Human dynamo

Paul Knott pays tribute to the pioneering life and times of Valery Lobanovsky

The image conjured up by Valery Lobanovsky, who died in May aged 63, was of a Slavic cousin of the Lanarkshire coalfields school of man­agers, glowering from the dugout. An astute and inspirational disciplinarian with a fear­some temper, he had plenty in common with Stein and Shankly. But there was also a great intellect behind the harsh exterior. Loban­ov­sky pio­neered the use of scientific methods in coaching. Unlike many of his cerebral peers, the out­come was neither mechanical nor neg­ative. The aim was al­ways to complement the artistry of his play­ers. His teams’ alliance of power with flair prod­uced a style that significantly raised the game’s technical standards.

Lobanovsky was a winger in the 1961 Dyn­amo Kiev team that loosened the Muscovite grip on the Soviet title. His return as coach in 1973 removed it completely as five titles in eight seasons were secured and Lobanovsky’s hero status in Ukraine with them. That team, which won the Soviet Un­ion’s first European trophy (the 1975 Cup-Winners Cup) and thrash­ed Bayern Munich in the Super Cup, was Lobanovsky’s first great one.

After a spell with the national team he re­turned to repeat the trick in the Eighties, cruising to another Cup-Winners Cup in 1986 with a 3-0 final win against Atlético Madrid. The common thread was Oleg Blokhin, a prodigy on whom Lobanovsky lavished particular at­tention. Blokhin, with his speed, grace, power and skill, represented what Lobanovsky had always wanted to be in his playing days.

He transposed the Eighties Kiev vintage, featuring Kuznetsov, Baltacha, Zavarov, Myk­haily­chenko, Rats and Belanov, into the Soviet team that reached the final of Euro 88. This was perhaps the closest Lobanovsky got to real­ising his vision of a “star team”. In his view in­dividual stars “hinder the evolution of foot­ball, quickly losing motivation and not striving to learn what is new”. Whereas the “star team” was made up of “players with great tal­ent who strive for perfection, understand the development of modern football and that the main things happen off the ball”. What would have been his greatest victory was denied by the only team around that had mastered this philosophy better than his own – the Dutch, with Van Basten and Gullit at their peak.

In some ways Lobanovsky won less than he ought to have, but the in­fluence of his meth­ods was huge. He was the first to ex­amine ser­iously the effect of diet on performance. He implemented regular scientific testing of his play­ers’ physical and psychological states and kept vast amounts of data. This was used to create programmes to max­imise the fitness and technical skills essential for a system bas­ed on constant, coordinated movement.

Lobanovsky sometimes played on his ren­owned emphasis on science for more traditional motivational effect. Alexander Zavarov recalls being given video games at one World Cup. The players were told that these had been designed to stimulate brain-to-limb reactions and that analysis of their results would influence team selection. Hooked, the whole squad spent every spare minute playing them. Zav­arov performed best and became convinced he had world-beating powers. Some time later he realised that none of the squad had been out on the town during the tournament either.

The end of the Soviet era appeared to mark the end for Lobanovsky too. Apart from his Politburo looks, he seemed steeped in the sys­tem he had deftly exploited to enable Dyn­amo to compete with clubs in the West. This underestimated his thirst for new ideas and his ad­apt­ability. After six years of semi-retirement he came back to build another fine Dyn­amo team. But despite dominating in Ukraine they ag­ain fell short of the biggest prize, freezing in 1999 against Bayern in the Champions League semi. Shev­chen­ko and co were sold, while Lobanovsky’s health went down­hill.

As ever, there was a deeper legacy. Lob­anovsky had masterminded an astonishing redevelopment of Dynamo’s training camp outside Kiev, incorporating its own sophisticated medical rehabilitation centre. Coaches from all over Europe have flocked to study Koncha Zaspa since its completion in 1998. Manchester United’s new facility and the FA’s planned National Football Centre at Burton-on-Trent are just two places where Loban­ov­sky’s influence will be felt for years to come.

From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month