Andrei Shevchenko heroics invoke spirit of legendary manager Valery Lobanovsky
When Andrei Shevchenko inspired Ukraine to victory in their opening match of Euro 2012, my mind went back just over 26 years to a warm evening in Lyon and the final of the 1986 European Cup Winners’ Cup. That was my first, startling glimpse of football dreamt up by a visionary called Valery Lobanovsky, whose legacy was everywhere in Kiev on Monday night.
The Lyon match pitted Dynamo Kiev, coached by Lobanovsky, against Atletico Madrid. The Soviet side – this was five years before the post-Communism re-emergence of Ukraine as a country in its own right – prevailed 3-0 with as virtuoso display of attacking football as I’d ever seen or have seen since. I was hooked. For the next couple of years I followed either Dynamo Kiev or the Soviet national team (at that time the two were pretty much one and the same) whenever I could.
I saw Dynamo Kiev at Porto in a European Cup semi-final. There was a wet night in Glasgow when they played Rangers, also in the European Cup, and a desultory pre-season tournament at Wembley. In their international guise, I caught up with them when the USSR played Wales in Swansea, and France in Paris. I marvelled every time.
Among the star players in those days were the darting striker Igor Belanov (European Footballer of the Year in 1986); a tough but nimble midfielder called Alexander Zavarov (he played for Juventus in the late 1980s); and the imposing defender Sergei Baltacha, who joined Ipswich Town and eventually settled in Scotland (his daughter is the tennis player Elena Baltacha).
It was this Soviet Union team that Lobanovsky took to the Mexico World Cup of 1986 (losing to Belgium 4-3 in a pulsating match that showed them at both their attacking best and their defensive worst), and to the final of the European Championship in 1988, where they fell victim to Marco van Basten’s wonder goal (and a glaring penalty miss by Belanov).
After the fall of Communism, Lobanovsky went abroad for five years, coaching the United Arab Emirates and then Kuwait. For his final spell at Kiev, beginning in 1996, he unearthed a new generation which in the young Shevchenko included the most gifted striker in Ukrainian history. I saw him as a 21-year-old when Kiev played the French team Lens in the Champions’ League in 1998. (Kiev reached the semi-finals that season). On a dreadful pitch on a filthy November night, Shevchenko simply dazzled. Ahead lay legendary years at AC Milan, mysteriously fallow ones at Chelsea.
For all that Lobanovsky achieved, both at club level and internationally, there was a sense in which his efforts went under-rewarded. At their best, Lobanovsky’s teams possessed a combination of power and finesse, of technique and artistry that represented the very best of the old Soviet sports system at the same time as they set dizzying standards of footballing sophistication. But Lobanovsky could never entirely rid his sides of fatal flaws.
On that trip to Porto, in a hotel room foyer, I interviewed Lobanovsky via an interpreter. His bulbous features and permanent glower were intimidating but they revealed only part of what he stood for. A disciplinarian both tactically and in his dealings with players, he none the less sent out teams that touched the heights with their flair and inventiveness. I remember him explaining to me his theory of “collective speed” whereby he sought that his players eliminate at least one of the opposition with every pass they played – an astonishing ambition.
Ill-health dogged Lobanovsky’s latter years and he died in 2002, aged only 63. The Ukrainian parliament held a minute’s silence in his honour. He was named a Hero of Ukraine, and Kiev’s stadium was re-named after him. When Shevchenko won the Champions League with Milan in 2003, he flew to Kiev to put his medal by the grave of his former manager. If Ukraine were Manchester United, then Lobanovsky would be Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson rolled into one.
On Monday night in Kiev, you had the Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin – a brilliant Lobanovsky protégée from the early part of his career – and you had Shevchenko, who was the last of the really huge talents Lobanovsky nurtured. Between them and the rest of the team they may yet bring Ukraine further glory, and if it comes, it will be with heart-felt acknowledgments to one of the greatest coaches the game has ever known.
Simon O’Hagan is Assistant Editor of The Independent, and a former sportwriter for The Independent on Sunday.
Follow Simon on Twitter @SimonOHaganTagged in: Andrei Shevchenko, Ukraine, Valery Lobanovsky
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