The Second World War to Perestroika: Ukraine’s Forgotten Legacy

This is the second in a three part series chronicling the history of Ukrainian football.  Read the first here.  

Post War Troubles

Three years after the National Stadium was set to open, Kyiv was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Red Army. The banner that read “postponed until victory” on the original opening day of the war proved accurate. On June 25, 1944, three years and three days after the bombs of the Luftwaffe first fell on the city, the National Stadium finally opened its doors to the public, as Dynamo took on CDKA Moscow. Immediately after the match, however, it became obvious that the damage done to the stadium over the course of the occupation rendered it unsafe, and it was once again closed down for reconstruction. It was again reopened in 1948; all fans who managed to survive the war and hold on to their tickets for the original opening in 1941 were granted free access for life.

A ticket for the original opening of the National Stadium

A ticket for the original opening of the National Stadium

After the war, the borders of the Ukrainian SSR were expanded to include the entirety of the territory of the modern day republic. The cities of Lviv and Uzhorod in Western Ukraine became significant sources of football talent. But in the decade following the victory over the Germans, Ukrainian football was hardly making an impact in the Soviet League. Dynamo Kyiv was decimated. Many of their players were killed, maimed, or simply disappeared during the German occupation. Of the 22 players who were part of the squad for the originally scheduled opening match in 1941, only 2 remained on the roster.

As a result of the devastating losses, Dynamo was in shambles. In the first post-war Soviet Championship in 1945, Dynamo finished second to last. The next season they were dead last, but were granted a reprieve from relegation due to their tragic wartime fate. The job of head coach was a revolving door position at the club; from 1946 through 1951 Dynamo went through no fewer than 10 managers.

Gradual Recovery

Dynamo with their first ever silverware, the 1954 Soviet Cup

Dynamo with their first ever silverware, the 1954 Soviet Cup

It was the Russian manager Oleg Oshenkov who finally brought a measure of stability to the club following his appointment in 1951. Oshenkov promoted many players from the youth side, drastically reduced the time his players had for winter holiday, and initiated a program of intense physical preparation. Results immediately followed. In just his second year in charge, Dynamo finished second in the league, runners up to perennial powerhouse Spartak Moscow. In 1954 Dynamo conquered their first piece of silverware, the Soviet Cup. Along the way they defeated the powerful Moscow sides Spartak and CSKA and Zenit of Leningrad, before dispatching Spartak Yerevan of Armenia 2-1 in the final.

Though Dynamo was by now far and away the dominant team of Ukraine, they were not the only side from the republic competing in the Soviet League. Stakhanovets Stalino, the forebearer of Shakhtar Donetsk, played in the Soviet League from 1949-52, and from 1955 onwards became a mainstay in the top flight. In 1960 a team from Kharkiv, Avangard, was promoted to the top league, although they were relegated after just four seasons. Later teams from Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, and Voroshilovgrad (later Luhansk) would participate in the Soviet league as well.

But Dynamo was, without a doubt, the flagship side of Ukrainian football. Though throughout the 1950s they were not able to add to their Soviet Cup, Dynamo players began to be called up for the Soviet national team. In 1955, Victor Fomin became the first Dynamo player to play for the USSR, while Yuriy Voinov was a part of both the Soviet Union side that took part in the 1958 World Cup and that won the inaugural European Championship in 1960. Then, in 1961, Dynamo finally broke the Muscovite hegemony and became the first team outside of the capital to win the Soviet League. In that same year Shakhtar won the Soviet Cup. Ukrainian football had arrived.

Maslov’s Era

The 1961 title was just a taste of what was to come.  In the two seasons after Dynamo’s first ever championship, their fortunes slipped as they finished 5th and 7th, but this would prove to be a minor blip in their relentless ascent to the pinnacle of Soviet football.  In 1964, the Russian manager Viktor Maslov was appointed to the head coaching position at Dynamo.  Maslov, a man with an 8th grade education, effectively revolutionized the way game was played.  After his arrival he incurred the wrath of many Dynamo followers by dropping such distinguished players as Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Yuriy Voinov, and Oleg Basilevish, all of whom played a major role in Dynamo’s inaugural title.  Maslov was reportedly unhappy with the formation of factions within the camp, and saw these players as instigators of this cliquey culture.

But there were also footballing reasons for their departure.  Maslov was a pioneer of the heavy pressing game, and may have felt that these players were ill-suited for this demanding tactic.  He also introduced the 4-4-2 at approximately the same time as Sir Alf Ramsey, the 1966 World Cup winning English manager who is often cited as the inventor of this formation.  Vitaliy Khmelnytsky, who transferred to Dynamo from Shakhtar in 1964 and became a key player in Maslov’s squad, recalls:

“Maslov sought to make the team attack and defend with the maximum number of players.  The two forwards up top were supported by a quartet of half-backs who, when necessary, performed defensive duties as well.  In my view, it was in those years that the common saying that the midfield defines the identity and power of every team emerged.”

Maslov also stressed the importance of physical superiority and implemented a strict training regime.  Khmelnytsky, when asked how Maslov knew so much about coaching, simply said “From God.  Some people are born musicians, poets, painters.  Maslov was born a coach.”  The noted British journalist Jonathan Wilson, an authority on both Eastern European football and the history and evolution of tactics, wrote that Maslov’s tactical developments could be seen as the “birth of modern football.”

Results followed immediately.  In the very same year won their second Soviet Cup.  More significantly, this allowed Dynamo entry into the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.  Prior to this point the Soviet authorities had not allowed their clubs to participate in continental competitions, presumably out of fear of being humiliated by the capitalist clubs of their Cold War adversaries.  But this time, surprisingly, Dynamo was allowed to compete, becoming the first Soviet team to take part in a Europe-wide tournament.  Andriy Biba, the midfielder who scored the first ever Soviet goal in any European competition, later said:

Viktor Maslov

Viktor Maslov

“Why [the decision to allow Dynamo to compete] was made, I don’t know, but in the squad we thought that we were being used as essentially lab rats.  For the celebrated Moscow clubs this was very useful; they could take a good look at the tournament, without risking their reputations.  We had to play ‘blindly.’   We did not have access to any tapes of our future opponents.  As for the idea that the coaching staff could travel and see their matches live, this was the realm of fantasy.  Everything was new and unknown.  One word – pioneers.”

Despite the lack of any knowledge of their adversaries, Dynamo performed admirably in their first taste of continental competition.  Accompanied by KGB agents to discourage any politically inappropriate behavior, they defeated the Northern Irish side Coleraine FC 10-1 on aggregate, before dismissing Rosenborg BK of Norway 6-1.  They were eliminated in the quarter finals by Celtic, a year before the Scottish outfit famously conquered Europe and became the first British side to win the European Cup.

Domestic success followed as well.  Dynamo won the USSR Championship three times in a row from 1966-68, replicating the feat of CSKA Moscow accomplished in 1946-48.  In 1966 the gap between Dynamo and second place FC Ska of Rostov was nine points, in an era when only two points were given for a win.  That same year Andriy Biba was named Soviet footballer of the year.  In addition, Dynamo won the Soviet Cup for a third time in 1966, their first ever domestic double. In their first appearance in the European Cup, Dynamo eliminated holders Celtic in the first round but were themselves knocked out of the competition by Polish champions Górnik Zabrze in the very next round.

But all great eras come to an end, and Maslov was about to find out the hard way that prior results meant nothing if he could not keep Dynamo at the top.  After a 2nd place finish in 1969 was followed by a slip to 7th the following year, he was sacked in controversial circumstances.  An eventual change in manager may have been inevitable, but the unceremonious way in which Maslov was dismissed was unworthy of his contributions to the club.  Dynamo were in Moscow for an away match against CSKA.  In an interview with the Soviet daily Sport Express, Andriy Biba revealed:

“The dismissal of  [Maslov] was simply disgusting.  Can you imagine?  They were scared to tell him in Kyiv!  Unexpectedly, Mizyak, a member of the Ukrainian Sporting Committee who had nothing to do with football but was responsible for overlooking Winter sports, arrived at the hotel ‘Rossiya’ where the team was staying.  Our cowardly football chiefs entrusted specifically this person to let Maslov know that Kyiv no longer required his services… how we managed to play the next day, I can’t remember.  We’re leaving for the airport, and he’s staying.  There was such anguish in [Maslov’s] eyes.  And tears, that no one had ever seen before.”    

And thus, Dynamo Kyiv’s first ever golden age came to a shameful end.  But despite the ignominious circumstances surrounding Maslov’s sacking, he left an indelible legacy at Dynamo and built the foundations for the construction of a legendary team on the banks of the Dnipro River.  This foundation now needed a foreman, a new visionary to take them to the next level.

Outside the capital

Despite Dynamo’s success Ukrainian players continued to be overlooked by the Soviet national team.  At the 1966 World Cup, just five Dynamo players were selected, and of these only one, Yozhef Sabo, was a regular in the starting eleven.  No other Ukrainian sides were represented.  But toward the end of the 1960s, the Muscovite core of the national team, including Lev Yashin, Eduard Streltsov, and Vladimir Ponomarev, were approaching the twilight of their respective careers.  This allowed for more opportunities for the younger Ukrainian generation.  At the 1972 European Championships, six Ukrainian players were called up.  This time, players from Zarya Voroshilovgrad, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Karpaty Lviv were also included in the side that lost to West Germany in the final.

Although Dynamo continued to dominate Ukrainian football, other sides from the republic were also making waves in Soviet competitions.  In 1969 Karpaty of Lviv became the first and only team to ever win the Soviet Cup while not playing in the top division; they were in the First League at the time.  In the final, 4,000 fans traveled the 1,400 kilometer long  journey to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium to support their side against SKA of Rostov.  Though Karpaty went behind in the 20th minute, their fans did not lose their voice.  The traveling contingent sang the popular Ukrainian language song ‘Cheremshyna’ throughout the match.  Ihor Kulchytsky, the captain of Karpaty, recalls:

“That song, ‘Cheremshyna,’ that could be heard all around the stadium, did something incredible to us.  I even teared up out of nervousness.

A banner with the inscription The Cup to Lviv

A banner with the inscription “The Cup to Lviv”

Inspired by their faithful, Karpaty managed to pull back two goals in the second half and took home the trophy.  They took part in the Cup Winners’ Cup the following season, and despite a valiant effort they went out in the first round to Steaua Bucharest.

1972 saw another shocking result: Zorya Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk), an unfancied side from a provincial capital in Eastern Ukraine, won the Soviet Championship.  Along the way, they battered Dynamo 3-0 and also defeated the Moscow sides of CSKA, Dinamo, and Spartak.  Zorya became the first team not from a capital of a republic to win the Soviet championship, a feat unmatched until Zenit Leningrad won the title in 1984.

The Scientific Revolution

In a twist of history, the man that would build on Maslov’s legacy was none other than Valeriy Lobanovskyi, one of the players pushed out by Maslov when he was first appointed by Dynamo.  Lobanovskyi, renowned for his ability to score Olimpico style goals directly from corners, went on to play several more seasons in Chernomorets Odessa, before finishing his career at Shakhtar Donetsk.  Immediately upon retirement from playing he became the head coach of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.  During his tenure at Dnipro the club was promoted to the Soviet Top League and he led them to a 6th place finish in 1972.  He caught the eye of the Dynamo Kyiv establishment and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party.  Shcherbytsky himself invited Lobanovskyi to join his favored club, and in the Soviet Union requests from Party Chiefs are notoriously difficult to turn down.

It was not just Lobanovskyi’s modest success at guiding Dnipro from the depths to the first division to a respectable top flight finish that endeared him to Dynamo Kyiv.  Following in the footsteps of his distinguished predecessors Oshenkov and Maslov, ‘Loba’ was both a tactical visionary and a disciplinarian with a healthy obsession over the physical fitness of his players.  He was a perfectionist who believed in the power of science.  He thought that football was a game that could be, with the help of modern technology, be broken down and systematically analyzed to create a winning formula.  A chance meeting with Anatoliy Zelentsov, a statistician who was at the time the Dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science, was the moment that allowed Lobanovskyi’s vision of football to become a reality.

Lobanovskyi in Action

Lobanovskyi in Action

The two began to collaborate, applying the latest advancements in computer technology to football.  In his classic 1994 book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper writes:

“Zelentsov worked from the premise that since a fraction of a second’s thought can be too long in modern football, a player had to know where to pass  before he got the ball.  To this end, Dynamo’s players had to memorize set plays, as if they were American footballers, and had to run off the ball in set patterns.”

According to Zelentsov’s calculations, a team that commits an error in less than 18% of a game’s key situations is unbeatable.  These statistics were the basis for Lobanovskyi’s training sessions which were characterized by predetermined patterns of play deeply embedded in the tactical structure of the team.  The positional switching of Rinus Michels’ Total Football tactics prominently featured as well.  In his own words, Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov described their ideas in a book entitled The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models:

“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.”    

It was Scientific Communism meets Total Football.  His rigorous style may not have always been particularly pleasing on the eyes, especially considering that ‘Loba’ preferred the strategy of playing for a draw away and only going for the win at home over the course of the domestic season.  But the success was immense.

The Golden Ages

After Maslov was sacked, the head coaching position was entrusted to the Russian manager Aleksandr Sevidov.  Sevidov, favoring an attacking mentality, led the Kyiv side to the Soviet championship in his first season in charge, but two subsequent second place finishes and a an embarrassing collapse to Ararat Yerevan in the 1973 Soviet Cup final sealed his fate.  Under his tutelage, however, two youngsters, striker Oleh Blokhin and playmaker Leonid Buryak, made a name for themselves and became first team players.

Then, under Lobanovskyi, Dynamo attained heights unprecedented for a side from the Soviet Union.  In his first season in charge Dynamo once again won the Soviet Top League and achieved their second domestic double by winning the Soviet Cup as well.  Over the course of his 17 year tenure (interrupted in 1983 due to national team commitments), Dynamo would become Soviet champions six more times, ensuring their status as the USSR’s most decorated club side, and Lobanovskyi’s as its most decorated manager.  In addition, Dynamo took home five more Soviet cups including two more doubles.

Dynamo players celebrate their 1975 Cup Winners' Cup triumph

Dynamo players celebrate their 1975 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph

But as impressive as this domestic success was, it was Dynamo’s performances on the continental arena that have cemented their place in footballing lore as one of the game’s legendary sides.  Lobanovskyi’s first foray into European competition was the 1973-74 UEFA Cup, when Dynamo went out in the third round to VfB Stuttgart.  The next season, however, their fortunes would change.  On account of Ararat’s 1973 domestic double, Dynamo was granted entry into the 1974-75 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, since they were runners up in the Soviet Cup.   Led by the inspirational Blokhin, Dynamo tore through their opponents and lost only one match on their way to the final, a 2-1 second leg defeat to PSV Eindhoven in the second leg of the semifinals after 3-0 victory in the first leg.  The final at St. Jakob Stadium in Basel was no contest.   Up against the Hungarian side Ferencváros, Dynamo simply dominated (video).  The team chemistry and mutual understanding in the team was far superior to anything the Hungarians could throw at them.  Dynamo was 2-0 up at half time through a brace from Volodymyr Onyshchenko.  Blokhin sealed the victory in the second half with a Maradona-esque run and finish.  For the first time, a Soviet side had attained European glory.

23 year old Oleh Blokhin with the Ballon d'Or

23 year old Oleh Blokhin with the Ballon d’Or

More was to come from Lobanovskyi’s men.  The UEFA Super Cup, a competition held between the winners of the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, was to be held for the second ever time that year.  Dynamo Kyiv went up against the German giants of Bayern München, fresh off their second successive European Cup.  That Bayern side, often ranked among the greatest European club sides of all time, were heavy favorites against the upstarts from Ukraine.  But once again led by Blokhin, Dynamo dazzled and defeated the Bavarians 3-0 over two legs to secure their second European honors.  Blokhin, who scored all three goals, deservedly took home the Ballon d’Or in 1975 as the best European player of the year.

Eleven years later, Dynamo replicated their success in perhaps the best example of Lobanovskyi’s philosophy put into action.  Blokhin, still a hugely important player in the squad, was partnered this time by Ihor Belanov.  The two strikers, along with teammate Konstantin Zavarov and Frank Lippmann of Dynamo Dresden, all finished joint top scorers of that year’s competition with 5 goals each.  In the final, Dynamo met Atlético Madrid.  Once again, Dynamo won 3-0, and once again Blokhin got on the scoresheet in a European final, finishing off a beautiful counterattacking move in the 85th minute (video).  That year, Belanov took home the Ballon d’Or.

Lobanovskyi and the National Team

Unlike in earlier eras, Dynamo’s growing status as a footballing powerhouse was no longer overlooked by the Soviet sporting authorities when Lobanovskyi was at the club.  In the Soviet Union’s first match in their UEFA Euro 1976 qualifying campaign they were embarrassed 3-0 by the Republic of Ireland.  After this defeat, the Football Federation of the Soviet Union sacked then head coach Konstantin Beskov and appointed Lobanovskyi to the position.  Lobanovskyi quickly transformed the national team and used his Dynamo as a model.  There was a marked improvement in the results, but nevertheless they failed to qualify for the competition, falling in the final qualifying round to eventual winners Czechoslovakia.  In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, the USSR won the Bronze medal.  The 17 man squad consisted of eleven players from Dynamo and was led by their manager.  Ukraine, for centuries dominated politically and culturally by the centralized Russian state, was now reasserting its identity through its footballing domination of Moscow.  The Dynamo fans came up with a catchphrase: “The Soviet Union national team is just Dynamo Kyiv, weakened by the presence of players from other clubs.”

But this state of affairs did not sit well with the Moscow party officials.  Before the 1976 qualifier in Bratislava, just eight years after the Soviets invaded the country to  crush the Prague Spring uprising, the Soviet authorities sent a memorandum to the national team: “You are taking all the responsibility [for the result] into your own hands.”  Though the USSR was beyond the era of Gulags and show trials, the attitude of Moscow toward the national team that heavily featured Ukrainian players was clear.  Despite the Bronze medal in Montreal, where the Soviets defeated Brazil in the third place match, Lobanovskyi was fired after the tournament.  The failure to win gold was seen as a failure back home.  At the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, the Soviet squad consisted of just two players from Dynamo.  The Soviets once again won the Bronze medal.  Volodymyr Veremeyev, a former Dynamo Kyiv player and member of the 1976 edition of the Soviet Union, recalls:

“Only in 1980 was the result seen in a positive light, unlike 1976.  After Montreal, right away players were stripped of their ‘Master of Sport’ rankings.  This is what the rivalry between Moscow and Kyiv meant, and the pressure we felt from the capital of the Soviet Union.”

Despite the mutual antagonism felt between Moscow and Kyiv, Lobanovskyi returned to the managerial role for the national team in 1984 but was quickly dismissed after the Soviets failed to qualify in controversial circumstances.  The defeat to Portugal that sealed the USSR’s fate was decided on a penalty awarded to the Portuguese for a foul that took place outside the box; even science cannot completely account for human error.  He was appointed to the head coaching position again just two years later, after the Soviet Union had gotten off to a disastrous start to World Cup qualifying, failing to win any of their first three matches.  Lobanovskyi’s tried and true method – simply replacing the squad with his Dynamo players – worked like a charm.   Results were instantaneous, and the USSR qualified for the 1986 World Cup as group runners up.  Twelve of the twenty-two players selected for the final tournament in Mexico were from Dynamo.  The Soviet Union raced through their group and came up against Belgium in the second round.  The match was 2-2 after 90 minutes, but Belgium ran out 4-3 winners after a thrilling extra time period.  The match in the Soviet Union is still remembered with anger and heartbreak; the Belgian second goal, allege the Soviet fans, was clearly offside.

Lobanovskyi's USSR at Euro 1988

Lobanovskyi’s USSR at Euro 1988

1988 was the last hurrah for Lobanovskyi as manager of the national side.  Once again, the squad was heavily drawn from Dynamo.  In the first match of the tournament against the Netherlands which the Soviet Union won 1-0, 9 of the 11 starters were from the Kyiv side.  The two teams met again in the final, but this time Marco van Basten’s moment of magic was too much for the Soviets to overcome.  The Dutch won 2-0, and the Kyiv core had to settle with a runners up medal.  Glory in international competition proved to be just outside of their grasp.

Behind the Scenes

This history of Ukrainian football may at times read more like a history of Dynamo Kyiv.  But there are political and structural reasons for why Dynamo came to dominate Ukrainian, and then eventually Soviet, football.  Many of these reasons have to do with the aforementioned Volodymyr Shcherbytsky.  Shcherbytsky was not just a high ranking Communist Party official, he was also a fanatical supporter of Dynamo Kyiv.  Unlike in Moscow, where the party chiefs split their support and patronage among the various clubs, Kyiv was a one-club city with a party power base entirely dedicated to ensuring the success of Dynamo.

Kyiv’s status as capital of the Ukrainian SSR and thus the seat of the Ukrainian Politburo served Dynamo well.  Genadiy Orlov, the former footballer and current commentator on Russian television, revealed in an interview:

“The mechanism by which Dynamo was propelled to the top of the table was well developed in the Central Committee of Ukraine, led by Volodymyr Shcherbytsky.  His first secretary would call his colleagues in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa.  He would say something along the lines of ‘Dynamo is the flagman of our republic, you have to help us out.  Let’s play to a draw at your stadium, and in Kyiv, we’ll play on equal footing.’ Just try to beat Dynamo in Kyiv on equal footing!”

Lobanvskyi (middle) and Shcherbytsky (second from right)

Lobanvskyi (middle) and Shcherbytsky (second from right)

The same mechanism applied to the transfer system as well.  For example, after Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk went through their ‘golden years’ in the mid 80s during which they twice won the league, many of their players were ‘encouraged’ to move to Kyiv.  A phone call from Shcherbytsky’s office to anywhere else in Ukraine all but ensured that all of the best Ukrainian players ended up in Dynamo.  The Central Committee also interfered in Dynamo’s internal affairs.  When Dynamo finished a disappointing 10th in 1984, a congress was convened to discuss the situation.  Journalist Aleksandr Gorbunov writes:

“Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the head of the Ukrainian party, and the entire republic, held a meeting, where one important issue was discussed: the coach of Dynamo.  Shcherbytsky, according to witnesses, silently listened to the speakers, including those defending the position of the lobbyists (who wanted Lobanovskyi dismissed), then sharply declared ‘Lobanovskyi remains the coach.  The question is closed.’”

The glorious history of Dynamo and Ukrainian football in general deserves to be appreciated for its inherent footballing value.  But the sport cannot be separated from the political machinations going on behind the scenes that helped ensure Dynamo’s status and success.  In the Soviet Union, clout was everything, and Dynamo had a lot of it.

The Roots of Decline

The late 1980s were a tumultuous time in the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev’s reforms, including the Perestroika policies of the gradual liberalization of the economy, affected football as well.  As the Soviet Union opened up, many elite players began to move to the West, a flight of talent with serious repercussions for Dynamo and other Soviet clubs.  The Golden Age of Dynamo was coming to an abrupt end, driven by political and economic conditions outside of their control.  Then, several years later, a decision made by FIFA erased Ukraine’s history of footballing prowess from the official records.  More on that, and Ukraine’s drawn out recovery following the collapse of its football infrastructure, in the third part of this series chronicling the history of Ukrainian football.  Stay tuned!

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