The Ghost of Lobanovskyi

The monument of Valeryi Lobanovskyi sits proudly outside the Dynamo stadium in Kyiv, the same monument Andriy Shevchenko laid his medals on after he won the Champions League with AC Milan in 2003. Shevchenko once described Lobanovskyi as “the God and father of Ukrainian football” and indeed, Lobanovskyi’s mark on football in the Ukraine, and in former Soviet states in general, still plays a significant role. Talk to your average football fan outside of these states and ask them who the best managers in football history are, chances are Lobanovskyi’s name will be more hushed up than a KGB operation. With all European eyes on Ukraine as Euro 2012 looms large and with the ghost of Lobanovskyi never far from view, where does Ukraine stand going into the tournament?

Coverage of the Ukraine going into the Euros in the mainstream press is circling around the Yulia Tymoschenko palaver and other issues such as hotel price increases and hooliganism but the football there remains a mystery to many. During a recent conversation with friends about Euro 2012, the topic turned to the host nations and I was met with “Haha, Ukraine? They’re still relying on Shevchenko right?!” A common “question” across the mainstream press too.

Valeri Lobanovskyi had an incredible career. As a player in the 60’s and 70’s, he was an extremely talented and innovative left-winger. He became famous for inventing tricks, such as his “banana” shot and his corners that he pinged into the air with lots of backspin which would drop to the ground like a falling leaf. However, it’s his managerial career that provided Ukraine with a hero that still influences football in the country today.

A lot of groundwork for Lobanovskyi was created by the Russian Victor Maslov. During his time, he invented the 4-4-2 formation, introduced tentative measures towards nutrition and science in football and brought in a pressing style of play to deny the opposition space. Despite often being at odds with Maslov at Dynamo Kyiv, Lobanovskyi took all of these principles with him into management and they yielded extraordinary results.

One event encapsulates a lot of what Lobanovskyi was about. Having won the Soviet Supreme title for the first time in 1961 as a player, Lobanovskyi was not happy. He went to the Science and Research of Construction Institute in Kyiv for a celebratory visit. There he scoffed “Yes, we have won the league but so what? We often played badly, we won the league because everybody else was worse. I can’t accept your praise because there are no grounds for it”. A bewildered scientist asked him whether it was good to have achieved his dreams, to which Lobanovskyi replied “A realised dream ceases to be a dream. What is your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your post-doctoral thesis?” The scientist replied “Maybe, but a real scientist dreams about making a contribution to scientific development, about leaving his mark on it”. “And there you have your answer”, Lobanovskyi replied.

This restless desire for achieving something extraordinary epitomised Lobanovskyi. His desire was to play the game in the most positive of manners, to provide a beautiful brand of football that delivers dreams rather than fight fires. Celebratory visits to scientific institutes nowadays seem completely alien, but in the Soviet Union, science was hugely emphasized by the government and took a large importance in society. And it was science that Lobanovskyi utilised innovatively to deliver his dreams.

Lobanovskyi studied heating engineering in Kyiv while he was playing, at a time when science and technology were becoming obsessions in the city. Cybernetics was taking off, and Lobanovskyi became inspired by these methods. He broke football down into a system of twenty-two parts, each with tasks, like cogs in a big machine. Influenced by mathematics, Lobanovskyi began to see football as a sum of the collective. During his first job at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, he brought bioenergetic expert Anatoliy Zelentsov to the club, who dealt with players’ fitness, physical conditioning and nutrition. Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov obsessed over training exercises, analysing every player and applying their findings on the pitch.

Lobanovskyi took Zelentsov with him to Dynamo Kyiv in 1974, where he would remain until 1990 before returning there for a second spell in 1997 until his death in 2002. Lobanovskyi had a strong philosophy that aimed at forcing the opposition on the back foot and keeping them guessing by controlling the space of the pitch. Players would be taught in all areas of football so that no situation on the pitch was alien to them. Lobanovskyi hammered his methods into his players and diligently put the work in on the training ground. He saw football in a way that hadn’t been seen anywhere in the world previously. There was no rigid philosophy for his sides on the pitch though, as they were capable of changing their style depending on the circumstances of the game: from defending then counter-attacking, to pressing an opponent high up the pitch. From playing with width, to playing narrowly.

Lobanovskyi saw strikers as defenders, and defenders as strikers. Each player was involved in everything. He put a large emphasis on keeping the ball and practiced outnumbering the opposition in all situations on the pitch in order to do so. His teams were incredibly fluid, striking a perfect balance between individuality and the cog of a collective, players would switch positions all the time. Similar to what was happening at Ajax and the Netherlands national team, Lobanovskyi influenced “total football” in the same way. His football has been described as a “socialist football”, which while glib and open to skewed interpretations, holds a lot of truth.

Lobanovskyi was known as a “general” by Andriy Shevchenko, and Oleh Blokhin noted his authoritarian nature too. His path was the right path and the players had to follow it at all costs. Lobanovskyi provided the iron fist the people in the Soviet Union were used to under communism. Speaking to a Russian friend, a nation of many similar traits as Ukraine, she said “You know, in Russia I often think people crave bad things. They crave distressing things. If things are going well, it’s always going to go badly at some point. We build a beautiful building but when it has crumbled a lot, people love it. They need a hammer to keep them motivated and see beauty in simple things.” Lobanovskyi provided it, much like Stalin and each Soviet leader subsequently, and in many respects Putin of today. It can also help to explain why Soviet Bloc clubs often fail spectacularly at the final hurdles.

Lobanovskyi won the Soviet league eight times, the cup six times, the Ukrainian title five times, the Uefa Cup Winners Cup twice, amongst others. He was extraordinarily successful, even right up until his death. In 1999 when Manchester United famously won the treble, Dynamo Kyiv were knocked out in the semi-finals, inspired by Shevchenko, playing a marvellous brand of football. During the end of his life, Lobanovskyi would say how dealing with players brought up outside of communism was a little different to those that were. Indeed, Ukraine as a whole was changing since the fall of communism which in turn affected the nation’s football.

Lobanovskyi constantly looked to the future, he was constantly looking to improve, reform and develop his teams to keep ahead of the opposition. Today, Ukraine has attempted to break free of Lobanovskyi’s ghost with the introduction of foreign players for instance but as Oleh Blokhin takes them into Euro 2012, the similarities still reign large over Ukrainian football. The ghost of Lobanovskyi will loom over Ukraine during the tournament, whether it’s dragging them back or a source of modern method for success, time will tell.