The ascent of Dynamo Kyiv in Europe in the late 1990s

The ascent of Dynamo Kyiv in Europe in the late 1990s

MONACO’S EXHILARATING RUN to the Champions League semi-finals in 2017 was as thrilling as it was tinged by a shade of sadness, given Leonardo Jardim’s brilliant team looked certain to be pulled apart at the end of the campaign. Those fears turned out to be correct as Kylian Mbappé, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Tiémoué  Bakayoko all left the Principality in the summer.

What makes football so special is that every so often, entertaining, ebullient teams such as the one assembled by Jardim emerge from under the radar to provide a breath of fresh air to a sport that, particularly as far as continental competitions are concerned, feels increasingly like a cartel dominated by the usual names. Of course, the flipside of the coin is that given the financial clout of some clubs, the likes of Monaco often have a very limited shelf life. 

The Champions League has seen many such examples. Think of the Ajax team of 1995, which triumphed over the all-conquering AC Milan despite an average age of just 23 or of the Dynamo Kyiv side that conquered the hearts of many between 1997 and 1999.

In the 1997/98 season, Dynamo returned to European football’s elite competition after a one-season hiatus but found themselves drawn in a difficult group, alongside Newcastle, PSV and Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona. As a result of the competition’s format at the time, only the six group winners were guaranteed progression to the quarter-final stage, along with the two best second-placed teams. 

In the preliminary rounds, Dynamo had dispatched Barry Town and Brøndby but with Newcastle and Barcelona in their group, their hopes of reaching the knockout stage appeared dead and buried before the competition proper had even begun.

Despite winning four league titles in a row – with the exception of the inaugural season, except from Dynamo no other team won the Ukrainian league title until Shakhtar Donetsk broke the hegemony in the 2001/02 season – the Ukrainian giants were going through a difficult time.

In 1995, Dynamo had been thrown out of European competition by UEFA following attempts to bribe an official when they faced Panathinaikos in the Champions League. Antonio López Nieto, the Spanish referee who took charge of the game, reported the club to UEFA, who subsequently banned them from three years from continental competitions. The sentence was later reduced to one year as it was deemed to be detrimental to the development of football in Ukraine, but the smear remained.

On the domestic front, meanwhile, Shakhtar posed an ever-increasing threat and looked well placed to bring Dynamo’s domestic domination to an end. The club felt it had to act and act it did. Halfway through the 1996/97 season, Valeriy Lobanovskyi was summoned for a third spell at Dynamo Stadium to replace Yozhef Sabo and he dutifully guided them to another league title. 

The 57-year-old was not so much a club legend as a father figure and a national institution, who had won seven league titles and six domestic cups during his first two stints at the club. Even more importantly, during Lobanovskyi’s first spell in charge, in 1975 Dynamo become the first side from the Soviet Union to win a major European trophy when they beat Ferencváros in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. The trophy would return to the Ukrainian capital 11 years later, when Dynamo, with the former heating engineering student again in charge, swept Atlético Madrid aside 3-0 in the final.

Lobanovskyi, a man whose football knowledge was only matched by his fondness for a drink, wasted no time in laying down the gauntlet to his players when he took charge of the club for the third time. “Dynamo lives,” he said with trademark brevity soon after taking the reins again. “It has its traditions, its good foundations, and the potential to set off again to conquer the summits. It also has the will.”

Outside Ukraine, however, few seemed concerned by Lobanovskyi’s words and heads remained largely unturned even when only two late Newcastle goals prevented Dynamo from making it two wins in as many as games in Group C. Over two weeks between October and November, however, Dynamo did not only turn heads as much as demanded European football’s attention in the same swashbuckling way they had done over two decades earlier.

In front of an estimated 100,000 spectators at Kiev’s Stalinist-Gothic Olympic Stadium, goals from Serhiy Rebrov, Yuriy Maximov and Yuriy Kalitvintsev put Barcelona to the sword. Two weeks later, Dynamo went one better as Andriy Shevchenko’s first-half hat-trick stunned the Camp Nou, before Rebrov added a fourth – without reply – late in the second half. The message could not have been clearer: European heavyweights would ignore Dynamo at their peril.

A draw against PSV followed and, despite a defeat away at Newcastle in the final game, Dynamo won the group. The draw for the quarter-finals, however, was not kind to Lobanovskyi’s men, who found themselves pitted against Juventus, arguably the team that set the benchmark in European football over the mid-1990s. Admittedly, Marcello Lippi’s men only squeezed through to the quarter-finals as one of the two second-best teams in the group stages – and did so only on goal difference – but remained a formidable unit.

Having earned a creditable 1-1 draw in Turin, Dynamo looked set to add another chapter to their wonderful tale when Rebrov equalised early in the second half in the second leg. However, with the tie perfectly balanced, Filippo Inzaghi scored twice to complete his hat-trick, before Alessandro Del Piero added a fourth goal late on as Juventus marched towards their third consecutive final, which would see them fall at the last hurdle for the second consecutive season.

Dynamo’s European dream was over, but Lobanovskyi ensured his squad would not play the role of sacrificial lamb to the big clubs to the west. Crucially, he managed to hang on to Shevchenko and Rebrov, the two players who had captured the imagination of fans across the continent and whose goals had inspired Dynamo’s exploits and would be instrumental in securing a fifth consecutive league title.

The former, a lightning-quick forward who seemed to glide past opponents, plundered in 33 goals in 41 games in all competitions in the 1997/98 season, while his diminutive partner found the net 37 times in 48 matches throughout the campaign.

If the duo provided guile and goals, Oleh Luzhny, who would later have a rather unsuccessful spell at Arsenal, Olexandr Holovko and Vladislav Vaschuk formed an accomplished defence in front of Oleksandr Shovkovskiy, and the late Andriy Husin – who would sadly perish in a motorcycle crash in 2014 – was the perfect midfield anchor. “That was a team where everybody complemented one another and where personal ambitions came second,’ Shovkovskiy said in 2016. ‘We understood exactly what we were aiming for and we knew how to go about our work. There was a great understanding between the players, almost intuitive.”

In Lobanovskyi’s mind, the individual was never more important than the collective, and he excelled at ensuring his teams performed like a well-oiled machine. However, he dismissed the notion that his teams played a brand of football inspired by the Total Football pioneered by Rinus Michels in the 1970s. Unlike the Dutchman, Lobanovskyi said he would never dare to play a striker as centre-back and vice-versa, although he insisted players finding themselves to play out of position should nevertheless be able to master it.

Such philosophy is perfectly highlighted by Jonathan Wilson, who, in his brilliant book Behind the Curtain, recalled how those who seldom watched Dynamo could struggle with identifying their players, even in an era when games were being broadcast to the four corners of the world. “I remember the bewilderment as we tried to identify the blond bloke who had just put in the cross from the left,” he wrote, describing his colleagues’ reaction during a Champions League game against Arsenal. “‘Georgi Peev?’ someone suggested, reading his shirt number and checking it against the team-sheet. ‘Can’t be – he’s the right back,’ came the dismissive shout, but it was; at its best [Dynamo’s] movement can still delight.”

By the time he had returned to Dynamo for his third spell, Lobanovskyi, a keen student of football as much as life outside it, had recognised the need to adapt his ideas to an ever-changing environment. “I don’t just speak of the sporting aspect of things,” he once stated. “I’m equally inspired by scientific theories, which enable me to plan the training sessions, or by philosophical ideas, which allow me to organise the group of which I have charge.” 

The European exploits of 1997/98 appeared to leave Dynamo with a hangover of epic proportions. The Ukrainian champions only scraped past Sparta Prague on penalties in the preliminary round, before picking up just one point from their two opening games in Group E. A defeat away to Panathinaikos and a home draw against Lens were made all the more frustrating by the fact Lobanovskyi’s men had relinquished the lead on both occasions.

The third game of the group took Dynamo to Wembley, where Arsenal had opted to stage their European games. The Twin Towers looked set to become the burial site of Dynamo’s European hopes after Dennis Bergkamp opened the scoring with 15 minutes left. However, Rebrov equalised in stoppage time, delighting Spurs fans in a way he could never replicate after he moved to White Hart Lane in 2000.

The striker was on target again in the following two games as Arsenal fell 3-1 in Kyiv before a late comeback saw Panathinaikos meet the same fate three weeks later. A 3-1 win in Lens, capped by Shevchenko’s third goal of the group stage, saw Dynamo qualify as group winners. With Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Juventus, the draw for the quarter-finals contained the elite of European football.

Dynamo, arguably, drew the most glamorous tie of all as a trip to the Santiago Bernabéu awaited. The previous season’s thrashing of Barcelona meant they could no longer count on any surprise factor but Real Madrid remained overwhelming favourites going into the tie. That, however, changed 54 minutes into the first leg when Shevchenko slotted the ball past Bodo Illgner. Predrag Mijatović equalised a little over 10 minutes later but Dynamo left the Bernabéu with an all-important away goal.

Two weeks later, Shevchenko was again on the scoresheet, scoring twice in the second half to send Dynamo to a first European semi-final since 1987, when their dreams were ended by eventual winners, Porto. After the final whistle, Ukraine’s president Leonid Kuchma made his way into the dressing room where he told the players: “Not only Ukraine, but the whole world saw your triumph tonight.”

Bayern Munich, the team Porto had defeated in the final 12 years earlier, now stood between Dynamo and a spot in the final at the Camp Nou. The Germans had come through one of the toughest groups the competition had ever seen, containing Barcelona and Manchester United, and like Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, they were in the hunt for a historic treble.

In the most recent meeting between the two sides, in the group stages of the Champions League four seasons earlier, Bayern had swept Dynamo aside 5-1 on aggregate. However, the Ukrainians could also look back at the 1975 European Super Cup final, which they had won 3-0 on aggregate, and at the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the following season, overcoming Bayern 3-1.

In short, while the Germans remained the favourites, the fans who packed the Dynamo Stadium in Kyiv on 7 April had plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The feeling only increased as Shevchenko scored his fourth and fifth goal in three knockout games and put Dynamo 2-0 up just before half-time. Michael Tarnat brought Bayern back into the tie shortly before half-time but, five minutes later, Vitaly Kossovsky restored a two-goal lead. Then, 12 minutes later, the midfielder found himself one-on-one against Bayern keeper Oliver Khan knowing a goal would almost certainly book his side a ticket to Barcelona.

Like life, football is full of sliding doors moments and this was certainly Kossovsky’s. His chip rose past Kahn but, unfortunately for him and Dynamo, sailed over the bar. Handed an unexpected lifeline, the Germans regrouped and Steffan Effenberg pulled one back with just over 10 minutes to go, before Carsten Jancker clinched a crucial draw two minutes from time.

In Munich, Dynamo fell behind to a Mario Basler goal in the first half and lacked the energy, mental as much as physical, to haul themselves into the game. Bayern would then find themselves on the wrong side of history in the final as Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer wrote themselves into Manchester United’s folklore with the most dramatic of injury time goals.

Following the 3-3 draw against Bayern, in his match report in The Guardian, Simon Kuper wrote that Dynamo deserved to win the Champions League. What makes Kossovsky’s miss even sadder is that this is surely the last time that they will reach the semi-finals of the Champions League,” he said. “The team will break up.”

His prediction materialised within a few months as first Shevchenko and then, a year later, Rebrov left Ukraine for AC Milan and Tottenham respectively and their careers, that had walked a similar path up until then, took dramatically diverging routes. Even without their stars, including and Oleg Luzhny, who had also swapped Kiev for north London, Dynamo managed to win another two league titles, before Shakthar briefly interrupted their domestic dominance with their maiden triumph in 2002.

In Europe, however, not even Lobanovskyi’s tactical acumen could help them replicate the form they showed between 1997 and 1999. Dynamo’s ruthless sergeant major eventually left the club for the third and final time in 2000, before he died of complications suffered following a stroke two years later. Their mark on European football, however, remains untarnished. 

By Dan Cancian

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