The 1991-92 campaign certainly causes mixed feelings to RCD Espanyol supporters. The departure of Head Coach Luís Aragonés at the end of the previous season had left “Los Pericos” adrift in their own sea of madness and the club’s board ended up deciding to bring in Ljubomir Petrovic as his replacement.
“Ljupko” Petrovic arrived in Spain with an European Cup in his trophy cabinet after leading FK Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) to glory a few months before in Bari (Italy) against the all-powerful Olympique de Marseille. The Bosnian head coach didn’t have, however, any deep knowledge of the reality of Spanish football and his stewardship at Sarrià (Sarrià Stadium was the home of RCD Espanyol from 1923 to 1997) didn’t last long. Petrovic was sacked after only eight matches (1 win, 2 draws and 5 defeats) and the club’s board decided to call Jaume Sabaté, an avid supporter of “Los Pericos”, in order to change the course of events, but his time at the helm of RCD Espanyol was also short-lived.
Sabaté, nevertheless, started off on the right foot with a 2-0 win at San Mamés against Athletic Bilbao, but his “honeymoon period” at Sarrià didn’t last long as the team entered again into a negative streak of results. Sabaté asked for new quality players and although the names of Aleksandr Mostovoi and Rai were on the table, the best they got that Christmas was a Russian troika composed of the likes of Igor Korneev, Dmitri Galyamin and Andrei Mokh (or Moj, as he was known in Spain). The trio soon became a quartet when in February of 1992 Dmitri Kuznetsov arrived at Catalunya after a seven year stint with CSKA Moscow.
RCD Espanyol were struggling at the bottom of the table and, besides the Russian armada, a new head coach had also arrived at Sarrià, to become their manager for the season. Javier Clemente’s arrival was vital for the team’s recovery, but much of the improvement was brought on by the Russians, who helped “Los Pericos” avoid relegation that season.
The debut match for Igor Korneev, Dmitri Galyamin and Andrei Mokh was still during Jaume Sabaté’s stewardship. On the 5th of January of 1992, with around 35,000 supporters on the stands, the Russian trio made their debut at Sarrià, on a match against Real Burgos. The crowd were both curious and excited about the new signings and also eager to watch the Russian players in action. Korneev had instantly gained the supporters’ sympathy because of his splendid dribbling skills and superior technique. Galyamin, for his part, with his impressive defensive skills, had also convinced the supporters that he had been a great signing. Mokh was labeled the weakest link of the Russian trio, but ended up being crowned as the “hero of the season” after scoring the decisive goal that saved them from relegation in the last match of the season against Real Sociedad at the old Estádio de Atocha in San Sebastian.
Kuznetsov, who arrived later and mostly due to the injury picked by Korneev, was tough as nails and Javier Clemente once vernacularly described him as being ten times tougher than “Pizo” Gómez, Espanyol’s other centre midfielder. Kuznetsov was a versatile footballer that could easily work as a defensive midfielder or as a deep-lying playmaker. The Russian midfielder was a two-footed footballer with great passing skills and a special talent to take free-kicks. A blatant “bad temper” was also one of his main characteristics, but his role in the team was of pivotal importance.
Galyamin was, alongside with Kuznetsov and Korneev, part of that excellent CSKA Moscow team that won the Soviet Top League in 1991, two points clear from their city rivals, Spartak. A generous moustache was probably his most remarkable feature, but Galyamin was in fact a top class centre back, who could also play on right side of defence. The Moscow-born defender always seemed to be on the right place and his experience helped “Los Pericos” to significantly improve back in defence.
Igor Korneev was the cream of the crop. Despite being named the Russian Player of the Year in 1991, Korneev arrived in Spain as a total stranger, but he instantly convinced everyone that he was in fact a splendid footballer. Often labelled as lazy, Korneev delighted supporters with his impeccable technique and with his ability to dribble the opponents. Korneev scored some important goals for Espanyol and remained there until 1994, before he joined the city rivals of FC Barcelona by order of no other than Johan Cruyff.
The less impressive of the Russian quartet was Andrei Mokh. Far from being an outstanding defender, Mokh was a hard-working footballer and also had his good days at Sarrià. The Siberian born defender had also been forged at the CSKA Moscow academy and had two separate stints with the Armeitsy. Before joining “Los Pericos” Mokh played for Spartak Moscow and was a Soviet international, as his fellow countrymen.
Mokh will, nevertheless, forever be part of Espanyol’s history since he was the one who scored the goal that helped them avoid relegation in the last match of that season against Real Sociedad at Estadio de Atocha in San Sebastian . A corner from the right ended in Mokh’s left foot, who inside the box, netted what would turn out to be the most important goal of the campaign.
Espanyol’s Russian quartet is often forgotten when the achievements of Soviet / Russian players who left the USSR, after or before the fall of the empire, are being discussed, but the truth is that they wrote history in their own way, helping “Los Pericos” secure a place in the Spanish top tier, when no one really believed that such feat would be possible.
Author: Joel Amorim
From Porto, I started enjoying Soviet football at a very young age when I would watch Rinat Dasaev on TV, but it was probably Radchenko’s brace and Shmarov’s goal at the Santiago Bernabéu a quarter of a century ago that transformed me into an avid consumer of what was going on with the game throughout Eastern Europe. Punk rock fan and English teacher by day, football writer after the sun goes down.