The fleeting moment in time when Igor Belanov and Oleh Protasov lit up football

The fleeting moment in time when Igor Belanov and Oleh Protasov lit up football

This feature is part of Duology

Some things naturally go hand-in-hand. Fish and chips, salt and vinegar, sweet and sour. Some things have lived side-by-side since the dawning of time – Laurel and Hardy, Lennon and McCartney, Morecambe and Wise – while other duos were more fleeting, yet no less memorable. Think McAlmont and Butler.

Some fleeting partnerships were so memorable that they have the power to distort the mind, fooling it into believing that their associations were longer than they were. They produce deeds that stand the test of time. Igor Belanov and Oleh Protasov are a case in point.

Conjoined at Dynamo Kyiv for less than two full seasons, they often orbited one another at international level for the Soviet Union, rather than finding themselves thrown together on a regular basis. At Mexico 86, the only World Cup that both Belanov and Protasov travelled together to, the two players shared no more than a handshake in competitive anger, when Belanov appeared as a 57th-minute substitute for Protasov, in Irapuato against Canada, their final Group C game.

Those 57 minutes were the only minutes Protasov played in Mexico, as he found himself marginalised by a combination of Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s insistence on mostly operating with a five-man midfield and the added presence of the legendary but ageing Oleh Blokhin who Lobanovskyi was more inclined to turn to as an alternative option to the first-choice Belanov.

Protasov scored five goals during qualifying for Mexico 86, inclusive of scoring in Copenhagen in June 1985 against Denmark in the greatest game of international football ever played. It still cut little in the way of ice with Lobanovskyi, however. 

At Italia 90, Belanov was conspicuous by his absence. Playing no part in the qualification campaign, in the summer of 1989, Belanov had taken advantage of a relaxing of the tight-grip with which Soviet footballers had been denied the opportunity to play their club football in the west. Upon joining Borussia Mönchengladbach, however, his promised land turned into something of a nightmare as the goals dried up.

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Despite calls for a return to the Soviet squad for the 1990 World Cup, Belanov instead watched the tournament on television, witnessing his compatriots implode in an unfamiliar and entirely avoidable manner. Four years earlier, he had been one of the biggest stars of the tournament. His outstanding performances in the Mexican heat, combined with the part he played for Dynamo Kyiv in their successful Cup Winners’ Cup campaign of 1985/86, ultimately led him to winning the Ballon d’Or.

It was Belanov’s form and the general embarrassment of riches that Lobanovskyi had at his disposal that kept Protasov in the shadows at Mexico 86. So, given that Belanov and Protasov never played a single minute together at the finals of a World Cup, and that their time together for Kyiv was so fleeting, it is almost an oddity that they are such a revered partnership in many ways. Euro 88 is perhaps where we draw our evidence from, when it comes to their undoubted chemistry.

In West Germany, during the summer of 1988, the Soviet Union played out one last act of footballing beauty, before they limped through Italia 90 and Euro 92 towards their dissolution into a million and one fragment states.

Hypnotic at times, the Soviets marched to the final of Euro 88 at the iconic yet polarising Olympiastadion in Munich. There they met the Netherlands, who they had beaten in their opening group game in Köln 13 days earlier. 

In an international tournament world, of fast flowing water under the bridge, these two games were complete polar-opposites, despite the short chronological time separating them. Vasyl Rats wondrous 52nd-minute strike for the worldly-wise Soviets was enough to beat a talented but tournament-soft Netherlands side that was playing a game at the finals of a major tournament for the first time in eight years.

Quick learners, the Netherlands were an entirely different proposition just under a fortnight later. This, however, was the eye-of-the-storm in which Belanov and Protasov combined with such compelling skill and timing, that the world almost stood still. Bookended by Belanov’s World Cup in 1986 and Protasov’s in 1990, Euro 88 successfully fooled a generation of hipsters into thinking that the Belanov-Protasov partnership stretched far further than it did in cold reality.

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In the summer of 1988, Belanov and Protasov were club teammates at Dynamo, two of the seven Kyiv players in the Soviet starting line-up for the final of Euro 88. In the two years that Belanov and Protasov shared together at Kyiv, trophies inexplicably eluded the club. In their first season in tandem, Protasov struggled to come to terms with his new surroundings, after his transfer from Dnipro. Eventually the goals came, but not in time to stop his former club from winning the Soviet Top League.

The following season, they again missed out on the major honours, while Belanov departed part way through the campaign for Gladbach. At Euro 88, we had reached peak perfection in the Belanov and Protasov union. It was a vulnerable perfection, however.

Protasov, not quite fully fit, had nursed his way through the tournament, his body management was juggled with the expertise of a footballing technician in Lobanovskyi, while Belanov picked up a thigh injury against England, ruling him out of the semi-final against Italy, an injury which had also been expected to keep him out of the final. Further injuries and suspension – particularly in defence – brought Belanov back into play, however.

In better circumstances, Lobanovskyi would have fielded the same team and formation that had prevailed in the semi-final, allowing him to keep a half-fit Belanov back as a valuable substitute to turn to in case of emergency. Instead, it was a depleted Soviet side which took to the field in Munich, for the final against Rinus Michel’s rhapsody in orange. Lobanovskyi was essentially forced to go into the final with Plan B.

Against Italy, Protasov had scored the vital second goal, which took the game beyond the Azzurri. No Lobanovskyi creation was ever going to yield a two-goal advantage. In the absence of Belanov, Protasov had been supplemented by a midfield which simply trips off the tongue for a set of hipsters of a certain age: Aleinikov, Gotsmanov, Lytovchenko, Zavarov and Mykhaylychenko.

It had been Lytovchenko who had burst forward to open the scoring in the semi-final, before Protasov settled the issue just four minutes later, in a second-half spell that stunned an Azzurri side which had controlled the ball up until that point.

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That midfield was weakened for the final, however, as Aleinikov was asked to drop into the defence to cover for the cruelly suspended Oleh Kuznetsov – the first of the two yellow cards which ruled him out of the final having been picked up over a year earlier, during qualifying – a player who had been majestic in the semi-final, despite having known from just the second minute of the game that he would miss the final, should the Soviets get there.

With a four-man midfield, as opposed to the five that had faced Italy – with Belanov bravely answering the desperate call of his coach – the final was sadly a bridge too far for the Belanov and Protasov partnership.

As Jan Wouters bolted the Netherlands defensive-midfield lock and the imperious Arnold Mühren dictated the pace of play, the ultimate glory of Euro 88 was left to Ruud Gullit, who took advantage of Aleinikov’s slow reactions in moving up with his defensive line, and Marco van Basten when he rendered Rinat Dasayev all-but punch-drunk in the wake of that volley.

Despite the depleted nature with which the Soviet’s went into the final, by the slenderest of margins it could have been so very different as over the course of just 20 seconds, situated in the 57th minute, Belanov was given the opportunity to potentially change the destiny of the game.

Firstly, Belanov struck Hans van Breukelen’s post with enough venom to shake the frame of the goal, and then the Netherlands’ goalkeeper carelessly brought down Gotsmanov close to the byline. It was a needless challenge, in a part of his penalty-area where the Soviet midfielder was unlikely to cause much damage.

Severely berated by his teammates, Van Breukelen redeemed himself by saving the resultant spot-kick. It was natural footballing justice. The Soviets alleviated of a way back into the game; the watching-world pick-pocketed of a dramatic last 30 minutes of a tournament which had so often hit the highest of notes.

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Belanov lasted 15 more minutes before his body insisted enough was enough. Nobody realised it at the time, but with him went the last great footballing day of the Soviet Union. The changes which were about to sweep through the east of Europe would soon take the entity of the entire Soviet Union with it.

Watching on from afar as the Soviet’s qualified for Italia 90, Belanov did return to play some pre-tournament friendlies, with a view to Lobanovskyi taking him to Italy. In the end, it was almost a mutual decision that Belanov didn’t go to a second World Cup.

Beyond 1990, a year in which Protasov had finally won the Soviet Top League with Kyiv, he and Belanov’s paths veered in differing directions. As Belanov laboured in a newly unified Germany, dropping down a division to play for Eintracht Braunschweig, Protasov accepted an offer from Olympiacos, for whom he won more honours and scored freely.

Apart from a lucrative two-year spell in the J-League with Gamba Osaka, Protasov spent the remainder of his playing career in Greece, before setting out on a coaching odyssey which took him back-and-forth between his newly adopted nation and various outposts around the many independent states of the old Soviet Union, pausing only to pass through Romania for a very brief but successful stay. Belanov drifted into club ownership in Switzerland at FC Wil.

Belanov never returned to the international scene beyond 1990 and, although Protasov came back to help clinch the Soviet’s qualification for Euro 92, he didn’t make the squad for the finals in Sweden. His final international appearance was a purely symbolic one, pulling on a shirt for Ukraine in 1994.

Ultimately, there is a degree of mirage to the Belanov and Protasov partnership, as their respective peaks were only in action simultaneously for a relatively short time. When that eye-of-the-storm was in operation, however, it created a blizzard of attacking football which was truly a privilege to watch.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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