1972 saw another shocking result: Zorya Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk), an unfancied side from a provincial capital in Eastern Ukraine, won the Soviet Championship. Along the way, they battered Dynamo 3-0 and also defeated the Moscow sides of CSKA, Dinamo, and Spartak. Zorya became the first team not from a capital of a republic to win the Soviet championship, a feat unmatched until Zenit Leningrad won the title in 1984.
In a twist of history, the man that would build on Maslov’s legacy was none other than Valeriy Lobanovskyi, one of the players pushed out by Maslov when he was first appointed by Dynamo. Lobanovskyi, renowned for his ability to score Olimpico style goals directly from corners, went on to play several more seasons in Chernomorets Odessa, before finishing his career at Shakhtar Donetsk. Immediately upon retirement from playing he became the head coach of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. During his tenure at Dnipro the club was promoted to the Soviet Top League and he led them to a 6th place finish in 1972. He caught the eye of the Dynamo Kyiv establishment and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Shcherbytsky himself invited Lobanovskyi to join his favoured club, and in the Soviet Union requests from Party Chiefs are notoriously difficult to turn down.
It was not just Lobanovskyi’s modest success at guiding Dnipro from the depths to the first division to a respectable top flight finish that endeared him to Dynamo Kyiv. Following in the footsteps of his distinguished predecessors Oshenkov and Maslov, ‘Loba’ was both a tactical visionary and a disciplinarian with a healthy obsession over the physical fitness of his players. He was a perfectionist who believed in the power of science. He thought that football was a game that could be, with the help of modern technology, broken down and systematically analysed to create a winning formula. A chance meeting with Anatoliy Zelentsov, a statistician who was at the time the Dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science, was the moment that allowed Lobanovskyi’s vision of football to become a reality.
The two began to collaborate, applying the latest advancements in computer technology to football. In his classic 1994 book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper writes:
“Zelentsov worked from the premise that since a fraction of a second’s thought can be too long in modern football; a player had to know where to pass before he got the ball. To this end, Dynamo’s players had to memorize set plays, as if they were American footballers, and had to run off the ball in set patterns.”
According to Zelentsov’s calculations, a team that commits an error in less than 18% of a game’s key situations is unbeatable. These statistics were the basis for Lobanovskyi’s training sessions which were characterized by predetermined patterns of play deeply embedded in the tactical structure of the team. The positional switching of Rinus Michels’ Total Football tactics prominently featured as well. In his own words, Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov described their ideas in a book entitled The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models:
“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.”
It was Scientific Communism meets Total Football. His rigorous style may not have always been particularly pleasing on the eyes, especially considering that ‘Loba’ preferred the strategy of playing for a draw away and only going for the win at home over the course of the domestic season. But the success was immense.
After Maslov was sacked, the head coaching position was entrusted to the Russian manager Aleksandr Sevidov. Sevidov, favouring an attacking mentality, led the Kyiv side to the Soviet championship in his first season in charge, but two subsequent second place finishes and a an embarrassing collapse to Ararat Yerevan in the 1973 Soviet Cup final sealed his fate. Under his tutelage, however, two youngsters, striker Oleh Blokhin and playmaker Leonid Buryak, made a name for themselves and became first team players.
Then, under Lobanovskyi, Dynamo attained heights unprecedented for a side from the Soviet Union. In his first season in charge Dynamo once again won the Soviet Top League and achieved their second domestic double by winning the Soviet Cup as well. Over the course of his 17 year tenure (interrupted in 1983 due to national team commitments), Dynamo would become Soviet champions six more times, ensuring their status as the USSR’s most decorated club side, and Lobanovskyi’s as its most decorated manager. In addition, Dynamo took home five more Soviet cups including two more doubles.
But as impressive as this domestic success was, it was Dynamo’s performances on the continental arena that have cemented their place in footballing lore as one of the game’s legendary sides. Lobanovskyi’s first foray into European competition was the 1973-74 UEFA Cup, when Dynamo went out in the third round to VfB Stuttgart. The next season, however, their fortunes would change. On account of Ararat’s 1973 domestic double, Dynamo was granted entry into the 1974-75 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, since they were runners up in the Soviet Cup. Led by the inspirational Blokhin, Dynamo tore through their opponents and lost only one match on their way to the final, a 2-1 second leg defeat to PSV Eindhoven in the second leg of the semi-finals after 3-0 victory in the first leg. The final at St. Jakob Stadium in Basel was no contest. Up against the Hungarian side Ferencváros, Dynamo simply dominated (video). The team chemistry and mutual understanding in the team was far superior to anything the Hungarians could throw at them. Dynamo was 2-0 up at half time through a brace from Volodymyr Onyshchenko. Blokhin sealed the victory in the second half with a Maradona-esque run and finish. For the first time, a Soviet side had attained European glory.
More was to come from Lobanovskyi’s men. The UEFA Super Cup, a competition held between the winners of the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, was to be held for the second ever time that year. Dynamo Kyiv went up against the German giants of Bayern München, fresh off their second successive European Cup. That Bayern side, often ranked among the greatest European club sides of all time, were heavy favourites against the upstarts from Ukraine. But once again led by Blokhin, Dynamo dazzled and defeated the Bavarians 3-0 over two legs to secure their second European honours. Blokhin, who scored all three goals, deservedly took home the Ballon d’Or in 1975 as the best European player of the year.
Eleven years later, Dynamo replicated their success in perhaps the best example of Lobanovskyi’s philosophy put into action. Blokhin, still a hugely important player in the squad, was partnered this time by Ihor Belanov. The two strikers, along with teammate Konstantin Zavarov and Frank Lippmann of Dynamo Dresden, all finished joint top scorers of that year’s competition with 5 goals each. In the final, Dynamo met Atlético Madrid. Once again, Dynamo won 3-0, and once again Blokhin got on the scoresheet in a European final, finishing off a beautiful counterattacking move in the 85th minute (video). That year, Belanov took home the Ballon d’Or.
Unlike in earlier eras, Dynamo’s growing status as a footballing powerhouse was no longer overlooked by the Soviet sporting authorities when Lobanovskyi was at the club. In the Soviet Union’s first match in their UEFA Euro 1976 qualifying campaign they were embarrassed 3-0 by the Republic of Ireland. After this defeat, the Football Federation of the Soviet Union sacked then head coach Konstantin Beskov and appointed Lobanovskyi to the position. Lobanovskyi quickly transformed the national team and used his Dynamo as a model. There was a marked improvement in the results, but nevertheless they failed to qualify for the competition, falling in the final qualifying round to eventual winners Czechoslovakia. In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, the USSR won the Bronze medal. The 17 man squad consisted of eleven players from Dynamo and was led by their manager. Ukraine, for centuries dominated politically and culturally by the centralized Russian state, was now reasserting its identity through its footballing domination of Moscow. The Dynamo fans came up with a catchphrase: “The Soviet Union national team is just Dynamo Kyiv, weakened by the presence of players from other clubs.”
But this state of affairs did not sit well with the Moscow party officials. Before the 1976 qualifier in Bratislava, just eight years after the Soviets invaded the country to crush the Prague Spring uprising, the Soviet authorities sent a memorandum to the national team: “You are taking all the responsibility [for the result] into your own hands.” Though the USSR was beyond the era of Gulags and show trials, the attitude of Moscow toward the national team that heavily featured Ukrainian players was clear. Despite the Bronze medal in Montreal, where the Soviets defeated Brazil in the third place match, Lobanovskyi was fired after the tournament. The failure to win gold was seen as a failure back home. At the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, the Soviet squad consisted of just two players from Dynamo. The Soviets once again won the Bronze medal. Volodymyr Veremeyev, a former Dynamo Kyiv player and member of the 1976 edition of the Soviet Union, recalls:
“Only in 1980 was the result seen in a positive light, unlike 1976. After Montreal, right away players were stripped of their ‘Master of Sport’ rankings. This is what the rivalry between Moscow and Kyiv meant, and the pressure we felt from the capital of the Soviet Union.”
Despite the mutual antagonism felt between Moscow and Kyiv, Lobanovskyi returned to the managerial role for the national team in 1984 but was quickly dismissed after the Soviets failed to qualify in controversial circumstances. The defeat to Portugal that sealed the USSR’s fate was decided on a penalty awarded to the Portuguese for a foul that took place outside the box; even science cannot completely account for human error. He was appointed to the head coaching position again just two years later, after the Soviet Union had gotten off to a disastrous start to World Cup qualifying, failing to win any of their first three matches. Lobanovskyi’s tried and true method – simply replacing the squad with his Dynamo players – worked like a charm. Results were instantaneous, and the USSR qualified for the 1986 World Cup as group runners up. Twelve of the twenty-two players selected for the final tournament in Mexico were from Dynamo. The Soviet Union raced through their group and came up against Belgium in the second round. The match was 2-2 after 90 minutes, but Belgium ran out 4-3 winners after a thrilling extra time period. The match in the Soviet Union is still remembered with anger and heartbreak; the Belgian second goal, allege the Soviet fans, was clearly offside.
1988 was the last hurrah for Lobanovskyi as manager of the national side. Once again, the squad was heavily drawn from Dynamo. In the first match of the tournament against the Netherlands which the Soviet Union won 1-0, 9 of the 11 starters were from the Kyiv side. The two teams met again in the final, but this time Marco van Basten’s moment of magic was too much for the Soviets to overcome. The Dutch won 2-0, and the Kyiv core had to settle with a runners up medal. Glory in international competition proved to be just outside of their grasp.
This history of Ukrainian football may at times read more like a history of Dynamo Kyiv. But there are political and structural reasons for why Dynamo came to dominate Ukrainian, and then eventually Soviet, football. Many of these reasons have to do with the aforementioned Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. Shcherbytsky was not just a high ranking Communist Party official, he was also a fanatical supporter of Dynamo Kyiv. Unlike in Moscow, where the party chiefs split their support and patronage among the various clubs, Kyiv was a one-club city with a party power base entirely dedicated to ensuring the success of Dynamo.
Kyiv’s status as capital of the Ukrainian SSR and thus the seat of the Ukrainian Politburo served Dynamo well. Genadiy Orlov, the former footballer and current commentator on Russian television, revealed in an interview:
“The mechanism by which Dynamo was propelled to the top of the table was well developed in the Central Committee of Ukraine, led by Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. His first secretary would call his colleagues in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa. He would say something along the lines of ‘Dynamo is the flagman of our republic, you have to help us out. Let’s play to a draw at your stadium, and in Kyiv, we’ll play on equal footing.’ Just try to beat Dynamo in Kyiv on equal footing!”
The same mechanism applied to the transfer system as well. For example, after Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk went through their ‘golden years’ in the mid ’80s during which they twice won the league, many of their players were ‘encouraged’ to move to Kyiv. A phone call from Shcherbytsky’s office to anywhere else in Ukraine all but ensured that all of the best Ukrainian players ended up in Dynamo. The Central Committee also interfered in Dynamo’s internal affairs. When Dynamo finished a disappointing 10th in 1984, a congress was convened to discuss the situation. Journalist Aleksandr Gorbunov writes:
“Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the head of the Ukrainian party, and the entire republic, held a meeting, where one important issue was discussed: the coach of Dynamo. Shcherbytsky, according to witnesses, silently listened to the speakers, including those defending the position of the lobbyists (who wanted Lobanovskyi dismissed), then sharply declared ‘Lobanovskyi remains the coach. The question is closed.'”
The glorious history of Dynamo and Ukrainian football in general deserves to be appreciated for its inherent footballing value. But the sport cannot be separated from the political machinations going on behind the scenes that helped ensure Dynamo’s status and success. In the Soviet Union, clout was everything, and Dynamo had a lot of it.
By Vadim Furmanov
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona