x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

No more eastern promise

Money has left stellar teams from the east of Europe lagging behind the more lucrative television markets of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

The Champions League has done its job. The meeting of Manchester United and Barcelona at Wembley Stadium in this year's showpiece means that of the last 30 finalists, only two have come from outside the big television markets of England, Spain, Italy and Germany. None have come from eastern Europe which, in this year of anniversaries especially, should be cause for regret.

As the Champions League arrived in 1992 to make the rich richer and increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots, eastern European clubs were struggling to adapt to a free market, their state funding withdrawn.

A financial model that accentuated economic differences between clubs was never going to suit the teams from the east, but it hit them when they were at their most vulnerable.

The result is that they have been left to squabble in the Europa League, which effectively replaced the Uefa Cup, but is far below the equivalent standard.

In the decade before the change, the Communist bloc had produced four of the greatest winners of European trophies there have ever been. All of them mark significant anniversaries this month.

Dinamo Tbilisi were not the first eastern European side to win a European trophy when they lifted the Cup Winners' Cup in 1981. But they were perhaps the first to enrapture Europe with the quality of their football.

When they beat West Ham United 4-1 at Upton Park in the quarter-final, the home fans applauded them off, so taken had they been by their blend of close passing and extravagant dribbling.

Tbilisi had been seen as the team of the first head of the KGB, the notorious Lavrenty Beria, but it was not until 1964 that they won the title for the first time, under Gavriil Kachalin.

It was when Nodar Akhalkatsi took charge in 1976, though, that Tbilisi became a major force.

Others had attempted to temper the natural attacking flair of Georgian sides, but none before had achieved quite such an effective balance as he did. Under him, they won the domestic league and the cup before their European success.

This was the side of Alexandr Chivadze, as composed a libero as there has ever been; of Ramaz Shengelia, who would sweep in from the left to score hatfuls of goals; of the intelligent moustached forward David Kipiani, and of the brilliant and tragic midfielder Vitaly Daraselia.

It was Daraselia who scored the winner in the final against Carl Zeiss Jena, of East Germany, bursting through two challenges with three minutes remaining to make it 2-1. He impressed in the World Cup the following summer, but five months later he was dead, killed in a car crash at the age of 25.

Kipiani, too, was the victim of a road accident, dead at 49 in 2001. Tbilisi's fortunes declined after Daraselia's death.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of great flux in Soviet football, as the centre loosened its grip and teams from the provinces made their mark.

In the mid-seventies Valeriy Lobanovskyi had been a radical, revolutionising the game by applying the principles of cybernetics to football, studying the game statistically to an unprecedented extent and coming up with a highly systematised version of it that led Dynamo Kiev to five titles and the 1975 Cup Winners' Cup.

By the early eighties, he had become part of the establishment; his way was the orthodoxy, until a dodgy penalty awarded to Portugal in the USSR's final qualifier for the 1984 European Championships saw the national side eliminated.

Lobanovskyi was suddenly seen as old hat, and it was only the personal intervention of Volodomyr Shcherbytskyi, the local head of the Communist party, whose son Lobanovskyi had helped recover from alcoholism, that got him his job back at Dynamo.

When they finished 10th in 1984, it seemed even he might not be able to protect his coach, but Lobanovskyi remained unyielding in his principles.

"A path always remains a path," he said.

"It's a path during the day, it's a path during the night and it's a path during the dawn."

They won the league and cup double in 1985, added the league again in 1986 and that same year won the Cup Winners' Cup, beating Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the final. The second goal in that game summed up the Lobaonvskyian ideal.

Vasyl Rats advanced down the left, drew two men, and played the ball inside to Ihor Belanov. Belanov took two touches, and, as the centre-back moved across to close him down, he, without so much as a glance, laid the ball right for Vadym Yevtushenko.

He moved one pace forward, forcing the full-back inside to close him down, then instinctively flicked the ball right for the overlapping Oleh Blokhin, who ran onto his pass, and, as the goalkeeper came off his line, lofted the ball over him.

It was rapid, fluent, co-ordinated, a move practised in advance and applied at the perfect moment so it seemed almost preordained.

That same year, Steaua Bucharest became the first eastern European side to win the European Cup. They had a reasonably easy run to the semi-finals, beating Vejle of Denmark, Honved of Hungary and Kuusysi of Finland, but in the last four they met a very strong Anderlecht, Uefa Cup finalists two years earlier.

Steaua lost in Brussels, but back in the Ghencea they were inspired and won 3-0.

"Each of us knew exactly our jobs, and we had such a perfect idea of where to pass the ball that if the coach had asked us to play with our eyes closed we could have put the ball where we needed to," the full-back Stefan Iovan said.

"We were like a perfect car. Great credit has to go to [Laszlo] Boloni. I don't know how he did it, but he could always find the perfect pass. He was the key to our stability: we were a team that was very attacking and we often forgot about the importance of defending."

Boloni would go on to become a manager, coaching the Romanian national side in 2000 as well as Al Wahda and Al Jazira in the Pro League.

Aries Haan, the Anderlecht coach, said he had never seen a side play with such rhythm.

The final, against Terry Venables's Barcelona, looked even tougher, particularly as the game was played in Spain, in Sevilla's Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

There Steaua eschewed the fluency that had seen them reach that stage, shutting up shop and playing for a goal-less draw. When they began to wobble late on, the 36-year-old assistant coach Anghel Iordanescu, who hadn't played all season, was brought on to calm things down. He succeeded and the game went to penalties.

Steaua knew that gave them a great chance: their goalkeeper Helmut Ducadam was such a master at saving penalties that he would challenge teammates to try to score against him from the spot at training sessions.

"If I hadn't become a footballer, I definitely would have become a psychiatrist," he said. "I always liked to walk in the street and look at people and think, 'What is in his mind?' I like poker. I play poker. I'm good."

Steaua missed their first two kicks; but it didn't matter. Ducadam was inspired.

"The most important was the first one," he said. "If you save the first, the next one becomes much easier to save. The second shooter from Barcelona thought I would go left because I went right for the first one.

"The logic of the player was that he should go to the same side because he thought the goalkeeper would go the other. The third penalty was the easiest.

"The taker thought I would go to the left because the first two I had gone to the right. I dived a bit early, but it was the easiest for me to save because it was predictable."

Jose Alexanco, Angel Pedraza and Pichi Alonso all saw their shots saved; fourth came Marcos.

"Watching it again on television after many years, I realise that the fourth taker for Barcelona didn't have a clue what he should do, because I'd saved all the other penalties on the same side," Ducadam said.

"I watched him and had eye-to-eye contact with him. I played a trick on Marcos. I shaped to go to the left and then to the right, then I went left."

Having scored their third and fourth kicks, Steaua were champions. Crvena Zvezda, known as Red Star Belgrade to English speakers, as needed penalties to win their final, against Marseille, five years later. They too opted for caution at the last having been brilliant on their way to the final, particularly in an epic semi-final against Bayern Munich, quite possibly the best two-legged tie ever played.

The war in the former Yugoslavia began between the two legs of that game, and the atmosphere in Belgrade for the second game, in which Zvezda, having seemingly thrown the game away by conceding twice in the space of four minutes, won it in the final minute with a comical Klaus Augenthaler own-goal.

That was a side that featured, as Steaua's had, the sweeper Miodrag Belodedici, known as "The Deer" for his gracefulness. Vladimir Jugovic was one of the most composed and unfussy holding midfielders there has ever been.

He was partnered in the centre by Robert Prosinecki, one of the great old-school playmakers, all languid dribbles and defence-splitting passes.

And playing off the centre-forward Darko Pancev was Dejan Savicevic, probably the best dribbler of his generation, who later won the trophy with AC Milan.

"The tragedy is that we will never know how could we could have been," said Zvezda's goalkeeper and captain, Stevan Stojanovic. As the war escalated it was clear that Yugoslav football would undergo a radical transformation, and the European Cup-winning team rapidly broke up.

Pancev, Savicevic and Jugovic went to Italy, Prosinecki to Real Madrid.

Change had been expected since the Communists dominoes had started to fall in 1989.

What was less obvious was that financial decisions being taken in Switzerland would have consequences just as devastating for football across the whole of eastern Europe.

 

sports@thenational.ae