Monday, October 15, 2012

The Ovsepyan case appeared at the end of the year, when the season was over. Back in the early spring the marathon was about to begin and naturally there was no gloom, but hope. Hope was short-lived: the return to normal structure quickly immediately led to the triumph of stubborn practices and ills. It could be said that 1977 was the lowest point of Soviet football in the decade. Everything was painfully familiar – the champion, the relegated, the bulk of mid-table unambitious clubs, the low scoring, the love of security in tied games, in which everybody got the 'sacred' point. The end of forced winning, characteristic of the previous seasons, was almost greeted with a roar by all clubs: once there was no limit to ties, everyone was happy... only three clubs ended with fewer than 10 ties, that is with less than 1/3 of the total seasonal matches tied. On the other side were the 'record makers': it was also tied race – Dinamo (Moscow), Kairat (Alma-Ata), Neftchi (Baku), and CSKA (Moscow) ended 17 of their matches tied. The champions, Dinamo (Kiev), finished exactly 50% of their games tied. Winning was obviously not the goal – only 4 clubs finished with more than 10 wins. Not a single club managed to come close to 2-goal average per game: the champions were best with 51 goals, or 1.7 goals per match average. But the bronze medalists, Torpedo (Moscow), represented best the prevailing attitudes: they scored measly 30 goals through the season, 1 per game. In fact, only 7 clubs ended with 30 or more goals this season – not even half the league. Half the league fretted over relegation, though – three points were the whole difference between 8th and 15th place. The best goalscorer was summing the misery: Oleg Blokhin was top goalscorer for 5th time already. He scored 17 goals. He was consistent no doubt, and already hold the record – nobody else was so many time the best scorer in USSR, but in the all-time table he was 34th before the season and climbed to 20th place after the end. Only 18 players in the history of Soviet football scored 100 or more goals and none of them was an active player by 1977. Among the active players, barring Blokhin, none was really expected to make the milestone mark of 100 – some were too old, like Banishevsky, others - so far behind, that 50 goals was more or less the expected maximum.

Anatoly Banishevsky, one of brighest Soviet stars of the 1960s. Regular national team player, formidable centreforward, goalscorer... and almost forgotten name by 1977, when he was not yet 32-years old. Playing for the small Neftci (Baku) and suffering injuries did not help, of course, but his 71 goals total before the 1977-season were not very impressive. He did not add much during the championship... and his playing days were rapidly diminishing.

Down in the table were mostly familiar inhabitants – Krylya Sovetov (Kuybyshev) were hopeless: they managed to win only 2 matches and collected a total of 11 points. Last place and relegation was certain almost from the start of the season, and they returned to second division after two years among the best. The second relegated club was a bit of a surprise: Karpaty (Lvov) were 4th in 1976, reaching a UEFA Cup spot. Now they sunk to 15th place.
A tired and increasingly aging team, Karpaty slipped down. Gone were the days when Kozinkevich was playing for the national team... and seemingly no new talent was pushing forward. There was only one name interesting... in retrospect: A. Bal, 18-years old. He was to become famous, but not with Karpaty.

Another club also slipped down and barely escaped relegation, finishing 14th with 1 point more than unlucky Karpaty: CSKA (Moscow). This was alarming – Moscow football surely was getting worse. Spartak playing in Second Division and now another 'big name' fighting for mere survival. CSKA was on slippery-slope for a few years already. It was even confusing – there were good players in the squad, some national team regulars: Astapovsky, Olshansky, Nazarenko, Morozov. Tarkhanov, Saukh, Radaev, and Shvetzov were considered very promising... Kopeykin, Nikonov, Chesnokov were experienced and no strangers to the national team in the recent past, yet, the 'chemistry' was not there. Once a mighty team, the Army was not even middle-of-the-road club now.

Above the outsiders were vast bulk of so-so clubs, normally occupying mid-table, occasionally struggling for survival, most of the time not and satisfied with quiet existence.

Zenit (Leningrad) represents this group best: they finished 10th. No surprises, no great moments, rather gray and ordinary, even there mass production Adidas kits. Zenit apparently had limited resources – something a bit strange for the second most important Soviet city – and was unable to build strong squad. Better players were leaving to join other clubs, even second division ones, as was the case of Zinchenko and Khromchenkov. Most of the team were experienced, but hardly impressive players. The new 'star' was their 28-years old striker Markin – hardly a future promise at his age. The only noticeable youngster was Redkous, and it was almost certain that he was not going to last long with Zenit. In fact, the only big name was the coach German Zonin, who made small Zarya (Voroshilovgrad) surprise champions in 1972. How good a coach Zonin was is really impossible to judge: true, Zenit had no means to build strong team, but seemingly the presence of Zonin had no impact on performance.

And like Zenit were most of the clubs in the league. The 'best' among them this year was Lokomotiv (Moscow), finishing sixth. Sixth, but just a few players of some importance, capable of 32 points from 30 matches.
Which left the 'usual suspects' at the very top – Shakter (Donetzk), Dinamo (Moscow), Torpedo (Moscow), Dinamo (Tbilisi), and Dinamo (Kiev). Head and shoulders above the rest they were not, but somewhat better – yes. Shakter was steady, so was Dinamo (Tbilisi), and the champions of the two 1976 championships – Torpedo and Dinamo Moscow – were seemingly running on the steam of the last year. At the end, none was able to really challenge Dinamo (Kiev). Torpedo ended with bronze medals.

Standing from left: Mironov, Sakharov, Khrabrostin (?), Buturlakin, Khlopotnov, Prigoda, Zarapin

Kneeling: Petrenko, Kruglov, Yurin, Filatov.

Good season for Torpedo – in their own terms, for the predicament of the club was to be always modestly behind the formidable Moscow's trio of Dinam, Spartak, and CSKA. The golden years of the club were long gone with the 1960s and this was a bit more than expected from them. Sure, they had solid team, with some men occasionally included in the national team – Prigoda and Sakharov – and plenty of well respected players, like Yurin, Khrabrostin, Buturlakin, Kruglov, Petrenko, Filatov, but at a glance they were not champions material. Upper-half of the table, but no more. So, it was a success, however unimpressive, and practically the last season Torpedo played major role in Soviet football.

The silver medalists were another story. Dinamo (Tbilisi) were always among the best Soviet clubs and were known for their technical, attacking style. Perhaps they were the most pleasant to watch Soviet team, which may be was their undoing as well, for artistic flair rarely succeeded in the dull Soviet football, aiming at killing the game so to manage a tie and collect a point. As most artistic teams, Dinamo were moody, which was not helping either – they were capable of great match one week only to collapse in the next. Their inconsistency affected the whole judgment of them - perhaps the Georgians were the most criticized players, always 'failing expectations', included with suspicion in the national team, and dismissed at the first mistake.

Sitting in front, from left: V. Daraselia, V. Gutzaev, D. Kipiani, R. Shengelia, R. Chelebadze.

Middle row: T. Kostava, G. Machaidze, S. Metreveli – assistant coach, N. Dzapshila – chief of the team, N. Akhalkatzi – coach, S. Kutivadze – assistant coach, M. Machaidze, V. Kopaleishvili.

Top row: O. Gabelia, D. Mudzhiri, A. Chivadze, Sh. Khinchagashvili, P. Kanteladze, N. Khizanishvili, V. Koridze, D. Gogia.

Well known squad already in the USSR, with plenty of talent and few players establishing themselves solidly in the national team, particularly David Kipiani, the magnificent striker, and the central defender Alexander Chivadze. Young talent was plentiful – Shengelia, Daraselia, Gabelia, Mudzhiri. Nodar Akhalkatzi carefully selected great squad, which was just not ripe yet, but had enormous talent and its days were coming soon. But not in 1977 – the team was good enough for second place, yet, not really challenged Dinamo (Kiev), trailing 4 points behind. It was still a team for the future.

Which left the familiar Dinamo (Kiev) once again on top. The numbers of the champions were a bit strange: Dinamo ended with confident 4-point lead. They lost only one match and their defensive record is perhaps unmatched in the history of Soviet football: they allowed only 12 goals in 30 games. Of course, they won the most matches – 14 – and scored most goals – 51. But... they finished half of their games in draws, which amounted to uncomfortable fact: the champions failed to win 16 games, more than ½ of the total. Their scoring was hardly great as well... in the rather pedestrian Soviet league of this vintage, Dinamo was unable to really dominate. It looked like the team struggled, and hints of that are detectable in the words of Dinamo's captain Victor Kolotov after the end of the season: quite a few teammates were described as underperforming, if not plainly declining, but none was mentioned as improving, let alone as revelation.

8th time champions: bottom from left: P. Slobodyan, S. Reshko, V. Bessonov, V. Troshkin, V. Muntyan, V. Onishtchenko.

Middle row: V. Lobanovsky – coach, V. Lozinsky, L. Buryak, O. Blokhin, A. Berezhnoy, V. Berkovsky – team doctor, V. Malyuta – team doctor, M. Koman – chief coach, responsible for 'educational work'.

Third row: V. Kolotov, M. Fomenko, V. Matvienko, V. Veremeev, V. Yurkovsky, A. Konkov, E. Evlantiev – masseur.

At a glance, very familiar team – all heroes, winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1975, are here. They were here and that suggested a problem: inevitably aging. Hints of transitional struggle are detectable: Lobanovsky was no fool and some young players were already included, pushing away older stars. One thing was certain: Dinamo invested greatly in their youth system and every year a bunch of youngsters were included in the first team. But so far there was no obvious great talent – rather promising players, who most often stayed on the bench. Lobanovsky was no fool, but he was seemingly hesitating to make radical changes. The team was quite defensively oriented after 1975 – very crowded midfield, two strikers, practically going down to one. Goalkeeping problem loomed... Evgeny Rudakov was listed in the team at the beginning of the season, but the veteran suffered from injuries and did not play. His absence opened a problem for many years – almost to mid-1980s. As often happens, replacing goalkeeper, who was a staple practically 'forever' is very difficult, for such players are well remembered and somehow every new goalie fails short in comparesement. It is universal problem, and Dinamo did not escape it – Yurkovsky played this season, but he was to be replaced soon. His replacement too, and so on. For now, it was kind of a weak post... not exactly helped by the state of defense, where Matvienko was clearly fading away. So was Fomenko. Reshko was still the fighter, but no more than that, and at his age it was unlikely he was to become better. He was not exactly the player fitting Lobanovsky's ideas of defenders – Konkov was moved back from midfield to defense, which worked to some extend, but robbed midfield of creativity. The right full-back continued to be a problem – Troshkin was no longer the same great runner, able to cover the whole field, playing as a full-back, mid-fielder, and doubling as a winger all at once. Looks like that Troshkin preferred a return to his original position as defensive midfielder, especially since Konkov was moved back to defense and the position was open – and needed. Lozinsky was tried at the right full-back position, and he showed considerable promise – yet, he was somehow not the player Lobanovsky saw in his dreams. There was one more youngster, who increasingly was becoming regular – Berezhnoy. He was to become much bigger name yet, but he was central defender, so the right flank remained more or less open sore. And with Matvienko no longer the same, the other flank was going to be a problem too... The problems in midfield were the exact opposite – too many players. It was good to have long bench in case of injuries – and Kolotov and Muntyan missed many games because of them – but when everyone was healthy it was plain trouble: Kolotov, Veremeev, Muntyan, Buryak... add Konkov and Troshkin, who had midfielder habits, and constantly moved there. The young talent Sergey Baltacha was also midfielder (Lobanovsky moved him back to central defense later), and finally – the greatest talent at hand, Bessonov. It was clear that he had a place among the regular starters, but where... Midfield was so crowded, Bessonov had to play right full back on occasion. At the end, the crowded line developed tensions and problems – Veremeev and Buryak somewhat underperformed, and Buryak was beginning to clash with Lobanovsky. There was chronic problem with creativity, so Muntyan continued to be vital for the team as playmaker. When he was out, the team suffered, but Muntyan was nearing the end of his playing days. Crowded midfield meant reduced attack – as before, Lobanovsky rarely used typical centerforward, but now even two wingers were becoming a luxury – there was no place for a second winger anymore... on top of it Onishtchenko was losing form with age. He was no longer the fiery deadly striker and very likely was in conflict with Lobanovsky. Blokhin was becoming the sole striker, which was a problem detected at least an year ago: as a typical left winger, Blokhin was not exactly efficient when asked to operate in the center and the right half of the field, but as a lonely striker, he had to go friquently there. Roving striker was Dinamo really needed for their style, but they had classic left winger. They won the title, but it was quite obvious hat massive changes had to be made and soon – Dinamo was not very convincing this year. It looked like Lobanovsky started building a new team, but it was at very early stage. In fact, most of the youngsters included did not become regulars and soon were dismissed to other clubs. The future team was very rudimentary at this point – Baltacha, Bessonov, Brezhnoy, and Hapsalis. Dinamo was able to win the Soviet championship, and therefore to have enough 'breathing space' for searching for new great squad, but... to a point, their winning was due to the weakness of the competition. The whole Soviet football was down, but not without hope: there was talented, still very young generation growing up. Still juniors, but coming fast. As for 'old' Dinamo, there was one significant record made along with the 8th title: Vladimir Muntyan became the first Soviet player 7 times champion – his first title with Dinamo was in 1966. Football is strange – Muntyan is hardly among the top all-time Soviet stars, but he achieved much more than most of the really great players.

Tellingly, a photo of Dinamo (Kiev) defending was chosen to celebrate their new title – in white from left: M. Fomenko, S. Reshko, V. Yurkovsky, V. Lozinsky braking another attack of Dinamo (Tbilisi).