“To win, you must always be ahead of your time”
One of the most important figures in the history of football in Ukraine and the Soviet Union, Valeri Lobanovskyi, was born in Kyiv, 6th January 1939.
Lobanovskyi’s first footballing steps began at Football School Number 1 in Kyiv before moving onto the Football Youth School in 1955. His first coach was Nikolai Chaika.
Lobanovskyi began his professional career with his local side, Dynamo Kyiv, signing as a 17 year old in 1957, a club he is now synonymous with. He played as a left winger or a striker and spent seven years with the Ukrainian giants. In the 1960 season, Lobanovskyi finished as Dynamo’s top goalscorer with 13 goals. He was an important part of the 1961 title winning side, contributing 10 goals, as Dynamo became the first team outside of Moscow to win the Soviet League. Despite this achievement and the celebrations of all Kyivans, Lobanovskyi was not impressed with the manner of Dynamo’s victories saying they did not win all the games and must strive for perfection. He believed the realisation of a dream was the end of a dream and new targets must be set. The ultimate target for Lobanovskyi was to be remembered and leave legacy in the world of football.
His Dynamo playing career ended with a cup victory in 1964 but also with a falling out with Coach Viktor Maslov. Lobanovskyi then joined Odesa club, Chornomorets. He spent two years with the sailors before he again moved signing for Shakhtar Donetsk where he went on to become club captain. In 1968 at only the age of 29, Lobanovskyi brought his career to an end. In his playing career Lobanovskyi scored 71 goals in 253 games in the Soviet League. He only represented the Soviet Union senior side twice, but did feature in two Olympic competitions.
Throughout his playing career, he was remembered for his ability to put curl on the ball, and had a great skill of being able to score from corners. His technique was brilliant and he was compared with the Brazilian great Didi. He played on the left and had exceptional skills which were something of a rarity for a player of Lobanovskyi’s height. He had great dribbling skills and caused problems with his array of faints and deceptive movements and yet another strong point of Lobanovskyis game was his aerial ability. His talent was recognised as in both 1962 and 1963 he was awarded the Ukrainian Player of the Year award.
Lobanovskyi as a player was very individualistic which was in stark contrast to how he would set up the teams he would go on to manage in the future. Lobanovskyi was of the school of thought that a star team is better than a team of stars.
After he hung up his boots, Lobanovskyi quickly made a step up to coaching. He initially moved to FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, where he had 6 seasons and made great strides. Starting as a coach, he became manager and gained promotion to the Soviet Top League. He even guided Dnipro to a 6th place finish, ahead of both Dynamo and Spartak and in 1973 took Dnipro to the semi-finals of the cup. A victory against Dynamo convinced the Kyiv board that he was the right man for the Dynamo job and he took over at his former club from Sevidov in 1973.
This was seemingly a match made in heaven. He stayed with Dynamo for 17 years (with a two year sabbatical when in control of the USSR national team). His first game for Dynamo was a game against Karpaty Lviv on 20th October 1973, a 0:0 draw, with Dynamo winning on penalties.
In his first full season with Dynamo, he won the league and the cup. His Dynamo side played an attacking style at home which received great credit, but played more pragmatically away from home, often playing defensively and utilising the counter attack. This would be a style that Lobanovskyi would use as his blue-print for management. He followed, developed and perfected the pressing style that his former coach, Viktor Maslov first introduced. The irony being that as a player, Lobanovskyi did not subscribe to it. At their peak, Lobanovskyis teams had a combination of power, technique and finesse, taking Soviet football to new levels.
The work that Lobanovskyi carried out behind the scenes at Dynamo was just as impressive as the results on the field. Along with his assistant Bazylevich, Lobanovskyi revolutionised the way football was coached. He introduced the application of science to the art of football. The way Lobanovskyi saw football was intriguing because to Lobanovskyi, football was not a game, it was a science. It was a system of 22 elements split into two, trying to defeat each other. The aim was to build a side which had a strong system, and a side which could evolve should an opposition learn how to play against them.
It was at this time that Dynamo created their research centre “Zelentsova”, where games would be scrutinized in order for the coaches to be able to make improvements to performances of all players. His acquisition of a computer for Dynamo Kyiv was seen with suspicion in the USSR and he had to call on favours in order to obtain one.
Lobanovskyi believed that the game should be played as a team and that the team would benefit from working together rather than focusing on individual talents. He believed that all players should be comfortable in all positions, but would not expect each player to be naturally in all positions. The type of player Lobanovskyi required would work in all departments for the team and not just in one particular zone. Thus he was critical of players such as Alan Shearer and Brazil’s Ronaldo, as they were solely focused on attacking. Lobanovskyi once said “There is no such thing as a striker, midfielder or defender. There are only footballers and they should be able to do everything on the pitch.”
Lobanovskyi was also a harsh disciplinarian and had control of the side and the respect of his players. He demanded complete co-operation from his players and they were required to follow his blue-print to the letter. This approach worked for his Dynamo side with Serhiy Rebrov saying that “Lobanovskyi did more for me than anybody. He was the person in whom people would believe. He knew everything down to the smallest detail and we got results under his leadership.”
This new approach to management was immediately successful, following on from Dynamo’s domestic success; Lobanovskyi took Dynamo on a European campaign that will never be forgotten. Dynamo won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, defeating Frecenvaros of Hungary 3:0. This was not the end of the success as Dynamo added the European Super Cup title to their collection, courtesy of a 3:0 victory against Bayern Munich with all goals from Oleh Blokhin, who went onto win the 1975 Ballon D’Or. Dynamo were recognised by the British Association of Sports Journalists as the best team in the world in 1975, and Lobanovskyi was recognised as the best manager in the world.
His ability was not only recognised abroad but it the USSR as well and in 1976 he was named as head coach of the Soviet Union National side. He achieved a bronze medal at the Olympic Games but the combination of roles had an adverse affect on results at Dynamo, so he left the USSR job to focus on the Kyiv side. Over the next six years, Lobanovskyi guided Dynamo to 3 more league titles and 2 more cup trophies before he was again offered the chance to guide the Soviet national side. However he did not have a successful run as owing to a refereeing mistake, the USSR did not qualify for the 1984 European Championships.
It was only a brief spell in charge of the USSR and things at Dynamo took a turn for the worse as they finished 10th, the worst finish in 34 years. Thus he returned to Kyiv, without European football for the first time in 8 years, but immediately turned things around. Question were then asked about Lobanovskyi’s style as other teams had developed and become successful, but Lobanovskyi remained undettered and stuck to his philosophy. “A path is a path at day and a path at night and we will follow this path.” He introduced new players such as Igor Belanov and Dynamo marched to the title winning the Soviet Cup as well. With a return to Europe secured, Lobanovskyi guided Dynamo back to the top table as they won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup for the second time, again winning 3:0, this time against Atletico de Madrid.
This success led to Lobanovskyi being handed the reins of the national team for the third time. At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the USSR were impressive in the group stage and looking like genuine contenders for the title, but they lost to Belgium in a memorable game in the 2nd round which finished 4:3 after extra time, with Igor Belanov scoring a hat-trick. This was an unbelievable result, as the USSR dominated the game and Belgium received help from the officials, scoring two goals from clear offside positions. Lobanovskyi had used the core of his Dynamo side to make up the USSR side, and a common joke was that “the USSR side was the Dynamo team, but weakened by players from other clubs”.
1986 finished with Dynamo retaining the Soviet title. Again, Lobanovskyi and Dynamo were recognised across the world for their achievements. World Soccer named Dynamo as the 2nd best team in the world, behind World Cup winners Argentina and Lobanovskyi was named 2nd best manager behind Ki Tisa, Belgiums manager who had defeated Lobanovskyi at the World Cup. The recognition did not stop there as Igor Belanov was awarded the Ballon D’Or, becoming the second Ukrainian Player to win the prestigious award.
The USSR took heart from their 1986 World Cup performance and improved in the 1988 European Championships. Again with the national side being made up almost exclusively of Dynamo players, Lobanovskyi’s USSR finished the tournament as runners-up losing out to The Netherlands and Marco Van Bastens wonderstrike.
In 1990, Lobanovskyi won his final Soviet title for Dynamo, and with it confirmed his place as the most successful manager in the history of Soviet football. He won 8 league titles, along with 6 Soviet Cups adding to his two Cup Winners Cup trophies and the European Super Cup trophy.
He decided that Italia ’90 would be his last contributions to the USSR and decide to leave Dynamo as well. Italia ’90 was a disappointment for the USSR. This was because Lobanovskyi could not call on the core of his Dynamo side as the star players had left. With the introduction of Perestoika, star names could test their skills across Europe and Lobanovskyi no longer held an iron grip against his players.
Thus, Lobanovskyi resigned from both Dynamo and the national side. Despite receiving flattering offers to coach Real Madrid and even the National Team of England, Lobanovskyi took up a role as manager of the UAE. He described this time as a black period. Despite finishing fourth at the Asian Cup, Lobanovskyi had fallings out with the head of the UAE FA and resigned. He then took over the Kuwait national side taking them to bronze place.
After this spell abroad, Lobanovskyi returned home to Kyiv and to Dynamo. The club were had fallen from their previous heights. Lobanovskyi however turned the club around and restored Dynamo to their former glory. He won 5 consecutive league titles and made Dynamo a force in European football once again. In the 1997/98 Champions League Campaign Dynamo famously thrashed Barcelona 4:0 at the Camp Nou, a result which has been voted the greatest in the clubs history. The 1998/99 Champions League campaign was memorable as Dynamo reached the semi-finals of the competition for the third time. Dynamo agonisingly lost out 4:3 on aggregate to Bayern Munich, drawing 3:3 in Kyiv despite holding a 3:1 lead. Lobanovskyi described this result, along with the 4:3 defeat to Belgium in 1986 as the only two unexplainable results of his career. He also believed that despite the 1:0 defeat in Munich, Dynamo were the better side and had the better chances but could not convert them.
In 2000, following the end of Yozhef Szabo’s reign, Lobanovskyi was given the Ukraine National Team job. He wanted to take Ukraine to their first competition since independence, but he could only fall at the same hurdle that Szabo, losing in the play-offs to eventual 2002 World Cup finalists Germany. This was his to be his last action as Ukraine coach.
He resigned from Ukraine but remained as coach of Dynamo and then produced possibly the greatest ever domestic season imaginable. During the 1999/00 season, Dynamo remained unbeaten and only drew 3 games, all away from home, this meant they obtain 84 points from a possible 90, and added the Ukrainian Cup to the collection. It was the third consecutive league and couple double Dynamo had achieved. At this time, Dynamo2 were also champions of the Ukrainian First League, such was Dynamo’s dominance at the time. This was a near perfect campaign for Dynamo and the challenge now for Lobanovskyi was to maintain this level of performance.
Tragedy followed for Lobanovksyi and Dynamo in 2002. He had suffered health problems previously in his career. In 1988 he suffered heart problems and people commented that he did not look healthy after his return from his spell in the middle-east. He suffered a second heart attack in 2001 and was stopped from travelling to Dynamo Kyiv away games in the Champions League.
Following a league game with Dynamo in Zaporizhya, on May 6th 2002, Lobanovskyi suffered a stroke. Just less than a week later, on 13th May 2002, Valery Lobanovskyi died during brain surgery. This date (13th May) is one which will always be remembered for Dynamo, it is recognised as the day the club was created and it is the date that the clubs greatest servant passed away.
His funeral was attended by the President of Ukraine Leonin Kuchma, who said of Lobanovskyi that he had “done more for Ukraine than many politicians and statesmen”. Former students of Lobanovskyi such as the three Ballon D’Or winners Shevchenko, Blokhin and Belanov, were all in attendance. The number of people estimated to have paid respects in person to Lobanovskyi as his body lay in state at the Dynamo stadium range from 60 thousand to 150 thousand.
Lobanovskyi was honoured by UEFA and European football as a minutes silence was held in his honour at the 2002 Champions League final in Scotland.
Following his death, he posthumously awarded the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’, the highest honour available in Ukraine and Dynamo Kyiv renamed the Dynamo stadium in his honour. He was voted as the 6th greatest Ukrainian of all time by the Ukrainian public.
After winning the Champions League with AC Milan, Andriy Shevchenko (the 3rd Lobanovskyi student to win the Ballon D’Or) brought the trophy to Lobanovskyis memorial statue. Shevchenko claimed that Lobanovskyi’s dream was to win the Champions League and he wanted to pay homage to him after his success. Shevchenko described Lobanovskyi as “The God and father of Ukrainian football” and credits Lobanovskyi with helping him develop and become the legendary footballer he is.
In 2005, the Valeri Lobanovskyi Memorial Tournament was created. Initially it was contested by club sides, Dynamo winning the first two competitions, then by national sides. It is now contested by U21 sides, a fitting tribute as Lobanovskyi enjoyed developing players through the youth academy.
Lobanovskyi had an impact on football not just in Ukraine but throughout the entire Soviet bloc, europe and the world. He is a true hero of football and his memory will live on for as long as football exists. The quote “We live as long as we are remembered” is engraved on his memorial statue. Valeri Lobanovskyi will live forever.
Profile by Peter Chymera. Peter is a member of the UK Ukrainian Sports Supporters Club and a co-founder of the Viktor Leonenko Hall of Fame. Follow Peter on twitter – @PMChymera89