Football: Lobanovski wields iron fist

The Ukrainian champions who spent years living in the shadow of the Soviets are hoping to reaffirm their nation's spirit of independence in tonight's game with Arsenal.
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The Independent Online
WHEN DYNAMO Kiev meet Arsenal in their Champions' League game in Ukraine tonight, no one, not even their meticulous coach, Valeri Lobanovsky, will need to work on their motivation. Dynamo's desire to be the first Ukrainian side to defeat an English one, combined with their fierce rivalry with the Russian champions, Spartak Moscow, will see to that.

Nothing makes Ukrainians more happy than to see Russians lose. Ukraine's national side, which includes seven Dynamo players as first-choice internationals, beat the Russians in their Euro 2000 qualifying group, much to the delight of 52 million Ukrainians. After three straight wins, they are top of their qualifying group, two points ahead of France, the world champions.

After Dynamo's 1-1 draw with Arsenal at Wembley, a stone-faced Lobanovsky said his side had to prove that Ukrainian club football could match the record of the national team. "At Wembley we showed our class, but we were denied our victory," he said. "However, the Polish referee's mistake, when he ruled out Shevchenko's opener for offside, didn't affect us. There is this golden opportunity to beat the English champions on our home ground for the first time in history and to prove that Ukrainians are a force to be reckoned with on all levels."

A leading Ukrainian sports journalist, Oleksa Semenchenko, thinks that Dynamo will have another major incentive tonight. "Kiev's bitter rivals from the Soviet days, the Russian champions Spartak Moscow, are doing quite well in their Champions' League group, and for the Ukrainians that is totally unacceptable," he said. "They really want to show that Ukraine is the only footballing power in that part of Europe, and the game in Kiev could be seen as an opportunity to show who is who to their opponents."

Dynamo have always been the main footballing power in the east of the continent, especially in the days of the Soviet Union, when the Ukrainian club was a nationalist symbol for the nation which had wanted to regain its independence from Russia for centuries. In those days Kiev's victories over the clubs from Russia were regarded in Ukraine as successful battles for independence. Under Lobanovsky, the present coach, Kiev won this independence battle by claiming a record 13 Soviet League titles, more than any team in the old Soviet Union, and firmly putting an end to the domination of the Russian clubs.

Being a favourite team of Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma, Dynamo are a true institution. The Dynamo players are fierce Ukrainian nationalists and cannot abide people abroad calling them Russians by mistake. Andriy Shevchenko was upset to see his first name spelt the Russian way (Andrei) in the British press. He asked: "Can't they understand in Britain that we are Ukrainians with our own language, culture and history, separate from that of Russia? My Ukrainian name is Andriy, not Andrei."

Shevchenko's surname is a very popular one in Ukraine and is associated with that of Taras Shevchenko, a 19th century Ukrainian nationalist philosopher and poet, and a driving force behind the idea of Ukrainian independence.

They take their Ukrainian identity very seriously at the club. Dynamo's name has even been officially transliterated on all documents and the team shirts to Dynamo Kyiv, because Kiev sounded too Russian.

Lobanovsky, who recently celebrated 40 years at Dynamo, is known for his dictatorial style and scientific approach to the training. Nicknamed "Loban", he keeps secret files on all the club's players and does not allow any dissent. Not that the players want to rebel. They are well looked after, reportedly earning approximately pounds 7,000-pounds 9,000 per week in a country where a pint of beer costs around 60p and the average salary is about pounds 120 a month.

For that reason, Dynamo's star players like Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov do not want to leave their beloved Ukraine in order to earn a living in the West. Rumours were circulating that the 22-year-old Shevchenko would sign for Milan after the game at Wembley, but he did not. "I'm very happy here in Ukraine, I feel like I'm on top of the world," he said. "I'm not sure whether I would feel so comfortable abroad. The only thing is that I have to change my phone number every month, because the girls just can't leave me alone. But I don't complain!"

Rebrov, 23, agreed. "I'm not sure what drives the players of the big Western clubs," he said. "It's obviously money - there's nothing wrong with that. But here in Kiev I have money, a lot of attention, my home and also the desire to put my country and club on the map."

Lobanovsky can look tired and indifferent to events going on around him, but he comes to life when he talks about tonight's match. "They asked me in London how come Kiev were bottom of the group. I think the answer is that we have to have a good incentive to play. At Wembley it was perfect: the English Double winners, our bad record against the English, the big names, a lot of attention.

"I think the English know now what Ukrainian football is like. The prime goal is to beat Arsenal. Lens and the Greeks [Panathinaikos] do not count now."

Lobanovsky agreed that Arsenal will miss Dennis Bergkamp but is aware that Dynamo's opponents are a team of many strengths. "I wish we weren't going to see Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira and Marc Overmars either," he said. "But we'll find the solution. We have the resources. They said in England that Adams was the man of the match at Wembley, but I think our captain, Oleh Luzhnyi, was even better than Adams." He added: "For me it's like chess; to confront such an intelligent man as Arsene Wenger and his players - what could be more challenging?"

He also wants Dynamo to improve their poor record against the English: "We have never won a game against an English club, so why not change that on our home ground, doing it in some style, with our fanatical support? Not to mention our clear chances of winning the group if we beat the English champions."

Lobanovsky makes an effort to crack some sort of a smile when he says that the Dynamo fans are the 12th player in the team. "Probably the English heard our fans roaring at Wembley. There were about 2,000 of them there. Arsenal will experience 40 times more Ukrainian fans in Kiev when they appear at the Olympic Stadium."

Most of the tickets for the game have been sold. The club even reduced the normal price of tickets in order to get the house full. They say in Kiev that on a sell-out night at the city's newly refurbished 86,000 capacity stadium, Dynamo never lose. Tonight will be a major test of that theory.