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The ferocious cycle of demise and stagnation for Dynamo Kyiv

Dynamo Kyiv -Fenerbahçe
During the Dynamo-Fenerbahçe match on 3 November, where Dynamo lost 0:2. Photo: Dynamo Kyiv/ Twitter
Article by: David Kirichenko

Dynamo Kyiv is one of Eastern Europe’s oldest clubs and most notably the club that won the most championships (13) in the Soviet Top League. The Dynamo of the 1990s regularly struck fear into their opponent. Among their past victories was dismantling the famed Barcelona football club, 3-0 in Kyiv, then again, 4-0 at Camp Nou. Both Champions League matches took place in 1997.

However, in more recent times, Dynamo continues to shame itself on the European stage with absolutely dreadful performances.

Granted, there is a full-scale invasion going on of the entire country and Dynamo is homeless, but Dynamo’s primary rivals, Shakhtar Donetsk, are also homeless and flourishing. The issues Dynamo faces are systemic and have much to do with terrible club ownership. While club ownership is unlikely to change hands anytime soon, the motivations of Dynamo’s infamous coach Mircea Lucescu seem to have waned in recent times.

There is no doubt Lucescu is a legendary manager who, after leaving Shakhtar, was viewed by Dynamo fans with the same admiration as Ferguson, the former Manchester United coach, is viewed by Liverpool fans. He created a legacy and made Shakhtar a force to be reckoned with across Europe and is one of the most underrated coaches in Europe. Mircea Lucescu has the second-highest trophy count in the history of football so far with 36 titles to his name and is still at it.

Mirca Lucescu. Photo: Dynamo Kyiv / twit
Mirca Lucescu. Photo: Dynamo Kyiv / twit

Mircea Lucescu helped Dynamo Kyiv return to glory after many years with Dynamo winning the Ukrainian league title in his first season as coach. The Kyiv side topped bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk, the side Lucescu managed for 12 years. However, Shakhtar fans did not appreciate a club legend leaving for their bitter enemy and at one point, Shakhtar fans held out a banner displaying “Lucescu – Judas Iscariot.” Nevertheless, Lucescu came in hungry and eager to win as Dynamo’s last title was in 2015–16.

It was quite the turnaround, but Dynamo managed to finish 2nd behind Shakhtar the next season and in the current season, Dynamo is tied with Shakhtar for 2nd place and are 5 points behind leaders Dnipro-1 in the Ukrainian Premier League. Since Dynamo crashed out of European competition, they have won the last 4 out of 5 games and are climbing up the ranks in the UPL.

With the war going on, all Ukrainian clubs are suffering and the smaller ones even more so. Dynamo’s domestic comeback should not be that impressive. Dynamo’s European performance in recent times has been so dreadful, it has been embarrassing to watch and a shame on Dynamo’s history and honor. At a time when Ukrainians needed hope more than ever, Dynamo dropped the ball. While there are certain structural issues with the club that need to be resolved, Lucescu’s diminished motivation has Dynamo regressing.

After Dynamo lost to Benfica in Champions League qualifying, Lucescu claimed the team lost all motivation. He went on to blame their European performance for having 5 players under the age of 20, losing key players, and playing spring charity matches that were too intense. After losing in Champions League qualifying, Dynamo was set to play in the Europa League.

It was, perhaps, the worst-ever European campaign for the Kyiv side as they lost every game except one out of 6 group games.

Lucescu’s stubborn tactics continued, and even after losing a game, Dynamo’s coach continued sending in the same starting lineup. The head coach has a squad of talented young players who could’ve been given chances to play and prove themselves. The star players have been inconsistent, likely due to a lack of motivation and the effects of the ongoing war.

Dynamo’s inability to sell top players once they’re ready to move seems to only reduce their desire to give it their all for the squad. Instead of reinvesting that money in younger talent, holding onto expensive players leads to prolonged stagnation for the club in general. Take the case of Andriy Yarmolenko who Dynamo waited many years before finally selling him to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, but had interest from clubs like Liverpool back in 2014. However, a move to a foreign league at the age of 27 didn’t result in Yarmolenko being much of a success and failed to make as big of an impact in Europe as his talent merited.

Even at the best of times, the Ukrainian domestic league has a huge quality gap with other leagues like those in Germany and in England. As a result, stepping up to a more intense league at 27 didn’t do Yarmolenko’s body any favors and he constantly racked up injuries. In an interview with Transfermarkt, Yarmolenko revealed how he was promised by Ihor Surkis to be allowed to leave Dynamo if they win a championship but wasn’t granted the move for another few years. Yarmolenko’s performance towards the end of his tenure with Dynamo also showed that he lacked motivation in playing in the Ukrainian domestic league.

After Yarmolenko, Tsyhankov was the next ace to replace him. Tsyhankov over the past few years has had numerous European clubs interested in him, including clubs from the Premier League. However, Dynamo’s owner Ihor Surkis refuses to sell Tsyhankov due to unrealistic transfer fee expectations and his performance has only been declining over the past few seasons.

Had Tsyhankov left Dynamo a few years ago, he could have been a big-name player in a prominent club somewhere in a top European league. Dynamo would also have made significant money from his transfer and would have invested back into the growth of the club and its youth system. Retaining flourishing talent in the Ukrainian Premier League has shown that it only leads to stagnation and loss of motivation for the players and hurts their opportunity to grow as a player and feed that talent back to the Ukrainian national team.

The latest victim to this stubborn cycle is Ilya Zabarnyi, a strong center back, who at the ripe age of 20 is the central figure in Dynamo’s backline and the Ukrainian national team. Premier League side Tottenham Spurs had their £25M bid rejected for the highly-rated center back who has 20+ caps for the Ukrainian national team and is widely regarded as one of the best young defensive talents in Europe. While Dynamo are certainly waiting for his talent to bloom to try and get a higher price for him, it’s unlikely to happen as his development needs to happen at a higher league now.

After the Spurs bid was rejected, Zabarnyi’s club performance rapidly began to drop off. Zabarnyi was recently sent off for the second time this season in the Europa League – something very uncharacteristic of him. It’s now looking more and more like quite a regrettable decision to not have accepted that offer and yet another case of Dynamo Kyiv eroding the potential of their players. Failing to sell him misses the opportunity to invest in new talents and give Zabarnyi the best chance to grow into a world-class center back.

The tide has changed a bit in recent times with Dynamo selling their star left-back Vitaliy Mykolenko to Everton at the start of 2022. Mykolenko so far has flourished in the Premier League and is tapping into his full potential. This however is more of an anomaly rather than the standard behavior from the ownership of Dynamo Kyiv.

In fact, this stagnation effect is making Dynamo an undesirable place to land for some within the Ukrainian domestic league. Take the example of Artem Dovbyk, who is Ukraine’s most promising forward right now. He is the league’s current leading goalscorer and plays for Dnipro-1, an outsider to the oligopoly of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk on all Ukrainian talent. Dovbyk said if he leaves Dnipro, he has no interest in joining Shakhtar or Dynamo, but wants to go abroad. A couple of years ago, a promising Ukrainian like Dovbyk would have dreamed of joining one of those clubs. Younger players are starting to realize a club like Dynamo is a death signal for their development.

Another driver that feeds into this spiraling cycle in the club’s downfall is the club being filled from top to bottom with unprofessional people who are either ex-players from “the golden era,” or simply Surkis associates. They have no expertise in their roles, so aspects like youth coaching are stuck in the 1990s, with important aspects of modern-day football like pressing, passing, and positioning seemingly not developed. Scouting is virtually nonexistent, and transfers are instead done through favorable deals for agents close to Surkis (Kulach, Antyukh, Kravets just to name a few).

Ultimately, the club owner Surkis insists on being involved with every single major decision at the club, whether or not he knows what he’s doing in the situation at hand. This has led to years of poor managerial appointments. But the managers themselves aren’t given a free role to implement their philosophy like Alyaksandr Khatskevich, and like previously mentioned, poor and often nonsensical transfers. Overall, there is a lack of a modern football culture and philosophy at Dynamo Kyiv, and this is shown by the club’s incompetence at the European level which get worse by the year.

These are precarious times for Ukrainian football with Russia’s ongoing invasion of the country and the club must adapt. To have the greatest chance at success, especially in the European realm, Dynamo needs to do away with the frustrating cycle which erodes players’ growth as it hurts the club with poor performances down the road.

Dynamo ought to sell their top players before their motivation peaks, reinvest those profits in youth who are hungry for opportunity. Apart from holding back their players, Dynamo needs to do away with the remnants of Soviet structure within their footballing unit. Surkis should sell the club and allow a younger, more ambitious and open-minded owner to direct the future of the club.

Lucescu has served his duty for the club and it’s his time to go as he has become a figure of stagnation himself. Dynamo Kyiv now needs a coach that is hungry to work with youth and will develop a balanced team that is not dependent on a few star players. Dynamo fans will continue to dream of a return to the glory of the 1990s when all of Europe feared Kyiv. However, there is a lot of work to be done before glory is restored to the hallowed football club Dynamo Kyiv and for Dynamo to once again bring pride to the Ukrainian people.

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