Retrospective: Ukrainian heroes of the 1986 Mexico World Cup

  • Retrospective: Ukrainian heroes  of the 1986 Mexico World Cup
Issue 25, June 2010.

 After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russian football’s national squad was able to take up the mantle as the official successor side of the former USSR national team. However, arguably the greatest ever Soviet team to grace the World Cup was not a Moscow creation – indeed it is often forgotten that the much celebrated USSR team of the Mexico 86 World cup finals was effectively a Ukrainian national side in all but name. Built around the all-conquering Dynamo Kyiv team of the mid-1980s, the Soviet side which Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy took to Mexico 86 and Euro 88 is fondly remembered for its surgically precise football and taste for net-bursting wonder goals. However, few outside of Ukraine realize that this side was actually as Ukrainian as borsch or salo.

Ukraine will be watching the 2010 World Cup in South Africa from the sidelines, having failed once again to qualify for world football’s premier tournament. In four attempts since independence Ukraine has made it to the World Cup Finals on only one occasion, reaching the quarter finals in their debut appearance at the German World Cup of 2006. This relatively poor performance is all the odder given that the great Soviet team of the late 1980s was almost exclusively made up of Ukrainians. Why has this apparent basis for future post-independence footballing greatness failed to produce the kind of world-beating Ukrainian sides that fans all over the world might have been forgiven for expecting?

Hungary steamrollered by sensational Soviet juggernaut
The 1986 World Cup in Mexico remains fondly remembered as one of the more colourful and romantic tournaments of the modern age. The brilliance and audacity of the impish Diego Maradona as he first cheats and then bewitches his English arch enemies have provided the championships with a timelessly irresistible storyline, while elsewhere in the tournament we see other flamboyant sides such as Platini’s swaggering French, the phenomenon of Danish dynamite and the salsa of the imperious Brazilians in what was to prove their last recognizably carnival outing. However, at the start of the second round stage the country other teams least wanted to face was the Soviet Union side which had topped its group with nine goals and five points following three precision-perfect performances in which they had bossed France, brushed Canada aside and crushed the Hapless Hungarians 6-0. Many Budapest fans still believe that this Soviet victory was so traumatic in its comprehensiveness that it marked the beginning of what was to become a decade-long decline of Hungary’s national team. Whatever the long term psychological effects were on the once mighty Magyars, one thing was clear: at the end of the Mexico 86 group stages, nobody
wanted to be the next Hungary.

The Belgians and the Berlin Wall
This free-scoring and remarkably fluid Soviet team faced unfancied Belgium in the second round in a match which famously finished 4-3 to the Belgians after extra time. Today this game is rightly regarded by fans around the globe as one of the all-time great World Cup ties, but to many in the former Soviet team it is also a result which continues to rankle. Soviet supporters have long argued that two of Belgium’s goals were clearly offside – a claim which when studied today looks credible - especially given the more defensive offside ruling which was in place at the time.  Conspiracy theorists have argued that the match was fixed over fears of the possible Cold War propaganda impact of a Soviet World Cup win as a communist morale booster. Whether victory in Mexico would have prevented the Berlin Wall from falling remains highly debatable, but it is certainly realistic to imagine that a World Cup triumph would have presented Gorbachev’s fledgling reformist administration with a considerable propaganda coup. However, it was not to be and the USSR bowed out of what would prove to be their penultimate World Cup. The mere suggestion that this triumph might have been denied them by a conspiracy of dastardly Western capitalists adds further cache to the legend of the Soviet Mexico 86 team, but one aspect of this celebrated side which is rarely accorded much attention is the fact that it was an overwhelmingly  Ukrainian affair.

Dynamo dominance
Of the 22 players in the Soviet Union’s 1986 World Cup squad, a total of 15 were Ukrainian nationals. This included 9 of the 11 players in the starting line-up, many of whom were club team mates from Dynamo Kyiv. This was partly due to the fact that the Soviet team at the time was being managed by Dynamo Kyiv head coach Valeriy Lobanovskiy, but in truth any coach who was asked to choose a Soviet squad in 1986 would have been overwhelmingly drawn to the brilliant Dynamo side which was blossoming under Lobanovskiy. Under the benign patronage of Ukraine’s Soviet viceroy the football mad Volodymyr Scherbytsky, Lobanovskiy had first built the brilliant Dynamo team of the 1970s  (winners of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup in 1975) and by 1985 had clearly assembled another  world-beating side. This new Dynamo generation was in many ways the epitome of Lobanovskiy’s infamously scientific approach and produced a football of rare clinical beauty, following up on their Soviet league and cup double in 1985 by winning the European Cup Winners Cup again in 1986, along with the Soviet league and Super Cup. This familiarity among the starting eleven – they were effectively a club side, giving them a significant built-in advantage  over their international rivals – helped produce some wonderfully free-flowing football in Mexico and led to 12 Soviet goals in just four games – many of them brilliantly worked and beautiful strikes.

One of world football’s great ‘what ifs?’
Lobanovskiy was again in charge as the Soviet national team reached the final of Euro 1988 in Germany, losing to Marco van Basten’s brilliant Dutch side. This time 12 of the 20 players selected for the Soviet squad were Ukrainians, with Dynamo stars once more making up the lion’s share of the first team selection. Holland may have captured everyone’s imagination at Euro 88 but it is worth recalling that in this same tournament the USSR had actually
defeated the Dutch in the group stages courtesy of a thunderbolt from Ukrainian fullback Vasily Rats,  before comfortably beating England and Italy. Indeed, it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to picture the USSR winning both Mexico 86 and Euro 88 – a sensational turn of events which might well have had significant cultural repercussions. As it is, the possible implications of Soviet footballing glory in the late 1980s remain one of the world game’s great ‘what ifs?’ Certainly it would have had an interesting impact on the growing sense of Ukrainian nationalism that accompanied the Perestroika era, although we can only guess how the Soviet authorities would  have sought to downplay any references to the large numbers of Ukrainians in the squads. This 1980s Ukrainian dominance of the Soviet national team was a totally new phenomenon – the USSR’s 1966 World Cup squad had contained just 2 Ukrainians, for example, while the victorious 1960 Euro winning squad featured a sole Ukrainian player from a total of 22. In general the many Moscow teams tended to dominate the national team selections until the late 1970s and the rise of Dynamo. However, no single republic had ever enjoyed such a dominant presence in the Soviet football squad until Ukraine’s rise to preeminence in the 1980s.

Russia swoops for best of Ukraine’s post Soviet crop
The failure of independent Ukraine to build on this impressive modern heritage is largely down to two key factors: the collapse of the domestic Ukrainian football industry after 1991 and Russia’s ability in the early post-Soviet years to persuade top Ukrainian players to commit themselves to represent the Russian national team. The Ukrainian Football Federation’s failure to secure recognition in time to compete in the 1994 World Cup was to prove a key failing, llowing Russia to lure away the best of the post-Soviet talent. Players like winger Andriy Kanchelskis are good examples of  the kind of talent which Ukraine missed out on in the 1990s – despite having Ukrainian roots and playing for both Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk before moving to Manchester United, Kanchelskis was one of a number of Ukrainians who agreed to sign up for Russia following the Soviet collapse. By the time Ukraine returned to international football in late 1994 they did so as absolute beginners stripped of their FIFA pedigree and treated as first  time novices. Few in international football have since made any connection between the relatively mundane  Ukrainian national sides of the past fifteen years and the sensational Soviets of the late 1980s, but the fact remains that the memorable Soviet campaign at Mexico 86 was effectively Ukraine’s World Cup debut in all but name.