Ukraine was the engine of USSR football

ALTHOUGH Ukraine’s record since the end of the Soviet Union is modest, there can be no doubt the country’s footballers played a pivotal role in the USSR representative side, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Between the end of the second world war and 1991, Ukrainian teams won 16 of the 48 Soviet titles, with Dynamo Kyiv champions 13 times. After Russia, who won 28, they were the most successful country within the union. Ukraine was renowned for producing footballing talent, and their players had a certain style. In fact, while the communist bloc was remembered for its team-orientation and discipline, Ukrainian players were highly-skilled and capable of improvisation and virtuosity.

Not only were the players special, but the era’s most heralded coach was Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who was born in January 1939 in Kyiv and went on to coach the USSR, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Ukraine. Lobanovskyi won 13 league titles, nine cups, two European Cup-Winners’ Cups and took the USSR to the European Championship final in 1988. His opposite number in that final in Munich was the Netherlands’ Rinus Michels, who credited him with being the inventor of “Total Football”. His own take on this was his “system football”, a high pressing style developed long before it became fashionable.

Lobanovskyi was hugely influential in his profession and coached three Ukrainian winners of the Ballon d’Or, Oleg Blokhin, Igor Belanov and Andriy Shevchenko. Blokhin and Belanov won the prize as USSR players.

Soviet teams didn’t make their bow in European club competition until 1966-67 and within a year, Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv upset the form book by knocking European Cup holders Celtic by winning 2-1 in Glasgow. They seemed more interested in the European Championship, winning the inaugural competition in 1960 and finishing runners-up in 1964 and 1972.

Ukrainians started to make an impact on the Soviet team in the 1970s. Until then, the shirts emblazoned with CCCP were mostly filled by Moscow-based (Russian) players. In the 1970 World Cup, there were nine players from Ukraine in the squad, with eight coming from Russia and five from Georgia. Included in the squad was the talented Anatoliy Byshovets, a 24 year-old striker from Dynamo Kyiv. In the 1972 European Championship, USSR reached the final, and 11 of the squad were Ukrainian.

Three years later, Dynamo Kyiv won the Cup-Winners’ Cup, beating Hungary’s Ferencvaros 3-0 in the final in Basel. Oleg Blokhin caught the eye that evening and easily won the 1975 Ballon d’Or, securing 122 points, 80 ahead of second-placed Franz Beckenbauer. No less than 20 of the 26 voters named him as the first choice. There were comparisons between Blokhin and the man who had stood astride European football for the previous few years, Johan Cruyff. Blokhin was the Cruyff of the Steppes. Ten months after being named Europe’s finest player, Blokhin had still not received his trophy, which may have had more to do with East-West relations than UEFA inefficiency.

Technically, the Kiev players were well-schooled, fit and skilful, and in 1975, the fruits of their labour could be seen by a wider audience as they won the Russian league and the European Cup-Winners Cup. Blokhin also proved that the mysterious USSR could produce players with  charisma and flair. One of the characteristics of the Soviet competition was the rivalry between different republics in sport and football was no exception. Ukrainian football was widely considered to combine the best western features with fitness and technique that was so typical of Russian, Georgian and Armenian teams.  

In the 1982 World Cup, the USSR sent a squad to Spain that came from across the various states, with Ukraine contributing nine, including Blokhin, Anatoliy Demyanenko, Volodymyr Bezsonov and Leonid Buryak. Four years later, there were 15 Ukrainians on the team bus. Dynamo Kyiv won another Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1986, beating Atlético Madrid 3-0 in Lyon.

At its peak, Soviet football attracted healthy crowds, but by 1991, the average had dropped alarmingly. Dynamo Kyiv were the best supported club in the league for some years, averaging 55,000 in 1988 but by 1991, attendances had dropped to less than 12,000. When the break-up finally arrived, football clubs from the various republics elected to join their own leagues, reflecting the mood of liberation. At the same time, countries like Ukraine suffered economic disruption, unemployment, migration and the severing of ties with some former USSR states.

It’s fair to say the Ukrainian contribution was very important and without players from Kyiv and other major football hubs, the Soviet Union’s sporting presence would have been severely depleted. Given the importance they used to place on sport as a demonstration of global power, it’s tragic they are now flexing their muscles in far more dangerous and sinister ways. There was a time when Russians and Ukrainians were comrades.

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