Valery Lobanovsky

Football pioneer and spirit of Ukraine

Wednesday 19 March 2014 06:12
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Valery Lobanovsky, football player and coach: born Kiev, Soviet Union 6 January 1939, died Zaporizhia, Ukraine 13 May 2002.

The bulbous features and permanent glower of Valery Lobanovsky revealed only part of what the most successful coach in Soviet and Ukrainian football stood for. A disciplinarian both tactically and in his dealings with players, he none the less sent out teams which touched the heights with their flair and inventiveness.

The death of the Dynamo Kiev coach ends an era that stretches back to 1973, when he began the first of three spells in charge of the club, establishing them as a major force in European football without the financial advantages enjoyed by his rivals in the West. Doubling up as the coach of the Soviet Union and later Ukraine, Lobanovsky achieved a status of national hero that was reflected by the newly elected Ukrainian parliament yesterday, which opened its first session with a minute's silence in his honour.

For all that Lobanovsky achieved, both at club level and internationally, there was a sense in which his efforts went under-rewarded. At their best, Lobanovsky's teams possessed a combination of power and finesse, of technique and artistry that represented the very best of the old Soviet sports system at the same time as they set breathtaking new standards of footballing sophistication.

In the fitness regimes he pioneered, Lobanovsky was one of the first football coaches to study seriously the effect of diet on his players. Inevitably there were murmurings about drugs. He developed a theory of "collective speed" and sought that his players eliminate at least one of the opposition with every pass that was played. But he could never entirely rid his sides of fatal flaws.

Lobanovsky was born in Kiev in 1939. A left-winger, he had a 10-year playing career in the Soviet League, mostly with Dynamo Kiev. He then spent four years coaching Dnepr Dnepropetrovsk before moving back to Kiev as coach and bringing Soviet football its first European club trophy. That was the 1975 Cup-Winners' Cup, in which Lobanovsky's philosophy was embodied in the speed and skill of his star player, Oleg Blokhin.

The Soviet football authorities wasted no time putting Lobanovsky in charge of the national team as well, and it soon filled up with men from Kiev. But the pressures on them proved too great, and the experiment was deemed a failure. And while Kiev continued to dominate domestic football – altogether Lobanovsky led them to eight Soviet titles and five Ukrainian titles – they did not re-emerge on the European stage until 1986, when Lobanovsky, now in his second spell at the club, won the Cup- Winners' Cup for a second time.

Once again Lobanovsky was summoned to run the national side, this time only three weeks before the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The team that trounced Hungary 6-0 in their opening match contained 10 Kiev players, and it looked as if they would go a long way. But in a pulsating second-round match, the Soviets' attacking brilliance was more than offset by defensive frailties and they lost 4-3 to Belgium after extra-time.

This era was the high point of Lobanovsky's career. With players of the calibre of Igor Belanov, Alexander Zavarov and Vasily Rats, his Kiev team reached the semi- finals of the European Cup in 1987 and the following year Lobanovsky led the Soviet Union to the final of the European Championship, in which they lost to the Netherlands of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, Lobanovsky went abroad for five years, coaching the United Arab Emirates and then Kuwait. For his final spell at Kiev, beginning in 1996, he nurtured a new generation which in the young Andrei Shevchenko included the most gifted striker in Ukrainian history. But a Champions' League semi-final in 1999 was the best that Lobanovsky could achieve, and with the departure of Shevchenko to Milan the team never made the same impact again.

Ill-health dogged Lobanovsky for the last few years of his life, but when the call came in 1999 he once again stepped on to the international stage, as coach of Ukraine. But defeat to Germany last autumn in a play-off for this year's World Cup cost him the job.

Simon O'Hagan

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