Valeriy Lobanovskyi: The Scientist

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 31, 2018
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“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways,” wrote Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach. “The point, however, is to change it.” Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the inimitable coach of Dinamo Kiev and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, seemed to take this idea to heart.

There were elements of Marxism in Lobanovskyi’s approach to football: he preached the importance of collectivism over individualism. And he often spoke of the influence of Western philosophy on his ideas. “Every manager in the world says that the most difficult thing of all is the leadership of men,” he said. “They are right, but do they know that reading philosophical works can help us?”

Lobanovskyi, though, was not like other coaches. He was erudite and studious; he sought to cast aside the inherent emotion of football for something more mechanical, more manufactured.

That is not to say that Lobanovskyi was cold and disengaged. As a player he was a winger: a tricky, skilful player, more individualistic than perhaps any of his teammates at Dinamo. But there was always a contradiction. Lobanovskyi, though he admired creative and artistic players, approached the game from an almost cynically analytical perspective.

His background was scientific, and so he brought that with him into football. Lobanovskyi had studied heating engineering at the Kyivan Polytechnic Institute, where he had been surrounded by technological advancement and the possibilities that came with it.

From a young age, it was clear that Lobanovskyi did not just want to be successful in football. He wanted to change it. To make an indelible mark. When he was 22 he won the league title with Dinamo but he was not content to bask in the glory.

“Yes, we have won the league,” he said, according to his friend Volodymyr Sabaldyr, a scientist and amateur footballer. “But so what? Sometimes we played badly. We just got more points than other teams who played worse than us. I can’t accept your praise as there are no grounds for it.”

But, Sabaldyr responded, to win the title was a dream. “A realised dream ceases to be a dream,” said Lobanovskyi. “What is your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your post-doctoral thesis?”

“Maybe,” Sabaldyr replied. “But a real scientist dreams about making a contribution to scientific development, about leaving his mark on it.”

“And there you have your answer.”

This was typical of Lobanovskyi. He sought to intellectualise football in the Soviet Union, and where better to do it. The state had been gripped by a wave of scientific development and nowhere more so than Kiev. It was there that the first cybernetic institute opened in 1957, when Lobanovskyi was 18. Six years later, in Kiev, the first prototype of the modern computer was developed.

It was natural then, given his background, that Lobanovskyi should approach football as if it were a science. To him, football was objective. His love for the sport meant that at first he was conflicted, reluctant to deconstruct it into a series of diagrams and equations. But he saw no other way.

Series: Pragmatism in football.

In 1973, Lobanovskyi joined Dinamo Kiev as head coach. He would stay for nine years – before leaving for a brief spell as Soviet Union coach – and during that time revolutionise football in Eastern Europe. His collaboration with Anatoliy Zelentsov, a statistician then working at the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science, proved crucial.

“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,” wrote Simon Kuper in his 1994 book Football Against the Enemy. “To this end, Dynamo’s players had to memorise set plays, as if they were American footballers, and had to run off the ball in set patterns.”

Zelentsov was unerringly meticulous in his analysis. He theorised that a team would never lose a game in which they committed errors in less than 18% of the key moments. The combination of he and Lobanovskyi resulted in a truly unique playing style: one that featured both swift, organised counter attacking and movement off the ball resembling that of Rinus Michels’ Netherlands team.

“Football became a system of 22 elements – two sub-systems of 11 elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game),” wrote Jonathan Wilson in a 2011 piece for the Guardian. “If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, they would win. The aspect that Lobanovskyi found most fascinating was that the sub-systems were subject to a peculiarity: the efficiency of the sub-system was greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise it. That, as Lobanovskyi saw it, meant football was ripe for the application of the cybernetic techniques being taught at the Polytechnic Institute. Football, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them.”

Howard Wilkinson, the former Leeds manager, put it more simply. “His sides were like basketball teams,” he said. “They coordinated their movement beautifully and they were always athletic.” There was, then, some aestheticism amongst the functionality.

Everything at Dinamo was set up to ensure there were no cracks, no weaknesses for opposition to exploit. Lobanovskyi insisted on the construction of a new training site on the outskirts of Kiev. Here there was a swimming pool – used primarily for hydrotherapy – and an extravagant winter garden. There were advanced medical facilities, a private operating theatre, and a pressure chamber used to simulate training at high altitude.

As Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov expected, the approach brought with it great success. Dinamo, during Lobanovskyi’s 17 years at the club, won twelve league titles, two Cup Winners’ Cups and one Super Cup. They had not just achieved at home, but in Europe too. The rest of the continent took notice.

It is difficult not to be fascinated by Lobanovskyi. Old footage of the coach, in his younger years, shows his idiosyncrasies, his ability to communicate with and instruct a group of players. His hands waved as if he were performing some elaborate mime. He was, in effect, the conductor, the director; all that was missing was a baton.

Lobanovskyi died in 2002, aged 63, but his influence has not waned. A state funeral was held in Ukraine after his death, at which then president Leonid Kuchma hailed him as “one of the main builders of independent Ukraine”.

His work had transcended football. In that sense, he had achieved the ultimate success. He had not simply acquired the medals; he had made a contribution, made a mark. He had changed football.

As one character profoundly observed in the latest series of Westworld: “You only live as long as the last person who remembers you.” Lobanovskyi, for his contribution to the development of football, is not likely to be forgotten any time soon.

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