Remembering Vitali Daraselia, Dinamo Tbilisi’s Cup Winners’ Cup legend who died at 25

Remembering Vitali Daraselia, Dinamo Tbilisi’s Cup Winners’ Cup legend who died at 25

It is a strange thing, writing a book. Months of focus where it is just you and your burgeoning creation. Years even. Then, suddenly, it is out there in the public domain, wide open to praise and criticism. It is a piece of work that still belongs to you, yet something you’re no longer in control of. Simultaneously, it belongs to every person that was kind enough to purchase it or to be gifted it by a loved one. 

From here, you find yourself occasionally accosted via social media, usually by those who enjoyed your book. It is never anything other than amazing when somebody who parted with cold hard cash for something you wrote takes the time to track you down, to tell you how much they enjoyed it. 

One unsuspecting Saturday, way back in February, I was completely blindsided by a random message I received via Facebook, from somebody I didn’t know. The type of thing that leaves you feeling a touch unsettled. 

While I don’t blink when flagged down on Twitter, it tends to feel different on Facebook, kind of like when you are approached by a stranger when idly meandering through a busy town centre, or on the way to the local shop for the one ingredient that stands between you and a much anticipated Pad Thai.

I opened the message and sat transfixed for a while. The sender had identified herself as Kristina Daraselia and I automatically recognised her surname. She went on to state that she was the daughter of Vitali Daraselia, and that she just wanted to thank me for the image I had chosen for the front cover of A Tournament Frozen in Time. 

Upon the cover, fists clenched, leaning to his right, Vitali is about to arc away in celebration of Vladimir Gutsaev’s equaliser for Dinamo Tbilisi against Carl Zeiss Jena in the 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup final. The East German team had held the lead for only four minutes; just under 20 minutes later, Vitali would score a wondrous winning goal. 

Twenty-four hours prior to the 1981 FA Cup final replay, Vitali’s goal strikes a haunting template for the one that Ricardo Villa went on to clinch victory with against Manchester City, at Wembley for Tottenham. Seek the two goals out on YouTube.

Read  |  The infamous ghost match between West Ham and Real Madrid Castilla

While not identical, both players pick up the ball well outside their opponents’ penalty area, slaloming in on their target and planting it low, beneath a helplessly exposed goalkeeper. Whereas Vitali’s run takes a shift in axis that cuts from right to left, Villa’s goes in the opposite direction; whereas Vitali’s finish is powered home empathically, Villa’s is almost passed into the net. While Villa’s goal is indelibly scorched across the subconscious of anybody who witnessed it, Vitali’s remains an under-celebrated masterpiece. 

Earlier, on the very same day that Vitali was scoring the winning goal in the Cup Winners’ Cup final, Mehmet Ali Ağca had shot Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square in Rome. 

While ITV covered the football from Düsseldorf’s sparsely populated Rheinstadion in highlights form on Midweek Sports Special, it was a game between two Eastern Bloc teams seeking attention amid a cluster of days that had also included a Zico-inspired Brazil defeating England at Wembley 48 hours before the replayed FA Cup final was played out beneath the twin towers.

The 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup final also had to share the television programme it resided in with the Ken Norton vs Gerry Cooney, WBA World Heavyweight title fight.  

A far too widely forgotten bystander in a week of seismic events, Vitali, his goal and his team’s success – Dinamo were only the second club from the Soviet Union to lift a major European trophy – were hypnotic. Football heaven for hipsters, they were the stereotypical crack Eastern European outfit, a team that had dismantled Bob Paisley’s Liverpool during the early exchanges of the 1979/80 European Cup, a team that had been almost surgical in their devastating dismissal of West Ham when on their way to glory. 

Alongside Vitali and Gutsaev, Dinamo boasted other outstanding midfield and attacking talent such as Tengiz Sulakvelidze, Ramaz Shengelia and David Kipiani. Their defence was marshalled by the captain, Aleksandre Chivadze, while goalkeeper Otar Gabelia was a Soviet international.

Vitali was one of four players to make Konstantin Beskov’s squad for the 1982 World Cup. Legend has it that the powers that be had insisted no more than four Tbilisi-based players make the final squad of 22, despite several others having made the provisional call up. Moscow’s centralised sense of superiority had already been dented by the magnificence of Dynamo Kyiv, who provided eight players for the trip to Spain. 

Read  |  Electric dreams and football teams: when little-known KV Mechelen lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup

Dinamo’s rise had taken them to the Soviet Top League title in 1978, winning the Soviet Cup a year later, their second success in the tournament in four seasons and one which was clinched on penalties against Dynamo Moscow in the Russian capital’s Central Lenin Stadium, which would act as the main host stadium for the following year’s Olympics. 

Vitali had scored Dinamo’s fourth spot-kick in the 1979 Soviet Cup final penalty shootout, helping ease the tensions of surprise earlier misses by Kipiani and Gutsaev and assisting in avenging the cup finals they had lost to the same opponents in 1937 and 1970. He was a pivotal influence throughout their successes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, of which none were as big or as celebrated as that 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup. 

As holders of the Cup Winners’ Cup, Dinamo reached the semi-finals before bowing out to Raymond Goethals’ Standard Liège in what was the club’s last truly great European adventure. It had been a continental odyssey that had seen them humble not only Liverpool, but also teams of the stature of Inter, Napoli and Feyenoord. 

The 1981/82 campaign had brought a clutch of near misses for Vitali. Beyond the end of their European dreams, the Tbilisi outfit were amongst a cluster of teams that finished a couple of steps behind the new league champions Dinamo Minsk, while in the Soviet Cup they lost out in the semi-finals to Dynamo Kyiv. 

In Spain, at the World Cup finals, wearing his favourite number 13, a number he considered to be his lucky one, Vitali was part of a Soviet Union squad that was undone by the conservative approach of Beskov. A starter against Brazil and New Zealand, he was thrown on as a substitute in the second-round group games against Belgium and Poland. 

Ironically, during the 12 minutes Vitali was given against Poland – in what was a de facto quarter-final – he was handed the task of trying to make a late breakthrough as frustrations grew amongst his teammates against a Poland side that was tactically set up in a similar pattern to how Dinamo played their football. A goalless draw ensued, which was enough to send Poland through to the semi-finals. 

Having been a European champion with the Soviet Union at under-18 and under-21 levels, senior international honours would elude him. Aged just 25 when he walked away from the 1982 World Cup, nobody could have foreseen that Vitali had played his last game for the Soviet Union. 

Read  |  How the underrated Cup Winners’ Cup was never successfully defended in its 39-year history

On 13 December 1982, a car that Vitali was travelling in fell from a mountain road into a river below. The details remain sketchy and rumours of a long-speculated second car and driver have never been resolved. Forever having classed 13 as his lucky number – he was married and won the Cup Winners’ Cup on the 13th – it is nothing but sobering to consider that he died on the 13th and that it took an extensive search of 13 days to find his body.

At the time of his death, the envy of many admiring clubs from the West, Vitali was being primed to be the next talismanic leader of Dinamo Tbilisi, while he also could have been a key component in a Soviet Union side that would soon be blessed by the blossoming the likes of Oleh Kuznetsov, Vasiliy Rats, Igor Belanov, Oleh Protasov and Sergei Aleinikov.

In writing my book, Vitali and his Dinamo side had been one of the biggest driving forces behind its creation. A team of great beauty, yet one that felt cursed too. That 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup-winning team has since lost Kipiani and Shengelia, the former to another road accident in 2001 and the latter to a brain haemorrhage in 2012. 

Losing her father in such tragic circumstances at such a young age, it would have been entirely understandable had Kristina wanted nothing else to do with football, yet today she works at the Georgian Football Federation in the women’s football department. 

She finds contentment and peace within this environment. Unnecessarily apologising for her excellent English, our initial point of contact expanded, as she kindly fielded a few questions. When I asked how important football was in her life, Kristina said, “From my early childhood football has been a big part of my life, even though I didn’t play.

“I always loved being at the stadium and watching the match. The architecture of the stadium is interesting for me. It is even relaxing to spend time at the empty stadium. Our workspace is in one of the wings of the stadium. Because of that, I have an opportunity to spend my free time sitting on the bench and looking out to the empty pitch while drinking a cup of coffee.”

Not the only member of her family to embrace the game in a professional capacity, Kristina’s brother, Vitali Jnr, was a Georgian international midfielder who also played for Dinamo in two separate spells, before his career was curtailed by injury at the age of 31. She is also married to George Anchabadze, another former Dinamo player whose career took him to the pitches of Israel, Belgium and Cyprus.

Listen  |  In celebration of the Cup Winners’ Cup, a tournament like no other

It was with immense pride that she declared: “My family members were football players. My father, brother and husband, all of them played at Dinamo Tbilisi. My brother was a very talented player, but unfortunately he couldn’t continue his career because of injury.”

Vitali Jnr has publicly downplayed the talent his sister insists he possessed, but when his father is the benchmark that he used to measure himself, then the conversion rate would never be anything other than harsh. Vitali Jnr would sit, watch and study footage of his father’s performances and then try to incorporate something of them into his own game. For such a modest assessment of himself, he walked away from the game a multiple medal winner. 

Kristina is quite rightly proud of her brother and her husband, but it is her father for whom she reserves the greatest praise – a man whose own voice has not been heard for almost 38 years: “My father was a European champion at under-21, he was also a champion of the Soviet Union. He participated in the World Cup in 1982, but the highest point of his career was the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981. This was the most important victory in the history of Georgian football. In Georgia, his goal is called ‘Century’s Goal’.”

Dinamo Tbilisi, despite falling by the wayside when it comes to the wider contemporary European game, remain a magical, mythical team for anyone who watched the game in the 1970s, an ethereal force illuminated by an immortal legend such as Vitali and the players he shared the club’s greatest years with.

Kristina spoke of the pride that the people of Tbilisi still retain for their team and the glow of those glory years: “Undoubtedly, the Tbilisi of that time was very popular and admired and it is still remembered as the brightest period of Georgian football.”

In the perfect place, Kristina has everything she could possibly need in her life, apart from the physical presence of her father, a man whose spirit she helps to shine brightly. She is a credit to Vitali, and as a parting comment, she contended: “I am a fan of Dinamo Tbilisi. The academy of the club is named after my father and each year there is a Vitali Daraselia Cup, where European clubs compete.” It is a fitting honour to the man who gave the club its greatest moment. 

When the academy was opened in July 2013, not only were the great and the good of Georgian football there to see it, but also present were Andriy Shevchenko and Cristiano Ronaldo, so strongly were they compelled to pay their respects to the lost legend that was Vitali Daraselia.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

We thoroughly recommend grabbing a copy of Steven’s book A Tournament Frozen in Time: The Wonderful Randomness of the Cup Winners’ Cup, which was nominated for the Telegraph Sports Book Awards 2020. Available now.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed