Sergei Baltacha: I am 64 now but if I was in Ukraine I would be fighting the Russians with my brother

The old Ukranian footballer looks shattered, and this is despite him finally having gone back to bed. Eleven nights running Sergei Baltacha was on the sofa, occasionally dozing but mostly glued to the rolling news. “Two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock I would turn on the TV, not wanting to look but needing to look - for my country,” he says. So on the 12th night Baltacha tried to get some decent sleep but he’s just been catching up on Russia’s bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol and the horror and tragedy of war is etched across his face.
Baltacha was under strict Soviet instructions to drive a Lada when he came to the UKBaltacha was under strict Soviet instructions to drive a Lada when he came to the UK
Baltacha was under strict Soviet instructions to drive a Lada when he came to the UK

The 64-year-old Baltacha is officially St Johnstone’s greatest defender and, as we talk on Zoom, this is officially my toughest interview. Not because he’s difficult - far from it. He’s a man of warmth and charm and a hundred thankyous. No, the problem is I can’t stop making him cry.

This happens when I ask what he thinks of Andy Murray donating all this year’s prize money to aid children in Baltacha’s stricken land. “Really? I did not know this,” he says, his voice breaking. “Andy I remember from a young age with his big racket and his big talent. He’s a magnificent man and I will thank him for what he’s doing.”

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It happens when we talk about his daughter Elena, the tragic tennis star who rose from chalk-marked Perth streets to become British No 1 but died of liver cancer in 2014. “You ask if I have not suffered enough heartache. No father should have to bury his little girl. And now maybe the world believes Ukraine is dying. But it won’t.”

Tussling with Joe Jordan in the 1982 World Cup group game in MalagaTussling with Joe Jordan in the 1982 World Cup group game in Malaga
Tussling with Joe Jordan in the 1982 World Cup group game in Malaga

And there are more tears when he thinks of his brother Georgi back in Kyiv who’s refusing to leave the besieged capital and fully intends to defend it. “He’s 67 now but when the Kalashnikovs were handed out for defence of our city he queued for one. His daughter Maria has taken her children away but Georgi says he’s not going anywhere. He hides underground and I’m frightened for him every minute of every day but he tells me: ‘Don’t worry, Sergei, it’s going to be all right. We will not lose.’ Georgi is military - he was in the navy - and I am only football. But if I was in Kyiv I would stand next to him and fight.”

Baltacha could be forgiven for thinking the war is personal, that the Russian bombers bear a particular grudge, for all the places dear to him are being dismantled. Mariupol on the Black Sea - where the devastation caused by airstrikes has been condemned as “apocalyptic” by the Red Cross, with the deputy mayor asserting the city had been returned to its “medieval” state with no food, water or heating for survivors - is his birthplace. “I lived there for 13 years. It’s been destroyed. And they’re killing children.” Before that the target had been Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city in the north-east of the country which is still being pounded. It’s where Baltacha’s football journey began: “I went there on my own at 14 to join academy. I know every street but there’s nothing left now. It’s like pictures I’ve seen from 1943 [the Battle of Stalingrad]. Unbelievable.

“I’m sorry,” he says, removing his specs to dab his eyes, “but this is so painful.” In deepest Surrey, a long way from Kyiv, a small dog jumps into his lap. Now, I am not a hardened war correspondent so when Baltacha cries, I cry, too.

But the man can make me laugh as well, such as when recalling how for a while his only English words were “Fasten seatbelts, please”. Then there were those tense negotiations before he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union as the old empire’s first footballer to play in Britain. “I was just about to get on the plane when the USSR sports committee said first I had to agree that in UK I would only drive a Lada. If I didn’t sign the form I couldn’t fly, deal off. Perhaps in UK I was going to get a Mercedes but in the end I said, yes, Lada. My friend, you might think that car a bit of a joke but in snow, the best!”

Baltacha and family when he became the first Soviet Union footballer to play in the UKBaltacha and family when he became the first Soviet Union footballer to play in the UK
Baltacha and family when he became the first Soviet Union footballer to play in the UK

Baltacha had no quibble with Soviet motor engineering just as he had no quibble, as a Ukrainian, with playing with “CCCP” on his chest. He won 45 caps for the USSR including at the 1982 World Cup in Spain when a 2-2 draw against Scotland dashed our hopes. He was also a beaten Euro Championship finalist in 1988, the Soviets losing to Holland and Marco van Basten’s wonder volley. “I was injured so a substitute and only joined the game when we were losing. Van Basten’s shot was incredible but I like to say that when I was man-to-man on him there were no more goals. At the end he told me: ‘Good you didn’t start.’

“Our team were mostly Ukraine but that wasn’t important. We were from 15 republics - Russia, Georgia, Armenia, the rest - and maybe a bit like the European Community. All of us brothers. Not just football, that was the whole [Soviet Union]. We found solutions, we were together, everyone had the blood of everyone else. That is why this war is so terrible. It’s not Russia vs Ukraine, it’s Putin and the Kremlin against my people.

“Putin is a dictator who has lost a grip on reality and is lying to his people saying he’s ‘liberating’ Ukraine. I’ve never met our president, [Volodymyr] Zelensky, but before [as an entertainer] I saw his shows and he was unbelievably funny. He’s a normal guy, a father, a real man. That’s the difference between him and Putin.”

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Baltacha is in his Charlton Athletic tracksuit ready for work as an academy coach with the English League One club. He arrived in the UK after the ’88 Euros and has never left. Son Sergei jnr - nine years old when his dad first pitched up at Ipswich Town - played for St Mirren and was capped by our Under 21s, the first without a Scottish bloodline to don the dark blue. “That made me proud. Your country is very special to us. Sergei jnr played in England as well but missed Scotland too much and now he’s happy in Glasgow. He has a great Scottish accent while Elena always had the great Scottish fighting spirit.”

St Johnstone legend Sergei Baltacha is now an academy coach at Charlton Athletic.St Johnstone legend Sergei Baltacha is now an academy coach at Charlton Athletic.
St Johnstone legend Sergei Baltacha is now an academy coach at Charlton Athletic.

The honour of best St Johnstone defender - and second only to John Connolly as the all-time top Saintee - comes from a poll published last year in the form of an epic book. Baltacha is pleased the Ukrainian connection at McDiarmid Park continues with Max Kusheriavyi and the pair chatted on the phone for the first time this week, Baltacha attempting to offer some words of comfort to the teenager, like him anxious for news from Kyiv.

Baltacha had amassed almost 300 appearances for Dynamo Kyiv and helped them win the 1986 European Cup Winners’ Cup by the time of his historic move. “We had perestroika and our country was opening up. I wanted to explore. Other countries were mentioned to me but I chose England because it was where football began.”

The deal which took him to Ipswich, then managed by ex-Dundee striker John Duncan, could have been ripped from the pages of a Len Deighton Cold War espionage thriller. The delegation from Suffolk, when they left their cockroach-infested hotel rooms, wondered if they were being tailed by the KGB - but the transfer negotiations turned out to be extremely cordial. At 10.30am, the talks barely begun, the Dynamo Kyiv manager announced it was time for lunch. For the next six hours in a huge room at an enormous table, five men worked their way through many bottles of vodka, toasting all the sundry. Baltacha, who abstained, chuckles at the memory: “That was very old tradition and it helped the discussion go well.”

At Portman Road, where Soviet rules mean he couldn’t earn any more than Moscow’s UK ambassador and the first question asked by curious pressmen was “Are you a communist?”, he was welcomed by John Wark, an opponent in that ’82 World Cup clash in Malaga. “He said: ‘Do you remember kicking me?’ I said: ‘If I knew we were going to become friends I'd have done it five more times.’ John invited me to his home right away. A good man and a great player.”

Congratulating daugher Elena after a win in the 2010 Australian Open.Congratulating daugher Elena after a win in the 2010 Australian Open.
Congratulating daugher Elena after a win in the 2010 Australian Open.

But after a couple of seasons, frustrated at not being played at sweeper, Baltacha sought a move to a club who would play him in his best position. Another Ipswich Scot, Ian Redford, recommended he cross the border. St Johnstone had just been promoted to the top flight and in the summer of 1990 he became the most prestigious signing in the club’s history.

Perth diehards of a certain age come over all misty-eyed recalling his impeccable coolness when marshalling the Saints rearguard or shackling Mo Johnston and other danger-men of the era or passing long and true to Allan Moore or Steve Maskrey. And Baltacha today sends the love right back.

“St Johnstone for those three years was wonderful. [Chairman] Geoff Brown was a gentleman, [manager] Alex Totten wanted the team to play good football and the supporters were fantastic - 10,000 every home game. It was a very happy time professionally and for my family also. Perth opened its heart to me, my wife Olga, Sergei jnr and Elena.”

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Now he’s laughing as he remembers his little blonde tennis prodigy - “Bal”, as she would become known - and her fierce talent. “I think I knew from the start Elena was going to be great. In Kyiv when Sergei jnr was playing academy football she would be on the touchline, just four, shouting: ‘Dad, what about me?’ I had to say: ‘Not yet for women.’ So the next year we came to Ipswich and in our house I moved the sofa into the middle of the room and with plastic rackets and soft balls she played tennis with her brother. After an hour she said: ‘Dad, I’m loving this game.’

“In Perth I drew the court in the road in front of our home and she would spend all day there. We found a coach for her and I said: ‘She’s never played a match.’ He took her onto the court and the first rally was 63 shots. The coach said: ‘Are you sure this is her first time?’ Unbelievable.” What would Elena have made of Ukraine’s desperate plight? “She was very fair, she knew right from wrong and right now her heart would be breaking, just like mine.”

Later today after training Baltacha may return to Trafalgar Square which has become a refuge for London’s Ukranians, a place of peaceful protest and mutual support. Right now, though, he needs to turn on the TV and check on Mariupol, on Kharkiv, on Kyiv, and then he will phone his brother. “Georgi has protected me all his life. When we were boys he stood in the way of bullies. He’s still doing that, yes? He and the rest of Ukraine are fighting not just for themselves but all of Europe and all of the world. I’m very proud but also very scared … ”



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