Vadim FurmanovComment

A HISTORY OF FOOTBALL IN UKRAINE 1945-1972

Vadim FurmanovComment

Three years after the National Stadium was set to open, Kyiv was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Red Army. The banner that read “postponed until victory” on the original opening day of the war proved accurate. On June 25, 1944, three years and three days after the bombs of the Luftwaffe first fell on the city, the National Stadium finally opened its doors to the public, as Dynamo took on CDKA Moscow. Immediately after the match, however, it became obvious that the damage done to the stadium over the course of the occupation rendered it unsafe, and it was once again closed down for reconstruction. It was again reopened in 1948; all fans who managed to survive the war and hold on to their tickets for the original opening in 1941 were granted free access for life.

After the war, the borders of the Ukrainian SSR were expanded to include the entirety of the territory of the modern day republic. The cities of Lviv and Uzhorod in Western Ukraine became significant sources of football talent. But in the decade following the victory over the Germans, Ukrainian football was hardly making an impact in the Soviet League. Dynamo Kyiv was decimated. Many of their players were killed, maimed, or simply disappeared during the German occupation. Of the 22 players who were part of the squad for the originally scheduled opening match in 1941, only 2 remained on the roster.

As a result of the devastating losses, Dynamo was in shambles. In the first post-war Soviet Championship in 1945, Dynamo finished second to last. The next season they were dead last, but were granted a reprieve from relegation due to their tragic wartime fate. The job of head coach was a revolving door position at the club; from 1946 through 1951 Dynamo went through no fewer than 10 managers.

It was the Russian manager Oleg Oshenkov who finally brought a measure of stability to the club following his appointment in 1951. Oshenkov promoted many players from the youth side, drastically reduced the time his players had for winter holiday, and initiated a program of intense physical preparation. Results immediately followed. In just his second year in charge, Dynamo finished second in the league, runners up to perennial powerhouse Spartak Moscow. In 1954 Dynamo conquered their first piece of silverware, the Soviet Cup. Along the way they defeated the powerful Moscow sides Spartak and CSKA and Zenit of Leningrad, before dispatching Spartak Yerevan of Armenia 2-1 in the final.

Though Dynamo was by now far and away the dominant team of Ukraine, they were not the only side from the republic competing in the Soviet League. Stakhanovets Stalino, the forbearer of Shakhtar Donetsk, played in the Soviet League from 1949-52, and from 1955 onwards became a mainstay in the top flight. In 1960 a team from Kharkiv, Avangard, was promoted to the top league, although they were relegated after just four seasons. Later teams from Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, and Voroshilovgrad (later Luhansk) would participate in the Soviet league as well.

But Dynamo was, without a doubt, the flagship side of Ukrainian football. Though throughout the 1950s they were not able to add to their Soviet Cup, Dynamo players began to be called up for the Soviet national team. In 1955, Victor Fomin became the first Dynamo player to play for the USSR, while Yuriy Voinov was a part of both the Soviet Union side that took part in the 1958 World Cup and that won the inaugural European Championship in 1960. Then, in 1961, Dynamo finally broke the Muscovite hegemony and became the first team outside of the capital to win the Soviet League. In that same year Shakhtar won the Soviet Cup. Ukrainian football had arrived.

The 1961 title was just a taste of what was to come.  In the two seasons after Dynamo's first ever championship, their fortunes slipped as they finished 5th and 7th, but this would prove to be a minor blip in their relentless ascent to the pinnacle of Soviet football.  In 1964, the Russian manager Viktor Maslov was appointed to the head coaching position at Dynamo.  Maslov, a man with an 8th grade education, effectively revolutionized the way game was played.  After his arrival he incurred the wrath of many Dynamo followers by dropping such distinguished players as Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Yuriy Voinov, and Oleg Basilevish, all of whom played a major role in Dynamo's inaugural title.  Maslov was reportedly unhappy with the formation of factions within the camp, and saw these players as instigators of this cliquey culture.

But there were also footballing reasons for their departure.  Maslov was a pioneer of the heavy pressing game, and may have felt that these players were ill-suited for this demanding tactic.  He also introduced the 4-4-2 at approximately the same time as Sir Alf Ramsey, the 1966 World Cup winning English manager who is often cited as the inventor of this formation.  Vitaliy Khmelnytsky, who transferred to Dynamo from Shakhtar in 1964 and became a key player in Maslov's squad, recalls:

"Maslov sought to make the team attack and defend with the maximum number of players.  The two forwards up top were supported by a quartet of half-backs who, when necessary, performed defensive duties as well.  In my view, it was in those years that the common saying that the midfield defines the identity and power of every team emerged."

Maslov also stressed the importance of physical superiority and implemented a strict training regime.  Khmelnytsky, when asked how Maslov knew so much about coaching, simply said "From God.  Some people are born musicians, poets, painters.  Maslov was born a coach."  The noted British journalist Jonathan Wilson, an authority on both Eastern European football and the history and evolution of tactics, wrote that Maslov's tactical developments could be seen as the "birth of modern football."

Results followed immediately.  In the very same year won their second Soviet Cup.  More significantly, this allowed Dynamo entry into the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.  Prior to this point the Soviet authorities had not allowed their clubs to participate in continental competitions, presumably out of fear of being humiliated by the capitalist clubs of their Cold War adversaries.  But this time, surprisingly, Dynamo was allowed to compete, becoming the first Soviet team to take part in a Europe-wide tournament.  Andriy Biba, the midfielder who scored the first ever Soviet goal in any European competition, later said:

"Why [the decision to allow Dynamo to compete] was made, I don't know, but in the squad we thought that we were being used as essentially lab rats.  For the celebrated Moscow clubs this was very useful; they could take a good look at the tournament, without risking their reputations.  We had to play 'blindly.'   We did not have access to any tapes of our future opponents.  As for the idea that the coaching staff could travel and see their matches live, this was the realm of fantasy.  Everything was new and unknown.  One word - pioneers."

Despite the lack of any knowledge of their adversaries, Dynamo performed admirably in their first taste of continental competition.  Accompanied by KGB agents to discourage any politically inappropriate behaviour, they defeated the Northern Irish side Coleraine FC 10-1 on aggregate, before dismissing Rosenborg BK of Norway 6-1.  They were eliminated in the quarter finals by Celtic, a year before the Scottish outfit famously conquered Europe and became the first British side to win the European Cup.

Domestic success followed as well.  Dynamo won the USSR Championship three times in a row from 1966-68, replicating the feat of CSKA Moscow accomplished in 1946-48.  In 1966 the gap between Dynamo and second place FC Ska of Rostov was nine points, in an era when only two points were given for a win.  That same year Andriy Biba was named Soviet footballer of the year.  In addition, Dynamo won the Soviet Cup for a third time in 1966, their first ever domestic double. In their first appearance in the European Cup, Dynamo eliminated holders Celtic in the first round but were themselves knocked out of the competition by Polish champions Górnik Zabrze in the very next round.

But all great eras come to an end, and Maslov was about to find out the hard way that prior results meant nothing if he could not keep Dynamo at the top.  After a 2nd place finish in 1969 was followed by a slip to 7th the following year, he was sacked in controversial circumstances.  An eventual change in manager may have been inevitable, but the unceremonious way in which Maslov was dismissed was unworthy of his contributions to the club.  Dynamo were in Moscow for an away match against CSKA.  In an interview with the Soviet daily Sport Express, Andriy Biba revealed:

"The dismissal of  [Maslov] was simply disgusting.  Can you imagine?  They were scared to tell him in Kyiv!  Unexpectedly, Mizyak, a member of the Ukrainian Sporting Committee who had nothing to do with football but was responsible for overlooking Winter sports, arrived at the hotel 'Rossiya' where the team was staying.  Our cowardly football chiefs entrusted specifically this person to let Maslov know that Kyiv no longer required his services... how we managed to play the next day, I can't remember.  We're leaving for the airport, and he's staying.  There was such anguish in [Maslov's] eyes.  And tears, that no one had ever seen before."   

And thus, Dynamo Kyiv's first ever golden age came to a shameful end.  But despite the ignominious circumstances surrounding Maslov's sacking, he left an indelible legacy at Dynamo and built the foundations for the construction of a legendary team on the banks of the Dnipro River.  This foundation now needed a foreman, a new visionary to take them to the next level.

Despite Dynamo's success Ukrainian players continued to be overlooked by the Soviet national team.  At the 1966 World Cup, just five Dynamo players were selected, and of these only one, Yozhef Sabo, was a regular in the starting eleven.  No other Ukrainian sides were represented.  But toward the end of the 1960s, the Muscovite core of the national team, including Lev Yashin, Eduard Streltsov, and Vladimir Ponomarev, were approaching the twilight of their respective careers.  This allowed for more opportunities for the younger Ukrainian generation.  At the 1972 European Championships, six Ukrainian players were called up.  This time, players from Zarya Voroshilovgrad, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Karpaty Lviv were also included in the side that lost to West Germany in the final.

Although Dynamo continued to dominate Ukrainian football, other sides from the republic were also making waves in Soviet competitions.  In 1969 Karpaty of Lviv became the first and only team to ever win the Soviet Cup while not playing in the top division; they were in the First League at the time.  In the final, 4,000 fans travelled the 1,400 kilometre long  journey to Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium to support their side against SKA of Rostov.  Though Karpaty went behind in the 20th minute, their fans did not lose their voice.  The traveling contingent sang the popular Ukrainian language song 'Cheremshyna' throughout the match.  Ihor Kulchytsky, the captain of Karpaty, recalls:

"That song, 'Cheremshyna,' that could be heard all around the stadium, did something incredible to us.  I even teared up out of nervousness.”

Inspired by their faithful, Karpaty managed to pull back two goals in the second half and took home the trophy.  They took part in the Cup Winners' Cup the following season, and despite a valiant effort they went out in the first round to Steaua Bucharest.

This article originally appeared in footandball.net

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