Football in Belarus hit a new low in October, with defeat to Luxembourg, but November 19 is the 25th anniversary of its finest hour: Dinamo Minsk’s sole Soviet title success. Jonathan Wilson looks back
“There were people with flowers and kisses and love,” Mikhail Vergeenko remembers. It is that, rather than anything else, that seems most to affect the former goalkeeper as he looks back on Dinamo Minsk’s title success of 25 years ago, the club’s only trophy in the Soviet era. “Nothing organised, just love.”
This was what indicated the scale of their achievement. Crowds in Belarus do not take to the streets and they certainly didn’t in the uneasy days immediately following the death of Leonid Brezhnev, for so long the de facto ruler of the USSR; spontaneity was dangerous and frowned upon, but as the team arrived by train from Moscow, after winning their final two games, they were overwhelmed by fans. That, a quarter of a century on, Belarus should lose at home to Luxembourg in a Euro 2008 qualifier only adds poignancy to the memories. “Football was a distraction for the people, some of whom did not live happy lives,” defender Andrei Zygmantovich has said. “You couldn’t get tickets for the stadium then. It was an amazing time.”
The spontaneity of the celebration was appropriate. This Dinamo, after all, were the most spontaneous of teams. With Dynamo Kyiv, 270 miles to the south-east in Ukraine, Valeriy Lobanovskyi was pioneering the use of computer technology to show what could be done by turning football into a science; in Minsk, under Eduard Malofeev, it was very definitely an art. Malofeev described his philosophy as one of “sincere football”. “It was honest football,” explains Gennadiy Abramovich, a former team-mate and assistant to Malofeev. “No causing injuries, no bumping, no barging: just kicking the ball. No paying money to referees outside the ground. And attacking, pure football. Football of the heart, not of the head.”
“Lobanovskyi was a coach by maths; Malofeev was more romantic,” Vergeenko says. “The main thing he always wanted from the players was that they should express themselves on the pitch. ‘If you give your all,’ he said, ‘the fans will love you.’”
That Dinamo side included a number of Soviet internationals, most notably the midfielders Sergei Aleinikov, who scored against England at Euro 88, and Sergei Gotsmanov, who had spells with Brighton and Southampton, but the player they loved most was the most gifted of them all, an attacking midfielder whose lifestyle would have disbarred him from getting anywhere near a Lobanovskyi side – Aleksandr Prokopenko. A painfully shy man, he was so tormented by a speech impediment that he refused ever to do interviews. It didn’t matter: Dinamo fans knew what he thought because he drank with them. More than that, he was one of them, just another worker from Minsk who happened to be a superb instinctive footballer, and a hard-working one at that. “The fans knew he would go for 90 minutes,” the journalist Vasily Sarychev wrote in a book celebrating Belarus’s top sportsmen. “He would sooner die than cease his motion on the pitch through tiredness or laziness.”
His drinking after playing in the USSR team that came third in the 1980 Moscow Olympics led him to miss the end of the season, but he returned to score the iconic goal of the 1982 campaign, a backheel against Kyiv. As Dinamo’s form slid in the mid-1980s, his alcoholism got worse and he was forced to spend time at a state-sponsored rehab clinic. The club, under orders from the local Communist Party, refused to take him back, but Abramovich, who effectively became a mentor to him, persuaded the second-division side Dnepr Mogilev to sign him. After a season there he moved to Azerbaijan with Neftchi Baku, but it was only a brief respite. He was readmitted to the clinic in 1989, but died two months later, aged 35. “He was followed by the smell of grass and of skin, by the joy of his goals and by empty cans,” Sarychev wrote. “When the need for football went, the urge died in him, the urge he was born to fulfil.”
Brilliant but unpredictable, Prokopenko was the model of a Malofeev footballer. Lobanovskyi, predictably, was scathing of Malofeev’s idealism. As he pointed out after one match, for all Dinamo Minsk fans raved about the Prokopenko backheel, the game was drawn. “When somebody mentioned it,” Abramovich recalls, “he slapped his hand to his head and said, ‘In my life I have seen many things, but never sincere football.’”
That wasn’t the only difference in their approaches. The suggestion that for Lobanovskyi players were faceless cogs is exaggerated, but for him the system was paramount. “Don’t think! Just play!” he once screamed at a midfielder who dared question him. “I think, you play!”
Malofeev, though, was a psychologist. “We would have a team talk three hours before each game,” Vergeenko remembers. “He looked into the players’ eyes, at each one, eye to eye. He was like a doctor. He analysed players and he knew straightaway their strong points and their weak points. He was a person who could get to your heart, your soul. He knew how to talk to people.” Vergeenko blames Malofeev’s failure at Hearts last year – with no wins in his four games, he is statistically their worst ever manager – on the lack of a decent translator.
Vergeenko remembers in particular the game at Pakhtakor Tashkent in Uzbekistan. “It was 40 degrees plus in the shade. The game was at 6pm, but at noon, Malofeev said, ‘OK, let’s go and train.’ The workers in the ground were shocked. They were sitting there out of the heat drinking water, and Malofeev brings his team for training. But that evening, we knew we could deal with the heat and we won 3-0, and they were a good team at that time.”
After beating Lokomotiv 7-0 in their penultimate game, Dinamo faced Spartak Moscow, indoors, needing a win; a draw would have meant a play-off against Dynamo Kyiv, assuming they won – as they did – at Ararat Yerevan. It was widely believed in Belarus that, in 1954, Spartak had cheated Dinamo Minsk out of a second-place finish with a bout of match-fixing, and the fear was they would do something similar to hand the title to Dynamo Kyiv. Malofeev was concerned by his side’s negativity, but responded with the team-talk of his life. “Imagine,” he said, “there is a troop of monkeys crossing a field. On the other side of the field is a group of lions. Many different things could happen. Maybe the lions will tear the monkeys to pieces. Or maybe one of the monkeys will go first, and will distract the lions, and will sacrifice himself so the other monkeys will live. Today, as monkeys, we must sacrifice ourselves for the victory.” Dinamo were inspired. “I thought, ‘I am the goalkeeper, maybe I will be injured, but the main thing is that the team will win,’” Vergeenko says. They did, but only after an epic game.
Spartak went ahead after 17 minutes, but two goals from Ivan Gurinovich before half-time gave Dinamo the lead. As Petr Vasilevsky and Aleinikov struck within the first 12 minutes of the second half, Dinamo looked home and hosed, only for two opposition goals to put the game back in the balance. “How we waited for those final minutes to slip away,” as the club’s official history put it. “Then, at 8.47 it was true. Dinamo Minsk were champions.” And they had done it, appropriately enough given Malofeev’s ethos, with a 4-3 win.
From WSC 250 December 2007