Football First XI: Best former Eastern Bloc players

Czech Republic midfielder Pavel Nedved has spent almost 15 years at the top of European football.
The Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago and in that time the world game has opened its arms to a tidal wave of talent from behind the former Iron Curtain.

Here, Football Fanzone picks the 11 finest footballers to emerge from the old Eastern Bloc since 1989. Let us know what you think of our selection in the Sound Off box below. 1 Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic) Nedved, who has announced his retirement at the end of the season, has become Mr. Czech Republic in the eyes of football fans of the last 20 years. And this is for a country not short on talented players — Vladimir Smicer, Karel Poborsky, Jan Koller and Tomas Rosicky to name but four. His breakthrough came at Euro 96, after which he signed for Lazio; four years later he was nothing short of inspirational for the Czechs at Euro 2000. When Zinedine Zidane left Juventus for Real Madrid in 2001, the Old Lady paid a staggering $54M for Nedved. It proved to be an inspired move: The midfielder, with his flowing hair, thunderbolt shot and all-action style, proved an able replacement. Now 36, he is one of Europe’s finest players of the last 20 years. 2 Gheorghe Hagi (Romania) Romania’s most famous footballer, Hagi was known as the “Maradona of the Carpathians” during a 16-year international career. Blessed with a left foot from the gods, the audacious midfielder could dance past opponents at will and he would shoot from anywhere — witness his goal at World Cup 1994 against Colombia, a swirling, dipping strike from 40 yards. At club level, Hagi played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and is still idolized in Turkey for his achievements with Galatasaray from 1996 until his retirement in 2001. Hagi, who was a member of Pele’s 125 top living footballers, holds the record for most goals for his country. 3 Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine) Shevchenko might now be considered one of the game’s great goal scorers, but things might have been very different had he not been evacuated with his family in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. After starring for Dynamo Kiev alongside Sergiy Rebrov — and scoring a hat-trick in the Nou Camp against Barcelona in the Champions League — Shevchenko earned a move to AC Milan in 1999. At the San Siro, Shevchenko scored at will, so it was a big surprise that he flopped so badly after an eye-watering $43M move to Chelsea in 2006. A return to Milan has not revived his career, but 127 goals in 208 games from 1999-06 ensures his legacy is intact. Have we missed one of your favorites out Tell us in the Sound Off box below. 4 Matthias Sammer (Germany) Elegance personified, Sammer’s career high point came at 1996 in a Germany side that would go on to lift the European Championship trophy. Sammer could play in midfield or as a “libero” and it was in the latter role that he underscored just how good he was. Time after time, Sammer brought the ball out of defense, echoing Franz Beckenbauer’s peerless ability to start attacks from the back. He was named European Footballer of the Year in 1996. One of the first notable East German players to join a Western club after German reunification, Sammer signed for Stuttgart from Dynamo Dresden in 1990. He went on to play for Inter Milan before returning to help Borussia Dortmund win the 1997 Champions League. 5 Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria) Stoichkov was an explosive left-sided attacker and remains the finest player to emerge from Bulgaria, Berbatov included. “The Raging Bull” was not just explosive for his speed off the mark and trademark free-kicks; he also had a short fuse and wore his heart on his sleeve. While playing for Barcelona, he was given a two-month ban for stomping on a referee’s foot, and his rows with coaches, including Johan Cruyff, were legendary. But these only added to his reputation as a fan’s favorite at the nine clubs he played for in a 21-year career. His six goals at the 1994 World Cup gave him a share of the golden boot, and the European Footballer of the Year accolade followed later that year. 6 Michael Ballack (Germany)

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No one swans around the pitch better than Ballack, who, at 32, is still Germany’s star player. Having impressed at Bayer Leverkusen during their brilliant but ultimately fruitless 2001-02 season, Bayern Munich swooped. By that time, Ballack had become the key man for the national side for his ability to control play from the middle of the park and score goals. He did the same for Bayern until 2006 when Chelsea signed him on a free transfer. Ballack has never replicated his international form in West London, but he has been confirmed as Germany captain for the 2010 World Cup. 7 Petr Cech (Czech Republic) In Cech, the Czech Republic can lay claim to the world’s best goalkeeper. Tall and commanding yet alert and agile, his glaring mistake at last summer’s European Championships, which resulted in Turkey’s progressing at the Czechs’ expense, was a rare blip in his short trophy-laden career. Rennes spotted him playing for Sparta Prague while he was still a teenager in 2002 and two years later moneybags Chelsea spent $10M on him — a fee that now looks like a bargain. After helping Chelsea to back-to-back Premier League titles, Cech fractured his skull in 2006, but he has returned — headgear and all — just as good. Only 26, his best years are ahead of him. 8 Dimitar Berbatov (Bulgaria) Berbatov was always one of Europe’s semi-hidden gems while he was plying his trade for Bayer Leverkusen. After scoring a goal every other game for CSKA Sofia in his homeland, Berbatov made the move to Germany until Tottenham Hotspur signed him in 2006. His touch, vision, movement, skill, strength and goal scoring prowess made it seem likely he would move on to a more successful club. And so it proved when Manchester United paid $44M in 2008. The languid Berbatov has yet to set Old Trafford alight but 41 goals in 67 appearances for Bulgaria speaks volumes for his class. 9 Alexander Hleb (Belarus) Is there a more delicate player in world football Such a wonderful talent, but one capable of driving fans and doubtless teammates to distraction at times. Hleb’s assets are also his weaknesses — a deft touch, two feet, dribbling ability, an elusive style and a keen eye for a pass, especially the killer one. But on an off day, he can be frustratingly ineffective. Given he is now at Barcelona, though, it’s fair to say the Belarusian forward has talent. He showed it plenty of times for Arsenal, although he didn’t find the net as often as he should have. Tall and wiry, Hleb came to the fore as Stuttgart’s creative force before the Gunners paid $15M for him in 2005. 10 Andrey Arshavin (Russia) Like Berbatov, Arshavin has been a late bloomer. Arshavin was little known outside Russia in his early days but he shot to prominence in 2007-08, when he was the inspiration behind Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup triumph. Arshavin then demonstrated his wonderful dribbling and playmaking abilities at Euro 2008 for a Russian side beaten only by eventual winners Spain. The pint-sized Arshavin had been linked with moves to Europe’s biggest clubs for a while but it was Arsenal who made the deal happen — after much wrangling — in 2009.

11 Adrian Mutu (Romania) Unfortunately for Mutu, his career will forever be tarnished by his dismissal by Chelsea for testing positive for cocaine in 2004 and his subsequent ban from the game. Up to that point, he was a star on the ascent. Prolific for Dinamo Bucharest, Mutu was snapped up by Internazionale in 2000, but it took moves to Verona and then Parma for him to begin to shine. Skillful and tricky, Mutu’s move to Chelsea in 2003 looked like a perfect move for both parties and after a difficult first season the striker was beginning to justify his $21.5M fee. Then came the failed drug test. Subsequent moves to Juventus and Fiorentina, where he has scored freely, have helped his career recover.