Modern football as we know it owes a lot to Euro 2012 co-host Ukraine.
Take today’s Barcelona. While it’s true a lot of Barca’s game has its origins in the Netherlands and can be traced back from Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels to the Ajax of the early 1970s, many of the style-defining concepts they were using -- such as aggressive zonal-marking and pressing -- were first pioneered by Viktor Maslov in the mid to late 1960s at Dynamo Kiev.
Once put into practice, these theories would eventually change the game forever from a slow and ponderous affair in which each player appeared to have an eternity on the ball to a much faster spectacle in which opponents were given little time to think and less space to work in.
Maslov conceived it all. Standing on the sidelines, flicking at a cigarette lighter and bracing himself against the cold, this Muscovite with his receding line of salt-and-pepper hair ignited a football revolution. His ideas spread like wildfire, as tapes were cut and articles wrote about the famous Dynamo side of his that won the Soviet League three times in a row in the mid-1960s.
But Maslov was eventually eclipsed by one of his former players -- not as an out-of-favor winger as he once had been, but as the club’s coach. Valeriy Lobanovskyi would very soon become more widely recognized than his old boss as one of football’s most influential thinkers.
Sold after a fallout with Maslov in 1964, Lobanovskyi returned to the club a decade later and laid out a vision of a game that, to him, was more about science than art. During what might be considered his apprenticeship as a coach at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Lobanovskyi came into contact with professor Anatoly Zelentsov, a dean of the local Institute of Physical Science. Together, they established one of football’s most innovative partnerships, and Lobanovskyi would use this approach at Dynamo Kiev.
Dynamo’s Cup Winners’ Cup winning sides in 1975 and 1986 were a synthesis of brain and brawn, of mind and matter. Each of them featured a player -- Oleh Blokhin, then Ihor Belanov -- voted by their contemporaries worthy of the prestigious Ballon d’Or , but make no mistake, they were a triumph of the collective, not the individual.
Behind this success was the drilling of Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov. Long before performance analysis departments were even conceived among Europe’s elite clubs, Dynamo collected rafts of statistics on their players and subjected them to intensive physical and mental testing. There were computer games designed specifically to gauge reaction times, endurance and a player’s ability to remember where teammates and opponents played on the pitch.
Plays were meticulously choreographed and repeated over and over on the training ground until they became second nature. What this meant was that Dynamo practically did everything up to and including players’ ability to memorize – and in the unlikely event they forgot anything, Zelentsov’s tests ensured they were at the least very quick thinking.
At the heart of their efforts to create intelligent athletes was the ideal of universality whereby it was encouraged that everyone play anywhere on the pitch. Defenders had to know how to attack. Attackers had to know how to defend. The switching of roles and interchanging of positions was “Total” and done without a second thought.
These were among the core principles of Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov’s book "The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models." Able to transfer their model into international football during three spells in charge of what was then the USSR national team by calling up and relying upon a vast swathe of Dynamo players, they very nearly came close to replicating their success at club level.
Take, for instance, their friendly with Poland on the eve of the 1988 European Championship in West Germany. When the team sheet reached the press box, many of the journalists present were left scratching their heads. Lobanovskyi had named only two nominal defenders and six midfielders. Sounds relatively familiar with what we came to expect from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, doesn’t it? The USSR pressed the Poles in their own half, recovered the ball dangerously high up the pitch and, all things considered, should have won by a greater margin than 2-1.
Following that, the USSR went on to reach the final of the Euros that year. The tournament almost ended in glory, but the USSR lost to the Netherlands, coached by Michels. Lobanovskyi’s side, which beat the Netherlands in the group stage, succumbed to one of the greatest goals of all time scored by Marco van Basten as well as a bullet header powered in by his clubmate at AC Milan, Ruud Gullit.
It was a disappointment for Lobanovskyi. But his legacy lives on.
When the Ukraine starts its Euro 2012 campaign against Sweden in Kiev on June 11, it will be coached by Oley Blokhin and likely captained by Andriy Shevchenko. Another player developed by Lobanovskyi, Shevchenko helped Dynamo reach the Champions League semifinals in 1999 before joining AC Milan, where he’d win the Ballon d’Or in 2004.
‘Loba’ lives on through them. He remains the greatest figure in Ukrainian football, but his ideas about the game aren’t limited to its borders. They stretch far beyond. In the best spirit of Lobanovskyi, they are universal.