Valeriy Lobanovskyi and the White Ronaldo

Let's remember the pair of Ukrainian legends

This one is for Brian, who donated and asked for a piece about his favorite player: Andriy Shevchenko.

No one tried harder to rationalize an irrational game than Valeriy Lobanovskyi. He’s the man, who, as Brian Glanville wrote in his obituary back in 2002, “ turned Dynamo Kyiv into a team of remarkable skill and talent, climaxing first when, with a superb display of cultured football, they beat Ferencvaros of Hungary in the 1975 European Cup winners Cup final, the first Soviet team to win a major European competition, and chosen almost en bloc to represent the Soviet Union in the European Championship and World Cups.”

Lobanovskyi coached in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but so many of his ideas were modern, more modern than what plenty of coachest try to employ today. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in 2012:

Eventually, after a chance meeting with the statistician Anatoliy Zelentsov at a party, it was the latter that won out. Football became for him 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). 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 [Kyivan] Polytechnic Institute. Football, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them. 

Lobanovskyi himself once said:

I don't just speak of the sporting aspect of things. 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. Every manager in the world says that the most difficult thing of all is the leadership of men. They are right, but do they know that reading philosophical works can help us?

His teams were often described through comparisons to other sports -- basketball or football sides, in the sense that their movements were so heavily coordinated as to seem pre-planned. Thinking took time and his teams wanted to eliminate it. Lobanovskyi perhaps understood the sport of soccer -- why it is, how it works, what you can control -- on a deeper level than anyone ... ever. And so it is with much delight that I tell you his nickname for Andriy Shevchenko: the White Ronaldo.

Before he was lighting up the aughts with AC Milan, Shevchenko, well, he looked exactly the same. He’s gotten bigger, but that austere handsomeness -- that face -- has never really changed. Before moving to Milan, Sheva played for Dynamo Kyiv, one of Lobanovskyi’s last stints as manager. In 97, a 21-year-old Shevchenko did this to Barcelona in the Champions League:

And in 98 and 99, he did some of this, as Kyiv knocked out the likes of Arsenal and Real Madrid en route to the quarterfinals:

In the summer of 99, he moved to AC Milan for a club-record £21.5 million. That might seem like nothing -- Krzysztof Piatek money! -- but think of it this way. In 1997-98, Milan made £48.55 million in revenue. Let’s just say it rose up to £55 million the next year. That’s about 40 percent of the club’s revenue on a single player. The most expensive transfer of all time -- Neymar from Barcelona -- cost PSG about the same chunk of their earnings.

Were I a professional writer at the time and not an 11-year-old fighting against the fact that he needed braces and that his hair would never stop curling, then I probably would’ve warned against spending so much money on a player from a lesser league. HOW CAN WE BE SURE HIS PERFORMANCE WILL TRANSLATE FROM THE UKRAINIAN LEAGUE TO SERIE A? Well, in his first season with Milan, he led the league in goals (24). In his second season, he scored 24 goals again. In the third season, he dropped down to 14 (but added four assists). In his fourth season, he struggled with injuries, but also scored the winning penalty in the Champions League final against Juventus. And his fifth season, he scored 24 goals again, led the league again, as Milan won their first Scudetto in five years. At the end of that year, he won the Ballon d’Or.

So, the White Ronaldo, huh? I get it, in a way. What made Ronaldo so brilliant was his consistency -- not just in how he never stopped scoring goals but in how he was able to stress the defense in every phase of the game: running at defenders, running in behind, cutting in from the wing, getting on the end of a cross, you name it. The positional intelligence combined with the size and the speed and the control compelled him to dominate. That was all true for Shevchenko, too -- just to a lesser extent. However, part of what made Ronaldo such a romantic figure -- on a level the Ukrainian never achieved -- was that injuries cut his career short but more than that it’s that he dominated you with moves and footwork you’d typically only see in a pickup game. He made all that playful stuff double as deadly. Shevchenko had the same brutal dominance, but without the cage match or the commercials in an airport or the stepovers and nutmegs. Shevchenko just induded this low-level feeling of dread for any of his opponents. The guy scored exactly 24 goals in three of his first five seasons in Italy -- the consistency is comical.

And that’s what made some of the latter missteps so stunning. He missed an 8-in-10 chance against Liverpool in extra time in the 2005 Champions League final. And then he missed a penalty, too. Still, he was dominating Serie A all the while, finishing sixth and fourth in goals in 04-05 and 05-06 respectively, and fifth and fourth in goals+assists. He played seven seasons at Milan, and only finished outside the top 10 in either category once.

At the time, the £30.8 million move to Chelsea seemed like it would only increase the inevitability of the team Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho had already built. It was shocking to see Shevchenko flounder -- a perfect striker somehow forgetting how his feet work -- but he wasn’t that bad in his first season: second on the team in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes. And, well, we should’ve known better. Milan sold him, in 2008, a couple months before his 30th birthday -- right as he was aging out of his prime. He’d soon be back in Italy for an unimpressive season-long loan, before winding down his career with three really nice seasons back at Dynamo Kyiv. Shevchenko has since dabbled in a career in politics and even tried out professional golf before settling in where he is now.

Shevchenko once called Lobanovskyi, “the God and father of Ukrainian football”. After winning the Champions League, he flew to Kiev to lay his medal on Lobanovskyi’s grave. Managing Ukraine was Lobanovskyi’s last job before he passed away, and in 2016, it became Shevchenko’s first.

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