The Peculiar Case of Maksim Shatskikh
September 17, 2002. It was one of those rare times in Malaysia where I would get to watch Dynamo Kiev in action. The opponent of the day was Newcastle United, managed by the late Sir Bobby Robson. A friend of mine was skeptical of my choice, noting that there were far more star-studded Champions League fixtures on at the same time. He wasn’t wrong, but my mind was set on
watching Dynamo’s No.16, a sturdy striker whom I had a personal interest for some years.
It was a choice that didn’t let me down either. In a counter attack from Dynamo in the 16th minute, he received the ball from Jerko Leko. In a typical gunslinger fashion, he struck it from 25 yards out past the hapless Shay Given to give Dynamo the lead. It was a goal worthy enough to earn praise from most British tabloids. The Independent called it a “world class”goal, whilst the Guardian claimed it was “a strike of utter brilliance”. This was the night where he cemented his finest hour in European football. This was the night that belonged to Maksim Shatskikh.
Despite all of that, Shatskikh continues to remain peculiar figure in Asia. His achievement on the field often goes unnoticed by the media from the world’s largest and most populous continent. In Ukraine, his popularity is almost on par with Becks and Posh following his high profile marriage to pop idol Olesya. Which begs the question: why isn’t his popularity spread evenly across the board?
For a star like Paulinho Alcantara, having a distinct European name due to his Russian ethnicity often raises an argument on whether he is legitimately an Asian. Another factor is his nationality: he hails from Uzbekistan, a country situated in Central Asia. Ever since winning the gold medal at the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games, the country’s football continues to remain shrouded in mysticism. There is also the lack of attention from the media with regards to football from this part of the world; the focus has always been on the development in the Far and Middle East. It is a shame, for before the days of Hidetoshi Nakata and Ali Daei, Uzbekistan gained a penchant for sending their best talents to Europe.
In my book, Maksim Shatskikh is the greatest striker to ever come out of Asia, hands down. When Malaysia and Uzbekistan were grouped together for the 2007 Asian Cup, I knew this was an opportunity that I couldn’t afford to miss. Though arriving at the 11th hour, after being suspended for Uzbekistan’s 2-1 loss to Iran, it didn’t take long for him to make his presence felt. Shatskikh was at the right place at the right time to head the ball in, thus giving Uzbekistan the lead. He completed the Uzbeks’ 5-0 rout of the night, with a clinical finish after a beautiful one-two with Server Djeparov.
Shatskikh’s footballing journey can be traced back during his juvenile days in Tashkent. He first came to prominence in 1993 as a product of the Pakhtakor football academy when they went on a tour in England. Though it was an Under-15 side, the tour was big deal then considering the country had only gained independence less than a year ago. Pakhtakor, despite being one of the biggest clubs in Uzbekistan, didn’t provide the financial aid for this tour, only the coaches were paid. The rest of the expenses, including flight and accommodation, were sponsored by a prominent Uzbek trading company. Even so, the tour catapulted Shatskih’s ability as a natural goal scorer.
Before gaining prominence, Shatskikh was already a household name in Uzbekistan, thanks to Maksim’s older brother, Oleg. A diminutive and prolific goalscorer, Oleg was tipped to be the next big thing in Uzbek football. However, he prematurely retired from international football at the age of 23. As such, there was a lot of expectation riding on the younger Shatskikh.
Upon arriving back from that tour, the sponsors decided to absorb the entire team into a club side that would compete in the Uzbek third tier league. Shatskikh continued to score goals and soon, word about him spread like wildfire among the Uzbek football fraternity. He was getting offers from big clubs but the owner wasn’t willing to sell him for anything less than $1 million. A huge amount of money by Uzbekistan’s standard.
Not that long after that, the team was disbanded. The sponsors, who also happened to be the team owners, decided to pull the plug. Desperate for a new club, Shatskikh joined Chilanzar Tashkent, the only professional side he ever played for in Uzbekistan. This didn’t last too long, and in 1996, following his agent’s advice, he decided it was time for him to try his luck abroad.
For most Uzbek footballers, it was only natural that their preferred destination would be Russia or another former Soviet Republic. In terms of culture, language, and even football, the adaptation was a lot less difficult, the changes in lifestyle a lot less stark, in comparison with other countries. Shatskikh spent the bulk of his time playing for second tier sides over the next two
years, most of them in short stints. That didn’t diminish his goal scoring talent, however, as the big clubs in Moscow began to circle for his signature like vultures.
Then came an opportunity from Spartak Moscow, who were in Israel for their off-season training camp. During the Soviet days, it was a dream for any kid to play for one of the big clubs in Moscow, and still is, despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Shatskikh was invited to train for two weeks and undergo trials with the Spartak. This was an opportunity that he was aiming to grab with both hands.
However, things didn’t look good at first for Shatskikh, who was forced to train apart from the first team. Spartak was then managed by Oleg Romantsev, a former Russian national team coach. Romantsev didn’t pay much attention or even speak to Shatskikh during that two-week period. A bemused Shatskikh didn’t feel the love coming from Spartak, and decided to leave after
his brief stint. He would spent the next six months playing for Baltika Kaliningrad. But as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure: Spartak’s failure to see Shatskikh’s talent turned out to be a blessing in disguise for another former Soviet giant.
As Shatskikh was wandering around Eastern Europe and Asia in search for a club, Dynamo Kiev were in the hunt for a possible replacement for their star striker, Andriy Shevchenko. 1999 was a pivotal moment for Dynamo Kiev’s history in the post-
Soviet era. Thanks to Shevchenko’s goals, they reached the semi-finals in the UEFA Champions League, dispatching the likes of Arsenal, Lens and Real Madrid before losing to eventual runners-up Bayern Munich. Shevchenko was then regarded as the one of the hottest properties in Europe, closing in on a big-money move. It was impossible for Dynamo to hang on to their precious gem when the club’s financial muscle was nowhere near those from the western Europe. In the summer of 1999, AC Milan snapped him up for a record transfer fee of $25 million.
Dynamo’s coach, the late legendary Valeriy Lobanovskyi, had been monitoring Shatskikh’s progress, sending his scouting team to watch him play at Baltika on several occasions. Based on the reports, he was absolutely convinced that he had found Shevchenko’s replacement. As soon as Shevchenko’s move to Italy was finalized, he was quick to react by signing Shatskikh right on the spot. Unfortunately, not everyone was in the same page with Lobanovskyi on this.
When Lobanoskyi started coaching Dynamo in the 1970s, he was instrumental in introducing a different style of football. It was a scientific approach that required his team to play a physical style and high pressing game. A stark contrast to the more flamboyant brand of football played by Moscow clubs, and as such, his method was somewhat revolutionary back then.
There is an old Soviet stereotype that Uzbek footballers were technically gifted, but weren’t always suited to Dynamo’s philosophy. This has been the main reason as to why many prefer to move to Moscow rather than Kiev. There was no question that Shatskikh had the potential to be a top-class striker. He had all the necessary ingredients to be a prolific goalscorer due to his natural instinct inside the box. In addition, being a fast, energetic, hard-working and athletic type of player made him the perfect package in Lobanovskyi’s plan. Replacing Shevchenko was always going to be an enormous task to bear–how do you replace someone who is considering a God amongst the fanbase? Nonetheless, Shatskikh may have been playing third-tier football in Tashkent not long ago, but he was a zealous competitor, ready to embrace the challenge, and learn under Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s shrewd eye.
All doubts were eliminated when the Uzbek striker madee his debut in a UEFA Champions League qualifier against Zalgiris Vilnius of Lithuania. Dynamo Kiev won the first leg 2-0 with Shatskikh scoring both goals. A historic moment which made him the first Uzbek to ever score in Europe’s premier club competition. He even rose to the occasion in the next round against Danish side Aalborg. With the game tied at aggregate 3-3 and heading into extra time, Shatskikh scored deep into injury time to seal Dynamo’s place in the Champions League group stage.
It was always expected that Dynamo would find it hard to repeat their European heroics from the previous two seasons, but they did progress until the group stage; the only thing that prevented then from going into knockout round was Real Madrid’s better head to head record. Shatskikh netted five goals along the way.
On the domestic front, Shatskikh scored an impressive 20 goals in the league which ensured that Dynamo retained the Vyshcha Liha title. It was also good enough for him to take home the Golden Boot award, the first Asian footballer to do so in a European league. Another 5 goals from him powered Dynamo to clinch the Ukrainian Cup. His first season was a massive success that
answered any questions on whether he was capable of filling Shevchenko’s shoes. Shatskikh wasn’t a typical out-and-out striker, but he was often tasked with sitting in the box and waiting for the right moment to poach. He also had the ability to drop into midfield and press forward during counter attacks whenever necessary. Lobanovskyi was a proponent of such artistry in a Dynamo Kiev side that championed an interchangeable style of play. It didn’t take long for the critics to see the similarities between the gunslinger from Tashkent and his predecessor. Though Shatskikh may have been honoured with the connection
to Shevchenko, he was always adamant that he would carve his own name in the laurels of Dynamo Kiev. Four years from the time of his debut, he would achieve just that by surpassing Shevchenko’s total goal tally in the Ukrainian league.
As Shatskih’s natural aptitude as a prudent goal scorer was beginning to look visible in Europe, the question remains on why he is unknown in Asia. Of course, playing for a club that competes in an unfashionable league may have been a big factor. After all, there aren’t many people from this part of the world who indulge in football outside the big five European leagues. As a
result, he has continued to remain as a mystical figure compared to Asian footballers who ply their trade in far more illustrious leagues.
After six years of terrorizing defenders in the Ukrainian league and also in Europe, one may wonder why Shatskikh didn’t attract offers from clubs west of Kiev. As crazy as it may sound, he did almost make the leap to play in the English Premier League. During the winter break in 2005, West Ham United made a formal approach to sign him. Shatskikh traveled with his agent and family to London to begin negotiations. During those times, his wife spent a significant amount of time checking out schools in
London for their children. She was extremely in favour of this as it would benefit the whole family. This development was even closely monitored in his home country; many people were hopeful of Shatskikh becoming the first Uzbek to play in one of the biggest leagues in Europe.
Negotiations went smoothly, but there was one important issue which needed to be resolved: his work permit application. Being a non-EU player, Shatskikh needed to have played in at least 75% of the fixtures involving Uzbekistan over the last two years. Though he didn’t meet the criteria due to various reasons, the Uzbekistan Football Federation (UFF) were more than willing to help him. They filed papers to the British immigration, citing the reasons of his absence from the national team.
However at the very last minute, Shatskikh opted out and decided to sign an extension contract to remain with Dynamo Kiev. If the move to West Ham did materialize, conceivably, it would change the perception that most people had on him. But Shatskikh was never fazed about this at all as he was more than content with life in Kiev. The happiness and joy that he received from Dynamo’s faithful was something priceless to him, and the added motivation was that with Dynamo, he would still get to play against the big boys in the Champions League, something which West Ham would not be able to offer. Regardless, this to me
remains as one of those “what ifs” in football where you can only assume a thousand possibilities. It could have even changed the fate of Uzbek football forever.
It’s also worth noting that the football climate at the time, which didn’t have a FIFA international match calendar. Often, it became a divergent situation for Asian footballers based in Europe to get release for national team duty. In Shatskikh’s case, it had raised a lot of questions from the general public in Uzbekistan about his commitment towards his country. This debate came to the centre of attention during the Asian Cup qualifiers in November 1999. With the Champions League sandwiched between the qualification round, Shatskikh was involved in a typical club vs. country situation. Dynamo wanted him for the crucial match against Real Madrid, while Uzbekistan needed him to lead their attack in Abu Dhabi. To please both parties, there was an agreement between Hryhoriy Surkis (Dynamo’s president) and Zakir Almatov (head of Uzbekistan Football Federation). He played in the first game against Bangladesh and scored two goals in Uzbekistan’s 6-0 win. He then flew to Kiev to prepare for the match against Real. This meant he had to miss the next two qualifiers. He re-joined the national team just in time for their crucial game against the United Arab Emirates. Shatskikh became Uzbekistan’s hero, scoring the only goal which ultimately sealed
their place at the Asian Cup in Lebanon. This goal instantly made him the darling of Uzbek football.
The 2000 Asian Cup in Lebanon could have been the perfect opportunity for Shatskikh to have his breakthrough in Asia. Sadly, the tournament turned out to be a disaster for Uzbekistan. The whole team lacked proper preparation with many of their European-based players only arriving on the 11th hour. As a result, the team were sent packing from the group stage with just a draw against Qatar and two humiliating defeats at Japan and Saudi Arabia. The criticism was immediately directed at Shatskikh for his sub-par performance when the entire team was a catastrophe. The outcome from what happened in Lebanon may have had an effect on his decision for future call-ups. Over the next decade, Shatskikh would be in and out of the national team for one reason or another. He refused to take part at the next Asian Cup edition held in China, citing the 2004 bird flu epidemic as his reason. But, when he did suit up for his country, it would often start as a moment of ingenuity before
ending with one disappointment to another. This pattern of near-misses would continue to haunt both Shatskikh’s career and Uzbekistan on the international stage.
In 2005, despite a ghastly start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, the Uzbeks were only a few steps away from securing their place in Germany. They needed to beat Bahrain in the playoff round to play against the the fourth-best team from CONCACAF. Instead, Uzbekistan were dealt with one of the biggest robberies Asian football has ever seen. Despite winning the first leg 1-0, FIFA ordered the match to be replayed after refereeing error. In the the repeat fixture, Bahrain held the Uzbeks to a 1-1 draw in Tashkent, with Shatskikh scoring the equalizer. The second leg ended in a goalless draw, which means=t Uzbekistan failed to progress further. Six years later Uzbekistan were on the verge of making history at the Asian Cup in Qatar. By now, Shatskikh was deployed to play in a more attacking midfield role, in which he didn’t disappoint. The coach at that time, Vadim Abramovm recognised his ability to drop deep and press forward–an approach that paid dividends as Uzbekistan made it all the way to the Asian Cup semi-final, their best achievement ever. But Australia overwhelmed them to a 6-0 defeat, thus ending any hope of Shatskikh achieving glory with his country.
This consistency of failing at the most crucial stage earned Uzbekistan the reputation as the perennial chokers of Asian football. A tag that has certainly entangled both Shatskikh’s legacy and Uzbek football’s as well. There is no denying that Shatskikh would have killed to have won something, or to have played in the World Cup for his country. Yet in spite of never doing so, the numbers do not lie: four years after calling it quits with the White Wolves, he remains as the all time top scorer for the national team, with 34 goals in 61 appearances.
Shatskikh would continue to play for Dynamo Kiev until 2009. Despite only making six appearances that year, he still collected his sixth Ukrainian League title, adding to the 5 Ukrainian Cups and 3 Super Cup titles in his trophy cabinet. He would continue to play for another four years in Ukraine with Arsenal Kiev, Chornomorets Odesa and Hoverla Uzhhorod, including a brief stint in Kazakhstan with Astana. By the time Shatskikh hung up his boots, he would amass a total of 124 goals, making him the Ukrainian league’s all-time leading scorer, a record that still stands today and is unlikely to be challenged anytime soon. His total of 171 goals for both club and country means he gets to join an elite club, otherwise known as the Oleg Blokhin club.
As I have mentioned at the beginning of the article, Shatskikh is the best ever striker to come out of Asia. Often, it is a statement that is hard to digest even by those who consider themselves as experts in Asian football. The question often comes back to what he has achieved in Asia or for his national team. Furthermore in their opinion, the likes of Ali Daei and Shinji Okazaki, winning the Bundesliga and Premiership with Bayern Munich and Leicester City respectively, sounds more accepted when compared Shatskikh’s achievements.
While it is a fair point, Daei and Okazaki were only squad members for their respective clubs, important, yet not essential leaders for their clubs. This is where Shatskikh has an edge, considering he was the main man that led Dynamo’s attack for almost a decade. And his stats in both domestic and European competition speak for itself. Had Uzbekistan not faltered at the most crucial stages, Shatskikh’s legacy could also have a far richer outlook.
Dynamo Kiev is a club where Ukrainian nationalism runs deeper than ever. For someone who was born in far-away Tashkent to receive love from its most staunch supporters, it tells you all you need to know about the footballer’s legacy. So much so, that upon retiring, he returned to Dynamo and became part of the coaching staff in their academy. What better way for him to show his gratitude than by training the young kids at the same club he achieved so much with?
As we all know in the beginning, the fans back home in Uzbekistan were less receptive towards him. Over the years, it’s fair to say that feeling has gradually improved. Shatskikh has indeed elevated himself to an iconic status for his contribution towards the national team. He was named as Uzbekistan Footballer of the Year on four different occasions, a tremendous accolade by any means. Had the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) gave recognition for those playing in Europe much earlier, there is no doubt in my mind that Shatskikh would have taken the award at least once.
It remains to be seen if one day Shatskikh will return back to Uzbekistan in a coaching capacity. After gaining some experience with Dynamo, it would be good for Uzbek football to make use of his knowledge, but above all, it remains to be seen if Uzbekistan can unleash the next Maksim Shatskikh, which may prove to be an enormous task for the country’s football authority. Perhaps one day, they may need a help from a certain Maksim Shatskikh to do just that.
Many thanks to Alisher Nikimbaev for his sharing his knowledge and insight on Maksim Shatskikh’s
career. Please give him a follow on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/nikimbaev)
By: Sivan John