Saturday, September 17, 2011

European Player of the Year was another Eastern European player and close look at the final list was more alarming than the Golden Boot ranking: it clearly showed how impoverished 1975 was. 26 voters assembled from around Europe named a total of 32 players in their lists. The number was not strange – bias was a major force and many a voter sneaked a compatriot player, so the numbers usually swelled without corresponding to actual worth of international performance. Most voters were rarely seeing foreign stars anyway, so it was hard to acuse them of favouritism – they simply were not sure of the form of even big names, but knew well enough local talent.
What was troublesome was the top five: only three players got first place in individual lists. Sepp Maier was voted first twice. Franz Beckenbauer got 4 first places. The rest – 20 lists – went to Oleg Blokhin. Johann Crujff got none. Neeskens sunk down to the bottom of the final table. So with Gerd Muller. So with pretty much every star of the 1974 World Cup and most of the European famous names.
Blokhin ended best with 122 points. The total of Kaizer Franz, finishing second, was 42 points. Cruyff got only 27. Bertie Fogts – 25 and Sepp Maier 20. 80 points difference between first and second! One may think a new Pele suddenly appeared in time when there was no any other player worth a dime. Was it really Blokhin 80 points better than Beckenbauer? Light years better than Cruyff? Not at all. It was just mediocre season and in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed was king. Everybody was underperforming, losing, or winning a little bit. Blokhin only was winning more than anybody this year: Soviet championship, European Cup Winners Cup, European Supercup, scoring all the goals in the Supercup finals, best goalscorer of the USSR. Nobody else got so many trophies and at such convenient time, for the Supercup, the Soviet championship, and the goals in both competitions came in the fall, near to the time of voting, and the memories were fresh.
Oleg Blokhin attacking Bayern and scoring supergoal, and winning the Supercup. Arguably, this confrontation elevated him to the yearly award.
In 1975 Blokhin was 23 years old and Europe’s number one. Was Blokhin that great? By Soviet standards – yes. By international ones – hardly. He debuted for Dinamo Kiev in 1969 and quickly established himself in the first team and more: he was included in the national team in 1972. By 1975 he was a staple of both Dinamo and USSR. He was also the best Soviet goalscorer 4 years in row, beginning in 1972. Back then he topped everybody else with 14 goals. In 1975 his record was 18. Well, hardly a potential Golden Boot winner, but in USSR there hasn’t been great and consistent goalscorer for a long, long time. It was a bit unsusual, though, for Blokhin was a classic left winger – very fast, relatively skillful, and also quite limited to the left side touchline: he seemingly disliked moved elsewhere and appeared to lack abilities to play anything else but classic left wing. He was also often criticized in the Soviet press in the previous years, especially for weak playing in the national team. Hardly Blokhin’s fault, though – Dinamo Kiev was prepared to play for him and use his goalscoring when the national team had different scheme and Blokhin, at least in his early years, was to be a supplier rather than consumer. As a supplier he was not that strong – he was best used as a final striker, a finisher. When Lobanovsky got his hands on Dinamo Kiev, it was exactly for that he used Blokhin - he discarded the centre-forward and as strange as it was, the left winger was the finisher. So far Blokhin had been rather predictable and limited winger, depending largely on his speed and using scoring opportunities. Onishchenko was by far the more interesting, dangerous, and inventive player, but Blokhin scored the goals. And now his speed and goals against Bayern made him the best European player. Sure – for his abilities, Blokhin had a great year. It would not count for much, given his limitations, if there was somebody else playing strong football in 1975. But everybody was playing worse football, not better…
Oleg Blokhin was never voted again Player of the Year and for a while it looked like his 1975 award was just a freak accident. But he surprisingly widened his game and 10 years later was much more accomplished player. And already the best Soviet player of all time. Hard to imagine in 1975, although he was the King of Europe.