At a time of year when the Russian calendar usually consists of almost non-stop celebration, the nation’s footballing family came together to mourn on Saturday after the tragic death of Ilya Tsymbalar at the age of just 44.
Even in a nation where male life expectancy lags behind the vast majority of the developed world, 44 is too young for anyone, let alone an elite athlete, to lose their life, and the shock of his passing resonated across Russian sport on 28th December.
That the Russian Football Union put out an official statement to acknowledge his passing speaks of his impact on the Russian game and the high regard with which he was held in the vast country, and the ‘deepest condolences’ offered by the footballing authorities to his family and friends were echoed by thousands across the nation.
Tsymbalar, like so many others born at the time, was of a generation defined by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet system. Born in the summer of 1969 in the port city of Odessa, the young Tsymbalar proved a natural with a ball at his feet, and progressed rapidly, joining the ranks at local side Chornomorets before moving on to army club SKA and secret police side Dinamo in his first three years as a professional.
By 1989, his mercurial midfield talents, demonstrated in some 80 league matches for Dinamo, attracted the attentions of his first club, and the dominant side in the Black Sea city snapped him up. Whilst Chornomorets were destined to be one step behind the challengers at the top of the table – sides from Moscow, Kyiv and Tbilisi to name but three – times were changing, and within three years of his move home, Tsymbalar found himself playing no longer in the Soviet Top League, but in a newly-independent Ukraine, joining clubs such as Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Tavria Simferopol in attempting to dethrone the institutionalised Dynamo Kyiv.
Having already established himself in Chornomorets folklore with his eye for a pass and quick feet, Tsymbalar found himself brought to international attention by virtue of the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse. With the Commonwelath of Independent States XI a political minefield and historical anachronism, Ukraine – along with every other former republic – launched their own national team, and Tsymbalar was to represent the land of his birth.
However, by 1993 he had been earmarked by none other than Spartak Moscow, who had already wrapped up one Russian title and were looking to bolster their squad for a second. At this point, nobody could have anticipated the dominance that would be established by Oleg Romnatsev’s side, least of all Tsymbalar, but the Odessa-born star was plucked from his home city to the bright lights of the Russian capital, plying his trade alongside the very best of Russia as Spartak romped to success after success.
In 1994, taking advantage of his former Soviet passport to claim Russian citizenship as well as his native Ukrainian, Tsymbalar switched his allegiance to Russia, for whom he would play no fewer than 28 games, scoring three times for his second nation. Throughout his time at Spartak, playing time for the perennial champions itself was a strong case for international selection, and in many ways Tsymbalar could think himself unlucky not to acquire more caps. With competition for midfield places high – the likes of Valeri Karpin and Alexander Mostovoi also at the peak of their powers – he could not quite force himself into ‘first name on the teamsheet’ status, but featured regularly, most famously coming on as a substitute and setting up Karpin for an 86th minute winner in Paris in a Euro 2000 qualifying clash.
In 1995, Spartak’s dominance was stopped by Alania, but for the rest of the decade Romantsev’s side were imperious. With Tsymbalar at the beating heart of the midfield – making 146 league appearances and netting more than 40 goals – Spartak swept aside all comers on the home front, with Tsymbalar picking up six league titles and four Russian Cups before finally bidding farewell to the team which had turned him into a player admired across Europe.
Now into his 30s, a season-long spell across Moscow at Lokomotiv proved less than fruitful, and two years further south – at Anzhi before they were billionaires – yielded just 16 appearances. At the age of 33, and with a raft of medals and multiple personal accolades – including the Russian Footballer of the Year crown in 1995 and a place in a team of the decade (1992-2002, to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian league), Ilya Tsymbalar retired from professional football.
But retirement could not quench Tsymbalar’s thrist for the game, and immediately he was back in football, first as a vice-president of the Dagestani club at which he finished his playing career, and then back at Spartak, where he led the reserve side in their 2003 and 2004 campaigns.
From there he was lured to the Khimki project as part of the coaching staff, with a number of ex-Spartak men attempting to guide the well-back Moscow region club into the Premier League. In Tsymbalar’s first season at the club they would make the jump from 12th the previous year to 5th in the First Division, before a improvement in the goals tally from 39 to 75 the following season saw them move to 4th. The following year, with Tsymbalar’s impact clearly felt, they would win promotion.
The Odessa man would not be around to see it however, as a new project took his attention. He moved further afield to the city of Ryazan to take charge of Spartak-MZhK, an unheralded side with none of the support claimed by the likes of Khimki. Undeterred, and with growing experience to fall back on, Tsymbalar took the provincial club to the top of their regional Second Division, claiming promotion at the first attempt and earning the former midfielder a manager of the year gong to go with his playing accolades. Only a contract dispute prevented him taking the club further, and he left having taking Ryazan to new footballing heights.
From one regional side to another, Tsymbalar took his burgeoning talents to the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod and another underdog – Volga’s smaller neighbours FK. Taking the post in the summer, he guided them to 3rd and a technical promotion into the First Division, but the following season he was deeply affected by the death of his mother, and resigned his post with the club well-placed. He was welcomed back with open arms later in the campaign, but after failing to fully recover, he left early in 2009.
He would not take another managerial position, first working at Yaroslavl side Shinnik before returning to help out once again at Khimki, by now back in the second tier having briefly tasted the elixir of the Premier League before having the carpet pulled from under them in dramatic fashion. He would leave the Moscow region club after just four months on the books, and his only footballing involvement in the last two years were as a player in various Spartak veterans’ matches.
When Tsymbalar passed away in his home city of Odessa – reportedly due to a heart problem – Russian football lost one of its first post-Soviet heroes. A gifted playmaker with a superb ability to read the game and pick a pass, his abilities on the field led to accolades and titles aplenty. This remarkable footballing brain translated to success from the sidelines at a lower level, and had he not suffered greatly from the death of his mother, Tsymbalar could well have increased his standing in the managerial world.
What is certain, is that he will leave a hole. By his home city of Odessa, by an army of Spartak fans, by Russian football followers, and by anyone able to appreciate a fine player of the beautiful game. RIP Ilya, you’ll be sorely missed.