The last great days of the Soviet Union

The last great days of the Soviet Union

Twenty pivotal seconds brought football’s Iron Curtain down. Munich’s iconic Olympiastadion played host to the final of the 1988 European Championships, and it was here, in the 57th minute, that the last great act of the Soviet Union unfolded.

Trailing 2-0, the second goal, that incredible Marco van Basten goal, the one which left Rinat Dasayev staggering like a freshly punched and newly defenceless boxing fighter, had come just three minutes earlier. Lashing out like a wounded bear, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s side threw themselves at Rinus Michels’ artisans in orange, with the half-fit Igor Belanov agonisingly hitting the post. Just 20 seconds later, Hans van Breukelen rashly brought down Sergey Gotsmanov close to the byline. It was an unnecessary challenge from the Netherlands keeper, and his team-mates were swift to demonstrate their displeasure.

Belanov was once again the man being gifted the opportunity to put the Soviet Union back in the game, to put them right back into the Euro 88 final. Powerfully struck with his right foot, it was actuality a well-taken penalty, but van Breukelen was equal to it. It was a brilliant save, which kept justice at bay and denied the watching global audience of the sort of tense, grandstand finish that both the game and the tournament in general deserved.

These were events that marked a defined line in the footballing sand. The game finished 2-0 and the Netherlands finally fulfilled their long-term prophecy of glory, while the Soviet Union found themselves conspired against by fate and misfortune.

Oleg Kuznetsov had been cruelly suspended for the final, while Volodymyr Bezsonov missed out due to an injury sustained in their semi-final victory against Azeglio Vicini’s Italy. Half of the Soviet Union defence had to be rearranged for the final. Sergei Aleinikov was asked to drop back from midfield to cover for the losses in defence. It was to be Aleinikov who would be caught too deep, allowing Ruud Gullit the freedom of the penalty area to head home the opening goal of the final.

With Belanov nursing the thigh injury which had kept him out of the semi-final win against Italy, Oleg Protasov also had question marks over his fitness. Added to by the absences of Kuznetsov and Bezsonov, with the loss of Kuznetsov being a particularly telling blow, given how effectively he had blotted Gianluca Vialli out of the semi-final, the Soviet Union had gone into the final at a clear disadvantage.

Denied the services of Ivan Yaremchuk before the finals had begun due to a broken leg, and with Lobanovskyi himself suffering through ill-health, there was a degree of the walking wounded about the Soviet Union by the time they emerged at the Olympiastadion for their showdown with the fully-fit Netherlands.

Thirteen days prior to the final, however, in Cologne, the Soviet Union had defeated the Netherlands 1-0 in their opening game of the tournament. The Soviet Union and Lobanovskyi, despite being depleted of crucial elements of their side, had still played upon Netherlands’ and Michels’ mind leading up to the final.

This was a Soviet Union side that Vicini insisted had “played the football of the next century” during Mexico 86. In the driving rain in Stuttgart, Vicini’s Italy had been overcome in the semi-final by a heady combination of brawn and brain. Two goals in three second-half minutes had settled the encounter.

From Vasiliy Rats winning goal in Cologne, onward through a testing draw with Ireland in Hanover, turning over a dispirited England in Frankfurt, and then dealing with Italy so magnificently in Stuttgart, it wasn’t by accident that Lobanovskyi’s side reached the final of Euro 88. This was the fruition of a two-year project, during which Lobanovskyi combined the roles of coaching both the Soviet Union and his club side, Dynamo Kyiv. Over half of Lobanovskyi’s squad for Euro 88 was drawn from his Kyiv side, and it was top-heavy in its predominantly Ukrainian composition.

When Lobanovskyi reclaimed the position of head coach of the Soviet Union shortly before Mexico 86, a role he’d twice previously held for short spells, he did so at the expense of Eduard Malofeyev, the man who had led them to qualification for the 1986 World Cup finals.

In what could easily appear to be ruthless circumstances, Malofeyev had snatched qualification when at one point all had seemed lost. As Lobanovskyi was leading Kyiv to Cup Winners’ Cup glory in May 1986, the Football Federation of the Soviet Union made the decision that the inconsistencies under Malofeyev were worth cashing in for the stern genius that was Lobanovskyi.

In Mexico, the Soviet Union played with unexpected freedom of expression. There was a wonderfully spectacular and thunderous nature to their football. Of the 11 players Lobanovskyi sent out for Dynamo to face Atlético Madrid for the Cup Winners’ Cup final, eight of them were in the starting line-up for the Soviet Union against Hungary in Irapuato, exactly one month later. Hungary were dismantled as the Soviet Union won 6-0.

Finishing top of Group C ahead of Henri Michel’s France, the Soviet Union progressed to the last-16 with a miserly defence and an array of goals scored in a variety of styles, some of them explosively struck from distance, while others were intricately worked. They displayed a brand of football that was as hypnotic as it was unexpected; a long way from the powerful but often austere offerings that would periodically emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.

It was a style of football that marked the rise of a new and very different Soviet Union. A passing of the baton, where the best of the old world was taken and incorporated into a vibrant reinvention. It was more than fitting that the ageing and legendary Oleg Blokhin was part of the squad at Mexico 86.

In León, against Belgium, the Soviet Union took part in one of the greatest games the World Cup has ever produced. Finishing the game on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline, Lobanovskyi’s side went out of the 1986 World Cup finals prematurely, despite a hat-trick from Belanov. Three of Belgium’s four goals were open to question over whether they should have stood or not.

Despite their early exit from the tournament, Mexico 86 set the standard for Lobanovskyi, and it was with consummate ease that they qualified for Euro 88. Massive crowds flocked to see the games against East Germany and France, in Kyiv and Moscow respectively, even though the Union itself was moving through tumultuous and fragmenting times.

Lobanovskyi had delivered a hint of the promised land, propelled by a futuristic visage of the game. New glories appeared theirs for the taking, finally dragging the Soviet Union out from the long shadows of the legendary days of 1960s and the very early 70s.

For a man as in control of his surroundings as Lobanovskyi was, the shifting tectonic plates of history proved too volatile an environment in which to engineer those new glories. By Italia 90, the Soviet Union’s footballing present – and future – was as clouded as its political landscape was. When they faced Romania in Bari, they were up against a nation which had been liberated from the vice-like grasp of Nicolae Ceaușescu the previous December.

In Bari, Romania played with exuberance and freedom, with flair, determination, tricks and flicks. Romania took on an image of their own, of what many had expected Lobanovskyi’s side to evolve toward beyond Euro 88. Shorn of the services of Belanov, the Soviet Union instead seemed to be enveloped by a tired and decaying aura.

When Argentina swamped the Soviet Union in Naples four days later, the tournament was all but over for them. Unrest in the camp had seen Lobanovskyi drop previously untouchable elements of his side. Neither Dasayev or Rats were afforded even a place on the bench.

Returning to Bari for their final group game, the Soviet Union put in a performance against Cameroon which was more akin to Lobanovskyi’s teachings, yet it came too late to take them through to the knockout stages. Despite obtaining the winning margin they required to have any chance of progressing, Argentina and Romania playing out a mutually advantageous draw in Naples was enough to see Lobanovskyi’s side finish bottom of Group B.

The winds of change howled loudly in the wake of Italia 90. Lobanovskyi took up a lucrative offer to become the head coach of the UAE. In Lobanovskyi’s absence, Anatoliy Byshovets took the reins of a national football team which was on increasingly obvious borrowed time.

Post-Lobanovskyi, the Soviet Union enjoyed an initial bounce, perhaps embracing the end of Lobanovskyi’s disciplinary omnipresence. Euro 92 was qualified for reasonably comfortably, at the expense of Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy. Tellingly, however, all home qualifiers took place in Moscow, and the long-term Ukrainian influence on the squad was beginning to erode.

When the Soviet Union won in Oslo against Norway at the end of August 1991, it was a victory which came just seven days after the failure of the Soviet coup d’état attempt. Hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had made their move to stop Mikhail Gorbachev in his drive for social reform and his will for a new union treaty.

By the beginning of December, 90 per cent of Ukrainian voters had opted for independence during the Ukrainian popular referendum. It was a hammer blow to Moscow, which came less than three weeks after the Soviet Union had won in Cyprus. The Ukrainian-born Andrei Kanchelskis scored the final goal in a 3-0 victory, which clinched their place at Euro 92. It proved to be the very last time that the Soviet Union took to the pitch.

The Union was formally dissolved on Boxing Day 1991. Within the power-vacuum, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, an entity which still exists to this day. While the various individual component parts of the Soviet Union splintered and fragmented, each of them seeking their own bespoke social, economic and sporting recognition, there was still an inconvenient European Championship to contend with.

The Soviet Union, as it was, would have to compete at Euro 92 as collective, as they qualified as a collective. The only other option was to forfeit their place in Sweden. With massive question marks already raised over whether Yugoslavia would be allowed to take part in the finals or not, it was swiftly confirmed that Moscow would ensure that under the banner of the CIS, the Soviet Union would effectively rise once more.

In Sweden, the CIS did better than anyone tends to remember. Holding both Germany and the Netherlands to draws, inclusive of being desperately unlucky not to have beaten the Germans, they then surprisingly capitulated against a Scotland team which was already out of the tournament by the time they faced them in Norrköping.

With only one Dynamo Kyiv player in the Euro 92 squad, the once all-encompassing Ukrainian influence on the steadily dissolving spectre of the Soviet Union was being relinquished. Quick to put a Ukrainian national team out onto a football pitch, against Hungary in Uzhhorod in April 1992, the infrastructure was so chaotic that FIFA and UEFA recognition wasn’t gained quickly enough to allow entry into the World Cup qualifiers for USA 94.

For Russia, it couldn’t have been any more different. Internationally recognised as the natural continuation of the plotline of the Soviet Union, they were ready for the new world. Somewhat unfairly being allotted all the coefficient points accumulated by the Soviet Union, coefficient points that had been collected with heavy Ukrainian toil, they also picked off a sizeable proportion of Ukrainian players as their own. Kanchelskis was joined by Oleg Salenko, Sergei Yuran, IIya Tysmbalar, Viktor Onopko and Yuri Nikiforov, who all opted to play for Russia.

Ukrainian football soon adjusted, however, and it was Lobanovskyi who was central to the swift renaissance, returning to Dynamo Kyiv in 1997 and plotting a new rise to European prominence, narrowly missing out on reaching the 1999 Champions League final. Lobanovskyi even took the helm of the national team, when he took them to within a playoff game of reaching the 2002 World Cup finals.

Lobanovskyi oversaw the last great days of the Soviet Union, and the first great days of an independent Ukraine. His untimely death in 2002 meant he didn’t live to see his home nation reach a major international tournament. However, under his guidance, he took a Ukraine-powered Soviet Union to within touching distance of glory at Euro 88, and in the process created one of the most evocative international sides to ever take to a football pitch. He produced futuristic football, with a national team that was on the eve of being consigned to the history books.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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