March 8th, 2004

beach bum

My football heroes (7) – Valeri Lobanovski

He arrived in 1958 at Dynamo Kiev. As a player he won 1 title of the Soviet Union. He played on the left wing. A position that always produces players that people come to stadiums for. His fame came as a coach though. Give or take a few years away at other clubs in the Soviet Union and some spells grabbing dollars in some Arabic countries, Dynamo Kiev was his club for nearly 5 decades.

The first limelight for the club was in the mid-seventies. Oleg Blochin a big star, the first team from Eastern Europe to win the European cup. Lobanovski was the coach. He sat on the bench like most Russian coaches did: quietly, no emotions visible, cigarette always there. His work was during the week. Using computer programmes before most people even knew what a computer was, he knew that when a team makes between 15 and 18% mistakes, they cannot lose. He made the players train all standard situations, when at most teams elsewhere in the world a special training meant a heavy drinking session for the players.

The second great team he created was in the mid eighties. I remember watching that team. Demjanenko, Michaelitsjenko, Zavarov and Belanov were stars in a team that seemed computer programmed, but also left room for individual creativity. The old Blochin still played sometimes. According to a lot of experts their win against Atletico Madrid (3-0) in the European Cup final in 1986 was one of the best performances ever from a team.

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As a second job Lobanovski coached the national team. I was stunned when I read the Soviet selection for the WC 1986 in Mexico. He took 12 players from Dynamo Kiev. As a boy I couldn’t grasp the idea of someone not good enough to play for Kiev, yet still better than almost all other players in that huge country. The Soviets surprised the world during the first round of that world cup. Somehow they managed to lose against Belgium in the next round though. They would have been worthy opponents to Argentina with Maradona in the final. That same team made the final of the Euro88 tournament, but lost to the Dutch, a team they had beaten in the group stage earlier that month. They lost.

After that year, most players left for Europe, for the top teams, for the money. Lobanovski was disappointed and also left the Soviet Union. Only a couple of years later he returned to Kiev. Richer, but not happier, he couldn’t live anywhere but his hometown. Now the capital of an independent Ukraine, he started building for a third great team. Again he managed. I was in Spain in 1996 when I saw Barcelona being trashed by a team of no-names. The then very young Shevtsjenko was another product of the school of Lobanovski. Again he had managed to build a team that was feared throughout Europe. The semi finals in the Champions league were the endpoint for this team. His double function was back as well, but the national team of the Ukraine never became great.

Lobanovski by then was an old man. The smoking and probably a reasonable amount of vodka weren’t really good for his health. An operation to his brain turned out to be too much. On the 13th of May 2002 he became a coach in a different world.