Making any kind of ‘best ever’ list is always a risky business. It is, of course, entirely subjective. One man’s classic novel is another’s unreadable dross. One woman’s great piece of music is another’s unlistenable racket. The same rules apply to selecting a football team.
It becomes more difficult unless one begins by laying down some rules. Firstly, the concept of eastern Europe remains more political than geographical. By the second criterion, Slovenia would be excluded as being too westerly. However, its position as part of the former Yugoslavia sends it back to the east.
Secondly, should there be a time limit? For example, should we restrict contenders to those seen by the author? The simple answer is ‘no’, as this would rule out Ferenc Puskás and most football aficionados would surely concur that Puskás was one of the greats of world football, let alone only part of one continent.
No two people will come up with the same XI, or at least the likelihood is remote. Some may disagree vehemently; everyone has their own favourites. No matter; the Duck Holiday Eastern Europe XI is ready to take the field.
Needless to say, there are multiple possibilities for each position. There is also the question of formation and there is always a tendency to overload these kinds of selections with too many attacking players. That may, indeed, be the case here, but there are defenders of great quality and a fine goalkeeper behind them. It is with the goalkeeper that we begin.
Eastern Europe has produced some great goalkeepers, from Gyula Grosics of the great 1950s Hungarian team to the present-day Slovenian Samir Handanović. Russia has done even better than most, with two legends in Rinat Dasaev and the great Lev Yashin. The latter gets the nod. Yashin not only played in a succession of World Cups, but is also referenced in a song by Half Man Half Biscuit. No accolade can be higher.
The defence has a solid look. At right back, why not start with a man that played in Hungary’s 6-3 and 7-1 routs of England, not to mention the 1952 Olympic winning team and all rounds of the 1954 World Cup? Jenő Buzsánsky may not be as famous as Puskas, Hidgekuti or several others of the legendary ‘Magic Magyars’, but he knew what he was doing.
At left back, the Ukrainian Vasyl Rats is a strong candidate, but with a wealth of attacking options at our disposal, a more defensive player is required. Step forward (or back), another Ukrainian, Anatoliy Demyanenko. A stalwart of a very good Dynamo Kyiv team, Demyanenko played for the Soviet Union in three World Cup finals.
It is extremely tempting to include the very scary Bulgarian, Trifan Ivanov, in defence, but there are better candidates. The central defensive berths are filled by the team’s sole Georgian, Aleksandr Chivadze and by the Slovakian Anton Ondruš. Chivadze was part of the wonderful Dynamo Tbilisi team that won the 1981 European Cup-Winners’ Cup and Ondrus went one better, ass part of the Czechoslovakia team that triumphed in the 1976 European Championships. That tournament reached a fitting conclusion with Antonin Panenka’s audacious penalty, a style of kick that still bear his name. Ondrus knew where the net was too – he scored twice in Czechoslovakia’s semi-final success.
In midfield, there is an almost embarrassing amount of choice and it would be possible to pack the team with creative players. Think Prosinečki, Boban, Hagi, Savićević, Katanec and many more. We do, though, need someone in a deeper role and the job falls to the Hungarian József Boszik. A member of the team that destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley, Boszik could be described as something of a prototype Andrea Pirlo, a deep-lying playmaker. Like his colleagues, he was a man ahead of his time.
On the right, the skilful and eternally floppy-haired Czech Pavel Nedvěd is the choice. A player of attacking verve, Nedvěd’s workrate earns him bonus points. Here is a man not afraid to do some defensive work.
On the other side, the Ukrainian Oleh Blokhin can fulfil the role of left-winger. If necessary, he can play as a centre forward. A man with 211 goals in 432 games for Dynamo Kyiv knows how to find the net.
More centrally, the choice lay between two left-footed and rather moody magicians, Romania’s Gheorge Hagi and Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov. Stoichkov wins out. With 84 goals in 175 games for Barcelona, there is no doubting his world-class status.
The number ten role is the most revered in football and we have already mentioned some prime purveyors of the position. Sadly for the likes of Boban and Savićević, there really is only one choice. Ferenc Puskás cannot be omitted. For Honved, he scored a ridiculous 352 goals in 341 games. Not content with that, he added a further 156 goals in 180 games for Real Madrid. This is not only a European great, but a world legend.
The final attacking position falls to another great of Dynamo Kyiv, Andriy Shevchenko, who gets the vote marginally ahead of the outstanding Pole, Robert Lewandowski. Those who saw his lean spell at Chelsea may scoff, but Shevchenko’s 127 goals in 208 games for Milan tell you all you need to know. This is a goalscorer supreme. The Duck Holiday team were privileged to watch one of his last games for Ukraine. Fittingly, it took place in Kyiv and the adulation accorded the great man was stunning to see and hear.
Lastly, we need a coach, though one might argue that a team this good needs little direction. The man who led Hungary to Wembley glory was Gusztáv Sebes. However, the man behind the new tactical formation was the coach of the Budapest club MTK, Márton Bukovi. It is hard, though, to look beyond a man who coached both Dynamo Kyiv and the USSR three times, Valeriy Lobanovskyi.
Lobanovskyi was a talented, if rather dilettante left-winger. He retired from playing, disillusioned, at the age of twenty-nine, but was persuaded to go into coaching. Somewhat ironically, the winger that did not like tracking back became an advocate of a hard pressing game. After success with Dnipro, he returned to Dynamo Kyiv, won the league and cup double (note that this was the USSR league, where the big Moscow clubs ruled the roost) and made his team the first Soviet side to win a European competition, the 1975 Cup-Winners’ Cup. In later years, he led the USSR to the final of the 1988 European Championships, where they lost to the Dutch and that unforgettable van Basten goal.
Lobanovskyi died in 2002, but his statue in Kyiv reminds fans of his status and anyone that thrills to the sight of Barcelona or Bayern Munich winning the ball back deep in their opponents’ half should raise a glass to the man that made pressing an essential part of modern-day football.
1 Lev Yashin (USSR/Russia) 78 games, 0 goals
2 Jenő Buzánszky (Hungary) 48 games, 0 goals
3 Anatoliy Demyanenko (USSR/Ukraine) 80 caps, 6 goals
4 Anton Ondruš (Czechoslovakia/Slovakia) 58 caps, 9 goals
5 Alexandr Chivadze (USSR/Georgia) 46 games, 3 goals
6 József Boszik (Hungary) 101 games, 11 goals
7 Pavel Nedvěd (Czech Republic) 91 games, 18 goals
8 Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria) 84 games, 38 goals
9 Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine) 111 games, 48 goals
10 Ferenc Puskás (Hungary) 85 games, 84 goals*
11 Oleh Blokhin (USSR/Ukraine) 112 caps, 42 goals
Coach: Valeriy Lobanovskyi (USSR/Ukraine)
* Puskás also played four times for Spain