How Dinamo Tbilisi enthralled British football fans in the midst of the Cold War - The Guardian
09 September, 2015
How Dinamo Tbilisi enthralled British football fans in the midst of the Cold War - The Guardian
By schooling Liverpool and West Ham in the art of fast, passing, composed football, the Dinamo Tbilisi side of the 1970s and 1980s captured the hearts of young British fans who were unaccustomed to watching such expressive play, The Guardian reports.

By Craig McCracken for Beyond The Last Man, of the Guardian Sport Network

In the decades before blanket television coverage of European football became the norm, little was known about clubs from the furthest of far-flung continental outposts. Exposure
was fleeting, usually coming in the form of snatched, crackly highlight packages on Sportsweek, which were squeezed in after the boxing, darts and curling. So, when the provincial Georgians of Dinamo Tbilisi were broadcast into British homes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, their extraordinary quality came as a mysterious and exotic bolt from the blue.

My mind was a blur of questions: who are these footballing supermen and in what sinister Soviet sports laboratory have they been manufactured? Why don’t they smile more when they’re really, really good at football? And can communism be a bad thing if it produces athletes like this?

A startled British public was introduced to this Tbilisi side when they played Liverpool in the first round of the European Cup in 1979-80. Drawing the recent two-time winners and favourites offered the most daunting of debuts in Europe’s premier club competition, but at no stage of either leg did the Georgian club look remotely cowed by their heavyweight opponents. Only finishing that fell short of their elevated levels of technical play allowed Liverpool to edge the Anfield leg 2-1. Tbilisi’s promise in the first leg was fully realised in the return as they eased to a 3-0 victory in a packed Boris geotv.gePaichadze National Stadium.

Their performance that afternoon was resoundingly accomplished. Tbilisi’s approach harmoniously blended the best of two seemingly conflicting playing styles: the hard-running, quick-passing game typical of Russian and Ukrainian teams and the more traditional Georgian and Armenian game based around individual skill and self-expression.

The first two goals were thrilling. Alan Hansen was thoroughly deceived by a brilliant piece of David Kipiani trickery in the penalty box and the veteran set up Vladimir Gutsaev for the opener. The second came after defender Giorgi Chilaya charged 60 yards upfield from left-back then neatly set up Ramaz Shengalia to cutely chip Ray Clemence inside the penalty box. Older Liverpool fans might have appreciated the symmetry between Chilaya’s surge and a similar one by Giacinto Facchetti for Internazionale at the San Siro in a European Cup tie 15 years earlier.

Liverpool’s players looked baffled and bemused. The club experienced losses during their years of dominance in the European Cup between 1977 and 1985, but this was one of the very few occasions when they were simply outclassed and manager Bob Paisley was magnanimous enough to admit as much.

Tbilisi’s next English experience came against West Ham in the Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final in 1981. The first leg at the Boleyn Ground turned into a masterclass of intelligent, flexible and incisive football by the visitors, who demonstrated some of the best counter-attacking you’re ever likely to see. Footage from this match should be included as part of the learning materials for Uefa coaching courses.

West Ham’s players spent much of the evening chasing slippery white shadows forlornly while trying to keep the scoreline respectable – their eventual 4-1 defeat flattered them considerably. The romp started with an opening Tbilisi goal that was so cartoonishly good that it might have been thought of as too far-fetched had it been sketched out for Roy Race himself.

After a succession of rapid one-touch passes, Aleksandr Chivadze collected a knockdown 10 yards inside his own half, surged forward into West Ham territory and let fly from 30 yards with a dipping drive that sailed over the head of a flat-footed Phil Parkes. That’s Aleksandr Chivadze the central defender by the way, albeit a central defender with a greater mastery of the ball than any creative outfield British player I had seen. For someone used to watching agricultural British centre-halves thrash, blooter and whack footballs around a pitch, seeing this physically unassuming sweeper urbanely caress, massage and tease the ball into doing his bidding was a revelation.

It was a similar story throughout the team: the quick, clever feet of Kipiani were so adept at unbalancing opponents; Ramaz Shengelia had strength and a seemingly telepathic awareness of his colleagues’ runs; Vladimir Gutsayev was blessed with a finely tuned radar for goal; and Vitali Daraselia had a nimble, scuttling style that helped him find unlikely pockets of space on the pitch.

This game was a showcase for technical team play at its most accomplished: this group of athletic players were supremely focused, assured in their touch, adept with their flicks and feints, and smart at manufacturing passing angles. They had pace to burn but also had that rare mastery of the more complex dynamics that determine game tempo. The Georgians understood the notion that opposing players are much more disoriented by sudden change of pace than outright pace in itself. Tempo was there to be manipulated: to slow the game down to a crawl before exploding into life and overloading surprised opponents unable to adapt instantly to the quicker game being imposed upon them. West Ham’s players could do little more than wander around the pitch in a shell-shocked state, hoping to get in the way of the deft passing patterns of their Soviet opponents.

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