To think that he could have been a plumber.
Born in 1939, Valeriy Lobanovskyi won a gold medal for mathematics when he graduated from high school. That he was intelligent was clear, a trait highly valued in his country, which prioritized science, the Soviet Union.
He also was a football player. A very good one. Valeriy was a winger playing on the left flank. He mastered the ‘dry leaf’, a kick now used by Cristiano Ronaldo, that gives the ball a sudden dip. He was a great taker of corners, too. He would curve the ball to a great extent, where it sometimes went into the net straight from the flag. If it weren’t for Lobanovskyi’s managerial career, Bend It Like Beckham would have been Lob It Like Lobanovskyi. He wasn’t the best athlete, though. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with his great manager at Dynamo Kiev, Viktor Maslov. But strangely, it was Maslov’s ideals of using a 4-4-2 and pressing that Lobanovskyi would use later as a manager at Dynamo.
In 1961, Dynamo won the Soviet Supreme title, when Lobanovskyi was playing for them as a 22-year-old. However, Lobanovskyi wasn’t pleased for some reason. With two of his teammates, he paid a visit to the Science and Research Institute of the Construction Industry.
“Yes we have won the league,’ Volodymyr Sabaldyr, a scientist/football maniac recounts him saying, ‘But so what? Sometimes we played badly. We just got more points than other teams who played worse than us.”
Sabaldyr asked whether it felt good to win the title.
“What’s your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your post-doctoral thesis?”
“Maybe,” Sabaldyr responded, “But a real scientist dreams about making a contribution to scientific development, and about leaving his mark on it.”
“And there you have your answer.”
Lobanovskyi studied thermal engineering at the Polytechnic Institute at Kiev. There, studying to be a plumber, he used analytics to solve practical situations. He understood the importance of computers, and the use of them in football.
Lobanovskyi quit football in 1968 after playing for Shakthar Donetsk at the age of 29. He prepared to become a plumber. However, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk offered a job as manager to the Ukrainian. Lobanovskyi wanted to apply science to football and the first thing he did was buy a computer. In his third year at Dnipro, Lobanovskyi took Dnipro to promotion. But what changed the world was his fourth season. It wasn’t a league position, or a new tactic. It was something else.
In 1972, in his fourth season as Dnipro, he met a bioenergist at the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Sciences named Anatoliy Zelentsov. Zelentsov specialized in bioenergetics and knew the importance of statistics. Together, they created a partnership as great as Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Lobanovskyi played a Dutch pressing style of football. The drawback of a pressing game was the draining stamina and injuries of players. Zelentsov was the solution.
In late 1973, Lobanovskyi became the new manager of Dynamo Kiev. He came with Zelentsov, one of his ex-teammates at Dynamo Oleh Bazylevych and an analyst.
His impact was immediate. In 1974, Dynamo lifted the Soviet Supreme. They did it again in 1975. The same year, Lobanovskyi took them to European glory, winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup, beating Ferencvaros 3-0, and won the Super Cup beating Bayern Munich 1-0. Kiev won the Supreme again in 1977, 1980 and 1981.
In 1982, Lobanovskyi quit Dynamo to become the full manager of the USSR, as he managed the Soviets for the Olympics of 1976 in Montreal. However, he didn’t achieve the heights he did at Dynamo Kiev. In fact, he fielded a Dynamo dominated team for most of his first spell.
In 1984, he moved back to Dynamo Kiev. He won the titles of 1985 and 1986.
What highlighted the 1986 season was that Dynamo beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 to win the Cup-Winners’ Cup. This victory would be his most significant and final European trophy of his career. But there was a huge exodus from Dynamo, with players leaving from the USSR to the other side of the iron curtain.
In 1986, Lobanovskyi became the manager of the USSR. He guided them to the finals of the European Championship of 1988, but lost out to a great Dutch team consisting of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit.
In 1990, Lobanovskyi once again quit Dynamo to be full manager of the Soviet Union for the World Cup of 1990 in Italy. They did terribly, finishing last in their group. Shortly after, the USSR broke up and the iron curtain was pulled down.
This enabled Lobanovskyi to move around. He spent six years in the Middle East (maybe because of the money), coaching the UAE and Kuwait. In 1997, he moved to Dynamo again, where he would stay the rest of his life.
But that spell wasn’t the best. Even though he had a couple of decent players (Andriy Shevechenko was one of them), coaching a team that wasn’t raised under communism was hard, as players were self-seeking and didn’t respond to his methods of collectivity. But since the domestic tournament was limited to Ukraine, they won five more titles under him.
Lobanovskyi also had a brief spell as Ukraine manager. But they didn’t qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan and he was sacked.
Individualism was Lobanovskyi’s inclination as a player. But after his Kiev Polytechnic University stint, he wanted football to be mechanized.
According to him football was a system of twenty-two elements – two sub-systems of eleven elements, moving within a defined area subject to a series of restrictions. If the two sub-systems were equal, the game would be a draw. If one was stronger, it would win.2
Lobanovskyi also knew that an athlete cannot peak in all matches. This is the problem faced by the England National Team as most English players tire themselves out in the Premier League. Lobanovskyi made his team draw away games and win all home games. He could also rest his stars for the big games this way.
He had no preference on how to play the game. He could play a high pressing game or a counter-attacking style. He did have Dutch influences: his forte was controlling space. When his team had the ball, he would make the playing field large, by spreading out. But when the opponent had possession, he would press high, making the field small.
Valeriy was a control freak though. He had a pre-determined set of duties for his players for every match. Generally, if players don’t do well in their games and their manager chastises them, the player would deny it. But with his computerized approach, there was no place to hide for his players. The statistical coverage of the latest match was posted on notice boards. This approach certainly did not make him popular among his players.
Lobanovskyi was similar to Arrigo Sacchi in his belief in universality. He had his forwards defend when they didn’t have the ball and his defenders attack when in possession.
However, Lobanovskyi suppressed individualism. He told the players what do. Even certain attacking moves were practised. According to him, he does the thinking for his players. He imposed collectiveness, like Arrigo Sacchi. This was hard even when he was in the USSR, but Communism helped him there. But in his final spell at Dynamo, he found himself struggling to control his Democratically-ruled players.
But the Iron Curtain was probably what prevented him from succeeding. In the 1980’s, when a Dutch journalist interviewed him, Lobanovskyi was asking most of the questions – about Dutch football. If Lobanovskyi had exposure to Western European football, could he have won more European cups? And the exodus of most of his players was due to the USSR. What if Lobanovskyi had gone somewhere else than Dynamo? Could he have done the same with Real Madrid or Manchester United?
None of these questions can be answered, of course. After a match in May 2002, Lobanovskyi suffered a stroke. During a brain surgery less than a week later, the great Ukrainian died.
Andriy Shevechenko (then in AC Milan) hit the winning penalty against Juventus in the final of the Champions League in Manchester. He paid his condolences a few days later by flying to Kiev and visiting Lobanovskyi’s grave. Lobanovskyi was awarded the Hero of Ukarine posthumously, the nation’s highest order.
Paying homage to their great, late manager, Dynamo Kiev now play their exhibition games at the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Stadium.
Notes and References
Valeriy Lobanovskyi image by Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 933-4255 – Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20540476
Jonathan Wilson: Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics
Jonathan Wilson: Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football
Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski: Why England Lose