lightly. But this was Spartak – his club, the side he had dreamed of first playing for and then managing. Now he was here, it was not only not going to plan on the field, but off it he was already being hounded out.

Throughout his career he had known very little in the way of failure. His belief in a system, his ability to coach the best out of his players, and his determination in pursuing his transfer targets had resulted in a personal trophy haul that would be the envy of managers a great deal older. But they were different, and they weren’t won with Spartak.

This was the one job he could not fail in. There was nowhere to go from here. It was win or bust – and so far, Bahtiyar Saparow felt it had been a bust.

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December 2020
Balkanabat, Turkmenistan

“I understand, Bahtiyar, of course I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m pleased to see you go. Is there anything we can offer you that would convince you to change your mind?”

“Thank you, Mr President, but no. I don’t feel there’s anywhere left for me to take the club, and I’m ready for a new challenge. The foundations are in place for the next manager, and I want to leave on a high.”

Saparow was certainly doing that. A year on from Balkan’s dethroning of Altyn Asyr and success in the Yokary Liga, the young manager had followed it up with the single most successful season in Turkmen football history. Balkan had entered four competitions, and had emerged with four trophies – a clean sweep.

The Super Cup had been a sign of things to come, star signing Wahyt Orazsahedow scoring within 10 minutes against his former employers in a 4-1 win, and Altyn Asyr blown out of the water by the pace, power and movement of the Balkan attack. Nobody took the match too seriously, but the stage was set for a season of monumental achievement.

The same opposition had just been beaten in the Cup final, a solitary strike from midseason signing Boliyan this time the difference between the two sides, and establishing Balkan as the dominant force in Turkmen football with all three trophies to their name.

The third of those, the league title, was won emphatically. A full 24 points was the margin from Saparow’s table-toppers to the former champions in second place, and what was even more impressive was the manner of their victory. Not only was the distance between Balkan and the rest a vast one, but over the course of their 36 matches they racked up a goal difference of more than 90, and tasted defeat in precisely none of their league fixtures. Their young manager had overseen an unbeaten season across all three domestic competitions, and nobody could claim they hadn’t deserved it.

But the crowning glory of Balkan’s season came in the AFC Cup, the competition contested by the top clubs of Asia’s ‘developing footballing nations.’ It was not the Champions League, but given that they hadn’t been given the opportunity to compete in the primary competition, the AFC Cup was as big a prize as they could have aimed for.

The previous year, Balkan had been knocked out at the group stage, picking up just six points from six games. On this occasion however, games against Bahraini, Tajik and Jordanian opposition had yielded an unbeaten 16, and it very soon became apparent that, even without the cup-tied Orazsahedow, Balkan meant business.

The second round saw them brush aside further Bahraini opposition in the form of Al-Hidd, before the draw handed them a grudge match with none other than Altyn Asyr, both clubs looking to make a rare Turkmenistani appearance in the final four. A 2-1 home defeat left Saparow’s men up against it, but a dramatic conclusion in Asgabat a week later saw the comeback completed, a 3-1 win on the night and 4-3 aggregate victory taking them into the semis, where they would overcome Al-Zawra’a of Baghdad by identical 2-1 scorelines home and away. Balkan were in the final.

Even then there would be adversity for them to overcome, with the luck of the draw favouring their opponents. Vietnamese side Dong Tam Long An were handed home advantage for the showpiece, but finished with only an 88th minute consolation goal for their efforts, two early strikes from young playmakers Geldiyew and Aiazhan enough to land Balkan their first ever AFC Cup trophy.

“In that case Bahtiyar, I can only thank you for the past couple of years here. You will always be welcome in Balkanabat, and I wish you the best of luck in the next step of your journey. Can I be so bold as to ask where that be?”

The younger of the two men smiled, taking the offered handshake firmly. He had offers – plenty of them, in fact – but he had already decided which route he was planning to go down.

“Dushanbe. Istiqlol to be precise. We may see each other again sooner than you think.”

“If that’s so, maybe I’ll withhold some of that luck for our next encounter. Thank you, Bahtiyar, and go well. It’s been a pleasure.”

Saparow shook his former employer’s hand one last time before leaving the office and indeed the stadium. He’d be back – he was fairly sure of that – but he also knew he was unlikely ever to sit on the Balkan bench as manager again. They had given him his start in management, stood by him – albeit somewhat reluctantly – after a false start, and now both they and he had reaped the rewards. Still only 24 years old, his whole future opened up in front of him. Already, Balkanabat was disappearing into the rear view mirror.

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October 2035
Istanbul, Turkey

Boos rang out around the famous Sukru Saracoglu Stadium as the final whistle blew. A tiny band of topless Russians in one corner of the vast arena continued their bellowed songs, their drums as relentless as they had been throughout the 90 minutes. Around them, yellow and blue smoke drifted across the night sky, accompanied by jeers of derision aimed at the home team.

After a home defeat to reigning champions Paris Saint-Germain in the opening round of fixtures, Bahtiyar Saparow’s Spartak were up against it in their Champions League group. They had done well to even reach this stage – beating Italian giants Inter in extra time at home in Moscow in the play-off – but were hungry for more, for progress into the knockout stages and the prestige that came with it.

And now, in the cauldron of Istanbul, they had been transformed from European also-rans to a club with a genuine chance of making it to the last 16. Evgeni Vorobyov, the controversial summer signing who had thus far failed to live up to either his price tag or the hype surrounding him, exploded into life with two wonderfully-taken goals in a 3-1 comeback win, and the Muscovites took second place in the group as Napoli lost in Paris.

Once that small band of Spartak ultras were finally able to leave the stadium – escorted by riot police and trying to launch their own flares to compete with those of the vanquished home fans – the victorious Saparow was ushered from the dressing room to the press centre, where he faced not just the Turkish and Russian media, but that of the watching world.

“Bahtiyar, a superb win for Spartak today. What was different today?”

“The difference today was that we were able to execute our plan very well. We were not shaken by the early goal, and after we scored we kept growing in confidence.”

“Vorobyov played very well today, did you give him any specific instructions?”

“Only to play as he knows he can. Zhenya is a very special player, and he hasn’t deserved some of the criticism that he’s faced. That said, he knows he’s been able to improve, and he’s done exactly that this evening. Both goals were excellent, and hopefully this is the start of a good run for him.”

“PSG won tonight, which means you now hold second place in Group C. What are your expectations for the rest of the campaign?”

“The expectation is that we perform to the best of our ability every time we come out to play. In a competition like this you have to make the most of your home games and work very hard away, and so far we’ve dropped one match in Moscow and gained one here. The two games against Napoli will be very difficult but very important, but of course we want to go as far as we can in the Champions League. One more please.”

“Bahtiyar, your players will of course be tired after tonight, and you have an important league game in Krasnodar on Sunday. Will you be making many changes against your old club?”

“We can’t afford to disrespect Kuban for even a second, and I won’t be weakening us unnecessarily. However, we’ll have to see how the players respond from tonight. We’re fortunate to have a strong squad with many different talents, and I’m confident that if we need to make changes, we’ll have a very capable team on the field in Krasnodar.”

Four days later, Spartak did indeed travel to the south of Russia for a clash with their manager’s former employers, and came away with a 2-0 win that kept them level on points with CSKA at the top of the table, behind their city rivals and defending champions only by virtue of their derby day defeat earlier in the campaign.

For the first time all season, there was a sign that they had found something akin to form. They hadn’t dropped many points – just two drawn games in addition to their sole defeat – but their football had looked disjointed, unwieldy at times. Now, with success on the continent and a run of results at home, Spartak were beginning to hit their stride. The calls for Saparow to go were quieting, and Champions League progress was a possibility, even if not yet likely. In short, things were looking up.

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August 2023
Zagreb, Croatia

“Just five minutes to go here in Zagreb, and it’s the visitors who are pushing for a third goal. An equaliser here, and the Kazakh champions will lead on away goals.

“Narrowly wide there from Bogdanov, he holds his head in his hands but it was a difficult opportunity from a tight angle. The Dinamo keeper will be in no hurry to take the goal kick, you imagine.”

“Cut out by Kadyrkulov, a great interception from the big man at the back. He plays it to Nazarov, and there’s time for the Ukrainian to survey the scene ahead of him. Simple ball to Patula on the left, and it’s Nazarov again crossing halfway. Is there one last chance for Shakhter?

“In to the feet of Bogdanov, but the star striker has his back to goal and can’t shake off his man. Good feet there though, holds it up well and feeds Startsev flying forward down the right, great energy from the wing-back.

“He’s beaten his man for pace, gets to the byline and pulls it back, PAK! IT’S THERE! IT’S THE TEENAGER, RUSLAN PAK, AND IT’S 3-3!

“It’s a fantastic burst from Startsev to get to the dead-ball line, and good movement from the substitute Pak to beat his man at the near post. The goalkeeper maybe could have done better, but it came at him so fast. It doesn’t matter anyway – it’s Dinamo Zagreb 3, Shakhter Karagandy 3-3, and unless the hosts can find another goal, it’s the team from Kazakhstan who will be playing Champions League football this season.” 

“There it is! The full-time whistle blows with the score 3-3, and it’s the underdogs of Shakhter Karagandy who go through to the group stages for the first time in their history. They led 2-1 after 88 minutes in the first leg only to concede a last equaliser, but they’ve pulled it off here tonight. 3-1 down after a crazy opening half hour, goals from Bogdanov on the hour and teenage substitute Ruslan Pak with three minutes to play seeing them through. The ghosts of 2013 are well and truly exorcised, and 10 years after that defeat to Celtic, Shakhter Karagandy have booked their place in the Champions League proper.”

Bahtiyar Saparow punched the air with delight at the final whistle, thrilled with the determination and fight shown by his players in coming from behind against a side which, on paper at least, should have had enough to beat them after securing an away draw in the first leg. Dinamo were as tough a raw as they could have asked for in the final round of qualifying, but somehow they had overcome them.

It was not the first time his Shakhter side had sprung a surprise. He’d joined the Kazakh side from Istiqlol in Tajikistan, where he had spent just a single year and won every domestic trophy available with a side by far and away the strongest in the nation. Seeking more of a challenge, he’d been enticed to Karaganda by the prospect of turning around the two-time national champions, who had narrowly avoided relegation and were without a trophy in over a decade.

In his first season, he had hoped simply to steer the club away from the dogfight, removing a considerable amount of deadwood from the playing staff, overhauling the backroom personnel, and laying out the blueprint for his tactical system. At the halfway point they seemed on target, sitting 5th of 12 in the Kazakh top flight and very much holding their own. However, a sensational form of run, powered by the record-breaking goalscoring of Ukrainian striker Olexiy Bogdanov, saw Shakhter lose just one of their final 19 games, winning 15 of them, and they clinched the title by a full eight points.

That led to Champions League qualification, but even in order to reach the Dinamo tie Saparow’s men had to come through two rounds of qualifying, brushing aside Dinamo Minsk and Hapoel Be’er-Sheva on the back of strong away displays and big home wins. By that time, the reinforcement brought in by the champions had given them an almost unassailable lead in the league, with chasing Aktobe a full 13 points behind with just eight games to go.

The group stage draw would pit Shakhter against Chelsea, Juventus and Besiktas, and there would be an even bigger shock to come. Neither the English and Italian giants had a great deal to fear from the plucky Kazakh underdogs, and Saparow’s side would indeed finish bottom of their group – but only after springing the biggest surprise of the opening round of fixtures, turning over the Turkish outfit 3-1 in Karagandy and looking very good while doing so. After two league titles, one domestic cup, and an unexpected appearance on club football’s biggest stage, Bahtiyar Saparow’s reputation was beginning to grow. It was little surprise to see him on the move once again.

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December 2035
Moscow, Russia

The full-time whistle had already gone at the Otkritie Arena, and the result was not the one the home fans were looking for. After a 2-1 defeat in Paris in the penultimate round of fixtures, a home win against Fenerbahce was the only way Saparow’s Spartak could guarantee themselves a place in the knockout stages. The last 16 was a place the club had been on several occasions over recent years without ever pushing beyond, but the new manager was already aiming high.

But the Turks, determined to avenge the 3-1 defeat in Istanbul, had been on good form, and their strong start had overwhelmed the Russian outfit somewhat. An early lead was a just reward for early pressure and positivity, and that left Spartak on something of a knife-edge as the minutes ticked by.

But just before the hour mark, a sumptuous curling free-kick from young Fedorenko levelled the game, and that was how things remained at the full-time whistle. The draw took Spartak to seven points from their six fixtures – a decidedly low number for a team seeking qualification – but there was still a chance. Napoli and PSG were playing out injury time in Italy, and if the half-time scoreline held, Spartak would be through.

Three agonising minutes ticked by – an injury to the Neapolitan left-back resulting in an extended period of stoppage time – but eventually the full-time whistle went. Seconds later, as text feeds and official websites updated, a roar rippled round a Moscow stadium some 1,500 miles away. The home side had pulled a goal back, but a 2-1 defeat to the long-confirmed group winners was not enough.

In the end, a goal scored in brave defeat in Naples proved to be the difference. Spartak had won the home leg of the double-header with their Italian rivals 1-0, Vorobyov netting the winner in the first half, but two weeks later had succumbed to a 2-1 defeat on their travels. With both sides ending level with seven points apiece, it ended up being Stanislav Kostenko’s second-half consolation that sent Spartak through at the expense of their opponents – away goals scored in the games between the two sides involved. Not quite the narrowest of margins, but not far off.

Of course, not everybody in the red and white replica shirts of Spartak were pleased with their side’s performances. They had lost fully half of their group matches, and their tally of seven points was the lowest of any side to make it through to the last 16. Whilst a 2-1 defeat in Paris was by no means a poor effort, the 3-1 home loss to the same opponents showed a clear gulf in class between the two teams. What was more, second place in the group would almost certainly mean one of Europe’s elite sides in the knockout round.

And yet, there were an increasing number of fans who were slowly becoming convinced of the new manager’s methods. Spartak sat four points clear of city rivals CSKA at the top of the league after 16 of the season’s 30 matches, and while the side had unquestionably got off to a slow start, the new signings and tactical system were beginning to show signs of gelling. Defeat to CSKA in the fourth game of the season remained the only league defeat so far, and you will find few supporters of any persuasion who can convincingly argue against a manager who has their team on top of the league and into the last 16 of Europe.

When the Champions League draw came, it would indeed bring with it an impossible task. Chelsea – the last team to knock Saparow out of the Champions League in his previous role – were picked out of the hat against the Muscovites, and whilst the first match after the long Russian winter saw Spartak secure an admirable 1-1 home draw against the London club – Manchester United loanee Polyakov getting the goal – they would go down 2-0 in a battling performance at Stamford Bridge. There was no shame in the defeat, no humiliation against a superior club, but expectations once again met.

Slowly but surely, and certainly with a considerable number of grumbles, Saparow was winning the fans round. He knew, as did his employer, that it would come as long as his men kept winning on the field, and eventually his lack of ‘history’ at the club would be forgotten. It could well take years, but he was certainly off to a strong enough start.
 

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November 2025
Shanghai, China

“Now then guys, this is it. Before I begin, do any of you now when the last time an Uzbek side won the Champions League was?”

There was a pause in the visitors’ dressing room as the players – particularly the Uzbek nationals, who formed the majority of the side – either zoned out or attempted to come up with an answer.

“I’ll save you the time – never. This competition has been running for nearly 60 years, and not once has a team from Uzbekistan lifted that trophy. There have been winners from the usual suspects – Korea, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia. Sure. But you look a bit further down that list, and it starts to get embarrassing. Thailand, Qatar, UAE. Israeli clubs have won it three times, and they aren’t even in Asia!”

The young Turkmen manager was now in full flow, none of his man – regardless of nationality – taking their eyes of the suited man pacing the floor in front of them.

“As you know, I’m no Uzbek, but in taking this job at this club, I – and you as my players – am effectively an honorary citizen. We represent this nation whenever we leave the country, and it is on us to make sure that we not only retain the respect of Uzbekistan, but give those 30 million people back home something to celebrate.

“I’m well aware that not all of you will go in for the national pride thing – especially those of you from other countries. But I also know that you are all professionals, all proud Bunyodkor players, all wanting to bring joy and success to the thousands of fans who cheer you on every week and how effectively pay your wages.

“Tonight, we take on a team that does not know what that feels like. In the other dressing room right now is a group of players with next to no connection to their fans, who would still get paid if they played in front of empty stadiums, and who are here because it’s the job that pays most. They are employees of a port group with no soul – you are members of a team that means something to thousands.

“You guys, the 18 men sat in this room here, are a team with a purpose. You’ve proven that over the past two years – striving to win the title, persevering to lift the AFC Cup even though none of us wanted to be playing in the tournament, and then beating all comers to get this far. We’re marked man in Saudi Arabia after your exploits this season, and that can’t be for nothing at this stage.

“What you have ahead of you, over the two legs of this final, is a chance to go down in history. Not just in the annals of Bunyodkor Football Club, not just in the record books of Uzbek football, not even in the hearts of the fans who will speak to their children and grandchildren about the fact that they were there the day their side lifted the Champions League. Beat Shanghai, clear the final hurdle, and you go down in the history of an entire continent. This Bunyodkor side will become the stuff of legend, the underdog story against which all others are measured, the plucky side who swatted aside giants of the game on their way to glory.

“So gentlemen, today is the first half of the biggest game of your lives. They’re the favourites, the household names, the mercenaries taking home more in a week than we make in a year. But we’re the real team here, the men who have run through walls to get here, the ones who have set the competition alight with our football. I’m not asking you to go out there and stay in the game – I’m telling you that you can go out and win tonight, and set yourselves up for a real party back in Tashkent.

“You know what the plan is – you’ve been doing it for two years now, and throughout this competition you’ve been doing it perfectly. Get out there, do it one more time, and let’s take this trophy home.”

After a moment or two of backslapping and general encouragement from one player to the other, the match officials knocked on the door to usher Bunyodkor onto the field to take on their Chinese opponents. Shanghai SIPG were heavily favoured at home, but even with the home support behind them, they couldn’t have been prepared for the Uzbek hurricane that was about to sweep through their ranks.

After six minutes, Dilshodbek Xakimov, in his first season at the club and already the competition’s top scorer, stabbed into the bottom corner to give Bunyodkor the lead. 10 minutes later, a cross from the left found the same man, and his swivelling half-volley found the exact same spot in the back of the Chinese net. For the rest of the first half it was one-way traffic, and in many ways it was a surprise that it stayed at 2-0. At least, until the 44th minute, when Xakimov went for his hat-trick with a wayward effort from 25 yards, only to see it bounce off the heel of Ivorian international Franck Kessie, wrongfoot the goalkeeper, and trickle into the very same corner for a 3-0 lead.

By the end of the 90 minutes, Bunyodkor led a shellshocked Shanghai 5-1. The hosts’ only goal came after 85 minutes, Kenedy slamming home a penalty which seemed to be awarded out of little more than pity by the Qatari referee. Even then there was time for another, veteran Sherzod Qodirov nodding in the fifth to all but seal the title.

A week later in Tashkent, the party was indeed in full swing. A 2-2 draw was almost irrelevant, Bunyodkor becoming the first Uzbek team to lift the Asian Champions League and completing a remarkable season after winning the domestic title by 13 points. In the two years since leaving Kazakhstan, manager Saparow had picked up two league titles, one domestic cup, the secondary continental trophy in the form of the AFC Cup, and now the Champions League itself. It was time for him to go, to finally leave the Central Asian bubble, and he would do so as a Bunyodkor hero. Proving himself was now out of the question – he would head to Europe as one of world football’s most promising young managers.

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February 2036
Moscow, Russia

Quote

“Not a single signing – are we even trying this year?”

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“CSKA have signed three players, Krasnodar two, even Zenit have made transfers. What does Saparow do? Loan out half a dozen kids. Not good enough.”

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“If you’re leading the league, you’re in the best position to try and improve. So why are Spartak not doing anything?”

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“Saparow proving he’s been lucky so far. No signings is not the move of champions.”

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“Ismayilov and Saparow both need to get out. No money invested, no ambition whatsoever. Is it too late to bring Ucha back?”

Once again, the club message boards did not make good reading for the Spartak Moscow manager. As the winter transfer window drew to a close, the league leaders had long made the decision to stick with their existing first-team squad – in part due to the large number of deals made in the summer. The squad had been remoulded, the results were coming good, and further upheaval was unlikely to make a positive impact on the side.

The ‘no signings’ narrative pushed by his opponents was not entirely true – Armenian teenager Hovhannes Ghazaryan was signed from, and immediately loaned back to, his hometown side Shirak – but the eerily quiet nature of the window was all the ammunition they needed to relaunch their campaign to have the Turkmen, and the new Russian-Azeri owner with him, removed from their positions. Given that the latter had bought out previous boss Leonid Fedun and held almost unchecked power at the Otkritie Arena, it was a campaign that seemed destined to fail, but then football fans are not renowned for their rationality.

Nonetheless, the strength of their resolve and the determination of the new regime to win over the fans led to Ismayilov taking the unusual step of holding a press conference specifically to address the issue. On the one hand, his monologue was a success, with some seeing the logic of the club’s policy and jumping in line behind the owner and manager. On the other, those who were determined to rid ‘their’ club of the ‘outsiders’ would not be subdued – and the fact that the former was now speaking directly to the concerns they had raised would only empower them to do so more vociferously in the future.

“There will be no questions at today’s press conference. Thank you.

“Over the final days of the transfer window, a small number of Spartak Moscow supporters have voiced concerns that, in their opinion, the club should have been more active over the winter period. There have been reports citing the activity of our rivals, worrying about this club falling behind, and questioning whether myself or the team’s manager, Bahtiyar Saparow, is to blame.

“While it is unusual for a club’s owner to comment on such matters, I feel it is important to make it clear that these concerns have been heard. More importantly, I feel it is important for those making these comments, that this has been a calculated decision, made jointly by the manager and myself, and that this is by no means a failure on the part of Spartak Moscow.

“Firstly, we have been active in the transfer window. We have sent no fewer than six of our brightest young talents on short-term loan deals around the country, providing them with first-team opportunities at various levels which will give them the chance to improve their skills and return to Spartak more prepared for first-team football and further progression.

“Additionally, we have made a signing. Hovhannes Ghazaryan is a highly promising defender, and by allowing him to see out the season in his native Armenia, the hope is that he will continue to develop in familiar surroundings before joining the Spartak family.

“Furthermore, the decision not to bring any players directly into the first-team squad was based on the fact that the club is currently top of the Premier League, and in a strong position to not only compete for, but to win, the national title. Both I and the first-team manager are content that the squad that has brought the club this far is more than capable of achieving the goals set out at the beginning of the season, and to upset the balance and atmosphere that has developed in the squad would be a risk not worth taking.

“The summer transfer window saw significant changes to the club’s playing staff, including spending of unprecedented levels in a single window. To continue to spend money purely for its own sake – especially given the relatively small number of elite players who would be both available, affordable, and eligible for the club’s ongoing Champions League campaign – would be irresponsible, and I have no intention of jeopardising the long-term future of this football club.

“Finally, I wish to reiterate that Spartak Moscow will continue to be a club that engages with its fans, and I would like to thank each and every fan for their continued support. Without fans, a football club is nothing, and we aim to seek out new ways to listen to and hear from our fans.

“That said, there has to be confidence in the decisions taken by the leadership of the football club, and I would particularly urge all Spartak fans to throw their full support behind Bahtiyar and the team as they enter the final months of the season and close in on the trophy we all crave. Disunity and division in the stands and among the Spartak family only distracts from the achievements of the team, and if we all want the same thing, we need to rally together and support one another in the final stages of the year.

“Thank you all for your time – I appreciate your being here today. That will be all.”

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March 2029
Tambov, Russia

It was no more than they deserved – in fact, it was considerably less. New signing Rudenko’s penalty flashed past the diving goalkeeper and into the back of the net, securing a valuable point for the visitors. Tambov had been on the back foot for the majority of the 90 minutes, but two well-executed counters had them in the lead heading into the final 10 minutes. An incisive move and a clumsy tackle later that lead was erased, the yellow and green shirts of the away side celebrating another hard-earned point at the full-time whistle.

With just 10 games to go of the Premier League season, it was another point closer to guaranteed safety, but if truth be told there were very few Kuban fans who were concerned with relegation – a remarkable notion for a newly-promoted team. Looking ahead to the final stretch, their side sat just five points behind city rivals Krasnodar in fourth place, and the coveted Europa League qualification spot it brought with it.

That the club were anywhere close to the position was vindication for a manager whose arrival had been greeted with scepticism by many of the historic club’s fans. Turkmen manager Bahtiyar Saparow may have lifted the Asian Champions League with unfancied Bunyodkor two years before, but outside of Central Asia he was almost entirely unproven, 18 admittedly successful months at the helm of Georgian champions Dila Gori his only experience outside of his home region, and those tainted by disagreements with the ownership over finances and player sales.

That said, Kuban were in a mess when Saparow took the helm six games before the end of the 2026/27 season. In 2025, the club were relegated from the top flight of the Russian game for the fourth time in a decade – all at a time when former tenants Krasnodar were becoming a genuine force in the domestic scene. Expected to bounce back, they instead failed even to make the promotion play-offs in the second tier, and even the arrival of a new manager could not prevent them doing the same for a second season. With key players departing and a financial outlook becoming increasingly bleak, and third season in the National League beckoned.

But what a season it proved to be. In the club’s centenary year, following a complete overhaul of the squad and stabilising the finances in the process, Kuban romped to the title. Losing just six of their 38 league matches, Saparow’s men finished a full 18 points clear of runners-up Tambov and their oligarch backer. Not only that, but victories over top-flight Khimki and Terek in the cup gave the fans hope that perhaps next year they would not fall straight back through the trapdoor.

Such hope was well-founded. After another busy summer in the transfer market, including the free signing of Vadym Kozlov – the second tier’s top scorer – from Sakhalin, Kuban kicked off their second century as a club with three wins from their opening five matches, including a 4-1 thumping of nearby Armavir on the road. A difficult September then followed with only a solitary league point gained, but the following month began with a surprise win over title challengers Zenit – the 2-0 victory shocking for both the scoreline and the ease with which it was achieved.

A loss in the derby against Krasnodar was the only defeat through November, three victories before the winter break leaving Kuban a full 10 points clear of Lokomotiv Moscow in the final relegation play-off position at the halfway point of the season. Rudenko’s late penalty against Tambov made it five points after the resumption in March, and left the newly-promoted side looking up and dreaming of Europe rather than over their shoulder at the second tier.

As the Kuban players boarded the club coach in preparation for the 600 mile drive back to the south of Russia – finances had improved on promotion, but flying outside of Russia’s major cities was still a rare luxury for the side – the mood in the camp was high. An international break would give the majority of the squad a couple of weeks of lighter training, which was enough to raise the spirits of any professional athlete. Beyond that lay a difficult April calendar which included a trip to CSKA Moscow, the visit of a Zenit side eager for revenge, and an away game in Kazan against a Rubin team level on points and fighting for Europe.

But the mere mention of Europe at the start of the season would have been met with ridicule. Kuban were, understandably for the most part, predicted to be heading straight back into the second tier after once again failing to adapt to the rigours of top flight football – after all, it was a familiar tale. Under the guidance of Saparow however, Krasnodar’s oldest and yet second club were showing signs of becoming a team on the up, a side capable of holding their own in the Premier League and providing the occasional shock result against those challenging for the title. Assuming they made it to the end of the season unscathed, regardless of whether or not they made the Europa League, they were without doubt the league’s biggest overachievers. If the Turkmen at the helm could repeat his tricks the following year, Europe would all of a sudden become a far more realistic ambition for the men in green and yellow.

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March 2036
Moscow, Russia

It was almost cruel to watch. With 70 minutes on the clock in the top of the table Moscow derby, the 19th game of the Russian Premier League season and a crucial point in the season, visitors CSKA led. Star striker Dmitri Sapozhnikov had rifled the Army Men into the lead midway through the first half at the end of the only real moment of quality in a scrappy game, and if the lead held it would draw them to within a point of hosts Spartak at the top of the table.

But it didn’t. With just over a quarter of an hour remaining, a free-kick from the left was only partially cleared by the CSKA defence, and substitute striker Kostenko managed to first touch the ball away from his marker and then smash a shot beyond the visiting goalkeeper. Saparow’s Spartak were level, their four-point lead back intact, and the spirit of CSKA broken.

They weren’t done either. In the 87th minute, with the home fans roaring their men forward at the Otkritie Arena, a CSKA move broke down in midfield. A well-weighted threaded pass from Uzbek midfielder Xoshimov found Anatoli Borovkov in full flight down the right wing, and his whipped cross into the area was a dangerous one. The stretching CSKA defender could only watch as the ball evaded him, enjoy a moment of relief as the onrushing Vorobyov also failed to connect, and then despair as Pavel Nazarov, the left full-back, stroked the ball with his instep to send it back across goal and in at the far post for 2-1.

The visitors had crumbled, and Spartak were only growing in confidence. In the third minute of injury time, with red smoke beginning to swell in the stands, they struck again. This time the goal had none of the technical beauty, but was borne out of raw simplicity – a ball over the top from the centre of defence catching the CSKA back line on the half turn, allowing Kostenko to race through and slip a shot through the legs of the goalkeeper to seal the victory.

The final whistle sounded immediately after kick-off, sending Saparow’s Spartak a full seven points clear at the top of the table. A week later, the wounds inflicted on the visitors were visible as they stuttered to a 2-2 draw with Rubin Kazan, Spartak’s simultaneous win at Terek stretching the lead to nine. With just 10 games remaining in the season, it was becoming increasingly difficult to look beyond the league leaders as the most likely champions.

Behind the scenes, Elmaddin Ismayilov was ecstatic. He had not seen Saparow’s appointment as a gamble given his track record, but the reaction from the fans had turned it into one. From thinly-veiled racism to outrage over transfer policy, it seemed that a hardcore subset of the club’s supporters would stop at nothing to see the two ‘outsiders’ removed from the club, regardless of the cost of doing so.

A title win in his first season however, would almost certainly take the heat off Saparow in particular and Ismayilov by association, bringing the former closer to the Ucha Sosiashvili category of foreigner and giving the latter a huge amount of credit for bringing his man into the club in the first place. There could be no premature counting of chickens with 10 games of the season still to play, but the signs were looking very promising indeed.

It was telling then, that the aftermath of the win over CSKA saw precisely no mention of Spartak’s lack of winter signings, and every accolade for the home side’s persistence and determination to fight back from a 1-0 deficit. Neither team had covered themselves in glory in the first half, but in the second there was only one side looking to attack, and although the late show had left fans’ nerves rather frayed, the three-goal blitz was just reward for their constant attacking intent. CSKA had been unable to reverse the momentum, and eventually found themselves overwhelmed.

What’s more, it had been the summer signings for whom so much had been paid that came to the fore. Nazarov had been the first arrival for the first team squad, snatched from Rubin. Big money teenager Fedorenko had been a constant threat with his movement and passing on the edge of the area, while Vorobyov had come close to scoring on several occasions and looked lively throughout. In defensive midfield, Belarusian anchor Yuriy Chernukho had been a wall to the CSKA attack, working well in tandem with Uzbek counterpart Xoshimov to prevent the visitors getting particularly close to the defensive quartet. The squad, expensively assembled and subsequently left to settle, was delivering results.

Looking ahead, there was plenty of action down the stretch. The second leg of a Champions League tie with Chelsea, then five league matches in April alone. It was a busy schedule, but a favourable one – of the five league opponents, only Krylya Sovetov sat in the top half, with other matches coming against the sides in 11th, 12th, 14th and 16th. If Spartak could keep up the level of performance they had shown against CSKA, they would be very close indeed to being crowned champions by the end of the month.

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July 2031
Donetsk, Ukraine

“It is a huge honour to be named as the new manager here at Shakhtar, and I would like to thank Mr Akhmetov personally for his faith in me. Last season was a difficult time for the club, and I understand that seeing Vasyl Sachko leave will have been hard for some supporters. However, I want to reassure them that I will be doing everything in my power to return this club to what I see as its rightful place on the top of the table.

“To fans of Kuban too, I want to extend my gratitude. Over the past four years I have grown to love the club, and together we embarked on an incredible journey as we travelled from the National League to challenging for Premier League honours. In another world, I would have stayed and finished the job, but when the opportunity arose to come to Shakhtar, I searched long and hard within myself and felt that I could not turn the role down. I only hope you understand.

“That is all in the past, and my present and future is here in Donetsk. When most people think of Ukrainian football, they think of Shakhtar, and I am determined to keep it that way. What’s more, I am determined that when the name of Shakhtar is spoken, people associate the club not only with a country, but with success, and not only with success but with a set of values that all at the club live and breathe. This a city and community of great strength and resilience, and this football club must represent it accordingly.

“On the field, those of you who have followed my career will be familiar with my tactical approach. We will always look to be on the front foot, imposing our style of play on the opposition and attacking the goal whenever possible. We will be scholars of football as an art, never ceasing as we strive to improve, but without sacrificing fair play and respect for our rivals in the process.

“Those things will not change, and I believe I am the manager of a team that has long embodied those principles – it is part of the reason I was excited by this role. However, as Mr Akhmetov has already alluded to, there will be some changes to the way Shakhtar operates, and Mr Akhmetov has asked me to explain the plans that we have agreed on.

“The changes I speak of will take place in the transfer market, and are related to what I have already spoken about – Shakhtar Donetsk being a symbol of the community, of the city and of all Ukraine. With those things in mind, under my management, Mr Akhmetov and I have agreed that Shakhtar will no longer be investing in players not eligible to play for this nation. Instead, we will be investing in purely Ukrainian talent, seeking to develop national players and give opportunities to young footballers graduating from our own academy.

“This does not mean that we will be ceasing all activities in the transfer market – far from it. We will continue to scour Ukraine, Europe and the world for the best Ukrainian footballers at a price that is right for this club. Nor does it mean that we will be terminating the contracts of any non-Ukrainian players currently in the squad, many of whom I am very aware have close connections with the fans and the community. There will be no revolution, but a smooth and calculated evolution. Players will move on, but not if the deals fail to benefit Shakhtar Donetsk.

“I understand such a change in policy may be seen as dramatic, even upsetting to some fans. The temptation would be to urge patience as the club transitions to a new way of operating. However, I make no such request. Instead, I ask you to look for the results. If this new method does not produce results, if Shakhtar continue to be absent from first position in the league table, I will be held accountable. Yet I am confident that a unified squad, composed of the best footballers Ukraine has produced, will be sufficient to re-establish Shakhtar as the leading force in Ukrainian football.

“Furthermore, it is my hope and ambition that, with such a team, Shakhtar is not only able to take a leading role in domestic affairs, but in European ones too. It is far too long since this great club progressed beyond the last 16 of the Champions League, or even made significant inroads into the Europa League. For a club of Shakhtar’s stature, resources and support, that is unacceptable.

“And so I ask you, supporters of this great football club that is Shakhtar Donetsk – do not fear the change. There will be sad goodbyes and tearful farewells, but there will also be exciting arrivals and signings that will improve the team. There will be pride in watching homegrown, local players rise to the first team, and joy in watching those men, men who you have grown up with and who speak your language, lift trophies for the club you love. Mr Akhmetov and I both believe that this is a truly exciting time for this football club, and so I urge you to join us as we embrace a new chapter in Shakhtar’s rich history.”

Bahtiyar Saparow’s opening press conference as Shakhtar manager, held after leading Kuban to third place in the Russian Premier League before replacing Vasyl Sachko, made quite the impression – reaching headlines not just nationally, but across Europe. Shakhtar Donetsk, a club once renowned for the sheer number of foreign imports – particularly Brazilians – in their ranks, was about to perform a remarkable about-turn, resorting to Ukrainian players only in a bid to return to the top.

That they had fallen off the top at all was a huge surprise, a run of nine consecutive titles under new Fenerbahce manager Vasyl Sachko ending in embarrassment. Not only were Shakhtar beaten by old rivals Dynamo Kyiv, but also by unheralded capital club Obolon-Brewer, who remarkably finished level on points with Dynamo at the top to knock Shakhtar into third. Not only that, but in the winner-takes-all play-off to determine the title, the underdogs of Obolon emerged victorious.

Yet even with that as the backdrop, there was consternation among the Shakhtar faithful. Surely such a drastic course of action was not required? Surely there was enough quality in the squad to reclaim the title without such a change? Surely becoming a one-nation club would hinder, rather than help their cause?

Then there was the manager himself. Saparow had transformed Kuban, but in three top-flight seasons with the Krasnodar side he had failed to deliver any silverware, leaving his old club within touching distance of the top without ever getting there. His Champions League win in Asia was now more than half a decade away, and trophies from Georgia and the Russian second division hardly gave him a pedigree expected of the manager of Ukraine’s dominant club.

Finally, there was the owner, Rinat Akhmetov. One of Ukraine’s richest men and the bankroller of Shakhtar’s success for more than a generation, Akhmetov was now approaching his 70s and, for the first time, was having his judgement questioned. Why dismiss Sachko, a man with nine consecutive titles under his belt? Why gamble on a relative unknown like Saparow? Why change the entire culture of the club in the course of a solitary summer? Suffice to say, Shakhtar fans were not all enthused by the new man and his plans – and he would have very little time to prove them wrong.

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April 2036
London, England

The full-back shaped to cross, then cut back onto his weaker foot as the defender in blue leapt into what would have been the path of the ball. Instead, he laid it back to a team-mate, the new man in possession booed by the home crowd due to his loan from a title rival. He had space to work in, and flighted in a fine cross with his favoured right foot.

The first defender failed to get anywhere near it, but it was never his cross to deal with. The second, with one eye on the ball and the other on his man, flicked it with the fringe of his hair but could get no meaningless purchase on the ball. That privilege was reserved for Vorobyov, who made a textbook connection with the header to send the ball arrowing down towards the corner of the goal for what would be a perfectly-timed equaliser.

But no. The Brazilian goalkeeper produced a stunning save, getting down quickly and putting a firm left hand behind the ball, almost punching it off the goal-line and out towards the touchline. There it was collected by a team-mate, and immediately the counter-attack was on. With red shirts stranded upfield, the home full-back fed a midfielder streaking across the halfway line, and after three more touches the scorer of the game’s first goal was one-on-one with Bochkarev.

The striker made the first move, but the Russian keeper was in no mood to fall for such a simple dummy. He forced a second, but again the goalkeeper stood up to the body swerve. However, with Ivashin closing in, the forward stabbed at the ball unexpectedly with his weaker foot, the last line of the Russian defence caught off-balance and ill-prepared for the effort, and unable to prevent it passing his outstretched hand and nestling in the back of the net.

The Scotsman wheeled away to celebrate with his team-mates, and Spartak chins sunk to their chests. They had battled well, fought hard, and given Chelsea everything they had over the course of the two legs, but the difference between success and failure, progress and elimination, had just been demonstrated. Had Vorobyov converted at one end, extra time would have beckoned. Instead, Williamson’s breakaway made it 3-1 on aggregate with just two minutes of stoppage time to play, and Spartak were out of the Champions League.

Not that there was any shame in defeat to a strong Chelsea side – the Blues had, after all, been crowned European champions just two seasons ago, and had reached the last four in the season just passed. Nor had there been any expectations for Spartak to make it any further than the last 16, with even progress to the knockout stage counted as a notable achievement for Saparow’s first season. Even so, the atmosphere amongst the players – even if not yet among the fans – was that they had a chance against the European elite, and fancied themselves to pull off the upset.

In the changing room after the match, the Turkmen manager addressed his charges in a solemn but encouraging manner. His men had created chances, of that there could be no doubt, and on another day it would be they, rather than their London hosts, who would go on to face Borussia Dortmund in last eight. An optimist would perhaps argue that they should have won the game – these are details that a manager of his nature could not simply ignore.

But he could also see that his men had poured their very souls out onto the field of battle, doing themselves and their club proud in going head-to-head with one of the top clubs in all of Europe. If they replicated that level of performance in Russia on a weekly basis, they would find very few sides capable of resisting their threat. It was a performance that gave a huge amount of hope heading into the closing stages of the domestic season, and he could not allow that to go unnoticed.

Thirdly and finally, it was a performance which signalled a beginning – and this was the point that Saparow laboured over to his men. They were right to feel disappointed, right to mull over the moments that might have been and the misses that would keep them up that night. But a narrow defeat away to Chelsea was to be the catalyst for a new era of competitiveness in Europe, Saparow told them. No longer was the goal for the club simply to reach the group stage and see what happened, or to make the last 16 and hope for a favourable draw. No, this year had given the world a glimpse of a new Spartak, a side that could face giants on equal footing, that could not only hope but expect to make deep runs in the competition, entering draws not as the underdog but a team to be feared. They would be back next year, he told them, and they would be a side that others wanted to avoid.

Not only did he tell his players these things, but he believed them. And for the most part, they did too.

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June 2033
Milan, Italy

“Five minutes played in this second half and while Real have had the lion’s share of possession, you have to say Shakhtar haven’t let them do a great deal with it so far. Goalless here in the San Siro, and it’s not been a classic Champions League final so far.”

“No, but there’s plenty of time for that to change. He comes Rovira for the Spaniards, looking make something happen on the left. Ball in, looking for Zijler but it’s well defended by Karev, the Shakhtar captain heading it away.”

“Only to another white shirt though, and there’s pressure mounting here. Rovira again, to Benoit, looking for the return, clips it through to Komiljenovic…”

“Penalty!”

“It’s a penalty to Real Madrid! The German referee points to the spot and Denys Chumak looks absolutely devastated, but it looked pretty clear-cut from here.”

“It certainly did, Komiljenovic touched the ball past Chumak and the defender couldn’t get out of the way quick enough. The foot was there, and you can hardly blame the striker for going down there.”

“So, Titouan Benoit with a golden opportunity to open the scoring here. Twelve yards, Benoit against Morozov… Scores!”

“Hard, low, and right in the corner – the goalkeeper went the right way, but that is a textbook penalty and Real Madrid lead after 52 minutes here at the San Siro.” 

“What have Shakhtar got left in the tank here? Four minutes left on the clock, they’ve been behind for most of the second half but they’re looking for the equaliser.”

“Real have just sat back a little in the last five minutes or so as they look to kill the game, and that could be a risky strategy against a team with this sort of goalscoring potential.”

“It could indeed, and here come Shakhtar again with Ostapenko, finds Kazakov on the edge of the area. Shapes to shoot but Blanco gets a foot in.”

“But it’s bobbled through to Karkoshkin! He’s through on goal… it’s 1-1! Olexandr Karkoshkin can hardly believe his luck, and with three minutes left of the 90, Shakhtar have found an equaliser!”

"Incredible stuff! Jose Luis Blanco did well to block the original shot from Kazakov, but it’s come off the inside of his calf, Nicolas in the Real Madrid goal has committed to the dive, and instead the ball has bounced into the path of Karkoshkin who could hardly believe his luck. This game has roared back to life, Shakhtar are level, and unless we find a winner in the next few minutes, we’re going to extra time here in Milan.” 

“Just over a minute to go until the halfway point of extra time, and it’s Shakhtar on the ball with a rare foray into the Real Madrid half. They’ve been under pressure since the equaliser, but they’ve soaked it all up so far and remember they came closest to scoring when Kazakov fired wide.”

“Yes, they’ve done this well throughout this campaign, absorbing pressure and then striking at key points. That said, there’s no rush here for Ostapenko, simple ball sideways to Gorban’, back to Ostapenko and we’re ticking down to the switchover.”

“Zhilkin is making a run down the right, I don’t know where the full-back is finding that energy but he’s rewarded with the ball from his team-mate, and he’s taking on his man here. Cuts inside and no! He’s gone back down the touchline and Rodriguez hasn’t got the legs to keep up.”

“Suddenly Shakhtar are switched on and Zhilkin has acres of space ahead of him. He looks up once, twice, in comes the cross…”

“It’s there! Shakhtar lead! From out of nowhere they’ve taken the lead, and it’s that man Palamarchuk who stabs them in front.”

“You can’t give the Champions League’s top scorer even half a chance in the box, and Real have paid for that there. But full credit to Zhilkin, he made that from nothing with his run and turn, and he didn’t panic when given the chance to cross.”

“A great move from the Ukrainians, and with 15 minutes to go in extra time we have a shock on our hands here – it’s Real Madrid 1, Shakhtar Donetsk 2.” 

“We’ve gone past the 120 minute mark now, time is rapidly running out for Real Madrid here.”

“The ball is with Zoran Biskup at right-back, and the Croatian launches it long. Shakhtar have everyone in their own defensive third, and again it’s a Ukrainian head on the ball.”

“Augusto picks it up, is there time for one more ball in? No! It’s all over! Shakhtar Donetsk are European champions!”

“Remarkable scenes here in the San Siro. Shakhtar Donetsk, with an all-Ukrainian team, have come from a goal down to beat the mighty Real Madrid in the Champions League final. What a night for Bahtiyar Saparow and his men.”

“This has to be one of the great footballing underdog stories, but what a performance from Shakhtar tonight. Real had more of the possession for sure, but they couldn’t kill Shakhtar off even after the penalty.”

“No, and Shakhtar have proven time and time again that they can soak up pressure and strike when it counts. They did it to Liverpool, they did it to Manchester United in the semis, and now they’ve done it on the biggest stage of all. Real will be kicking themselves at the two goals they’ve conceded tonight, but it’s hard to do anything other than give Shakhtar full credit for the win.”

“You’d have to think some of these players will be in high demand after this – the likes of Palamarchuk with his goals, Ostapenko in midfield, Zhilkin on the right and even Morozov in goal. Not to mention the manager after this achievement.”

“Yes, you imagine we’ll be hearing the name of Bahtiyar Saparow a lot more over the next few weeks and months. It’s only his second season at Shakhtar, but he’ll be right on the radar of Europe’s biggest clubs after masterminded this triumph.”

“I’m sure that won’t be on his mind at the moment now – in fact we can ask him, as we go live to the San Siro pitch with our reporter…”

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April 2036
Moscow, Russia

Following their defeat to Chelsea and their manager’s words of encouragement in the Stamford Bridge changing rooms, Spartak hit top form. Already on a high after seeing off CSKA and then watching their rivals stumble to hand them a nine-point lead at the top of the Premier League table, the month of April put Saparow’s men on the cusp of the league title.

First up was a trip to Kazan to take on Rubin, a side which for some time had settled on the fringe of the European spots without ever being able to push on into the top group of clubs. Nevertheless, they had one of the better home records in the league, and were renowned for a stingy defence which was often forced to compensate for a lack of goals at the other end. A high-scoring affair was not expected, and in the end a single moment of magic settled the matter, Manchester United loanee and Kuban Krasnodar academy graduate Vladislav Polyakov curling a free-kick into the postage stamp from a full 25 yards out to give the away side the win.

Spartak would return home for their next encounter, rock-bottom Amkar making the trip to the capital from their native Perm for a match their fans were no doubt dreading. The visitors had endured a miserable season, sitting 12 points from even the relegation play-offs, and few were anticipating what would be just their third win of the campaign. It took just 10 minutes for their heads to drop, defender Ondrej Borovicka putting through his own net with a sliced attempt at a clearance, and midway through the first half Evgeni Kolosov fired in the second to secure the points. No further goals was a slight disappointment to Spartak’s Turkmen manager, but with a handy goal difference lead over CSKA and games won being the primary tiebreaker, he was unconcerned.

What was of concern was the following game. Dagestani outfit Anzhi were next in town to take on the side many were crowning champions-elect, but on this occasion the opposition had different ideas. Kolosov would find the net once more, but this time his 92nd minute header was little more than a consolation. Anzhi had less of the ball, significantly fewer attempts on target, and looked very much the weaker team, and yet played their counter-attacking game to perfection. The very method by which Saparow had seen his Shakhtar side lift the Champions League back a few years ago came back to bite him, two first half breaks resulting in Bochkarev having to pick the ball out of his net, and Spartak had suffered just their second league defeat of the season, and their first at home. Eyes then turned to CSKA to see if they could capitalise on the slip, but the answer was muted – a 2-2 draw with Saparow’s old Kuban side seeing them miss the opportunity.

Even so, the manager’s message ahead of their next game was clear – any signs of complacency, any lack of effort, any indication that his men were not willing to fight for their title, and they would be gone. Not just out of the side, but out of the club at the end of the season. He had not brought them this far only to fall over the final hurdles, and he expected nothing less than 100% over the remaining games.

The warning was heeded, and in some style. Krylya Sovetov were one of a group of clubs mired in midtable and looking over their shoulders at the relegation battle, and so were not expecting an easy ride when Spartak arrived in Samara. Equally however, they were unlikely to be expecting a thrashing, especially after taking the lead with a goal inside the first five minutes. And yet that is exactly what transpired.

It took just under half an hour for the game to be levelled, an errant hand blocking a shot in the area and Stanislav Kostenko stroking home the penalty. Three minutes later it was 2-1, the same man scoring from the same pot after Vorobyov went down under a defender’s challenge when breaking into the box. 45 seconds after the restart, Spartak had not only stolen the ball but scored a third, Alexei Popov firing in from the edge of the area to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead in just four minutes. There was more to come too, a defensive mix-up allowing Vorobyov a clear run at goal, and Spartak’s record signing made no mistake to take the score to 4-1 at the interval.

The second half began at a more leisurely pace, but there would be no letting up from Saparow’s men. Midway through the half a corner found the head of Belarusian anchor man Chernukho for the fifth, and three minutes later an incisive passing move resulted in an unmarked Kostenko completing his hat-trick with 20 minutes to spare. Eight minutes later, the same man got his fourth of the game with a rising drive into the top corner, and the final whistle blew with the final score reading 7-1 to the visitors.

It was little surprise to see Spartak then defeat Kuban on home soil in their next outing, Vorobyov grabbing a brace in a 3-1 win over Saparow’s old club. All of which meant that with five games to go in the Russian season, Spartak sat a full 14 points clear of CSKA at the top of the pile, needing just one more win to reclaim the title in their manager’s first season in the job.

Unsurprisingly, after such a run of form – and even after the blip of the defeat to Anzhi – the number of Spartak fans prepared to voice a negative opinion of their manager, or indeed of their new owner, had dwindled significantly. For all the fuss around old favourites being forced out and the money spent on replacement, the squad was producing both results and performances to make them proud. Vorobyov trailed only CSKA’s Sapozhnikov in the scoring stakes, while young Fedorenko was one of the league’s creative stars. None of the absentees had been hugely missed, and it would have taken a bold man to argue that their Champions League campaign would have ended differently had a Kaptoum, Santamaria or Ziegler been on the field.

Instead, Saparow’s success was slowly but surely winning his audience round. A win in Spartak’s next game – away to surprise European contenders Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow – would almost certainly put an end to opposition in all but the most ardent of his detractors. Every club has their lunatic fringe, and at Spartak that fringe is perhaps larger and more influential than elsewhere, but their Turkmen leader would never placate them. Everyone else had their price, and that price needed paying in trophies.

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This is splendid stuff, a great read so far.

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On 15/03/2019 at 12:54, he_2 said:

This is splendid stuff, a great read so far.

Thank you for the kind words, I really appreciate you reading along!
---

April 2035
Donetsk, Ukraine

Bahtiyar Saparow strolled onto the field at the full-time whistle, shaking hands with his opposite number before making a beeline for his star striker. Vyacheslav Palamarchuk had not just beaten Obolon-Brewer Kyiv, he had utterly destroyed them. In the battle of the top two sides in Ukraine, Palamarchuk had hit a remarkable double hat-trick, netting every single goal in a 6-0 thumping that made it clear in no uncertain terms which side was the best in the land.

Not only that, but his six goals ensured that, with six matches of the season still remaining, Shakhtar Donetsk had retained their Ukrainian title. Obolon’s defeat left them a full 22 points behind with only 18 available, and Shakhtar’s dominance was confirmed. Such was the expectation of victory on the day that the Premier League trophy was in place for the title presentation, and the home side had delivered in emphatic style.

A few minutes later, with the Donbas-Arena still full to the brim with ecstatic home supporters, captain Roman Karev hoisted the trophy high once again, with manager Saparow soon ushered to the front of the celebrations to do the same. The lap of honour was taken at a leisurely pace – while success was now expected for Shakhtar, the bond between the all-Ukrainian playing squad and the local fans was at a strong point, and so there was little hurry to get back into the changing rooms. The champagne could wait, after all.

For a manager whose arrival had been greeted with some scepticism some four years beforehand, Saparow had been an unmitigated success. The highlight of his time in Donetsk was undoubtedly the Champions League triumph, a famous night in Milan when the orange-clad underdogs overcame the mighty Real Madrid, but his tenure could not be summed up solely with that campaign. Four years had brought four league titles and three domestic cups, returning Shakhtar to the top of the Ukrainian game after a miserable season in which they had dropped as low as third place, the bronze medals unthinkable for a national giant.

Even more than that, Saparow had turned Shakhtar into an international contender. An unlikely escape from the Champions League group stage in his first season was followed by their incredible success in the second, and after becoming the first Eastern European side to lift the trophy since Red Star Belgrade in 1991, they very nearly retained the title the following year – a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium coming only after Shakhtar had knocked out Barcelona and Real Madrid in consecutive rounds, the latter after losing the away leg 3-1 before roaring back with a thumping 5-1 in the Donbas-Arena. The fourth campaign had ended a little more prematurely with a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Manchester City in the last eight, but there was no doubt that Shakhtar Donetsk were now one of Europe’s most feared teams.

Yet the fact that Saparow was proudest of was that they had become so with not just a core of Ukrainian players, but with precisely no foreign players in the squad whatsoever. The last non-Ukrainian, Czech boy wonder Pavel Sova, had been plagued by injury and so had sat out the entire third season on Saparow’s tenure, only to be finally sold off to no less a club than Real Madrid when he had finally recovered. With the exception of the manager himself, the entirety of the backroom team was also Ukrainian, and a good number of the players had received their entire footballing education at the club – further tightening the bonds between players and fans.

But now, after four years full of unprecedented success, Saparow was looking for the next move. Unbeknownst to the fans, the Turkmen manager had already rejected not one but two offers from Rinat Akhmetov to extend his contract, and even the lure of going for a second European title would not persuade him otherwise. He had reached the pinnacle of his profession in Milan, had stayed to consolidate Shakhtar’s position as one of the European elite, but now there was nothing left for him to achieve in Donetsk. There remained six games left in the season, but his main question was a simple one: what next?

There had always been one dream job, but becoming available at the same time as a single managerial position was no mean feat for even the most successful of managers – a group Saparow now found himself in. There was interest from the international game, while overtures had been made from numerous clubs to take the two-time Champions League finalist to Western Europe and one of the continent’s traditional giants. He would go nowhere until the end of the season – he could not imagine leaving without saying a proper farewell – but he would definitely be going somewhere. Establishing exactly where would be the hard part.

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May 2036
Moscow, Russia

A day before their 26th game of the 2035/36 league season, Saparow’s Spartak neglected to make the short trip to Moscow Oblast opponents Khimki. Even accounting for the traffic on the nightmarish MKAD motorway, they would be able to make it there comfortably in time for their evening kick-off. Instead, they gathered together at their training base, a short journey from the Otkritie Arena, to watch the game that had the potential to bring their competitive campaign to an end.

Some 450 miles away to the north-west, in the second city of St Petersburg – a city which, much to the chagrin of many a Muscovite, considered itself the cultural capital of the nation and therefore a fierce rival – native Zenit had the privilege of hosting CSKA Moscow. Already something of a grudge match in and of itself, this time there was added weight to the encounter. Anything other than a win for the visiting Army Men, and Spartak would be champions.

Do not think for a moment that Zenit would relish the opportunity to hand Spartak the title. If CSKA were rivals of the St Petersburg outfit, Spartak were the enemy. The two clubs shared a fierce antipathy, with fan groups regularly clashing in and out of the stadium on match day and the two teams regularly sharing feisty encounters on the field. Indeed, there were plenty of Zenit fans who would be more than happy to see their team tank against CSKA if it meant Spartak would be ultimately denied. However, with the latter holding a lead of 14 points ahead of the game, it would surely only result in a delay at best.

Zenit themselves had endured a fairly miserable season, switching their manager over the winter break as they slipped to a thoroughly midtable 8th place, one of their lowest finishes in the last three decades. This complicated matters – at the end of a poor campaign, their fans were desperately looking for a glimmer of hope to take into the next season. A win over CSKA, annual challengers for the title, would provide that as they drew this season to a close – even if it did hand their closest rivals the ultimate prize.

So the Spartak squad gathered in a video room specially converted for the evening into a live cinema, Rossiya 1’s live coverage of the Zenit-CSKA clash being streamed onto the big screen. Injuries and suspensions aside, the two clubs lined up with their first-choice teams – as you might expect from a game between two rival clubs towards the end of the season – with Zenit looking to give their fans something to cheer after a poor run, and their visitors looking simply to keep their title challenge alive.

At half-time, the two teams remained deadlocked and scoreless. Neither side had looked particularly like scoring, with CSKA in particular struggling for opportunities with star striker Sapozhnikov missing with a calf strain. After a single minute of stoppage time, referee Ivanov blew for the interval, and the watching Spartak players, in buoyant mood whilst having one eye firmly on their own game the following day, began to believe. Another 45 minutes of parity, and they would be champions of Russia.

Before too long, 45 minutes became 35, and then 25. With a quarter of an hour to go, there was a knock at the door of the Spartak video room – somebody somewhere had tipped off various media organisations that the players were watching the game together, and it was now deemed close enough to the end that TV channels saw it worthwhile to try and capture the moment of triumph. There was still plenty of football to be played, but Saparow had little choice but to let them in. Some of the players found it frustrating to have their movements on camera, while others played up to them – but it would all be irrelevant if CSKA found a winner.

They didn’t. After three agonising minutes of injury time, the outcome which had been on the cards for several weeks was confirmed. In his first season as manager of Spartak Moscow, Bahtiyar Saparow, at the helm of his boyhood club, had led them to become champions of Russia, dethroning city rivals CSKA and putting the much-lauded reign of Ucha Sosiashvili firmly in the rear-view mirror. It was a genuine case of a dream come true, and it did so in a makeshift cinema at his side’s training ground.

After the seemingly endless interviews and montages, along with an oddly subdued team celebration with the next day’s game firmly in mind, Spartak kept up their end of the bargain. The journey to Khimki resulted in a comfortable 3-1 win, loan star Polyakov opening the scoring before a Kostenko penalty and Borovkov strike in the second half earned the full three points. It was a result that moved Spartak 16 points clear of CSKA with four games still to go, and sealed one of the most dominant league campaigns the nation had ever seen. Now, and only now, Saparow could consider himself a success.

It was only the beginning.

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May 2035
Donetsk, Ukraine

“Well Bahtiyar, I can’t say I’m surprised. The rumours coming out of Moscow have reached even within these walls.”

“Mr Akhmetov…”

“No Bahtiyar, not now. There is no need. No need for an apology, to defend or explain yourself. I trust you, and even if you been talking to Ismayilov behind our backs, your commitment to our cause here cannot be questioned. If this is to be the end, then let it be an honourable one. You owe us nothing.”

“Thank you, sir – your respect means a huge amount to me. I came here today to ask your permission to speak with Spartak, and to express my thanks to you for the opportunity to work here. Shakhtar, I genuinely feel, is a club where I’ve felt fully able to make a mark, leave an impression and, dare I say it, even a legacy. You gave me that opportunity and that freedom, and I’m hugely grateful.”

“Saparow, your thanks are unnecessary. Your time in Donetsk has been an unqualified success, and the names of you and the Champions League team will go down in the folklore of this football team. There is no need for anything more – you have the opportunity to lead the club of your dreams, and it would be wrong for anyone to stand in your way.”

“The dream, Mr Akhmetov, was to play for them. But you’re right – since starting out in Turkmenistan, I’ve hoped for this moment.”

“And you’ve earned it. So take it.”

The older of the two stood from his seat, and his younger counterpart did likewise, extending a hand which was firmly taken. Saparow smiled at the Shakhtar owner who returned the expression, and the former then excused himself, stepping out of the office for the final time.

The following morning, the Turkmen manager boarded a private flight from Donetsk to the Russian capital, being collected from the airport by a chauffeur who delivered him to the doorstep of the Spartak club offices. Suited, spectacled and shaking off the last vestiges of the occasional self-doubt that had plagued him throughout his career, he strode through the doors, greeting the secretary with a smile and waiting for the conversation that would see his dreams fulfilled.

Days later, Bahtiyar Saparow was officially announced as the new manager of Spartak Moscow, taking the role vacated by revered Georgian boss Ucha Sosiashvili, now of Manchester United. His appointment would prove unpopular with the club’s numerous and vocal fans, but at the end of his first season, the Russian Premier League title and a vast array of Russian and other former Soviet talents had endeared the Turkmen outsider and his Russo-Azeri boss to their public.

At the club he had played for as a schoolboy before being cruelly cut from the youth teams, Saparow would not only reclaim the league title from CSKA, but establish a dynasty. The silverware would continue to flood into the Otkritie Arena’s trophy cabinet, but it was not just the success on the field that would ensure Saparow’s name entered Spartak history. It was the continuous investment in the training facilities, state of the art medical and analytical endeavours, global scouting network, and fierce pride in seeing the cream of local and wider Russian talent taking to the field in the club’s famous red shirts.

To attempt to recount all of the Turkmen’s achievements – even the tangible ones alone – would take far more pages than we currently have to spare. However, from humble beginnings in front of a almost empty bowl in Balkanabat, to being paraded in front of adoring hoards celebrating another Spartak victory, he had come a long way. He had been unwanted, untrusted, uncelebrated – and yet now, at the club of his dreams and with employer and fans united in praise, the next chapter in a remarkable career was only just beginning.

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That concludes The Unwanted Hero. Thank you all for reading along, and if you'd like to indulge yourself in Saparow's story in more pictorial detail (along with a failed narrative that I eventually killed off), feel free to head on over to the FMCU thread detailing the whole career - I'll be picking that up again soon having finished this tale. Thanks again!

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Well done on another captivating and truly fantastic ED story. I dipped in and out of your FMCU thread when you were first posting there, but I'll be sure to give it a proper read when I can find the time. :thup:

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Can only echo what Chris said. Another excellent story to your catalogue and another contender for award.

 

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Wow. Just wow. I had the idea to write my own story and this thread has made my mind completely up. Incredible read.

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