Soccer City: Minsk – brave or foolish?

WHILE the rest of the world has placed its football kit in mothballs, switched off the electricity at grounds and watched the grass grow at their stadiums, Belarus started its 2020 season, suggesting the game was good for morale.

True, one of the things football fans have recognised is the absence of the regular weekly fix has left something of a vacuum on a Saturday and Sunday. However, the ambivalence of Belarus towards the Coronavirus is somewhat disturbing, especially if it becomes a trend.

The highlight of week two was the Minsk derby between FC Minsk and Dinamo, a game watched by a capacity crowd of 3,000 (although some foreign websites claim the ground was half full) and won 3-2 by the home side.

There was a time when Minsk, when it was part of the USSR, was something of a footballing hotbed. Dinamo were one of the best supported clubs in the Soviet Union, playing at a very notable stadium which was recognisable for its classic style and huge floodlights. It was built in 1934 but was almost destroyed during WW2, “The great patriotic war”, only to be rebuilt and extended, eventually hosting football in the 1980 Summer Olympics. The ground fell out of favour in the 1990s and was used as a market place and a concert venue. Since then, the Dinamo Stadium has undergone several renovations and has a current capacity of 22,000. Simon Inglis, in his Football Grounds of Europe book (1990), called the stadium a “flamboyant curiosity”.

Dinamo have been Belarusian champions seven times, the last occasion being 2004. The club won the Soviet league once, in 1982, with a team that played a purist style, managed by Eduard Malofeev. Dinamo beat off the challenge of Dinamo Kyiv, winning the title by a single point after winning 4-3 at Spartak Moscow in the final game. Among the players adored by the fans was leading scorer Igor Gurinovich and the bohemian midfielder Alekdandr Prokopenko, who had a unique relationship with the supporters. Dinamo were the only club from Belarus to make an impact in the Soviet league.

A handful of Dinamo players made it through to the USSR World Cup squads. Malofeev was one such player, appearing in 1966 and playing in the Soviet team that finished fourth. Others who made the squads include the excellent Sergei Aleinikov (1986), Sergei Borovsky (1982) and Andrei Zygmantovich (1990).

When Dinamo won the Soviet title, they averaged 26,000 at their home games, making them the fourth best-supported team in the league. By 1991, that figure had dropped to 11,000 and by the turn of the century, Dinamo were attracting 2,000 to their home games. They have lost their pre-eminent position in Belarus football and BATE Borisov, a club that has benefitted from developing talent on a regular basis, shrewd player trading and regular European football income, has taken over as the country’s most successful club.

Minsk FC were formed in 2006 after aquiring the licence of Smena Minsk, a student-based team that dated back to 1954. The club’s only major honour so far is the Belarusian Cup, which they won in 2013, beating Dinamo Minsk on penalties at the Torpedo Stadium in Zhodino.

FC Minsk play before small crowds, less than 1,000 at a stadium that was only completed in 2015.

There are other clubs in and around Minsk. FC Torpedo Minsk have been having a rough time recently, losing their sponsor and due to financial problems, withdrawing from the Belarusian Premier League in 2019. FC Energetik-BGU are another small club, averaging less than 700 at their tiny stadium. FC Isloch Minsk Raion, also based in Minsk, are named after the Islach River.

Like all former members of the USSR, Belarus – and its football clubs – had financial problems after the collapse of the union. At the time of the dissolution, the country was one of the world’s most industrially-developed states. After a steep economic decline, Belarus became one of the fastest-growing former Soviet Republics. The country still has a strong relationship with Russia, who account for 56% of all imports into Belarus.

Minsk has a population of around two million. It has a reputation for being a safe city, but the Mercer 2019 Quality of Living index ranked it 188th, the lowest position among European cities. At the same time, other similar studies place Minsk higher than the likes of Barcelona, Milan and London.

Will football continue in Belarus and its capital city, or is the can being kicked down the road? Belarus has had 100 cases of the Coronavirus and so far, not a single death. The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, who dismissed the crisis as a “psychosis”, has advised people to drink vodka and work on a farm to combat the virus. “The fields heal everyone,” he insisted. As fans filed into the Minsk stadium, their temperature was checked, but some demonstrated their resilience and cojones by watching the game completely naked from the waist up.

Despite the relaxed Trump-like tone coming from the top, not everyone is so laissez-faire about the virus in Minsk. Public transport is less full than usual during the busy working hours and over-65s are being encouraged to stay indoors. On the other hand, bars, cafes and shops are still open.

Until something changes in Belarus, this former Soviet state is likely to be in the spotlight among football followers desperate for some action in their favourite pastime. As one wag suggested, “by the end of the lockdown, everyone will have their favourite Belarusian team.” The Belarusian Premier League has signed 10 new TV rights deals, including Russia, India and Israel. These are strange, worrying times indeed.

While it’s important to keep spirits up, it is hard to be so blasé as the death toll rises elsewhere. Is Belarus merely behind the curve in being heavily affected and in dealing with the virus or is a diet of optimism, vodka and fresh air really why they do not appear to be in the front line? The people of Minsk may soon find out.

 

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA

 

Great Reputations: Dinamo Tbilisi – Georgia’s on our mind

IN 1980-81, Dinamo Tbilisi put on a scintillating display when they met West Ham United at Upton Park in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. They won emphatically by playing a brand of fast, attacking football that stunned the London crowd. “Those Russians, bloody marvellous football,” said one Hammers fan as he left the stadium. “I’ve not seen football like that since we had Moore, Hurst and Peters at the club.”

Russians? The old USSR tarnished everyone with the same brush. These were Georgians elegantly scything their way through the West Ham defence. To some, Georgia was a southern state in the US, not a eastern European country absorbed by the Kremlin. But at the time, it was part of the Soviet Union and therefore considered to be mysteriously Russian.

The Soviet Union won just three European prizes, all in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup: 1975 Dynamo Kyiv, 1981 Dinamo Tbilisi, 1986 Kyiv again. In other words, not one Russian prize but two for the Ukraine and one for Georgia.

Dinamo Tbilisi’s current position makes it hard to believe that back in the 1970s, they played in front of very big crowds – in 1977, their average gate was an astonishing 68,200. Today, they attract just 700 to their home games.

Dinamo were a de facto national team for Georgia in the days of the Soviet Top League. In 1964, they won their first title, beating Torpedo Moscow in a play-off by 4-1. This was a team that was boosted by the goals of Ilia Datunashvili and Slava Metreveli, the latter playing in three World Cups for the USSR – 1962, 1966 and 1970. Metreveli was also a member of the Soviet team that won the 1960 European Championship, scoring one of the goals in a 2-1 win.

Dinamo won the Soviet Cup in 1976 and the title again in 1978 before picking up their second cup victory in 1979. That year, Dinamo pulled off a major surprise when they knocked Liverpool out of the European Cup in the first round. They lost the first leg 2-1 at Anfield, but won 3-0 in front of 90,000 people at the Dynamo Lenin Stadium.

This woke people up to the fact that there were some outstanding footballers in parts of Europe that didn’t get much in the way of limelight. Tbilisi was a place that few people knew much about. During Soviet rule, the city became increasingly industrialised but was also an important political and cultural centre. In 1980, the city hosted the first state-sanctioned rock festival in the USSR, which was dubbed by critics as the “Soviet Woodstock”.

The Tbilisi team of 1980-81 made a similar impact, with four players, Aleksandre Chivadze, Vitaly Daraselia, David Kipiani and Ramez Shengelia all making their mark as outstanding individuals. If they had been playing in western Europe, they would have been sought-after by all the top clubs. As it was, Shengelia (7th), Chivadze (8th) and Kipiani (11th) were all placed highly in the 1981 Ballon d’Or voting.

Chivadze was an excellent centre half and captained the team. A one-club man, he was Soviet footballer of the year in 1980 and was in the USSR World Cup squads in both 1982 and 1986 and won 46 caps in total. He later became coach of Georgia.

Daraselia, who was 24 years of age in 1980-81, was the engine of the Dinamo team, a compact player with boundless energy. Born in Abkhazia, Daraselia signed for Dinamo as a 17 year-old from Amirani Ochamchire. He was introduced to the Dinamo team in 1975 and won the first of his 22 caps in 1978. He played in the 1982 World Cup and afterwards, Dinamo coach Nodar Akhalkatsi decided to rebuild his team around the talented midfielder. Sadly, on December 13, 1982, Daraselia died when his car crashed over the edge of a cliff into a river near Zestaponi in Georgia. He was just 25 and at his peak as a player, who knows what might have been achieved, by him personally and by his club?

Kipiani was considered to be one of Georgia’s greatest-ever players and an elegant and skilful playmaker and dribbler. Had he been playing outside the Soviet bloc, he would have probably been compared to some of the top names in European football. Nicknamed “Dato”, he was heavily influenced by the Dutch “total football” and saw himself very much in that mould. Unlike Cruyff and co. Kipiani never played in a World Cup – there have been conspiracy theories that the USSR team may have had too many Georgians if Kipiani had been included for 1982. He was recovering from a broken leg sustained in 1981 and although he had been in good form, was omitted from the early squad for Spain. The disappointed forced him to retire in 1982. Sadly, in 2001, he also died in a car crash. Shengelia, who also died young, was strong and quick and anticipated the game intelligently. He scored 184 goals in 445 games for Dinamo Tbilisi and won 26 caps for the USSR.

Dinamo won the Soviet Cup in 1980, beating Dynamo Moscow on penalties in the final and qualified for the Cup-Winners’ Cup. It wasn’t an especially strong field, although Celtic, Benfica and Feyenoord were in the mix. Dinamo were paired with Kastoria of Greece in round one. A 2-0 aggregate victory sent them through to face Ireland’s Waterford in round two, which ended with a very comfortable 5-0 win over the two games.

As the competition reached its crucial stages, West Ham United of the English second division were next. This is when people really took notice of Dinamo. At Upton Park on March 4, 1981, the relatively unknown Tbilisi team put on a display of devastating counter-attacking football. West Ham, who included the likes of Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire in their line-up, were made to look very pedestrian and Dinamo’s performance earned them a 4-1 first leg win and respectful applause from the home crowd. The tie won, they slipped up at home, losing 1-0 to the Hammers.

In the semi-final, Dinamo faced Feyenoord, but Kipiani was at his best when they won 3-0 in Tbilisi. That first leg win was just enough, for in Rotterdam, the Dutch won 2-0. Dinamo’s opponents in the final would be the East German’s Carl Zeiss Jena, who had won through against Benfica in the semi.

The final between Soviet and East German sides didn’t capture the imagination of the viewing public. UEFA allocated the game to Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadion, but only 4,750 people turned up to watch, the lowest ever crowd for a major European final. The subdued atmosphere was matched by the dour nature of the game.

Jena took the lead after 63 minutes through Gerhard Hoppe, a spectacular volley from close range. Within four minutes, Dinamo levelled with a low drive from Vladimir Gutsaev, created by Shengelia. With four minutes to go, Daraselia netted a memorable winner, beating two men before switching to his left foot and driving inside Hans-Ulrich Grapenthin’s right hand post. It was a truly spectacular goal, underlining the potential of Daraselia.

Tbilisi went berserk in celebration, the victory was seen as a triumph for the Georgian state. Dinamo Tbilisi went down in history as one of the last great teams from the old USSR, their players heralded as some of Europe’s genuinely hidden gems. Dinamo Tbilisi will never be forgotten for the way they won the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1981, but equally, we will never truly know how good they might have become had fate not stepped in.

 

 

Club of the Month: CSKA Moscow

CSKA’s Vitinho enjoys his goal against Benfica. Photo: PA

AMID growing political tension between the west and Russia, CSKA Moscow will travel to London to face Arsenal in the last eight of the UEFA Europa League. (April 5). It’s not quite a cold war climate, but the tie does act as a prelude to the forthcoming World Cup, with Russian and English fans coming up against each other as the politicians continue to posture and threaten each other.

CSKA Moscow are no strangers to politics, though, for they were the Soviet Army’s club in the days when Britain viewed anything coming out from behind the Iron Curtain with great suspicion. Football can certainly help diffuse tension, but the continued talk about boycotting World Cup 2018 also demonstrates the game can also be used as a political tool.

There’s still an air of mystery about the relative strength of Russian clubs, who are generally well-backed and able to pay their players well. Europe still awaits a genuine and sustained threat from a Russian club and Arsenal are marginal favourites to beat CSKA in the quarter-final over two legs.

CSKA have already met English opposition this season in the form of Manchester United in the group stage of the Champions League. United won 4-1 in Moscow and 2-1 at Old Trafford. CSKA reached the group stage after winning through the third qualifying round and play-off round, beating AEK Athens and Young Boys. In the group, their home form was not good, losing to Basel and Manchester United but they did beat Benfica. They finished third and gained entry to the last 32 of the Europa League where they accounted for Red Star Belgrade and Lyon on the way to the quarter-final.

Domestically, CSKA are trailing Moscow rivals Lokomotiv and Spartak and they’re eight points off top spot. They’re being chased by Krasnodar and Zenit St. Petersburg, but at the moment, they’re in the Champions League qualifying stage spot. They’ve lost five of their 22 Russian Premier League, three at their VEB stadium. They were recently beaten 3-0 at Spartak Moscow.

Home form seems to have been a little patchy this season. Crowds at the VEB average around 14,000 making the club the fifth best supported in Russia, but their attendances are way behind Zenit (44,000) and Spartak (29,000). When CSKA met Lyon in the last 16, the attendance was just under 14,000 but the visit of Arsenal to the VEB will surely attract closer to the 30,000 capacity. The stadium, named after the Russian bank, Vnesheconombank (formerly the Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs, USSR), saw its record attendance when Manchester United visited in September 2017.

CSKA, as mentioned, was previously the army club, but after the fall of the USSR, the club – which like its rivals was virtually bankrupt –  went into private ownership. Although the Ministry of Defence has a 25% stake, the club is 49% owned by British Bluecastle Enterprises and Russia’s AVO-Kapital (controlled by Bluecastle). The ultimate beneficiary of Bluecastle is Vadim Giner, the son of Yevgeny Giner, who is also the head of the Russian Football Union’s financial committee.  According to media reports, Giner senior is a friend of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. There were reports in 2017 that Abramovich’s son, Arkady, wanted to buy a stake in CSKA.

CSKA did come under the Abramovich influence in the early 21st century. His company, Sibneft, was the lead sponsor of the club between 2004 and 2006. Abramovich sold his stake in the oil company to the Kremlin in 2005 for £ 7bn-plus. It is now part of the mighty Gazprom empire and CSKA’s principal sponsor is Russian power company Rosseti. They also list among their partners Russian Helicopters.

1001 Floodlit Dreams entry…

CSKA (CDKA) Moscow 1946-48

Vladimir Nikanorov, Yuri Nyrkov, Boris Kuznetsov, Anatoliy Bashashkin, Aleksandr Petrov, Sergei Solovyov, Grigory Fedotov, Konstantin Lyaskovskiy, Valentin Nikolayev, Vladmiri Dyomin, Aleksei Grinin, Alexandr Fyodrodov, Yevgeniy Babich, Pyotr Scherbatenko, Vsevolod Bobrov.

Achievement: Soviet title winner 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951
Russian Cup Winners: 1945, 1948, 1951

Coach: Boris Arkadyev

Key men:  Vladimir Nikanorov, consistent keeper and ice hockey player; Vsevolod Bobrov, versatile sportsman, prolific in front of goal; Sergei Solovyov, free-scoring forward; Vladimir Dyomin, team captain and striker, signed from Spartak Moscow.

Perception: Fast-moving, attacking team, the Soviet army team.

CSKA are not the force they were a few years ago due to financial issues that have affected much of Russian football. Its clubs rely on state backing and wealthy benefactors to an alarming degree – UEFA noted in 2017 that Russian clubs derive just 4% of their income from ticket sales and 5% from TV rights, the lowest among Europe’s top leagues. Moreover, CSKA were ranked the seventh most indebted club in Europe with debts of €240m. Little wonder that transfer budgets have been reduced in recent years.

CSKA don’t have the backing that Zenit and Spartak have, but in the period 2010 to 2016, the club’s rivalry dominated the Russian Premier League. CSKA, who had won the title three times between 2003 and 2006, won three further championships in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Zenit, who had won just one title before the arrival of big money, were champions in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2015. In 2016-17, these fierce rivals were usurped by Spartak Moscow, who won the Premier with points to spare.

In between all this, CSKA and Zenit won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively. At the time, it was widely believed that Russian clubs were about to become a force, but it didn’t really materialise. Russian football has certainly declined, with the national team very anaemic and young players lacking the international experience they need to improve as they are reluctant to leave a league that has paid well – perhaps too well. Attendances have shown little in the way of growth in recent years and the average gate in the Premier is 12,000 which considering the size of the country (population 145 million) seems quite small.

One man who left Russia was Leonid Slutsky, the coach that led CSKA to three titles. He arrived in England, relatively unknown to many football fans, and picked up a job at Hull City. Slutsky’s style was often Mourinho-lite, but in Russia, it was very effective. However, his time in England didn’t last long and he’s now in the Netherlands.

CSKA’s current coach is Viktor Goncharenko who succeeded Slutsky in 2016, the son of a Belarusian engineer who died after the Chernobyl disaster. Goncharenko is considered to be one of the brightest managerial talents in Russian football. Although only 40, he has a decade of coaching under his belt, notably at BATE Borisov, where he won five Belarusian Premier titles.

CSKA’s line-up 2017-18

    Igor

Akinfeev

   
  Pontus Wernbloom Vasili
Berezutski
 
Sergei
Ignashevich
 
Mario

Fernandes

Alan
Dzagoev
Bibras
Natkho
Aleksandr
Golovin
Konstantin Kuchayez

 

  Vitinho   Ahmed
Musa
 

Goncharenko has a refreshing approach to some extent. When his team wins, the praise is directed to the players, but when they lose he is totally accountable. His style is not spectacular and is built on a strong defence and hard work. The current CSKA team often adopts a 3-5-2 formation with veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev at the back. Akinfeev is the captain and has won over 100 caps for Russia. The team also includes the even more experienced Berezutski twins, Vasili and Aleksei (35 years old) and the imposing Swede Pontus Wernbloom. One of the players that the nation will be looking to in the summer is Alan Dzagoev, an impressive but injury-prone midfielder. The promising Aleksandr Golovin, a creative midfielder, was one of Russia’s few successes in the Confederations Cup last year.

CSKA’s Russian Premier League results 2017-18

2 Lokomotiv Moscow L1-3 1 Anzhi Makhachkala W3-1
3 SKA-Khabarovsk W2-0 5 Tosno W2-1
4 Rubin Kazan L1-2 7 Ural Yekaterinburg D0-0
6 Spartak Moscow W2-1 9 Amkar Perm W1-0
8 Akhmat Grozny L0-1 11 Dynamo Moscow D0-0
10 Rostov W2-0 13 Krasnodar W1-0
12 Ufa D0-0 15 Arsenal Tula L0-1
14 Zenit St.Petersburg D0-0 16 Lokomotiv Moscow D2-2
19 Tosno W6-0 17 SKA-Khabarovsk W4-2
21 Ural Yekaterinburg W1-0 18 Rubin Kazan W1-0
20 Spartak Moscow L0-3
22 Akhmat Grozny W3-0

Up front, the Brazilian Vitinho is CSKA’s leading scorer this season. The 24 year-old joined the club from CSKA in 2013 but rarely got a look-in when Slutsky was coach. Goncharenko has given him the chance to shine and this season has netted eight league goals in 22 games. CSKA can also call on Ahmed Musa, the Nigerian striker on loan from Leicester City.

Right now, CSKA are trying to ensure they maintain their place in the Champions League placings. They’re chasing Lokomotiv and Spartak but there’s still eight games to go. CSKA have to face Krasnodar at home and Zenit away, but they’ve already met Spartak and Lokomotiv twice. They may have too much ground to make up, but the Europa League is still up for grabs – the game at Arsenal will determine if  the Koni, “the horses” can end the season with silverware. It’s a tough field, though.