Lubomir Moravcik – Football Artist

The managerial reign of Josef Venglos at Celtic is viewed by some as a period best forgotten, a dark age where little good happened and ambition was severely limited. And in some ways, this was the case, although it would be unfair to lay too much of the blame at the door of the good doctor. These were times when the infamous biscuit tin was kept firmly in the cupboard.

So when Celtic paid £200,000 for a 33-year-old Slovakian midfielder, there was much rolling of eyes and a distinct air of ridicule among the denizens of the Scottish football media. An old pal’s act? After all, the selling club was Duisburg, hardly one of the household names of German football. Besides, the player in question, Lubomir Moravcik, had only played five times for them.

Moravcik, though, had a past worth considering. Those with less parochial attitudes recalled a talented Czechoslovakia team being one of the more entertaining sides in a generally grim World Cup in Italy in 1990. There had been almost 200 appearances for one of French football’s elite clubs, St Etienne, and almost a big money move to Marseille before injury intervened.

But this was in the past. Clearly, there was a gifted footballer here, but had the best-before date come and gone? Sceptics – and there were many – folded their arms and stood back to watch. His Celtic debut caused a few eyebrows to head skywards, usually accompanied by approving nods.

Admittedly, the opposition was merely a pretty dismal Dundee side, but Moravcik showed, in a 6-1 thrashing, that while he may not have been a player of the lightning-pace variety, he had a touch that was something of a rare beauty in the macho, leg-biting world of Scottish football.

The Dundee match was merely a prelude. Two weeks later, Moravcik would play in his first Old Firm derby. How, cynics wondered, would this small, slight man cope? Twinkling feet may have defeated Dundee, but Rangers were altogether a different story.

It didn’t even take the full ninety minutes to dispel the grim thoughts of the doubters. Moravcik, the best player on the pitch by the proverbial country mile, scored twice and controlled the game as Rangers were blown away. The 5-1 scoreline was somewhat flattering to the visitors.

Moravcik befuddles Rangers (not for the last time)

And now, it was no longer ‘Moravcik.’ In a bare couple of weeks, the Slovakian was now simply Lubo. And Lubo he would remain for the rest of his Celtic career. The only disappointment, not only for Celtic fans but also those who love wonderful football, was that his time was limited by age. If only he could have arrived a couple of years earlier…

There are very few footballers one can watch and be genuine uncertain as to which foot is the stronger. Lubomir Moravcik was one of them. A corner kick on the right. Let’s try an outswinger. Another corner follows. Okay, let’s make this one an inswinger. And it wasn’t for show. Every piece of skill, every feint, every trick, there was a meaning. And it was a sheer pleasure to watch.

It took until 2001 before Celtic at last got past Rangers and won the league title under Martin O’Neill. In fact, they won the treble and those honours were the first in Moravcik’s long career. It would be harder to think of a more deserving player.

Lubo and Larsson – not a bad combination

Celtic would retain their title the following season, but by now, Moravcik was running out of time and it was to be his last at Celtic. He did, however, get the opportunity to play in the Champions League, another fitting honour.

Lubo Moravcik played 94 league games for Celtic, scoring 29 goals. Overall, he played 129 times, scoring 35 goals. He also won 42 caps for Czechoslovakia and 38 for Slovakia. In the often thud and blunder world of Scottish football, he was a fine and polished diamond.

An Eastern Europe XI

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.

'Sheva' scores for Ukraine

‘Sheva’ scores for Ukraine

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.

Lobanovskiy

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.

The Duck Holiday XI

The Duck Holiday XI

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

Olympiastadion – Berlin

Berlin’s present Olympic Stadium is the second such building on the same site. Both were destined to be ill-fated. The original was intended as the venue for the 1916 Olympic Games. These games, of course, never took place. The second stadium was used for the 1936 games, an event with the dark shadow of Nazism hanging over it.

The stadium has had a more agreeable existence since then, primarily as a football ground. Three matches were played here during the 1974 World Cup and six in 2006, including the final. The Olympiastadion is also the venue for the German Cup Final and is due to host the 2015 Champions League final. Hertha Berlin have occupied the stadium since the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963.

The stadium was reconstructed in 2000 and feels impressively modern with its updated seating and giant roof. Walking round the exterior, however, provides a slightly unnerving experience, as there are still discernible features of the 1936 Olympic Games. The neo-classical sculptures of muscular athletes are typical of the Nazi era – indeed, the stadium is reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome, though it has a rather more spartan feel to it. The Olympic Bell, complete with (partially eroded) swastikas, sits outside the stadium, separated from the tall tower that once housed it. The Olympic rings are plainly visible above the eastern gate at the stadium’s entrance.

Olympic gate

Olympic gate

The stadium is part of a sports complex. The outdoor swimming and diving pool is located to the north of the stadium and there are several sports grounds dotted around the site. One of them, Maifeld, used for equestrian events during the 1936 games, is home to the Berlin Cricket Club, so those looking for something a bit different can say they have watched cricket in Berlin.

The Bell

The Bell

The stadium can be visited at any time and guided tours are available, but is best appreciated when there is a match taking place. Even though the Bundesliga enjoys huge support, getting to a game is easy enough. The capacity of the Olympiastadion is around 77,000, so it’s not too difficult to get a ticket for most matches. When Duck Holiday visited the stadium, the visitors were Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s best-supported clubs, but we were able to buy tickets at the ground about an hour before kick-off.

Sporting heroes

Sporting heroes

Buying a ticket in advance is not a bad move, though. Germany has a rather more enlightened attitude towards football fans than some countries in Europe and if you are possession of a match ticket, it will cost you no extra to travel to the ground on public transport. Even if you haven’t got your match ticket, a Berlin Card will cover any transport within the city. There is a U-Bahn station (Olympia-Stadion) which is on the U2 (red) line and you can also get there by using overground trains (S-Bahn line S5).

Olympic flame stand

Olympic flame stand

Those used to football in the UK may feel an element of surprise – though the surprise is pleasant – on arriving outside the ground. Beer stalls abound and fans of both clubs mingle and chat over jars of pre-match libations. This is indeed civilisation.

Blue: Hertha Yellow: Dortmund

Blue: Hertha
Yellow: Dortmund

Overall, there is an awful lot to be said for football in Germany. Ticket prices are far from exorbitant, there are no travel costs (other than the minor detail of getting to Germany), public transport is excellent, the stadiums are largely very impressive and the quality of the sport is high. Combining a visit to a museum in the morning with the footy in the afternoon and following that with a meal and a nice little variety of German beers in the evening makes for a thoroughly rewarding day. It might not amount to the cheapest day out you’ve ever had, but try doing something similar in, say, London and check the price difference.

Here they come

Here they come