Russia Sport Football The Last Great Soviet Union Team

The Last Great Soviet Union Team

1988 was perhaps the last hurrah for the Soviet Union football team. Under legendary manager Valery Lobanovsky, they reached the final of Euro 1988, narrowly losing to Holland. They did so using cutting-edge scientific methodology and playing fluid, intelligent football.

Lobanovsky’s Scientific Approach

Lobanovsky did not fit the mould of a typical football man. A talented winger in his playing days, it was science that was his true love. The Ukrainian had studied heating engineering at the Kyivan Polytechnic Institute. It was here that he encountered the potential of computers and mathematical modelling.

This is something that he applied when he became manager of Dynamo Kyiv. Acquiring a computer (something that was incredibly rare in the Soviet Union at the time), he thoroughly analysed games, player performances and an array of statistics. Lobanovsky also designed intricate set plays, calculating which moves would best dissect the opposition.

His innovative methods catapulted Dynamo Kyiv to the top of the Soviet Football League. They even became the first Soviet team to win a European trophy, capturing the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and 1986.

Indeed, it was this Dynamo Kyiv team that provided the bulk of the 1988 Soviet national team. Oleg Blokhin led the USSR’s attack. He was one of the best forwards in the world at his peak, and scored the winning goal in the 1986 Cup Winners Cup final. Vasily Rats was a powerful all-action midfielder, partnered by Alexei Mikhailichenko, a hard-working central midfielder with excellent passing ability and technique. They were accompanied by Igor Belanov, a talented and free-scoring attacking midfielder who had been named European Footballer of the Year in 1986.

Impressive Displays in Germany

The Soviet Union were placed in a difficult group in Euro 1988 in West Germany. They had to face two of the pre-tournament favourites, England and the Netherlands.

However, they stunned the Netherlands in their opening match. Vasyl Rats scored the winner to earn the Soviets a 1-0 victory.

Their second match was against the surprise package of the group, the Republic of Ireland. Ireland had upset England in their first match and, against the Soviet Union, they took a first-half lead. The Red Army fought back, though, and striker Oleh Protasov scored to earn a draw.

It was the final group game that really showed the Soviet Union at their best. England were heavily fancied for the tournament, but found themselves behind after just three minutes. An equaliser by Tony Adams was quickly trumped by a strike from Mikhailichenko. The Spartak Moscow midfielder Viktor Pasulko put the game out of doubt with a third goal, sealing a 3-1 win. The Soviets had topped the group.

This set up a semi-final clash against the formidable Italians. Knowing the technical ability of the Azzurri, Lobanovsky instructed his team to be hard-tackling and to play on the counter. It worked as planned. Despite controlling possession, the Italians were sucker-punched by two goals in four minutes in the second half. The latter of these goals was a sublime looping shot from Protasov that sailed over the Italian keeper.

The Soviets had carried on their European pedigree and reached their third Euros final.

The Final

The tournament climax was a repeat of the opening group match: Netherlands vs the Soviet Union. Given their result the first time around, Lobanovsky’s side felt confident.

The match was largely a tight affair. In the end, it was a couple of moments of individual brilliance from the Dutch that broke down the well-organised Soviets. Captain Ruud Gullit opened the scoring, before Marco van Basten doubled their lead with arguably one of the greatest goals in European Championship history – a stunning tight-angled volley.

Even with this, the Soviet Union had their chances. They gained a penalty in the second half, only for Igor Belanov’s shot to be saved. Ultimately, it was not to be.  

Breakup of the Team

The final would prove to be the last match for the Soviet Union in the European Championships. The USSR was dissolved in 1991 and, with the loss of its strong Ukrainian contingent, Russian football never reached the same heights.

As for Lobanovsky, he was a man ahead of his time. His use of technology, innovative tactics and statistical analysis have now become a staple of modern football. For that, he is regarded as one of the most significant managers in the history of the game.

 © Sathesh Alagappan

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