It was supposed to be the ultimate football franchise: Eleven man armies that would prove communist superiority in the world’s most popular sport.  But more than two decades after the USSR and the Eastern Block fell apart, the Dynamo movement is fading. This is the story of a football machine that rarely worked and, after ninety years of troubled existence, is still in search of its true identity.

Born in 1923 to an authoritarian, unstable and violent family, Dynamo Moscow was imagined to be an athletic role model. However, as happens with all autocratic concepts, this desire of an idealist communist sport club crumbled under the weight of its own expectations. The inceptive Dynamo club was fathered by Felix Dzerzhinsky, also the creator of Cheka – the prototype of the infamous KGB – and was glorified by Lavrenti Beria (the man who coordinated the Great Purge under Stalin’s rule). Under this type of guidance, it was clear from the start that Dynamo wasn’t going to play fair. Named after a famous electric factory in Moscow – where some of the first sparks of civil unrest in the Tsarist Empire were ignited – the Dynamo clubs soon entered mass production.

Say whatever you like about the Communists, but they know how to start a revolution. This wasn’t a ‘red’ revolution, but one dressed in blue and white. Dynamos soon spurred into existence just about everywhere in the USSR. In 1923 the average working man from Tbilisi probably had never heard the word Dynamo in his life. Ten years later, he would be shouting this catchy name of Greek origins week after week at a local football stadium.  The same thing happened in Kiev, Minsk, Tashkent and Baku. It was an unprecedented globalization of football. It would continue after the end of the Second World War within most of the countries from the Eastern Block.

Dynamos were sides to be feared by their opponents, and not only for their football skills. Commanded by various local or national secret services, they used KGB tactics more frequently than the basic 4-4-2 system (which, ironically, was invented at Dynamo Kiev). In East Germany, the Dynamo movement had only one president, Erich Mielke, who was also the head of the feared Stasi. In 1954, he decided to move all the players from the successful Dresden team to a new squad called Berliner FC Dynamo. It ignited a bitter rivalry between the two sister clubs that still endures, even if the two sides scarcely meet these days.

Hatred surrounded these clubs – no neutral fan from the East would ever consider cheering for them – but it also cemented a strong feeling of loyalty and resistance in their own core. When the legendary Lev Yashin was asked where he would ‘really’ like to play, he stated: “At FC Dynamo, for centuries”. The ‘Black Spider’ would stay for 22 seasons at the Moscow club, playing more than 800 games and not conceding a goal in 270 of them.

In the twentieth century, the heraldic letter “D” was to Eastern European football what the McDonald’s logo means to Western cuisine now.  It was everywhere. But for what does this “D” stand nowadays? Surely not for Dominance. No player with that stylized letter sown on his chest has ever lifted the European Cup or Champions League trophy above his head, or even played in a final.

Of course, there were European successes: Dinamo Zagreb won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the grandfather of the Europa League) in 1967, then Dynamo Kiev won the Cup Winners’ Cup twice, after fabulous displays of a football philosophy that was closer to cybernetics than sport, in 1975 (when they were also European Supercup winners) and 1986. Dinamo Tbilisi also won this competition, in 1981. And that’s it. While the Dynamos came relatively short when it came to continental silverware, they made a name for themselves as innovators.

When a chain-smoker from Moscow named Victor Maslov arrived in Kiev in 1964, the Ukrainian Dynamo was a team had high hopes but no glory, having just one Soviet Top League title attached to their name. Six years later, it was the most famous team in the USSR. Maslov won three consecutive titles by pioneering futuristic concepts like zonal marking, pressing, player psychology or the 4-4-2 tactical system. A few years after he left the ‘Bilo-Syni’, a former problematic student of his, Valery Lobanovsky, took his place. In the next 25 years, he would prove to the world that football has a statistical side, which could be mastered and used with tremendous success. Under his guidance Dynamo established itself as the great football force of the USSR, while talented players like Oleg Blokhin, Igor Belanov and Andryi Shevchenko performed with tremendous efficiency. They would all win the Ballon d’Or award as Europe’s best player.

If Lobanovsky was the savant, then Eduard Malofeyev was surely the poet among Soviet coaches. At Dinamo Minsk, the former agile top-scorer invented what he called ”open-hearted football”, where creativity overruled defensive worries. He remodelled a mediocre side from Belarus into a feared and respected USSR champion in 1982. Even though his side would enchant all with its fearless attacks and almost childish fair-play, another success would not follow.

Dinamo Tbilisi didn’t have a genius on the bench, but the Georgians had plenty of them on the pitch. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, they were the “Crazy Gang” of the Soviet Top League. Super-players like David Kipiani – a moustached predecessor of Zinedine Zidane – and lone-striker Ramaz Shengelia shone in Tbilisi. Their 3-0 victory over Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in the 1979-80 European Cup was just one of numerous exhibits of high-quality football.

The story of the Dynamos is one of many facets, with unexpected twists and turns. Like the founding of Dinamo Bucharest. The club came to be in 1948 after the abusive and absurd merger of two other clubs: Unirea Tricolor and Ciocanul. If Unirea Tricolor was the team supported by the Iron Guard (an ultra-nationalist anti-Semitic organization), Ciocanul (The Hammer) was a Jewish side, formerly known as Maccabi. Despite its ridiculous genesis, Dinamo Bucharest was the first squad with this name ever to compete for continental glory, in the 1956-57 European Cup.

In multicultural states, like the USSR or Yugoslavia, these ‘Police clubs’ were converted by local fans into fervent nationalistic symbols. The violent incidents that occurred before a Dinamo Zagreb – Red Star Belgrade match in the Spring of 1990, when Zvonimir Boban famously kicked a policemen to defend a supporter, is still regarded as the first battle of Croatia’s War of Independence. “I was the captain of the squad, but all the players at Dinamo were revolutionaries”, said Boban in an interview a few years ago.

After the fall of Communism and their separation from the Ministries of Interior and Secret Services, almost all Dynamos started to struggle. Dynamo Moscow seems to be cursed by its past evil deeds. Despite being financed by a powerful bank, the club from Petrovsky Park is still waiting for its maiden Russian championship. The Tbilisi, Minsk and Bucharest units are rapidly decaying, mainly due to lack of investment, while Dinamo Kiev – the once despotic king of Ukrainian football – is getting kicked around by rivals Shakhtar Donetsk, who have won a UEFA Cup and seven of the last ten championship titles.

Dinamo Tirana, the Albanian outfit, was relegated last season for the first time in its 62 year history. Berliner FC Dynamo is doing far worse, playing its matches in the NOFV-Oberliga Nord (the fifth tier of German football). In Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb is still reining supreme, winning seven titles in a row in the Prva HNL league, but failing miserably in the Champions League (the 7-1 home defeat to Olympique Lyon last season raised many eyebrows). In terms of success, Dynamo Dresden has reached the 2.Bundesliga and seems to be on the right course again, after it was almost left for dead in the fourth German league.

Today, the Dynamos are in the worst shape of their history. Their stadiums are decaying and their fan bases are decreasing. Trophies are much harder to come by and an aura of nostalgia seems to encircle the Dynamos. There is a feeling that opportunities were missed, however the Dynamos are still moving ahead, hoping that somehow the odds will again change in their favour.

By Sorin Breazu

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona