12. Total Football 14. Fly Me to the Moon

Chapter Thirteen

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Science and Sincerity

Images Valeriy Lobanovskyi was a twenty-two-year-old winger when, in 1961, Dynamo Kyiv won the Soviet Supreme title for the first time. They had come so close so often that their fans had begun to despair of it ever happening, and the joy at Dynamo’s victory was heightened by relief. Amid the jubilation, though, Lobanovskyi wasn’t happy, as he made clear on what was supposed to be a celebratory visit to the Science and research Institute of the Construction Industry with his team-mates Oleh Bazylevych and Vladimir Levchenko. ‘Yes, we have won the league,’ Volodymyr Sabaldyr, a Kyivan scientist and long-time amateur footballer, remembers him saying in the face of excited congratulations. ‘But so what? Sometimes we played badly. We just got more points than other teams who played worse than us. I can’t accept your praise as there are no grounds for it.’

Sabaldyr asked him how it felt to have achieved something that had been a dream for Kyivans for decades. ‘A realised dream ceases to be a dream,’ Lobanovskyi replied. ‘What is your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your post-doctoral thesis?’

‘Maybe,’ Sabaldyr replied. ‘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 the player was dilettantish and opposed to Viktor Maslov’s strictures, and yet the perfectionist rationalism, the ambitious and analytic intelligence, was there from the start. Perhaps that is no great surprise. He was, after all, gifted enough as a mathematician to win a gold medal when he graduated from high school, while the era in which he grew up was obsessed with scientific progress. Born in 1939, Lobanovskyi was a teenager as the USSR opened its first nuclear power station and sent Sputnik into space, while Kyiv itself was the centre of the Soviet computer industry. The first cybernetic institute in the USSR was opened there in 1957, and quickly became acknowledged as a world leader in automated control systems, artificial intelligence and mathematical modelling. It was there in 1963 that an early prototype of the modern PC was developed. At the time Lobanovskyi was studying heating engineering at the Kyivan Polytechnic Institute, the potential of computers and their possible applications in almost all spheres was just becoming apparent. It was exciting, it was new, and it is no great surprise that Lobanovskyi should have been carried along by the wave of technological optimism.

In him was acted out the great struggle between individuality and system: the player in him wanted to dribble, to invent tricks and to embarrass his opponents, and yet, as he later admitted, his training at the Polytechnic Institute drove him to a systematic approach, to break down football into its component tasks. Football, he explained, eventually became for him a system of twenty-two elements – two sub-systems of eleven elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.

So much is obvious, even if the manner of addressing it is not. But the aspect that Lobanovskyi found truly fascinating is that the sub-systems were subject to a peculiarity: the efficiency of the sub-system is greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise it. This, as Lobanovskyi saw it, meant that football was ripe for the application of the cybernetic techniques being taught at the Polytechnic Institute. Football, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them. ‘All life,’ as he later said, ‘is a number.’

It took time for Lobanovskyi, though, to come to that conclusion. As Maslov’s Dynamo wrapped up a third straight title in 1968, the Shakhtar side for whom he was playing finished a poor fourteenth. Thoroughly disillusioned, he decided to give up football altogether. His frustration, though, was less to do with their poor form than the reasons for it. As he saw it, they played ‘anti-football’ – although that had nothing to do with the term ‘anti-fútbol ’ as applied to Zubeldía’s Estudiantes. ‘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.’

Lobanovskyi contemplated a move back into plumbing, but he found himself unable to turn down Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, then in one of the four parallel second divisions, when they 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,’ he 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.’ By that stage, if he had a disagreement with Maslov’s philosophy, it was purely methodological. Maslov had worked by his instincts; Lobanovskyi wanted proof.

In his third season with Dnipro, Lobanovskyi led them to promotion. The following season they 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. Lobanovskyi had for some time been frustrated by the difficulties of evaluating the physical condition of his players and the strains placed on them by his attempts to institute a system of pressing. Zelentsov, a specialist in bioenergetics, he realised, was the solution.

‘Lobanovskyi and I became really inseparable,’ Zelentsov said. ‘He once told me in public at a party: “You know, if not for you, I might not have come off as a coach. I owe you my formation, my knowledge, skills, understanding and realisation of football.”’ The two of them would meet regularly with Bazylevych, who had become manager of Shakhtar. ‘We would analyse in detail our new training regimes,’ Lobanovskyi said. ‘It seemed to us that we were taking the process of training to a completely new level. In the course of one of these heated debates (Bazylevych and I were always questioning Zelentsov’s statements, believing them to be only theories) somebody suddenly exclaimed, “Wouldn’t it be great to do this at a higher level than Shakhtar or Dnipro?”’

They soon got their chance. After Maslov’s dismissal in 1970, Dynamo turned to Alexander Sevidov, who had served a long apprenticeship with Dinamo Minsk before leading the Kazakh side Kairat Almaty to promotion. He won the title in his first full season in Kyiv, but his style was very different to Maslov’s as he abandoned both pressing and zonal marking. ‘The team played some really bright football that season,’ Oleh Blokhin, who was just beginning to emerge from the youth ranks, wrote in Full-life Football . ‘Synchronisation of the actions and thoughts of players, arrhythmia (a combination of fluent play with sudden bursts into the box), and an intensity of attacking action – they were the main principles of Dynamo in 1971. The team stopped physical pressing almost completely, and also aerial balls into the box. We strove for sharp combinations, and the creation of unexpected chances.’

In contrast with the frank and emotional Maslov, Sevidov was always calm and business-like, even in defeat. A devotee of high culture, he preferred his players to continue their education, whereas Maslov had been committed to football and football alone. He was no great evangelist for his style of play, though, and admitted freely that part of the reason for Dynamo’s success was that their opponents expected them to play in a quite different way. ‘We need two or three years of planned work to consolidate our grip on first place,’ he said at the ceremony at which Dynamo were presented with the trophy. ‘We’ll have to spend time coming up with new combinations that our opponents aren’t used to. But that’s the law of any sport: to defend and counterattack is easier than to attack.’

Over the next two seasons, Sevidov could not reproduce the same success, Dynamo finishing as runners-up up each year. As early as the end of 1972, it seems, the Party hierarchy had lost faith in him, and Lobanovskyi was offered the Dynamo job. The problem was probably less that Dynamo finished second than the identity of the team who finished first. Zorya, from the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk (or Voroshylovhrad, as it then was), had never threatened to win the title before, and never would again, but, as Volodymyr Shevchenko, the first secretary of the regional Communist Party, encouraged the local mines to back the club financially, they finished five points clear of Dynamo. That was a huge embarrassment to Shcherbytskyi, and Shevchenko was soon sacked, narrowly escaping prosecution for alleged financial malpractice. Zorya immediately fell away and finished in the bottom half of the table the following season.

Lobanovskyi turned the job down then, but Sevidov was sacked with three games of the 1973 season remaining. Quite why he was dismissed at that particular moment remains unclear. Dynamo finished second behind Ararat Yerevan – another provincial side with no great history of success – but that was largely because they dropped three points in those final three matches. The official reason was that Sevidov had been removed ‘because of a collapse of pedagogical work in the team’, but no details were given. Arkady Galinsky claims that Shcherbytskyi had been persuaded by an administrator at Dnipro that the calm and reliable Lobanovskyi was just the man to help his son, Valeriy, a huge football fan, get over his problems with drug abuse. That sounds outlandish, but even if there is some truth to the theory, it does not adequately explain why Sevidov was dismissed just then, when a far smoother handover could have been enacted a couple of weeks later.

Whatever the reason, Lobanovskyi returned to Kyiv late in 1973 to become Dynamo’s first Kyivan manager since Viktor Shylovskyi had been replaced by Vyacheslav Solovyov in 1958. By that stage, he saw a football team as a dynamic system, in which the aim was to produce the optimal level of energy in the optimal pattern. He had come to the conclusion that, to win titles, what happened off the field in terms of physical preparation and, particularly, rehabilitation was just as important as what happened on it.

Lobanovskyi arrived at Dynamo as part of a team of four. He had specific responsibility for modelling playing systems; Zelentsov was in charge of the individual preparation of players; Bazylevich, having been prised from Shakhtar, took care of the actual coaching; while Mykhaylo Oshemkov dealt with what was known as ‘informational support’ – that is, the collation of statistical data from games.

Everything was meticulously planned, with the team’s preparation divided into three levels. Players were to have individual technical coaching so as to equip them better to fulfil the tasks Lobanovskyi set them during a game; specific tactics and tasks for each player were drawn up according to the opponents; and a strategy was devised for a competition as a whole, placing each game in context by acknowledging that it is impossible for a side to maintain maximal levels over a protracted period. Dynamo, accordingly, would regularly lose late-season games with the title already won, and habitually killed games away from home, looking only for a draw while attempting to conserve their energy. ‘When we are talking about tactical evolution,’ Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov wrote in their book, The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models , ‘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 counter-play, then we need to find 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.’

Like Michels’s Ajax, Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo could press, seeking to pen in their opponents and win the ball high up the field, but they were equally capable of sitting deep and striking on the counter-attack. As Lobanovskyi was always at pains to make clear, it all depended on circumstance. One thing remained central: keep the preferred playing area as large as possible while in possession, and as small as possible while the opponent had the ball. ‘Sometimes people say that football’s meaning is only in attack,’ Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov went on. ‘But it is nearer the truth to say that when we possess the ball, we are attacking; when our opponents possess the ball, we are defending. From this fundamental, football strategy is derived: how, where and when to attack or defend.’ Possession was everything; their approach could hardly have been more different from that preached by the likes of Charles Hughes and Egil Olsen.

On the wall at Dynamo’s training-base were hung lists of the demands Lobanovskyi placed on players. Significantly, of the fourteen defensive tasks, four concerned the distribution of the ball and the establishment of attacking positions once the ball had been won. There was no notion of simply getting the ball clear, for that would have been to surrender possession and thus place their side back on the defensive. The thirteen demands on forwards, as well as including a line about pressing and attempting to regain possession high up the field, are also dominated by calls for movement and the search for ways to shift the ball away from areas in which the opponent has a high concentration of players.

Perhaps nobody had compiled such lists before, but their content, even if the emphasis on possession was extreme, was far from revolutionary. Far more radical was the list of twenty items concerning what Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov called ‘coalition actions’. These concerned both defensive applications, such as the setting of an offside trap, and attacking, such as the creation of overlaps. ‘To attack,’ Lobanovskyi said, ‘it is necessary to deprive the opponent of the ball. When is it easier to do that – with five players or with all eleven? The most important thing in football is what a player is doing on a pitch when he’s not in possession of the ball, not when he has it. So when we say that we have an excellent player that comes from the following principle: one per cent talent and 99 per cent hard work.’

Lobanovskyi’s goal was what he termed ‘universality’. He wanted his forwards to defend and his backs to attack, and saw no contradiction in the instruction because, to him, attacking and defending were related not to position on the pitch, but possession. ‘No other coach ever demanded that I should chase opponents even back into my own penalty box,’ said the former Russia forward Serhiy Yuran, who began his career at Dynamo under Lobanovskyi. ‘For example, Oleg Romantsev, both with the national team and Spartak Moscow, told me to work hard, but only in the opponents’ half. He told me to do everything in my area, but not to intervene where others should be playing.’

Set moves were practised, to be used, Zelentsov said, not robotically, but like a chess player adapting gambits according to circumstance. These were the key to their conception of football, and it was through their models of training to develop among players a better understanding of the structures of the game that they carried football forwards. The classic example of such principles in action, perhaps, came in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final of 1986, with Dynamo’s second goal in their 3–0 win over Atlético Madrid. Vasyl Rats advanced down the left, drew two men, and played the ball inside to Ihor Belanov. He then took two touches, and, as the centre-back moved across to close him down, he, without so much as a glance, laid the ball right for Vadym Yevtushenko. He took one pace forward, forcing the opposing left-back inside to close him down, then instinctively flicked the ball right for the overlapping Oleh Blokhin, who ran onto his pass and lifted his finish over the goalkeeper. It was a move so quick and instinctive as to be virtually unstoppable, resembling less football than a rugby team working the ball along a line of backs until the overlap is created.

Critics often suggest that Lobanovskyi stifled individuality, but the truth is rather that he made his players aware that they were not individuals, that individual skill was only of use within the context of the system. ‘The tactics are not chosen to suit the best players,’ Lobanovskyi explained. ‘They must fit our play. Everybody must fulfil the coach’s demands first and only then perform his individual mastery.’

Lobanovskyi’s three great teams 3–0 v Ferencváros, Cup-Winners’ Cup final, St Jakob Stadium, Basle, 14 May 1975

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3–0 v Atlético Madrid, Cup-Winners’ Cup final, Stade Gerland, Lyon, 2 May 1986

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3–3 v Bayern Munich, Champions League semi-final, first leg, Olympyskyi, Kyiv, 7 April 1999

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In Methodological Basis , Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov give as an example of their preparation for a specific game the European Cup semi-final against Bayern Munich in 1977. ‘The play,’ they wrote, ‘was constructed on attacking actions, with the obligatory neutralisation of the opponent’s players, the intention being to deprive him playing space and to defend against the attacks from wide at which Bayern were so strong. The objective was a draw, but we ended up losing 1–0. In the match in Kyiv, we chose a playing model based on squeezing the play and fighting for the ball in our opponents’ half of the pitch, trying to create a numerical advantage in various areas. Eventually we won 2–0.’

Their other great advance was to work out a method of recording and analysing games far more sophisticated than the shorthand of Charles Reep. Each element of the game was broken down and targets set according to the style Lobanovskyi had adopted (see table). The day after matches, the statistical breakdown of the game would be posted on the notice-boards at the training ground, an innovation that gave Lobanovskyi great power. ‘When I was a player,’ he said, ‘it was difficult to evaluate players. The coach could say that a player wasn’t in the right place at the right moment, and the player could simply disagree. There were no videos, no real methods of analysis, but today the players cannot object. They know that the morning after the game the sheet of paper will be pinned up showing all the figures characterising his play. If a midfielder has fulfilled sixty technical and tactical actions in the course of the match, then he has not pulled his weight. He is obliged to do a hundred or more.’

The attitude, inevitably, led to conflict and, while most players seem to have respected Lobanovskyi – most notably Andriy Shevchenko, who insisted ‘he made me as a player’ – he inspired little warmth. ‘My relationship with Lobanovskyi wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t friendly either,’ said Belanov. ‘It was simply professional. But he did a lot for me. He invited me to Dynamo and persuaded me to play his way. We had quarrels, but we were aware that we were doing a great thing.’ As if to prove there were no hard feelings, Belanov named his son Valeriy.

Action Target actions per game
Squeezing (pressing only in opponent’s half) Counter-attacking (pressing only in own half of pitch) Combination of both models
Short passes:
Forwards     130       80 30–130
Sideways     100       60 40–100
Backwards       70       40   20–70
Medium passes:
Forwards       60       80   40–90
Sideways       50       25   30–80
Backwards       25       15   10–30
Long passes:
Forwards       30       50   15–40
Sideways       20       30   10–30
Backwards         0         0           0
Headed passes 20–40 20–40   15–70
Runs with the ball     140       80 70–150
Beating the opponent       70       50   20–70
Interceptions       80     110 70–140
Tackles       50       70   30–80
Shots on goal 10–20 15–35   10–35
Headers on goal 10–15   5–10     5–15
Returning the ball to play 10–30 10–30   10–40
Error percentage 20–35 15–30         25

 

Oleksandr Khapsalys, who played for Dynamo in the late seventies and early eighties, recalled how Lobanovskyi would simply shout down any perceived criticism. ‘It was better not to joke with Lobanovskyi,’ he said. ‘If he gave an instruction, and the player said: “But I think . . .” Lobanovskyi would look at him and scream: “Don’t think! I do the thinking for you. Play!”’ With Dynamo, he was hugely successful, winning eight Soviet titles, six Soviet Cups, five Ukrainian titles, three Ukrainian Cups and two European Cup-Winners’ Cups, and defining Ukrainian football. In his various stints with the USSR, though, Lobanovskyi was less successful. Twice in 1975 – against Turkey and the Republic of Ireland – his demand for ‘a star-team’ rather than ‘a team of stars’ led him to field a national team made up entirely of Dynamo players, and the squad he took to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was similarly Dynamo dominated.

They had won successive league titles, and were undoubtedly one of the best teams in Europe, but Lobanovskyi still wasn’t satisfied, and increased their training schedule yet further. The players were appalled, and many complained that they were too exhausted to perform to the full extent of their abilities. Matters came to a head in the semi-final as the Soviets produced a sluggish display in losing to East Germany. The players blamed Lobanovskyi, and went on strike. The incident was hushed up, and agreement eventually reached as Lobanovskyi stood down from the national job. ‘The problem was that we were applying scientific methods to players who were semi-amateurs, and that led to conflict,’ explained Zelentsov.

The dispute made Lobanovskyi aware that more training did not necessarily produce fitter players, and that was where Zelentsov made his great breakthrough as he constructed a training programme that managed to balance the twin but conflicting needs for speed and stamina; Zelentsov claims that Italy borrowed the model when they won the 1982 World Cup. Increasingly, he used computers in analysing games and it was through that development that they were able to revolutionise the game.

‘In my laboratory, we evaluate the functional readiness of players and how their potential can best be realised,’ Zelentsov explained. ‘And we influence players in a natural way – we form them following scientific recommendations. With the help of modelling we assemble the bricks and create the skeleton of the team. It is true that not every player will fit the Dynamo system, but we don’t just give a coach advice, we justify it with numbers. We recommend how to compose the training programmes, how to evaluate them, how to understand the actions of players on the field – all from a scientific point of view, no emotions.’

Lobanovksyi’s conception became the default Soviet style, partly because it was successful, partly because of Lobanovskyi’s domineering personality and partly because it felt ideologically right. For all that players of the time protest against the stereo-type, the philosophy was rooted in the team: perhaps there is no such thing as the ‘socialist football’ to which Gusztáv Sebes glibly referred, but the style of Lobanovskyi’s teams was nonetheless a development of the ‘collective play’ of which Mikhail Yakushin had spoken during Dinamo Moscow’s tour of Britain in 1945. Yet there was an internal opposition and for a few years in the early eighties, Soviet football was torn between two radically different philosophies of how the game should be played.

Where Lobanovskyi was taciturn and analytical, his outbursts rooted in his desire to make his players conform to his system, Eduard Malofeev was loquacious and ebullient, frighteningly so. ‘There is no one in Belarus with his energy or optimism,’ said Gennadiy Abramovich, who played with Malofeev at Dinamo Minsk and then worked alongside him as an assistant coach. In the late nineties, Malofeev appeared on what Abramovich described dismissively as ‘a women’s programme’ on television. Asked what he did each morning, he replied that first he thanked God he was alive, then he got out of bed and jumped up and down to celebrate the fact. His football, in conception at least, was similarly joyous.

Malofeev became a respected forward in twelve seasons with Dinamo Minsk, winning forty caps for the USSR and playing in the 1966 World Cup, and topping the scoring charts in the Soviet League in 1971. A cartilage injury brought his career to a close and, after a brief spell working in youth football, he graduated as a coach in 1975, being appointed manager of Dinamo Minsk in 1978. He led them to promotion in his first season, and they were sixth in his second. Even more remarkable, it was all achieved playing what Malofeev termed ‘sincere football’. ‘It was honest football,’ explained Abramovich. ‘No causing injuries, no bumping, no barging: just kicking the ball. No paying money to referees outside the ground. And attacking, pure football. Football of the heart, not of the head.’

Malofeev’s other great strength was his ability to handle players and get the best out of them. It is an over-simplification to say Lobanovskyi saw his players as tools to be deployed, but not much of one; Malofeev, by contrast, was concerned with individuality and self-expression. ‘The main thing about Malofeev was his psychology,’ explained Mikhail Vergeenko, Dinamo Minsk’s goalkeeper in the early eighties. ‘We would have a team-talk three hours before each game. He would gather everyone together and read out the team. He looked into the players’ eyes, at each one, eye to eye. He was always looking, searching to discover something. He was like a doctor. He analysed players and he knew straightaway their strong points and their weak points. He was a person who could get to your heart, your soul. He knew how to talk to people.’ Malofeev’s failure at Hearts in 2006 – statistically, he is their worst ever manager, taking two points from his four games in charge – Vergeenko puts down to the absence of a good translator.

It didn’t take long for comparisons to be made with what was going on 270 miles to the south-east. ‘The rivalry between Minsk and Kyiv was the rivalry between two minds,’ Vergeenko explained. ‘Lobanovskyi was a coach by mathematics; Malofeev was more romantic. The main thing he wanted from the players was that they should express themselves on the pitch. If you give your all, he said, the fans will love you.’

The player the fans loved most was a man whose lifestyle would have disbarred him from getting anywhere near a Lobanovksyi side: Alexander Prokopenko. He was a heartbreak of a midfielder, a genius whose talent was as unbridled as his capacity for alcohol. A painfully shy man, he was so tormented by a speech impediment that he refused ever to be interviewed. It didn’t matter: Dinamo fans knew what he thought because he drank with them. More than that, he was one of them, just another worker from Minsk who happened to be a superb instinctive footballer and an industrious one at that. ‘The tribune knew he would go for ninety minutes,’ the journalist Vasily Sarychev wrote in The Moment and the Destiny , his book celebrating Belarus’s top sportsmen. ‘He would sooner die than cease his motion on the pitch through tiredness or laziness.’

His drinking after the USSR team of which he had been a part finished third in the 1980 Olympics led him to miss the end of the season, but he returned in glory and scored the iconic goal of the 1982 campaign, a backheel against Dynamo Kyiv. As Dinamo’s form slid in the mid-eighties, his alcoholism got worse and he was forced to spend time at the LTP, a state-sponsored rehab clinic. The club, acting under the instructions of the local Communist Party, refused to take him back, but Abramovich, whom he came to refer to as a second father, persuaded the second division side Dnepr Mogilev to take him on. After a season there he moved to Azerbaijan with Neftchi Baku, playing against Dinamo Minsk and scoring against Spartak.

It was only a brief respite, though, and he began drinking heavily again. He was readmitted to the LTP in 1989, but died two months later, aged just thirty-five. ‘He was followed by the smell of grass and of skin, by the joy of his goals and by empty cans,’ Sarychev wrote. ‘When the need for football went, the urge died in him, the urge he was born to fulfil.’

Brilliant but unpredictable, his demons masked by the charm of his play, Prokopenko was the model of a Malofeev footballer. Lobanovskyi, predictably, was scathing of Malofeev’s idealism. As he pointed out, for all Dinamo Minsk fans raved about the Prokopenko backheel, the match had ended in a draw and a valuable away point for Dynamo. ‘When somebody mentioned it,’ Abramovich recalled, ‘he slapped his hand to his head and said, “In my life I have seen many things, but never sincere football.”’

Nonetheless, at least for one glorious season, it worked. ‘What happened with Dinamo in 1982 was about the harmony of youth and experience,’ the midfielder Sergei Aleinikov wrote in his autobiography. ‘Everybody, whether they were veterans or novices, played every game like it was the last of their career. But the main thing was that Malofeev was the head of the team, the unique and only one. That was his victory, the triumph of his principles and his understanding of football.’

That year, every ploy Malofeev initiated paid off. Vergeenko remembers in particular the game away to Pakhtakor Tashkent, who went on to finish sixth that season. ‘It was forty degrees plus in the shade,’ he said. ‘The game was at 6 p.m., but at noon, Malofeev said, “OK, let’s go and train.” Everybody was stunned. Even in the hotel it was over thirty-five at night, no air-conditioning. Imagine: we were just thinking how to escape the heat; then Malofeev says we’re training at noon. “But afterwards,” he said, “you will see – just thirty minutes, you will sweat, but you will be OK.” We had thirty minutes training. The workers in the ground were shocked. They were sitting there out of the heat drinking water, and Malofeev brings his team for training. But that evening, we knew we could deal with the heat and we won 3–0, and they were a good team at that time.’

Malofeev’s team-talks were equally eccentric. Dinamo went into their final league game away to Spartak Moscow needing a win to clinch the title. Twenty-nine years earlier, it was widely believed in Belarus, Spartak had cheated Dinamo Minsk out of second place in the league with a bout of late-season match-fixing, and the fear was they would do something similar to hand the title to Dynamo. Malofeev knew he had to break down his side’s cynicism, to persuade them that defeat was not inevitable, and so came up with something that sounds like the rejected draft of a Just So story. ‘“Imagine there is a troop of monkeys crossing a field,”’ Vergeenko remembers him telling a hushed dressing room. ‘“On the other side of the field is a group of lions. Many different things could happen. Maybe the lions will tear the monkeys to pieces. Or maybe one of the monkeys will go first, and will distract the lions, and will sacrifice himself so the other monkeys will live. Today, as monkeys, we must sacrifice ourselves for the victory.”

Dinamo Minsk 1982

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‘I thought: I am the goalkeeper, maybe I will be injured, but the main thing is that the team will win.’ And they did, by the typically Malofeevan score of 4–3. ‘When the team got back from Moscow to Minsk, it was amazing,’ Vergeenko went on. ‘There were people with flowers and kisses and love: nothing organised, just love.’

Malofeev promptly left for Moscow to take charge of the USSR Olympic side, leaving him ideally placed to step in when Lobanovskyi’s second spell in charge of the main national team came to an end. All had seemed to be progressing well for him, particularly after a 5–0 demolition of Portugal in Moscow in qualifying for Euro 84. Away in Lisbon, though, Lobanovskyi – as he always did in tough away games – set out for the draw, only to be undone by a penalty awarded for a foul that clearly took place outside the box. Portugal won 1–0, the USSR failed to qualify and Lobanovskyi, condemned for his pragmatism, was dismissed.

Lobanovskyi’s star had never been lower, and only the personal intervention of Scherbytskyi saw him reinstated at Dynamo. Even that looked an error when Dynamo finished that 1984 season tenth. Lobanovskyi, though, stuck to his guns. ‘A path always remains a path,’ he said. ‘It’s a path during the day, it’s a path during the night and it’s a path during the dawn.’ The next season, Dynamo did the double, before adding the Cup-Winners’ Cup.

Malofeev, meanwhile, was faltering. The USSR won just one of their opening five qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, but salvaged a place in the finals by winning their last three games. ‘Malofeev became very nervous, and there was no clear pattern to our football, but Mexico was waiting,’ Aleinikov wrote in his autobiography. ‘The media was attacking both the players and the coaches. The final straw was the grey 0–0 draw against Finland [in a friendly] at the Luzhniki Stadium. It was rumoured that Malofeev might be replaced, and Lobanovskyi had just won the Cup-Winners’ Cup, but I didn’t believe it would come to reality before the start of the World Cup.’

Nonetheless, it did, as Malofeev was called away from the Novogorsk training camp and didn’t return. ‘There was a strange atmosphere in the squad,’ Aleinikov went on. ‘The Kyiv boys liked the decision, as you can imagine, because most of them were not in favour of Malofeev’s ideas. On the other hand, there were the boys who understood there were no positions for them in the squad under Lobanovskyi. They were prepared for Mexico, but they knew they would not be going.

‘Lobanovskyi made us train harder. To say it was difficult would be an understatement. In the evening I was just looking to get to bed as soon as possible. For Lobanovskyi the game was about the result, not about fun. Football had to be rational. For him, 1–0 was better than 5–4.’

For all the doubts, Lobanovskyi received immediate vindication as his side hammered the much-fancied Hungary 6–0. In the second round, though, the USSR, let down by poor refereeing and a catastrophic performance from the defender Andriy Bal, were beaten 4–3 by Belgium in one of the greatest games the World Cup has known. ‘As a coach you can’t account for individual errors and you certainly can’t account for refereeing blunders,’ said Lobanovskyi – an acknowledgement that there were factors beyond the control of even a system as scientific as his.

Two years later at the European Championship in West Germany, the USSR came as close to glory as they ever would under Lobanovskyi. They beat Holland and England in the group stage and then outplayed Italy in the semi-final. So impressed was the former Italy coach Enzo Bearzot by the USSR’s 2–0 win that he sought out Lobanovskyi after the final whistle. ‘I realised once again that you are a great team,’ he told him. ‘You play modern football at 100km/h. The pressing you showed today is the sign of great ability, and the physical shape of the Soviet players is clearly the result of great self-sacrifice and professionalism.’

The only flaw in an otherwise awesome performance was the booking collected by the sweeper Oleh Kuznetsov, which ruled him out of the final against Holland. ‘Have you seen how bees fly?’ asked Zelentsov. ‘A hive is in the air, and there is a leader. The leader turns right and all the hive turn right. It turns left and all the hive turn left. It is the same in football. There is a leader who takes a decision to move, say, here. The rest need to correct their motion to follow the leader. Every team has players who link coalitions; every team has players who destroy them. The first are called on to create on the field, the latter to destroy the team actions of the opponent.’ Without their leader, the USSR missed a penalty, suffered Marco van Basten’s preposterous volley and lost 2–0.

After a disappointing World Cup in 1990, Lobanovskyi left the USSR for the Middle East, but he was persuaded back to Dynamo in 1996, partly by the riches promised by new investors, but mainly by the potential of the generation of Shevchenko, Oleh Luzhny, Serhiy Rebrov and Vyacheslav Vashchuk. He inspired them to a Champions League semi-final in 1999 – his third great team – but, by the time of his death from a stroke in 2002, the suspicion was that he was struggling as, having had to sell the majority of his better players, he was forced to turn to imports. According to Serhiy Polkhovskyi, the Dynamo vice-president, it had become apparent in his final months that he was having difficulty dealing even with local players who had not been brought up under Communism. ‘He had internal torments,’ Polkhovskyi said. ‘Previously a word, a glance, was enough to assert his authority and explain what he wanted. Maybe it was typical of the Communist system, but now players have a greater freedom and an individuality.’

Still, his legacy is secure. As Marcello Lippi, who coached Juventus to the Champions League and Italy to the World Cup, said, ‘Everybody plays a pressing game now.’