Modern football stems from Ukraine

Modern football stems from Ukraine

Published Jun. 19, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

In 1999, Rinat Akhmetov went to Paris to watch Ukraine play France. He was highly impressed by the Stade de France and decided he wanted a stadium of his own. Being the richest man in Ukraine, his fortune made in the coal mines and steelworks of the Donbass, he was in a position to build one. So he did.

The Donbass Arena opened in 2009 and is generally recognized as one of the finest stadiums in Europe; it is there that Ukraine face England on Tuesday. It is the home of Shakhtar Donetsk, the club Akhmetov took over in 1996, a year after the club’s previous president, Oleksandr Bragin (or “Alik the Greek,” to give him his underworld nickname,) was murdered in a bomb attack at Shakhtar’s home game against Tavriya Simferapol.

Mark Levitsky was commentating on the game for television. He remembers thinking the roof must have collapsed when he heard the boom before realizing what had happened and racing up the steps to the VIP lodge with Bragin’s brother-in-law Ravil Safiullin, a vice-president of the club.

“There were bits of bodies everywhere,” he said. “Then Safiullin saw a severed arm, and recognized that the watch around the wrist was the president’s, and that was when we knew he was dead.” Akhmetov, at the time Bragin’s number two, was lucky; he was held up in traffic and missed the attack.


It is said Akhmetov took over the club only reluctantly but, as Mircea Lucescu, Shakhtar’s coach, put it, he soon “fell in love with football.” He has invested heavily in players and infrastructure with the result that Shakhtar have displaced Dynamo Kyiv as the preeminent club in Ukraine. After Taroya had won the inaugural championship, Dynamo claimed 11 of the next 12. Since 2004-05 though, Shakhtar have won six of eight.

Back in 2005, Serhiy Polkhovskyi, Dynamo’s urbane vice-president, described Shakhtar as being like Rastignac, the character from Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot noted for his thrusting ambition. When I mentioned that to Levytksy, by then Shakhtar’s media relations vice-president, he caught the allusion immediately, but dismissed it in the same breath.

"Let them read Balzac," he snorted. "We will concentrate on football."

The implication was clear and played into the long tradition of the clubs. Shakhtar were a team of the people: even the name means 'miner' and the kit, orange shirts and black shorts, supposedly represents the experience of a miner leaving the dark of the pit for the bright of the day. Dynamo were the team of the elite, backed by the Ukrainian Communist Party and a vast backroom staff of scientists and intellectuals.

That’s both an exaggeration and a simplification, yet it’s not wholly unjustified. Ukrainian football – Soviet football as it’s now understood even – was invented in Kyiv. In the 1960s, Viktor Maslov, an avuncular Muscovite, instituted his theory of pressing football. Players would hunt in packs, closing down an opponent in possession in groups of three or four.

It was a style of play that required both immense physical fitness and tremendous organization – if three players closed an opponent, two opponents were left free; the key was to ensure they were in areas in which it was almost impossible for the man in possession to reach with a pass. The style was controversial but ultimately successful and Dynamo won three successive Soviet titles from 1966.

One of the players Maslov ditched to impose this system was dilettantish left winger Valeriy Lobanovskyi. By 1968, as Dynamo won its third title, he was at Shakhtar and thoroughly disillusioned. “It’s impossible to play as we do,” he wrote in his autobiography, Endless Match. “It is impossible to rely on luck or on accidents in modern football. It is necessary to create the ensemble, a collective of believers who subordinate themselves to the common playing idea.”

A talented mathematician at school, Lobaonvskyi had qualified as a plumber and contemplated a move into hydraulic engineering, but found himself unable to turn down Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, then in one of the four parallel second divisions, when it offered him the position of coach in 1969. There, he set about applying the scientific methods he had become convinced represented the future.

"If you want to be a good coach, you must forget the player you were," Lobaonvskyi said. “My relationship with Maslov didn’t turn out well, but that’s not important. He was a great tactician who taught his players how to play football.”

In his third season with Dnipro, Lobanovskyi led the club to promotion. The following season it finished sixth in the Supreme League, just a point behind Dynamo. 1972 was more significant, though, as the year in which Lobanovskyi met Anatoliy Zelentsov, a statistician and specialist in bioengineering. Over the next three decades, the two worked closely together using computer modeling to structure training programs and pioneer the use of statistical analysis in football.

Three games from the end of the 1973 season, Lobanovskyi was appointed manager at Dynamo. A six-year stint in the Middle East aside, he remained in charge until he died in 2002, having suffered a stroke in the dug-out during an away game at Metalurh Zaporyzhzhya. In that time, he won eight Soviet titles, six Soviet Cups, five Ukrainian titles, three Ukrainian Cups and two European Cup Winners’ Cups.

More than that, Lobanovskyi defined Ukrainian football, which is why a statue of him, chin propped characteristically on hand as he leans forward, stands outside Dynamo’s stadium, which is now named after him.

Lobanovskyi’s goal was “universality” – players who would be comfortable over a range of positions. The two who got closest to embody that idea were the forwards Oleh Blokhin and Andriy Shevchenko. They are now, respectively, manager and senior player of the national side.

Football has moved on since Lobanovskyi’s death but his ideas and methods remain relevant. Statistical analysis and sports science are considered essential, while Spain’s decision to start without a recognized striker against Italy was essentially an experiment in universality.

The balance of power in Ukraine has tipped from west to east — but in a sense we’re all Lobanovskyians now.