Gomel’s battle of ideologies against Liverpool

The city of Gomel can be traced back to the time of the first millennium where the medieval western Slavic tribe widely known as the Radimichs developed, upon the naturally fortificated banks of the Sozh River, a homestead that would gradually develop into one of eastern Belarus’ most prominent cities. Gomel’s tumultuous history has seen it captured and recaptured, over the past few hundred years, by various Slavic princes who viewed the area as a potentially important location for trade and commerce before eventually becoming the city that it is today, within one of the most controversial nations in Europe.

Prominent claims over the past decade have escalated the view that Belarus remains one of the last remaining ‘outposts of tyranny’ within the continent of Europe. These may well be damning insights into the former Soviet Republic, however they do serve to hold true in the light of Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial rule, which has left the nation firmly rooted in the Soviet ideals of old. The overly authoritarian President has ushered through an era of consolidation for the mentality of the past within a post Soviet world, and waltzed Belarus in the direction of condemnation from the western world.

It’s unsurprising that such an establishment would be forced to face the wrath of the international community, who only recently opened investigations against the Belarusian government amidst claims of torture and the dismal treatment of prisoners – particularly in regards to those who have been abused as a result of their opposition of the political situation in the nation. The actions of the United Nations have been equally matched by the European Union, who has issued strong economic sanctions against the Lukashenko regime by enforcing travel bans, freezing the assets of key members of the judiciary and by placing restrictions upon three companies known to be held closely to the Belarusian President.

Within such a volatile political climate, that seems entirely at odds with the mentality of business that the modern game of football has developed, it will be strange sight to see the famed red of Liverpool take to the field against Belarusian opponents, who had been facing the humiliation of relegation a mere three years previously.

Gomel’s history since the turn of the century has been marred by the greatest of highs and devastating of lows. The club’s maiden title victory in 2003, following a string of mid table finishes, was a defining moment in the history of a team who had failed to reach the promised land of the Soviet Top League during the nation’s time of prominence. Aside from Dinamo Minsk, and latterly BATE Borisov, few sides have managed to forge a stranglehold upon Belarusian football in a manner that points to degrees of consistency. Such a curse has been felt by Gomel since Sergei Podpaly led the club to glory in the early part of the last decade, accompanied by the goal scoring exploits of Gennadi Bliznyuk.

Since lifting the league title, Gomel have entered yet another period of mediocrity as, aside from a runners up finish in 2007, the club has toiled to finishes that do not befit the hopes and expectations that swelled in the wake of their league title success. This fact was compounded in 2009 where, following a narrow relegation escape the previous season thanks to a last day victory over Partizan Minsk, the club suffered the humiliation of relegation and the prospect of lower level football.

The club’s emphatic promotion back to the Belarusian Premier League, by a margin of some 24 points, was matched by an impressive showing upon their return to the top flight. It was during last season that Gomel managed to achieve a third placed finish, behind Shakhtyor Soligorsk and eventual champions BATE.
Such a season came as a much needed boost to a club who were desperately attempting to re-establish themselves as forerunners of the domestic game. If last season was viewed as consolidation, then this term can be seen as a chance for real progression. Gomel may presently sit behind both Shakhtyor and BATE once again, however the gap between the sides has narrowed to the point where Gomel may quietly consider themselves to be title contenders. There may be some 8 points separating the club from the top spot, however games in hand mean that such a gap could be lessened to merely 2 points, and as such the exertion of pressure on the established power of BATE would be complete.

It will therefore be a significant moment when Oleg Kubarev leads his Gomel side out into the cosy atmosphere of the Central Stadion, to face a team steeped as steeped in history as Liverpool. The match up may well represent a contrast of styles, particularly with the possession based game that Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side are likely to adopt, and ideologies – politically, socially and in a sporting sense – however there can be little doubt that Kubarev’s side will provide a stubborn outfit on home turf, despite the lengthy summer break that the Belarusian football calendar is currently witnessing.

Gomel’s tenacity in defence has been a key facet of their development this season, which has been partnered by a significant degree of impotency up front. The attacking threat of Dmitri Platonov, as well as Vadim Demidovich, is unlikely to provide Liverpool with too many issues in their own half however, as with Belarus’ performances in this summer’s Olympic Games, there remains a threat that a single counter attack could yield an unexpected goal which will in turn be defended to the hilt.

It is unlikely that Gomel will manage to cause an upset of the highest order against English opposition; however the very fact that they are able to pit themselves in European competition is a feat in itself. There remains great pride that Kubarev has managed to push Gomel back to the fore of Belarusian football, and while the landscape of the nation itself may prevent the game of football from replicating the successes of either Russia or Ukraine, there remains hope that slowly and surely Belarus can become a respected nation in a sporting sense – even while it continues to remains politically volatile.

From the Second World War to Perestroika: Ukraine’s Forgotten Legacy

Originally posted on Passive Offside.

This is the second in a three part series chronicling the history of Ukrainian football.  Read the first here.  

Post War Troubles

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.

Gradual Recovery
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 forebearer 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.

Maslov’s Era

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 behavior, 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.

Outside the capital

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 traveled the 1,400 kilometer 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.

1972 saw another shocking result: Zorya Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk), an unfancied side from a provincial capital in Eastern Ukraine, won the Soviet Championship.  Along the way, they battered Dynamo 3-0 and also defeated the Moscow sides of CSKA, Dinamo, and Spartak.  Zorya became the first team not from a capital of a republic to win the Soviet championship, a feat unmatched until Zenit Leningrad won the title in 1984.

The Scientific Revolution

In a twist of history, the man that would build on Maslov’s legacy was none other than Valeriy Lobanovskyi, one of the players pushed out by Maslov when he was first appointed by Dynamo.  Lobanovskyi, renowned for his ability to score Olimpico style goals directly from corners, went on to play several more seasons in Chernomorets Odessa, before finishing his career at Shakhtar Donetsk.  Immediately upon retirement from playing he became the head coach of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.  During his tenure at Dnipro the club was promoted to the Soviet Top League and he led them to a 6th place finish in 1972.  He caught the eye of the Dynamo Kyiv establishment and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party.  Shcherbytsky himself invited Lobanovskyi to join his favored club, and in the Soviet Union requests from Party Chiefs are notoriously difficult to turn down.

It was not just Lobanovskyi’s modest success at guiding Dnipro from the depths to the first division to a respectable top flight finish that endeared him to Dynamo Kyiv.  Following in the footsteps of his distinguished predecessors Oshenkov and Maslov, ‘Loba’ was both a tactical visionary and a disciplinarian with a healthy obsession over the physical fitness of his players.  He was a perfectionist who believed in the power of science.  He thought that football was a game that could be, with the help of modern technology, be broken down and systematically analyzed to create a winning formula.  A chance meeting with Anatoliy Zelentsov, a statistician who was at the time the Dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science, was the moment that allowed Lobanovskyi’s vision of football to become a reality.

The two began to collaborate, applying the latest advancements in computer technology to football.  In his classic 1994 book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper writes:

“Zelentsov worked from the premise that since a fraction of a second’s thought can be too long in modern football, a player had to know where to pass  before he got the ball.  To this end, Dynamo’s players had to memorize set plays, as if they were American footballers, and had to run off the ball in set patterns.”

According to Zelentsov’s calculations, a team that commits an error in less than 18% of a game’s key situations is unbeatable.  These statistics were the basis for Lobanovskyi’s training sessions which were characterized by predetermined patterns of play deeply embedded in the tactical structure of the team.  The positional switching of Rinus Michels’ Total Football tactics prominently featured as well.  In his own words, Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov described their ideas in a book entitled The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models:

“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.”    

It was Scientific Communism meets Total Football.  His rigorous style may not have always been particularly pleasing on the eyes, especially considering that ‘Loba’ preferred the strategy of playing for a draw away and only going for the win at home over the course of the domestic season.  But the success was immense.

The Golden Ages

After Maslov was sacked, the head coaching position was entrusted to the Russian manager Aleksandr Sevidov.  Sevidov, favoring an attacking mentality, led the Kyiv side to the Soviet championship in his first season in charge, but two subsequent second place finishes and a an embarrassing collapse to Ararat Yerevan in the 1973 Soviet Cup final sealed his fate.  Under his tutelage, however, two youngsters, striker Oleh Blokhin and playmaker Leonid Buryak, made a name for themselves and became first team players.

Then, under Lobanovskyi, Dynamo attained heights unprecedented for a side from the Soviet Union.  In his first season in charge Dynamo once again won the Soviet Top League and achieved their second domestic double by winning the Soviet Cup as well.  Over the course of his 17 year tenure (interrupted in 1983 due to national team commitments), Dynamo would become Soviet champions six more times, ensuring their status as the USSR’s most decorated club side, and Lobanovskyi’s as its most decorated manager.  In addition, Dynamo took home five more Soviet cups including two more doubles.

But as impressive as this domestic success was, it was Dynamo’s performances on the continental arena that have cemented their place in footballing lore as one of the game’s legendary sides.  Lobanovskyi’s first foray into European competition was the 1973-74 UEFA Cup, when Dynamo went out in the third round to VfB Stuttgart.  The next season, however, their fortunes would change.  On account of Ararat’s 1973 domestic double, Dynamo was granted entry into the 1974-75 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, since they were runners up in the Soviet Cup.   Led by the inspirational Blokhin, Dynamo tore through their opponents and lost only one match on their way to the final, a 2-1 second leg defeat to PSV Eindhoven in the second leg of the semifinals after 3-0 victory in the first leg.  The final at St. Jakob Stadium in Basel was no contest.   Up against the Hungarian side Ferencváros, Dynamo simply dominated (video).  The team chemistry and mutual understanding in the team was far superior to anything the Hungarians could throw at them.  Dynamo was 2-0 up at half time through a brace from Volodymyr Onyshchenko.  Blokhin sealed the victory in the second half with a Maradona-esque run and finish.  For the first time, a Soviet side had attained European glory.

More was to come from Lobanovskyi’s men.  The UEFA Super Cup, a competition held between the winners of the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, was to be held for the second ever time that year.  Dynamo Kyiv went up against the German giants of Bayern München, fresh off their second successive European Cup.  That Bayern side, often ranked among the greatest European club sides of all time, were heavy favorites against the upstarts from Ukraine.  But once again led by Blokhin, Dynamo dazzled and defeated the Bavarians 3-0 over two legs to secure their second European honors.  Blokhin, who scored all three goals, deservedly took home the Ballon d’Or in 1975 as the best European player of the year.

Eleven years later, Dynamo replicated their success in perhaps the best example of Lobanovskyi’s philosophy put into action.  Blokhin, still a hugely important player in the squad, was partnered this time by Ihor Belanov.  The two strikers, along with teammate Konstantin Zavarov and Frank Lippmann of Dynamo Dresden, all finished joint top scorers of that year’s competition with 5 goals each.  In the final, Dynamo met Atlético Madrid.  Once again, Dynamo won 3-0, and once again Blokhin got on the scoresheet in a European final, finishing off a beautiful counterattacking move in the 85th minute (video).  That year, Belanov took home the Ballon d’Or.

Lobanovskyi and the National Team

Unlike in earlier eras, Dynamo’s growing status as a footballing powerhouse was no longer overlooked by the Soviet sporting authorities when Lobanovskyi was at the club.  In the Soviet Union’s first match in their UEFA Euro 1976 qualifying campaign they were embarrassed 3-0 by the Republic of Ireland.  After this defeat, the Football Federation of the Soviet Union sacked then head coach Konstantin Beskov and appointed Lobanovskyi to the position.  Lobanovskyi quickly transformed the national team and used his Dynamo as a model.  There was a marked improvement in the results, but nevertheless they failed to qualify for the competition, falling in the final qualifying round to eventual winners Czechoslovakia.  In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, the USSR won the Bronze medal.  The 17 man squad consisted of eleven players from Dynamo and was led by their manager.  Ukraine, for centuries dominated politically and culturally by the centralized Russian state, was now reasserting its identity through its footballing domination of Moscow.  The Dynamo fans came up with a catchphrase: “The Soviet Union national team is just Dynamo Kyiv, weakened by the presence of players from other clubs.”

But this state of affairs did not sit well with the Moscow party officials.  Before the 1976 qualifier in Bratislava, just eight years after the Soviets invaded the country to  crush the Prague Spring uprising, the Soviet authorities sent a memorandum to the national team: “You are taking all the responsibility [for the result] into your own hands.”  Though the USSR was beyond the era of Gulags and show trials, the attitude of Moscow toward the national team that heavily featured Ukrainian players was clear.  Despite the Bronze medal in Montreal, where the Soviets defeated Brazil in the third place match, Lobanovskyi was fired after the tournament.  The failure to win gold was seen as a failure back home.  At the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, the Soviet squad consisted of just two players from Dynamo.  The Soviets once again won the Bronze medal.  Volodymyr Veremeyev, a former Dynamo Kyiv player and member of the 1976 edition of the Soviet Union, recalls:

“Only in 1980 was the result seen in a positive light, unlike 1976.  After Montreal, right away players were stripped of their ‘Master of Sport’ rankings.  This is what the rivalry between Moscow and Kyiv meant, and the pressure we felt from the capital of the Soviet Union.”

Despite the mutual antagonism felt between Moscow and Kyiv, Lobanovskyi returned to the managerial role for the national team in 1984 but was quickly dismissed after the Soviets failed to qualify in controversial circumstances.  The defeat to Portugal that sealed the USSR’s fate was decided on a penalty awarded to the Portuguese for a foul that took place outside the box; even science cannot completely account for human error.  He was appointed to the head coaching position again just two years later, after the Soviet Union had gotten off to a disastrous start to World Cup qualifying, failing to win any of their first three matches.  Lobanovskyi’s tried and true method – simply replacing the squad with his Dynamo players – worked like a charm.   Results were instantaneous, and the USSR qualified for the 1986 World Cup as group runners up.  Twelve of the twenty-two players selected for the final tournament in Mexico were from Dynamo.  The Soviet Union raced through their group and came up against Belgium in the second round.  The match was 2-2 after 90 minutes, but Belgium ran out 4-3 winners after a thrilling extra time period.  The match in the Soviet Union is still remembered with anger and heartbreak; the Belgian second goal, allege the Soviet fans, was clearly offside.

1988 was the last hurrah for Lobanovskyi as manager of the national side.  Once again, the squad was heavily drawn from Dynamo.  In the first match of the tournament against the Netherlands which the Soviet Union won 1-0, 9 of the 11 starters were from the Kyiv side.  The two teams met again in the final, but this time Marco van Basten’s moment of magic was too much for the Soviets to overcome.  The Dutch won 2-0, and the Kyiv core had to settle with a runners up medal.  Glory in international competition proved to be just outside of their grasp.

Behind the Scenes

This history of Ukrainian football may at times read more like a history of Dynamo Kyiv.  But there are political and structural reasons for why Dynamo came to dominate Ukrainian, and then eventually Soviet, football.  Many of these reasons have to do with the aforementioned Volodymyr Shcherbytsky.  Shcherbytsky was not just a high ranking Communist Party official, he was also a fanatical supporter of Dynamo Kyiv.  Unlike in Moscow, where the party chiefs split their support and patronage among the various clubs, Kyiv was a one-club city with a party power base entirely dedicated to ensuring the success of Dynamo.

Kyiv’s status as capital of the Ukrainian SSR and thus the seat of the Ukrainian Politburo served Dynamo well.  Genadiy Orlov, the former footballer and current commentator on Russian television, revealed in an interview:

“The mechanism by which Dynamo was propelled to the top of the table was well developed in the Central Committee of Ukraine, led by Volodymyr Shcherbytsky.  His first secretary would call his colleagues in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa.  He would say something along the lines of ‘Dynamo is the flagman of our republic, you have to help us out.  Let’s play to a draw at your stadium, and in Kyiv, we’ll play on equal footing.’  Just try to beat Dynamo in Kyiv on equal footing!”

The same mechanism applied to the transfer system as well.  For example, after Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk went through their ‘golden years’ in the mid 80s during which they twice won the league, many of their players were ‘encouraged’ to move to Kyiv.  A phone call from Shcherbytsky’s office to anywhere else in Ukraine all but ensured that all of the best Ukrainian players ended up in Dynamo.  The Central Committee also interfered in Dynamo’s internal affairs.  When Dynamo finished a disappointing 10th in 1984, a congress was convened to discuss the situation.  Journalist Aleksandr Gorbunov writes:

“Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the head of the Ukrainian party, and the entire republic, held a meeting, where one important issue was discussed: the coach of Dynamo.  Shcherbytsky, according to witnesses, silently listened to the speakers, including those defending the position of the lobbyists (who wanted Lobanovskyi dismissed), then sharply declared ‘Lobanovskyi remains the coach.  The question is closed.'”

The glorious history of Dynamo and Ukrainian football in general deserves to be appreciated for its inherent footballing value.  But the sport cannot be separated from the political machinations going on behind the scenes that helped ensure Dynamo’s status and success.  In the Soviet Union, clout was everything, and Dynamo had a lot of it.

The Roots of Decline

The late 1980s were a tumultuous time in the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev’s reforms, including the Perestroika policies of the gradual liberalization of the economy, affected football as well.  As the Soviet Union opened up, many elite players began to move to the West, a flight of talent with serious repercussions for Dynamo and other Soviet clubs.  The Golden Age of Dynamo was coming to an abrupt end, driven by political and economic conditions outside of their control.  Then, several years later, a decision made by FIFA erased Ukraine’s history of footballing prowess from the official records.  More on that, and Ukraine’s drawn out recovery following the collapse of its football infrastructure, in the third part of this series chronicling the history of Ukrainian football.  Stay tuned!

RPL Transfers Attack Enlightenment Ideas of Inevitable Progress

Footballers, like any other traded good, are commodities. And commodities vary in quality, speciality and customer satisfaction, a fact that has rifled through the vaults of history to the most ancient market halls of Rome, Athens and Constantinople. If today’s Russian Premier League, with this summer’s transfer dealings, were to represent a market hall of old, it would be a provincial bazaar of wacky, one-off and lesser quality products, rather than the grand, finely-crafted goods on offer in the larger cities.

For all the newspaper clippings featuring names such as Wesley Sneijder, Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modric, the Russian Premier League’s sides have recruited Gokhan Tore, Juan Insaurralde and Gordon Schildenfeld, returning us to that provicial bazaar, located, it seems, without easy access to the grand halls of the big cities. This, after all, had appeared to be a season when the Russian Premier League could finally break free from the still looming shackles of the Soviet Top League and surge past the more humble of Europe’s footballing nations.

This wild galavant, however, looks increasingly distant as the transfer window progresses. Zenit, who sit atop of the league after the first round of matches, have failed to strengthen significantly, leaving the impression that a Herculean effort would be required to better last season’s Champions League finish, the one aim for Spalletti’s devilishly oiled title-winning machine. Russia’s other representative in the Champions League, should they advance through the perilous qualifying stage, is Spartak Moscow, led by the greasily coiffeured Unai Emery. Astute but rather uninspiring may be the terminology used to describe their transfer dealings with the aforementioned Insaurralde brought in at centre-back and Tim Vickery’s darling Romulo the latest defensive-midfield fire-fighter.

The merry-go-round of mediocrity stops down in Makhachkala, not due to an influx of lavish imports from western Europe but due to the appearance that the merry-go-round may have ran out of steam. Their one signing of note, the Johan Djourou on stilts, Lacina Traore may have an impressive goal ratio for a man who plays football with all the poise of a crane fly attacking a gas lamp, however, he doesn’t fulfil the promises and intentions of manager Hiddink and owner Kerimov. Sneijder, Pazzini, Skrtel, Maicon, Mbia and Bastos are those linked with moves to Dagestan, with Anzhi seemingly the only club that could drag this provincial market hall inside the grand city walls.

Perhaps the most credible move from a Russian side features a different type of market hall altogether. Those at Volga, surviving a relegation scare last season, have appointed Anzhi cast-off Gadzhi Gadzhiev as manager, giving the silver-haired footballing sage a route back into the Premier League. Their decision paid dividends on the first day of the season as Dinamo, a side managed by Sergei Silkin, silver-haired but looking increasingly less like a footballing sage, were dispatched back to Moscow with a 1-0 defeat to mull over. Should Gadzhiev be given the time not afforded to him at Anzhi, Volga, by the season’s end, will be comfortably in mid-table, safe from the icy ravines that surround relegation play-offs and Gadzhiev looking ever more silver than grey.

Gadzhiev, as sage-like as he may be, cannot conjure an adequate smokescreen to cover what is evidently a Russian Premier League season with no more quality than the previous one, dismissing Kant and his merry-band of Enlightenment thinkers’ theory that progress is inevitable. We may see a more open campaign as Zenit run out of steam and the others fight amongst themselves but, unless there are some significant signings, most likely in Makhachkla and St Petersburg, the quality will not have significantly improved. Time is running out for Kant, John Locke and Voltaire’s ideas to take hold of this current Russian season, for the sake of those who enjoy high quality football, we had better hope they cement themselves in this provincial market before September.

Weekend Watch: Season openers and city derbies

 

 

 

 

Hajduk Split vs RNK Split, Croatian Prva HNL, Sunday 29th July 2012, 20:00.

Derbies are often intense affairs; however such fixtures in the Balkans often become a battle of pride and honour like no other. This is hardly one of the fiercest intercity rivalries in central and eastern European football however with the Croatian season still very much in its early infancy an early incentive exists to gain the local ‘bragging rights’. These are two sides that are extremely close in terms of quality, with a mere 4 points and two places separating the teams last season.

Hajduk may well have faltered in their opening game against Inter Zaprešić, and consequently toiled to a defeat against Skonto Riga in Europa League, however the prospect of a victory against RNK Split is likely to raise spirits. Across the city, RNK managed to get off to a winning start thanks to a 2-0 victory over, expected strugglers, HNK Rijeka – which included a debut goal for new signing Aljoša Vojnović. Recent form is likely to prove redundant however as the players begin to find their feet in the new season, expect a tight match.

 

 

 

 

Debrecen vs Győri ETO, Hungarian NB 1, Saturday 28th July 2012, 18:00.

It’s often difficult to gauge just where teams are up to in their pre season preparations, as the first game of the season trundles along. New signings are still getting used to their altered surroundings, while the more recognisable faces are still getting to grips with the rigours of the new season. One thing that seems certain however it that at least one of these sides will be there, or there abouts, at the head of the table come the season’s end.

Debrecen’s title victory last term was achieved with devastating force and it’s down to the rest of the league to ensure that such a procession does not occur again. One of the sides who could potentially dislodge the hard worn crown of Debrecen are their opening day opponents Győri, who impressed last season with a 3rd placed finish. Club licensing issues may have prevented the club from entering European competition this season however such a distraction may well improve domestic performances in the short term.

Much will depend upon the attacking prowess of Adamo Coulibaly, whose goals helped sway the title in Debrecen’s direction, and how the Győri defence, who were a little suspect at times last season, deal with his intimidating frame. The home side remain firm favourites; however this is a hazardous fixture to start the season with.

 

 

 

 

Dukla Praha vs Sparta Praha, Czech Gambrinus liga, Saturday 28th July 2012, 17:00.

For any club locating in Praha it is difficult to step away from the shadow of the Czech Republic’s most successful side, Spartak. For Dukla, however, it is a simply incredible situation that has seen them rise from the regional based championships to the nation’s highest league in the space of 5 years.

Dukla’s promotion to the Gambrinus liga last season was expected to be something of a struggle however a string of fine performances resulted in the club exceeding expectations by finishing in 6th place. Their city rivals suffered the disappointment of a second consecutive runner’s up spot, behind Slovan Liberec, which will no doubt serve to spur the club on to reach the pinnacle of Czech football come the end of this coming season.

For the home side, they will no longer be regarded as an unknown force as their escapades last season will have alerted the nation to their strengths and weaknesses – which Sparta will no doubt look to prey on. Dukla’s 1-1 draw in this same fixture last season will inspire confidence of a repeat performances, however Sparta continue to go into the majority of domestic fixtures as clear favourites.

From the Docks to the Death Match: The rise of football in Ukraine

Originally posted on Passive Offside.

This is the first in a three part series chronicling the history of football in Ukraine

If you take a look at the official FIFA records, you will find that the Ukrainian national team, as a separate and recognized entity, has existed for only twenty years. Over these two decades their record has been rather unimpressive: one World Cup appearance in 2006, where they advanced to the quarterfinals, and automatic qualification for Euro 2012 as co-hosts. But this unremarkable performance belies a glorious footballing legacy that Ukraine left behind as part of the Soviet Union. The books say that Russia is the official successor national team of the USSR. This appropriation of history overlooks just how influential Ukrainian players and clubs were in the Soviet era. Ukraine exists as an independent state since just 1992. But football in Ukraine goes much further back.

As it happened in so many corners of the globe, from the River Plate to Rotterdam, football first came to Ukraine, when it was still a part of Imperial Russia, by way of what David Goldblatt called the ‘informal empire,’ the assortment of British soldiers, merchants, officials, and businessmen that traveled the world and brought the game with them. British sailors were seen playing the game at the docks in the Black Sea port of Odessa as early as the 1860s, and in 1878 the first ever football club, the Odessa British Athletic Club, was formed in Ukraine, although it was composed entirely of Englishmen. Six years later the club built the first ever football pitch in the country. Though at first treated with skepticism by the local population, the appeal of the game proved utterly irresistible and quickly spread across the land. It became especially popular in Western Ukraine, where its growth was aided by the Sokol movement, and it was in Lviv that the first documented match on the territory of Ukraine took place.

The match was an unorthodox affair to say the least. On July 14, 1894, several sporting tournaments were held in Lviv, among them a football match between the Sokol clubs of Lviv and Krakow. Włodzimierz Chomicki put the Lviv side ahead in the 6th minute, but the referee called the match off soon afterward, as there was to be a gymnastics competition held in the same stadium. Chomicki’s goal is considered the first in the history of both Polish and Ukrainian football. Quite appropriate that these two nations are now co-hosting the first European championships to ever be held in Eastern Europe.

Football’s popularity continued to spread in the early 1900s. Gymanstics-Sports Club, later renamed Pohon, was founded in Lviv in 1904 and would go on to become one of the best sides of the Polish league in the interwar period. It was in Lviv that Ukraine’s first city-wide league was organized in 1906. Meanwhile the Sokol movement continued to be influential and helped establish the game in Kyiv. By 1911 city-wide championships were organized in both Kyiv and Odessa. It appeared that the momentum of football’s rise was unstoppable. But in 1914, as the European empires and democracies mobilized their armies and prepared for war on an unprecedented, devastating scale, football was put on hold indefinitely.

As a result of the First World War and the collapse of Imperial Europe, the borders were redrawn across the continent. Most of Western Ukraine now fell under the sovereignty of the recreated Polish state, while the Transcarpathian region and parts of Southwestern Ukraine were ceded to Czechoslovakia and Romania, respectively. Though divided between different nations, Ukrainian teams continued to prosper. Lviv, now a part of Poland, remained a footballing powerhouse. Pohon won the Polish league on four occasions, while Sparta Lviv were runners up to Wisła Krakow in the only Polish Cup ever held before the outbreak of the Second World War. Rus’ of Uzhorod won the Slovak championship in 1933, though this was not an official national title.

The rest of Ukraine was, by 1922, incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Kharkiv, then the capital of the republic, emerged as the dominant force in Ukrainian football. Teams from Kharkiv won eight of the eleven national tournaments held in Ukrainian SSR from 1921-1936. The Kharkiv side also defeated the selection from Leningrad  in the first Soviet-wide cup competition in 1924, the predecessor to the Soviet League. Several Kharkiv players featured on the USSR national team. During this era, teams were not yet organized as clubs in the modern sense. Instead, the teams were the best players taken from each city, playing in a Ukraine-wide knockout cup format. But this would soon change. The legendary club side Dynamo Kyiv, formed in 1927, won the last of the Ukrainian SSR tournaments in 1936, the first time a ‘club’ triumphed in these cup competitions. 1936 was also the first time the USSR championship was held and organized in a league format. Dynamo finished as runners up in the inaugural competition.

Curiously, six decades before Ukraine played their first ever official match,  an unofficial national Ukrainian national team took the field in an unrecognized friendly against Turkey. In 1933, the Turkish national team were on their way home after having defeated the Soviet Union 2-1. But while en route to Odessa, from where they were to complete their final leg of their journey across the Black Sea, they were challenged to a rematch by a side made up exclusively of Ukrainian players. The match took place in Kharkiv, where the billboards advertised the event as “National team of Ukraine vs. National team of Turkey.” The Ukrainian squad was made up of seven players from Kharkiv, but it was Kyiv-based striker Konstantin Shegodksiy whose hat trick made the difference as Ukraine emerged victorious, 3-2.

Kyiv was fast becoming a rising center for sport, as demonstrated by the ambitious plans to build a 50,000 capacity National Sports Complex in the city. On June 21, 1941, the newspaper Proletarian Pravda reported:

“Tomorrow in Kiev there will be opened the biggest fitness structure in Ukraine, the Republican Stadium named after Nikita Khrushchev… The new stadium can serve 70,000 spectators simultaneously. Surrounded by 36 sectors of 50,000 seats, the lush green carpet of the oval football field of international sizes is visible… From the side towards the street of Henri Barbusse  there rises a slender colonnade. That is the temporary entrance to the stadium… According to the decision of the government of the UkrSSR  the Republican Stadium together with the existing Fitness Palace and a winter pool will be combined into a united sport complex, the center of educational-sport training…”

The opening match was to take place between Dynamo Kyiv and CSKA Moscow on June 22. But as fate would have it, on that very day the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and Kyiv was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Great Patriotic War had begun. A banner was hung on the stadium with the rather optimistic inscription “Postponed until victory.”

Despite the war, many of the Dynamo players continued to play football during the occupation of Kyiv. FC Start, composed of eight players from Dynamo and three from Lokomotiv Kyiv, was formed in the spring of 1942, and won their inaugural match 7-2 over fellow Ukrainan side Rukh on June 7 of that year. Over the summer Start played several matches against teams made up of the occupying garrisons of the Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans, and won them all. On August 6 they defeated Flakelf, an elite team composed of players from the German air force. Flakelf challenged Start to a rematch, which took place three days later. The details of this encounter are murky and inconsistent. According to some reports, the Germans played dirty and constantly fouled the Start players, but the referee, an SS officer, ignored the appeals of the Ukrainians. Regardless, FC Start still ran out 5-3 winners.

In the aftermath of the match, many of the FC Start members were arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. This is where it becomes difficult to distinguish between myth and truth. The Soviet propaganda machine characterized the Start players as heroes who defiantly ignored German threats, winning the match despite knowing that it would cost them their lives. Dubbed the ‘Death Match,’ it became a popular and romanticized story in the Soviet Union and spawned two films. But the accuracy of this version of events is dubious. The prosecution office of the city Hamburg declared in 2005 that there was no evidence that the players were shot for winning the match. Regardless of what really transpired, the match entered the Ukrainian national consciousness as symbolic of both brave resistance and footballing prowess. In the decades after the Second World War, Ukraine would assert itself as a football powerhouse on the European stage.

Unai Emery’s Russian mission

Written by Paul Wilkes, editor of laligauk.

The success of a manager can often be subjective, even the most efficacious coaches are questioned by fans, rivals and media alike. It’s fair to say that Unai Emery has been subject to cross-examination more than the average. Financial constraints and unrealistic expectations are just some of the obstacles encountered by the tactician at the Mestalla. Whether it be strength of character, single-mindedness or just being plain stubborn, Emery is a manager that knows what he desires and how he is going to acquire it; he won’t be swayed by negative media or public opinion.

Originating from the Basque Country, he started his playing career at local side Real Sociedad; though he only made five first team appearances for ‘La Real’. He spent the majority of his playing career in the lower echelons of the Spanish league; forced to retire at the age of 32 due to a knee injury whilst playing for Lorca Deportiva. It was, in some strange way, lucky to have happened in the community of Murcia, south-east Spain. The president of Lorca, Manuel Muñoz Carrillo, offered the young rookie the job. Straight away this decision paid dividends as the club were promoted to the Segunda for the first time in their history in 2005. The following season they finished 5th, just five points off Levante in 3rd who were promoted to La Liga. When considering the club were relegated the next campaign after Emery’s exit and the club folded due to financial difficulties in 2010; his accomplishments were remarkable, the foundations laid for his ability to over achieve.

A similar scenario ensued at Almeria; a first promotion to La Liga in his first season, an above expectant finish of 8th in the second, followed by relegation two years after Emery had left the helm. It was this attribute of competing against the odds that led to him replacing Ronald Koeman at Valencia. Arriving at a side that finished 10th the previous year, he immediately improved the club enabling a Europa League position, in the next three seasons Valencia were 3rd, with only Barcelona and Real Madrid finishing above them. It’s the finer components of his time at ‘Los Che’ though that reveal more about the Spaniard himself.

Unai Emery is a man for the most meticulous of details, his sides are broadly defined in a default setting if you like, in which he believes the team can best benefit. This will be adapted slightly to every opposition or even changed completely if he feels it’s necessary. At Valencia, this was 4-2-3-1 during his final season with attacking full backs. He’s not afraid to change formation, which was done more regularly in his first three seasons, but a number of players were privately reluctant to make the continual adjustments. Emery’s thinking is the more adaptable the players tactically the better they would become. The use of two strikers was used to fit both Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduriz into the same line-up, a more fluid 4-4-2, he mentioned in an interview with RSport that this is something he will continue to utilise, “As I’ve said before, we will be playing a 4-3-2-1, with one striker. At some point we may switch to a 4-4-2 whereby Emenike and Welliton could play together, but also have [Brazilian forward] Ari, [Russia striker Artem] Dzyuba and Alexander Kozlov. We don’t rule out the possibility of reverting to a 4-3-3 at other times.”

Rotation was high on the list at Valencia as he looked to involve the majority of the squad and keep players fresh in order to compete in all competitions. Changes to the wide players enabled either the directness or intricacy that he required. A particular favourite was the ‘double left-back’ move, the combination of Barcelona’s new signing Jordi Alba, who was a converted winger by Emery and Frenchman Jeremy Mathieu, with one at left back and the other left-wing. Whilst perceived as defensive in some quarters, the dynamic of two naturally attacking players proved anything but. Their interchanging and understanding enabled fluidity when going forward, but a rigidness when looking to keep things tight at the other end, in fact Alba has thanked Emery publicly for making his career.

When preparing for a game against Stoke City in the Europa League, the team played head football for ten minutes, in anticipation of the aerial bombardment that they were expecting. Emery acknowledged his side would have to change “we have got to adapt to their style,” but maintained the need to stamp their own authority on the opposition “we have got to show our character and our personality out there on the pitch as well” he said. A hard disciplinarian he will require his players to be punctual, but he is still approachable as he proved to me outside the Britannia stadium.

The Valencian fans are a demanding bunch and in the end they grew tired of the club’s inability to compete with the ‘big two’ in Spain, even though his four years were spent juggling the accounts. As star players David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata left to reduce the debt, they remained competitive. The side made a £66 million profit, whilst rivals Barça had a net spend of £141m and Real Madrid £274m in the same period. They were effectively achieving the best they could hope for, although it’s never enough for supporters. It should be noted however, that they never once sung for Emery to ‘go home,’ a fate which had befallen all previous managers.

Criticism of one-off performances and failure in the Champions League were also dealt. His Valencia teams only beat Real Madrid once in the league back in May 2009 and failed to defeat Barcelona at all, the record of one win in 16 attempts against the ‘El Clàsico’ pairing doesn’t sound good, but shouldn’t be too surprising given resources. Their two attempts at Europe’s top prize saw a group stage exit and a last 16, they did fair better in the Europa League where they were knocked out at the quarter and semi final stages by Atlético Madrid twice, who then went on to win it both times.

At Spartak, he will do battle for the title against a team with excellent cohesion that transcends to the national side in Zenit as he did facing Barça and a club with extreme wealth in Anzhi as to when he was opposing Real Madrid; this time though the odds are stacked slightly more favourably.

Pele’s farewell, 1971.

The term ‘legend’ is often tarnished these days in football and sport in general. In that vein, most top sportsmen today are seen as the best of all time by fans with tastes so exclusive they require the player they watch to have been the greatest that ever existed. Lionel Messi is the best footballer of all time, Roger Federer the greatest tennis player, LeBron James the greatest basketball player, and whoever comes next will easily be the best that ever was.

But what truly separates a legendary sportsman from a very good one is the timing of the call. Being labelled a legend at your peak should almost be expected when you are a gifted sportsman. What you cannot expect, and something that will solely be dictated by the true impact you had on your sport thanks to the benefit of hindsight, is being hailed as a legend decades after you last touched a ball and wore shin pads – if you ever wore shinpads.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento is one of many players to have been called a legend during his playing days, but only one in a handful for whom the adjective is still the same after four decades, even being amplified as time went by despite last gracing a football pitch with the Brazilian national football team on July 18th, 1971 before an audience of 138,575.

For his jubilee, Pelé relied on most of his team-mates with whom he won the 1970 World Cup the year before with a Brazilian team widely seen as the greatest ever. Only flying right-back Carlos Alberto, scorer of one of the best goals in the history of the World Cup in 1970, was missing but the other stalwarts were there, notably Rivelino, a dazzling attacking midfielder in his day, creator of the ‘flip flap’ later reproduced by countrymen Ronaldinho and Ronaldo among many others. As he received the ball half an hour into the game, the German commentator went as far as saying ‘Here is one man who is seen as a potential successor to Pele’. With the benefit of hindsight however, and despite all of Rivelino’s quality, that statement turned out to be quite off the mark.

Choosing his last ever opponent, Pelé opted for a side nicknamed the ‘Brazil of Europe’ : Yugoslavia, then a European powerhouse led by captain Dragan Dzajic, the Red Star Belgrade left-winger whose lob against England in the 1968 Euro semi-final threw out the defending world champions days before a bribed referee handed Italy the final victory. Dzajic’s technique moved Pelé to the extent he once said ‘I’m just sorry he’s not Brazilian, because I’ve never seen such a natural footballer’. It should not come as a wonder then that Dzajic opened the scoring deep into the first half (41:55) to celebrate his 50th cap in a Yugoslavia jersey.

The first half an hour was on-and-off, as if all the players looked ashamed to be allowed to share the same bit of eternity that Pele was granted on his final day in the Brazilian outfit. The Maracana pitch did little to help the players, though the class of their number 10 shone through this quagmire of wayward passes and missed first touches.

It was all about him anyway. Early in the game (17:30) he earned a free-kick on the edge of Yugoslavia’s area – and set the regulatory distance where the opponent wall places itself. The referee did not even bother checking whether Pele’s mark was stood ten yards from where the free-kick is taken. This sport is his. It is said he could do absolutely everything with a football except long passes with the outside of the left foot. To quote Inter’s legendary sweeper Tarcisio Burgnich, tasked with marking him in the 1970 World Cup final where Pelé eventually headed home a legendary header to bring Brazil its third World Cup, ‘I told myself before the game, ‘he’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else’ — but I was wrong’.

Glimpses of his extraordinary talent shone through during his last game in a Brazil jersey. A dazzling move on (26:29) and a double one-two (38:30) hinted that somebody out there wasn’t quite playing the same sport as his colleagues.

As the first half drew to an end, Pelé tried harder and harder to level the scoreline knowing he will be replaced at half-time. He headed the ball near, created two great chances in quick succession (53:00) – but failed to even it out as the referee blew his whistle with a 1-0 scoreline to Yugoslavia. It didn’t matter though as his status was settled long ago.

When, aged 17, he scored a brace in the 1958 World Cup final against hosts Sweden, five days after bagging a hat-trick in the semi-final against France. Or when he fired five goals in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup against Eusebio’s Benfica for his beloved Santos, winning nine domestic titles in eleven year, from 1958 to 1969. And how about his brilliant effort against Vasco two years earlier in 1969, in that same Maracana stadium then filled with 135,000 people in what was his career thousandth goal. Beyond goals, his peerless acts of footballing wizardry stand untarnished in memory, not least his rounding of Uruguay’s goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz in the 1970 World Cup, his last, where he was named Player of the Tournament for leading Brazil to another win that allowed Brazil to keep ad eternam the Jules Rimet Trophy, ancestor to the current shield.

 As half-time is whistled, Pelé began a lap of honour around the biggest stadium in the world. The Maracana rose to its feet to applaud the greatest player ever, treading the pitch for the last time. Brazilian and Yugoslavian players alike formed a guard of honour to accompany the national hero on his way to eternal stardom. A banner in the stands was unveiled, reading ‘VIVA O REU’. The German commentator paid a spontaneous tribute to a player he calls ‘the fittest synonym to perfection on a football pitch’ ; ‘a conductor and solist at the same time’; ‘a name known in every stadium around the Earth’. Words all the more amplified that they still hold true today, forty years later.

‘Football has no time for sentimentalism’, adds the German commentator as the second half starts and the Brazilian players start getting organized, looking around the field but failing to find their charismatic number 10 for the first time in more than a decade. Although they would salvage a draw from this contest with Yugoslavia, the final scoreline being 2-2, it would take them more than two decades to win the World Cup again in 1994, such was the everlasting influence of their football icon.