Emerging from Lobanovskiy's shadow
Friday, May 15, 2009
Ukrainian success in European competition has traditionally been all about FC Dynamo Kyiv and Valeriy Lobanovskiy but as they gear up for the UEFA Cup final with Werder Bremen, FC Shakhtar Donetsk herald a new dawn.
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The grandfather of Ukrainian football, Valeriy Lobanovskiy's name is the thread that ties the nation's success on the international stage together. FC Shakhtar Donetsk's UEFA Cup final against Werder Bremen next Wednesday therefore marks a step into the unknown in more ways than one.
It is seven years since Lobanovskiy's death was marked by national mourning, with thousands lining the streets of Kiev as the hearse wound its way through the potholes to his final resting place at the Baykove cemetery. Yet his spirit lives on in Ukraine where, for more than a quarter of a century, he established himself as one of the world's most influential and innovative football coaches. Walking through the leafy boulevard towards FC Dynamo Kyiv's ground his image looms large on murals, billboards and a poignant statue, before you reach the pitch and tribunes of the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadium itself.
It is there that Shakhtar struck a real blow to Dynamo's domestic supremacy as a 1-1 first leg draw in the first ever all-Ukrainian UEFA Cup semi-final set them on course for an aggregate triumph and a place in Istanbul. Dynamo are old hands in European finals, having won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1975 and 1986 with Lobanovskiy in familiar pose, captured so well in his statue, gripped with anticipation and leaning forward on the corner of his bench. It was Lobanovskiy who fashioned Dynamo into a team of orderly skill and muscular talent, culminating in those UEFA Cup Winners' Cup triumphs as well as European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals in 1977 and 1987 before the advent of perestroika limited Ukrainian clubs' powers, creating an exit door which allowed players to find wealth in Italy and Germany.
Lobanovskiy, who also guided the Soviet Union to the UEFA European Championship final in 1988, himself departed in 1990, ending a 16-season stint as a coach that eclipsed his seven-year service as a goalscoring winger renowned for the quality of his delivery. Seven years later, after a spell in the Middle East, he was back; older, richer and plumper. The club, though in the midst of a run of nine successive top-flight titles, were beset by problems but Lobanovskiy was unperturbed. Led by a dynamic front line of Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko, Dynamo twice humiliated FC Barcelona in the 1997/98 UEFA Champions League and 12 months later they were gracing the semi-finals, leading FC Bayern München 2-0 at one stage but eventually losing 4-3 on aggregate.
Shakhtar, with whom Lobanovskiy ended his playing career, were in an identical position in their previous furthest sortie into UEFA club competition, in the 1984 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals. Having taken a 2-0 lead after 37 minutes of the first leg in Porto, they went on to lose 3-2 and drew the second leg 1-1 at home, Mickey Walsh scoring a decisive equaliser on the night for the visitors. Shakhtar have rarely threatened since, but Football Federation of Ukraine president Grigoriy Surkis believes they are spearheading a "renaissance" of the game in his country. "We feel like we are returning to the great years of our past – 1975, when Dynamo won their first European trophy [the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup], then 1986 [when they won it again].
"Having three clubs in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup [Shakhtar, Dynamo and FC Metalist Kharkiv] is an achievement for Ukrainian clubs; we are living in a renaissance period," Surkis continued. "Nobody believed in the chances of the Ukrainian teams before the start of this competition. We have warranted respect from even the biggest clubs in Europe." They have certainly had that before, from the biggest players too and though Shevchenko departed for AC Milan soon after the Bayern match, he did not forget to pay his dues, particularly to Lobanovskiy, returning with the UEFA Champions League trophy a year after his mentor's death and displaying it before his statue. Ukrainian football has not forgotten their debt either, but this season's UEFA Cup success suggests they are learning to live without him, and no longer is it all about Dynamo.