To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Azerbaijan chose Anatoliy Banishevskiy as their Golden Player.
"There is a boy growing here who will be talked about by everyone. He is wonderfully co-ordinated, brave, sharp, and can feel the ball with his every nerve. He still lacks finesse. He is more a kitten now, but he will turn into a lynx. He is a forward from God."
Those words were spoken by the FK Neftyanik — later PFC Neftchi — coach, Boris Arkadjev, about the 17-year-old Anatoliy Banishevskiy in 1963. Two years later, the USSR coach, Nikolay Morozov, had seen enough to call Banishevskiy into his squad. The teenager responded by scoring seven times in eight games, including a hat-trick in an away match in Greece, a goal against Wales in Cardiff, and further strikes against Uruguay in Montevideo and Argentina in Buenos Aires.
That sequence was capped by a magnificent goal against Brazil at the Estádio do Maracanã which earned Banishevskiy a standing ovation and the USSR a 2-2 draw – their first positive result against the South Americans.
Mihail Yakushin, another Soviet national coach who worked with the striker, recalled: "Banishevskiy had this uncanny knack of knowing exactly where to go when an attack unfolded, and his movement always surprised defenders. If he got the right pass, and could beat the defender to the ball, you could count on him to create at least a goalscoring chance."
It was his selection by Morozov, however, that made 'Banya' the centre of attention. Few players had been handed an international debut at such a tender age. For a teenager from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to take the place of established forwards from the Moscow clubs was unheard of. Banishevskiy, though, remained unaffected by the fanfare that surrounded him. He was a simple man, and even as a young star in Baku, refused to take advantage of his new-found fame, except to help out friends and team-mates.
In all, Banishevskiy won 51 caps and scored 19 goals for the USSR, including one at the 1966 FIFA World Cup where the Soviets were semi-finalists. He also registered over a century of strikes in the Soviet league. These achievements helped to make him the best Azeri player of all time – and even more popular than the legendary Alekper Mamedov, who once put four goals past AC Milan at San Siro when playing for FC Dinamo Moskva.
What particularly endeared Banishevskiy was the fact that, unlike Mamedov, he stayed faithful both to Neftchi and to Azerbaijan, despite lucrative offers from FC Dynamo Kyiv and the Moscow clubs. "I would not be able to play away from Baku," was his stock reply. Indeed, any mention of Banishevskiy these days is incomplete without the depiction of a boy who played football for the sake of the game, not for a career or money; a footballer made on the streets who got to perform his art at the highest level.
Sadly, 'Banya' suffered from ill-health in his later years and died at the age of 51 in 1997, a poor and lonely man. Yet his funeral was possibly the greatest Baku has seen, as people came to terms with the loss of a sporting genius. A legendary player, he lives on in the hearts of those who saw him.
Last updated: 19 January 2011
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