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How Ukrainian Soccer Explains Planned Economies

January 11, 2010

From Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization comes this description of the Ukrainian approach to soccer:

More than almost any other county in the world, the Ukrainians have an idiosyncratic approach to the game. The man behind the approach was a coach, trained as a plumber, called Valeri Lobanovsky. Applying the logic of scientific Marxism to the game, he believed that soccer could be mastered by uncovering the game’s mathematical underpinnings. He created a system of numerical values to signify every “action” in a game. As he envisioned it, a group of “scientists” would tally passes, tackles, and shots. These scientists would note “successful actions” and “unsuccessful actions.” Their data would be run through a computer, which would spit back an evaluation of the player’s “intensitivity,” “activity,” “error rate,” and “effectivity.”

Lobanovsky intermittently coached the club Dynamo Kiev for decades and later headed the Ukrainian national team. His system became gospel, internalized by generations of coaches and players. Even after his death in 2002, the national federation continues to send scientists to every single Ukrainian professional game. His system rewards a very specific style of play: physical and frenetic. Players work tirelessly to compile points. They play defense more aggressively than offense, because that’s where points can be racked up. In a way, Lobanovsky’s system mimicked the Soviet regime under which it was conceived. Like the Soviets, it stifles individual initiative. Nothing in Lobanovsky’s point valuation measures creativity or daring. A vertical pass receives the same grade as a horizontal pass; a spectacular fake means nothing.

Compounding the stultifying effect of Lobanovsky, Ukrainians have made a fetish of coaching. Managers play a role akin to the Communist Party, imposing rigid strategic formations and an authoritarian culture. Ukrainian players commonly glance at their coach, trying to glean whether they have won his approval. Human agency has no place in this world.

That’s from Foer, Franklin, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005 (pp. 159-160).

Addendum: I almost titled this post, “If Oskar Lange Coached Soccer”.

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