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.

The Euros – 1960 to 1972: From Netto to Netzer

THE FIRST four winners of the European Championship were the Soviet Union, Spain, Italy and West Germany. The competition didn’t really take off until 1972 when a brilliant German side captivated the continent with its progressive football. When the USSR won in 1960, Real Madrid were very keen on snapping-up their players, but it wasn’t to be, but it highlighted how pan-European competitions could spread awareness of lesser-known teams and players. 

The European Nations Cup as it was called in its early days, didn’t see England reach the closing stages until the 1968 competition. Having declined to enter in 1960, England took part in the second series and were beaten by France at the first hurdle. In 1968, the home internationals were used as a qualifying group and England, despite dropping three points out of four to Scotland, edged past their old rivals. In the quarter finals, they beat Spain before surprisingly losing to Yugoslavia in the last four. Four years on, England had little difficulty winning a qualifying group that included Switzerland, Malta and Greece before losing to West Germany in the quarter-finals over two legs.

USSR 1960: Lev Yashin, Giri Chokheli, Anatoly Krutikov, Anatoli Maslyonkin, Yuriy Younov, Igor Netto, Slava Metreveli, Viktor Ponedelnik, Valentin Ivanov, Valentin Bubukin, Mikheil Meskhi.

Manager: Gavriil Kachalin

Achievement: European Championship winners 1960 – beating Hungary, Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia to win the competition.

Key men: Lev Yashin, considered the world’s best goalkeeper at the time, renowned for his bravery and athleticism. Vocal and very authoritive both for the USSR and his club, Dynamo Moscow; Igor Netto, captain of the team and one of the Soviet Union’s greatest players. An intelligent central midfielder who played for Spartak Moscow; Slava Metreveli, fast winger who was born in Georgia and played for Dinamo Tbilisi. Won 48 caps for USSR.

Perception: Muscular team who were too physical and strong for their opponents.

Spain 1964: José Angel Iribar, Feliciano Rivilla, Isacio Calleja, Ignacío Zoco, Ferran Olivella, Josep Maria Fustré, Carlos Lapetra, Luis Suárez, Marcelino Martinez, Jesús Maria Pereda, Amancio Amaro.

Manager: José Villalonga

Achievement: European Championship winners 1964, beating USSR in the final and before that, Romania, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

Key men: Jesús Maria Pereda, Barcelona midfielder who also played briefly for Real Madrid. Catalan-born players who won 15 caps for Spain. Had a very good eye for goal; Luis Suárez, Galician-born inside forward or attacking midfielder, an elegant player possessing an explosive shot. Starred for Barcelona and also played for Inter Milan and Sampdoria; Amancio, outside right who was known as El Brujo (the magician). Played 14 years with Real Madrid and won 42 caps for Spain.

Perception: Skilful but inconsistent team of individuals.

Italy 1968: Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Tarcisio Burgnich, Aristide Guarneri, Ernesto Castano, Giovanni Lodetti, Giorgio Ferrini, Antonio Juliano, Sandro Mazzola, Angelo Domenghini, Pierino Prati, Pietro Anastasi, Luigi Riva.

Manager: Ferruccio Valcareggi

Achievement: European Championship winners 1968, beating Yugoslavia in the final and the USSR in the semi-final. In the previous rounds, overcome Bulgaria, Romania, Switzerland and Cyprus.

Key men: Pierino Prati, AC Milan forward who was opportunistic in front of goal. Strong all-round player, good in the air and full of pace – could also play on the wing; Dino Zoff, imposing goalkeeper who was pragmatic rather than flamboyant. Played for Napoli from 1967 to 1972 before joining Juventus. Won the World Cup in 1982 during a 112-cap career with Italy; Giacinto Facchetti, Inter Milan and Italy skipper who played 94 times for Italy and made over 600 appearances for Inter. Combined pace, stamina and power to become one of the best full backs in the world.

Perception: Defence-minded team, hard to beat, strategically savvy. 

West Germany 1972: Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Horst-Dieter Höttges, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Paul Breitner, Herbert Eimmer, Uli Hoeneß, Günter Netzer, Juup Heynckes, Erwin Kremers, Gerd Müller.

Manager: Helmut Schön.

Achievement: World Cup third place 1970, European Championship winners 1972.

Key men: Franz Beckenbauer, one of Germany’s greatest of all time, “Der Kaiser” was one of the outstanding players of the 1970s, captaining his country and Bayern Munich. Midfielder, sweeper or central defender; Günter Netzer, powerful charismatic midfielder who played for Borussia Mönchengladbach before moving to Real Madrid. 1972 was his year, by the time 1974 World Cup came along, he was out of favour; Gerd Müller, prolific goalscorer for West Germany and Bayern Munich, top scorer in both the 1970 World Cup and 1972 Euros.

Perception: Wonderful team, full of energy, power and skill. Arguably stronger than in 1974 when they were World Cup winners.

Part two: 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988.