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BELGRADE - Forced to sell off their best players to keep afloat, many eastern European soccer clubs found themselves easy prey for wealthier rivals from the continent's top leagues in the early rounds of the Champions League and Uefa Cup.
Only six teams from eastern Europe have reached the Champions League group stage, which started last Tuesday. Five of those have done so either automatically or by eliminating fellow east European rivals in the third qualifying round.
Lack of money is at the heart of the problem, say coaches in eastern countries.
"The uncontrolled outflow of young prospects is the biggest problem and we simply have to find a way to keep them longer if our clubs are to stand any chance of success in Europe," said Dragoslav Stepanovic, who coaches Serbian first division side Cukaricki Belgrade.
Stepanovic said Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade, beaten 4-3 on aggregate by Turkey's Fenerbahce, might have enjoyed better fortune under different circumstances.
"Partizan could have qualified for the Champions League if they had kept (Montenegro striker) Stevan Jovetic in their ranks because he is one of those players who make a difference," Stepanovic told Reuters.
Jovetic joined Italy's Fiorentina during the close season while Red Star Belgrade, the 1991 European Cup winners who were eliminated from the Uefa Cup in the second qualifying round, have held on to only three first team players from last season.
"Serbia's top clubs sell from 10 to 15 players every summer and buy as many who are not as good and that makes it impossible to mould them into a respectable team," Stepanovic said.
"Also, scouting in Serbia is poor because the trick is to buy better players with limited resources and get your money's worth as some clubs from eastern Europe have done."
Six eastern European teams were defeated by rivals from the west in the Champions League final qualifying round and most of them were predictably drubbed by their more heralded opponents.
Steaua Bucharest, the 1986 European Cup winners, were the exception as they knocked out Turkey's Galatasaray to complete a remarkable run of success by Romanian teams in the early stages of the Champions League and the Uefa Cup.
Steaua have joined CFR Cluj in the lucrative group stage of the Champions League, while five Romanian teams are vying for berths in the Uefa Cup group stage.
Croatia's Dinamo Zagreb, like Partizan and Red Star, reluctantly release promising youngsters well before they reach their peak and then watch them flourish elsewhere. This time, they paid the price with a 5-1 aggregate defeat by Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.
"We are not at the level we want to be and I hope things will improve next season," Dinamo executive vice president Zdravko Mamic said.
"Also, it saddens me to see only 8600 fans turn up to watch the return leg that could have seen us through to the group stage if the situation had been just a bit better," he said.
Dinamo fans complained on message boards that they had heard it all before after seeing their club sell their top players every season since their last participation in the Champions League group stage in 2000.
Allowing Luka Modric (Tottenham), Niko Kranjcar (Portsmouth) and Vedran Corluka (Manchester City, then Tottenham), to migrate to the greener pastures of the Premier League has certainly boosted Dinamo's finances but it has also deprived Croatia's most successful club of the quality needed to do well in international competition.
Former Romania defender Miodrag Belodedic, who was part of Red Star's 1991 outfit, said there was only one way to success for the struggling clubs.
"Fans in Serbia must understand that privatisation is the only way forward because there can be no prosperity without fresh investment," he said.
"Without that, they will have nothing but memories of a better past."
Romanian clubs owe their unprecedented success to the economic transition that lured quality players from abroad and allowed Cluj to win their first league title last season with 23 foreigners in their squad.
Although they have only a slim chance of progressing from a group including 2008 runners-up Chelsea, Bordeaux and Roma, Cluj will take heart from what the club's executive president Iuliu Muresan hopes will be the first of many appearances in the Champions League.
"Cluj invested around 60 million euros in the past four years to sign good foreign players who have different habits and a winning mentality," Muresan said after Cluj were crowned champions.
While Cluj are making their maiden appearance in Europe's top flight, Steaua are fairly regular campaigners and their management raised the annual transfer budget to 15 million euros in a bid to rekindle some of the past glory. - Reuters